Spinozist Pantheism and the Truth of “Sense Certainty”: What the Eleusinian Mysteries Tell us about Hegel’s Phenomenology

Brady Bowman. Journal of the History of Philosophy. Volume 50, Issue 1. January 2012.


the opening chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, called “Sense Certainty,” is brief: 283 lines or about seven and a half pages in the critical edition of Hegel’s works (GW 9:63-70). Just over half the text is devoted to a series of thought experiments that focus on “the Here” and “the Now” as the two basic forms of immediate sensuous particularity Hegel calls “the This.” The chapter’s main goal is to demonstrate that, in truth, the object of sense certainty is precisely the opposite of what it purports to be: “the This” is mediated abstract universality. However, not just the truth of Hegel’s claim but its very meaning has been the subject of dispute from early on. A currently influential interpretive approach based on contemporary theories of singular propositions and demonstrative reference will be discussed at the end of this paper. Yet here a different approach is to be taken, one that might seem indirect in that it focuses on Hegel’s polemically motivated allusion to the “ancient Eleusinian Mysteries of Ceres and Bacchus” (GW 9:69) toward the end of the chapter, instead of undertaking head-on a reconstruction of Hegel’s thought experiments in their argumentative structure. It should be noted, however, that fully one-quarter of “Sense Certainty” is taken up by the two concluding paragraphs in which the allusion is embedded, and it is here that Hegel himself directly articulates the chapter’s meaning and result: external singular things have no absolute truth for consciousness, they are metaphysical “nullities,” and they have no genuine existence (cf. GW 9:69-70). Careful analysis of Hegel’s allusion to the Eleusinian Mysteries opens unexpectedly onto the framework that orients Hegel’s metaphysical claims about sense certainty and reveals the complexity of what is philosophically at stake in the opening chapter of the Phenomenology.

Emphasis on the “metaphysical” character of Hegel’s claims distinguishes my approach from the view that Hegel is a transcendental philosopher concerned to establish “rules for any objective judgment about determinate objects” by making “essential reference to the possibly self-conscious nature of all judgment.” In numerous passages, Hegel rejects Kant’s transcendental investigation of the categories as psychologistic and ultimately uncritical (cf. TWA20:339-53; GW 12:22). Although one might argue that Hegel was neither an epistemologist nor a metaphysician, but a category theorist, textual analysis does not entirely favor that view, either. Hegel frequently makes use of his own “speculative” concepts to explain basic facts about the world: e.g. that things come into existence and pass away, or that living beings experience feelings of pain and desire. The explanatory use of concepts at this deep level of world-directed inquiry is justly characterized as metaphysical. Furthermore, Hegel’s attitude toward the categories Kant inherited from traditional ontology is markedly negative. He consistently refers to them as the merely “finite thought-determinations,” as Verstandesbestimmungen, terms with an unmistakably negative connotation. From the “skeptical” logic of his early Jena period to the mature system, Hegel’s dialectical theory of categories (be they interpreted ontologically or as forms of a transcendental logic) serves to reveal them as limitations and impediments to speculative insight and to overcome them in favor of a superior metaphysics of “substance as subject.” If there were no metaphysical dimension to Hegel’s critique of categories, his philosophy would have consisted in a negative dialectic only.

In order to gauge the metaphysical significance of Hegel’s allusion to the Eleusinian Mysteries, we must examine his literary and philosophical appropriation of them in some detail, beginning with the unpublished poem “Eleusis: An Hölderlin” (1796). It will also be necessary to consult Hegel’s treatment of Persian, Greek, and Christian religion in the relevant chapters of the Phenomenology and in the much later Lectures on the Philosophy of Religion. As will emerge in the course of my analysis, the Athenian mystery cult takes on a highly compressed allegorical function in the context of “Sense Certainty.” It integrates Hegel’s ongoing critical engagement with Spinozist substance monism, his ideal of practically achieved authentic individuality, and his core conception of absolute negativity into his brief but indispensible opening arguments against naïve perceptual realism.

If this analysis is right, then the architectonic of the Phenomenology is already telescoped into its opening chapter. In addition to shedding light on the philosophical presuppositions that frame Hegel’s treatment of sense certainty, this also says something about the degree of compositional integrity manifest even at the level of the book’s textual details. As we know, the early parts of the Phenomenology had already been printed in spring of 1806, almost certainly before he began writing the later chapters on religion (cf. GW 9:458). Hegel would not therefore have had sufficient opportunities to revise earlier portions of the text in light of later and more recently written ones. The eidetic capacities required to command a work of such complexity are astounding. Yet this very real complexity is expressive of an underlying conceptual simplicity best formulated by Hegel himself in the demand that “what is true must be apprehended and expressed not as substance, but equally as subject” (GW 9:18). The systematicity of Hegel’s thought entails that, in principle, all the various branches of his philosophy must exhibit relations not merely of discursive derivability, but of self-similarity and mutual transformability: the parts of the system are analogues of each other. In “Sense Certainty,” we find this peculiarly Hegelian systematicity condensed into a single passage, a single metaphor.

The structure of this paper is as follows. After providing some necessary background on the Eleusinian Mysteries themselves (section 2), I will turn to Hegel’s literary appropriation of the mystery cult as a symbol of mystical pantheistic experience in the poem “Eleusis” (section 3). Section 4, which draws attention to points of contrast between the early poem and Hegel’s use of the Eleusis motif in “Sense Certainty,” is transitional and sets the stage for the close reading to come. According to my analysis in section 5, Hegel criticizes two distinct positions in “Sense Certainty”: naïve realism and nonconceptualism are shown to be committed to sensuous particulars of a kind-and in a way-that is metaphysically ungrounded. The abstract universality identified as the “truth” of sense certainty is not, however, wholly a symptom of conceptual failure: the “unsayability” of sensuous particularity should be viewed as a successor to Hegel’s own earlier pantheistic mysticism in “Eleusis,” and the position representing the “truth” of sense certainty is to be identified with the core of Spinozist substance monism as understood by Hegel. Passages from throughout Hegel’s writings support this interpretation. As I argue in section 6, however, this one-sidedly contemplative Spinozism of sensuous consciousness is deficient in ways that are fully revealed only by attention to the structure of expressive action: religious sacrifice in its specifically Greek form and, to a greater degree, the Christian celebration of transubstantiation and the resurrection of the flesh exemplify that structure. Hegel’s allusion to the Eleusinian Mysteries is shown to imply in a highly determinate manner these religious forms of consummating what is begun in the immediate break from sense certainty. In section 7 I argue directly for my approach to the text by using it to interpret the details of the three thought experiments that constitute the main body of “Sense Certainty.”

The final section, 8, situates this interpretation of “Sense Certainty” vis-à-vis the currently dominant approach informed by analytic theories of demonstrative reference and singular propositions. Hegel almost certainly did not intend his critique of sense certainty as a demonstration, via negationis, of the conceptual abilities that mediate use of indexical expressions; hence I take this approach to be lacking by strictly hermeneutic standards. In philosophical terms, however, the unexpected convergence between the results of my analysis and the implications of the reference theoretic approach is far more important. Here I draw on work by Ernst Tugendhat, who relates the ability to use indexicals in cognitively meaningful propositions to the human capacity for radically non-egocentric, “mystical” experience. If Tugendhat is right, then arguably the pantheistic experience Hegel intended to exhibit as the truth of sensuous experience is deeply connected to the conceptual structures underlying demonstrative reference; Hegel employed these structures as the vehicle for his thought experiments in “Sense Certainty,” although he himself lacked the theoretical means to thematize them as such.

Historical and Mythological Background

The Eleusinian Mysteries were the highest religious festival in ancient Athens and achieved Panhellenic significance; references to them pervade Greek literature and philosophy from the classical period into late Hellenism. They comprised the yearly recurring Lesser Mysteries, and the Greater Mysteries, which probably occurred only every five years, in late summer, in the month of Boedromion, and lasting ten days. Of the outward circumstances much is known. One became eligible for initiation into the Lesser Mysteries by sacrificing a pig and undergoing ritual cleansing in the river Illisos, on whose banks the celebration was held in a temple of the nearby suburb Agra. The initiation conferred the status of mystes, entitling one to participate in the next celebration of the Greater Mysteries.

This celebration was begun by the priests on the fifteenth day of Boedromion with a sacrifice; the Athenian mystai cleansed themselves on the next day in the sea at Phaleron and embarked on their journey to Eleusis (the toponym literally means “arrival”), some ten to fifteen miles northwest of Athens. During the final procession, the mystai swung branches called bacchoi in honor of Dionysus and shouted obscenities in commemoration of the old woman Baubo who had used obscenities to cheer up Demeter when she was mourning the rape of her daughter Persephone. The initiation into the Greater Mysteries strictly so-called took place on the sixth and seventh days of the festival. The mystai were led into the Hall of Initiation (Telesterion) at Eleusis where they first drank a concoction of barley and pennyroyal known as kykeon (which some believe to have been hallucinogenic), and were then allowed to witness the arrheta or “unspeakables”: it was strictly forbidden to speak to the uninitiated about what was witnessed here. The “unspeakables” consisted of certain “actions” (dromena-presumably a dramatic reenactment of the Demeter-Persephone myth), “things shown” (the deiknumena or sacred objects), and “things said” (legomena-commentary that accompanied the acting and showing). At the conclusion of the ceremony, the initiates were said to have attained epopteia: a vision. The next two days saw dancing, sacrifices of bulls, and feasting, and on the tenth day the pilgrims departed for home.

For obvious reasons, nothing certain is known of the Mysteries’ content. It must have centered on the myth of the grain goddess Demeter (Latin: Ceres) who lost her daughter Persephone to Hades, the ruler of the underworld. During Demeter’s mourning, the earth died and became barren of fruit. At Zeus’s intervention, Hades agreed to surrender Persephone, but only if she had not partaken of food while she was in the underworld. As it happened, Persephone had eaten some pomegranate seeds. Even so, a compromise was reached: Persephone was returned to her mother on the condition that she spend four months of the year in the underworld. This allegory of the seasons and of the cycle of death and rebirth is tied to the practice of agriculture by a further element in the story: while wandering the earth in search of her daughter, Demeter sojourned in the town of Eleusis. In return for the hospitality she received, she offered to make the king’s son Triptolemus immortal by anointing him in ambrosia and then setting him on fire to burn away his mortal body. She was interrupted in this by the boy’s mother’s terrified screams, and decided to reward him in a different way: through him she introduced agriculture to humanity, and also revealed to him the Mysteries, making him the first Eleusinian priest.

The association with the myth of Demeter and Persephone has inclined many to speculate that visions of immortality in the afterlife formed the heart of the Mysteries. Thomas Taylor, the translator of Plato and Aristotle into English and a contemporary of Hegel, opined that while “the dramatic shows of the Lesser Mysteries occultly signified the miseries of the soul while in subjection to the body, … those of the Greater obscurely intimated, by mystic and splendid visions, the felicity of the soul both here and hereafter, when purified from the defilements of a material nature and constantly elevated to the realities of intellectual vision.” Proclus, who was personally acquainted with Asklepigenia, the daughter of the last Eleusinian priest, Nestorius, says of the rites that “they cause sympathy of the souls with the dromena in a way that is unintelligible to us, and divine, so that some of the initiands are stricken with panic, being filled with divine awe; others assimilate themselves to the holy symbols, leave their own identity, become at home with the gods, and experience divine possession.” But nothing is known for certain.

Most or all of the ceremonial and mythological features just mentioned will play a role in Hegel’s understanding of the cult, though he will accord varying weight to them in the successive phases of his reception of Greek religion.

Mystic Pantheism “Eleusis: Anhölderlin”

In August of 1796, shortly before Hegel moved from Bern to Frankfurt to be closer to Hölderlin, Hegel wrote a lengthy poem of 101 lines entitled “Eleusis” and dedicated to his friend. It is a composition in free verse, its unrhymed lines varying widely in length. In German poetry of the time, free verse was directly associated with a dithyrambic tradition of sublimity, enthusiasm, and unchecked spontaneity stretching back to Pindar and recently revived in Germany by Klopstock and Goethe. We know that Hölderlin had been a close reader of Pindar at least since 1790, and since he was sharing a room with Hegel at the time, it is not unlikely that he conversed with him about his interest. Many years later, Isaac von Sinclair would reminisce in a letter to Hegel about their discussions and recitations of Pindaric odes when Hegel was living with Hölderlin in Frankfurt, 1797/98. We may therefore assume that Hegel’s choice of free verse was deliberate and meant to evoke the poetic topos of ineffability associated with the form-the use of irregular or deviant forms of versification, diction, and syntax to express states of mind whose depth and intensity exceed the means of verbal expression.

Only in relation to the content of the poem does the formal character of the text reveal its full significance. Hegel retains only the name of the goddess Ceres; neither the fate of her daughter Proserpine and the theme of death and rebirth, nor the goddess’s link with Eleusis and the birth of agriculture are ever mentioned. Hegel focuses exclusively on the oath of silence imposed on the Eleusinian initiates, associating it with the ineffability and inexpressibility at the heart of religious mystery. Indeed, Hegel comes close to identifying the experience of ineffability as such with the very substance and content of the Eleusinian ceremonies.

The high doctrines’ fullness,

The depth of inexpressible feeling,

Were far too sacred to the initiated son

For him ever to find bare signs worthy of them.

Even thought cannot grasp the soul

When, outside of time and space, sunk in intimations of the infinite,

It forgets itself … (GW 1:401, lines 8-13)

The poet’s own inspired state of mind would thus seem to place him in direct communication with the experience of mystery that forms the core of the initiation:

Sense vanishes in the vision,

What I called mine recedes,

I surrender to the immeasurable,

In it I am all, am only it. (GW 1:400, lines 2-5)

This oceanic feeling is the true subject of the poem, and it is significant that Hegel has crossed out this passage in the manuscript in an act of self-censorship. It is the text’s only direct expression of the experiential content within the mystery-the only attempt to express the inexpressible. All other references to it are oblique; they evoke it indirectly by underscoring the impossibility of communicating it-they are expressions of inexpressibility. Hegel’s authorial suppression of his only direct evocation of the oceanic feeling thus repeats at the level of writing what turns out to be the matter of the poem’s longest section: Hegel’s justification of the prohibition to speak of the content of the Eleusinian initiation ritual on pain of death. Hegel locates the origin of the taboo in the priest’s insight that the content of the mystery is in itself incapable of adequate expression. Neither thought nor thought’s product, language, are adequate to the experience of self-surrender to the infinite and the feeling of limitlessness that goes with it. While thought is “alienated” and “terrified” (GW 1:400, lines 5 and 6) by the experience, any attempt to put it into words would render it so much “dust and ashes,” “moulder and de-souled matter” (GW 1:401, lines 3 and 5), in which only the “complacent” and “eternally dead” (GW 1:401, line 6) can find any satisfaction. In short, rationalization, signification, and verbalization themselves immediately entail the death of the soul, and the penalty of death is the immediate concomitant of any attempt at direct expression, thus not in truth a punishment that needs to be administered from without. This insight motivates the priest’s self-prohibition to speak of the Mysteries, and it is propounded as law for the sake of “poorer spirits” who will not or cannot act from insight (cf. GW 1:401, lines 14-21).

The broader significance of Hegel’s ode comes into view when we recognize it as a specific moment in the reception of Spinozism unwittingly ushered in by Jacobi’s clash with Mendelssohn and the ensuing Pantheism Controversy. Jacobi had argued that Spinoza’s substance monism entails a fundamental denial of the reality of individuals and a fortiori of individual freedom. Jacobi coined a term for this denial: he called it “nihilism.” It is immediately obvious, however, that the charge of nihilism is itself grounded in a prior commitment to the primacy and ontological inviolability of individuality. Jacobi provides no argument for such primacy, claiming it instead to be vouchsafed by a “marvelous revelation” and by “faith.” But someone animated by the opposite conviction that the consciousness of separateness and difference between individual minds and between mind and world is an illusion that prevents us from seeing through to the deeper unity of all in all-such a person is likely to see Spinozism as a philosophy not of nihilism but of all-ism. The experience of such unity with the all would figure not as enthusiasm in the erotic sense of an Ovidian deus in nobis, but as pan-entheism, the experience that we are in God: “In it I am all, am only it.”

The choice between a Christian orientation toward the reality of individuality and (as Hegel will later have it) the “Oriental,” pantheistic orientation toward the liberation from individuality as from a painful illusion, is absolutely prior to the reflective elaboration of a philosophic system. It was just this alternative that Fichte had in mind when he said, “The kind of philosophy one chooses depends on the kind of person one is” (GAI/4:195). And the same alternative is at the source of Schelling’s On the I as the Principle of Philosophy (which came out at Easter of 1795) and the Letters on Dogmatism and Criticism (serially published in the same year in Fichte and Niethammer’s Philosophisches Journal einer Gesellschaft teutscher Gelehrten). Schelling had provided a summary of the basic argument of the treatise On the I in a letter to Hegel written on February 4, 1795, stressing the alternative between a Spinozism of the absolute object and a Fichteanism of the absolute subject, insisting that in either case “our highest goal is the destruction of personality” (HBr 1:22)-a phrase he heavily underlines. The same theme and the same alternatives are central to Hölderlin’s criticism of Fichte, formulated in a letter to Hegel from January 26, 1795. So as in the case of the poem’s formal aspects, it is beyond doubt that its content is also directly expressive of an ongoing conversation among the three friends from Tübingen.

If we now turn to Schelling’s Philosophische Briefe, we find language that strongly anticipates that of Hegel’s “Eleusis.” Hegel’s talk of “surrender to the immeasur- able” (GW 1:400, line 4) in particular has a precedent in the passage where Schelling speaks of a “silent” or “serene” (stille) surrender to the immeasurable (SW I.1.208). This very passage illustrates the ambivalence between pantheistic self-surrender and the (Fichtean) primacy of individual agency. “Spinozism aims,” he tells us, “not at struggle, but at submission … not at forced demise, but at voluntary extinction, the serene surrender of myself to the absolute object…” (1.1.208). Crucially, though, and paradoxically, this voluntary extinction is at the same time experienced as a “serene vision of calm at the highest moment of life”: whoever achieves this state “surrenders himself to the youthful world for the sole purpose of stilling his thirst for life and existence” (SW I.1.208-9). The oceanic experience of immanence in God as a radically selfless, Spinozist being is the subject of Hegel’s lyrical representation of the Eleusinian Mysteries: Spinozist substance is the “highest sense, the true faith which, as the Godhead, falters not when all else perishes” (GW 1:402, line 8). The religion of “Eleusis” is a religion of oceanic pantheism.

Hegel’s Shifting Evaluation of the Mysteries in “Sensecertainty”

Hegel wrote the Phenomenology of Spirit in 1806, a full decade after the ode for Hölderlin. If Hegel revisited his thoughts on the Eleusinian mystery cult in the intervening years, it certainly left no trace in his writings. Yet prominently placed in the book’s opening chapter, we find a new reference to the Eleusinian Mysteries. Granted, the philosophical context is so different, the claim so antithetical, and Hegel’s seemingly derogatory appraisal of the Mysteries so jarring, that an intellectual continuity between this and the early poem might seem unthinkable. Nonetheless, I will try to show that comparison with the “Eleusis” ode sheds new light on the Phenomenology and on Hegel’s philosophical development.

First, though, something about the context of “Sense Certainty.” Hegel argues here against all those who believe (1) that our awareness of the immediate givenness of individual items of sense experience is the paradigmatic and epistemically foundational form of consciousness; (2) that the phenomenal richness (fineness of grain) of such awareness shows that it is not mediated by concepts or otherwise by functions of the understanding (it is not “abstract”); and (3) that such items of awareness are the paradigmatic, metaphysically basic existents. Among the targets of Hegel’s criticism, two can be positively identified: G.E. Schulze and W.T. Krug, known in their day as philosophical proponents of common sense realism. Both had made individual objects of sense perception both epistemically and metaphysically basic.

We will turn to Hegel’s arguments in section 7; relevant just now is the way he uses the Eleusinian Mysteries to frame them. To set up the interpretation I will develop in the rest of this section, it will be useful to have the exact wording of the text in front of us:

In connection with this appeal to general experience, we may permit ourselves to anticipate consideration of the practical. In this regard, we can answer those who affirm the truth and reality of sensuous things by telling them they ought to be sent back to the most elementary [unterste] school of wisdom, viz. the ancient Eleusinian Mysteries of Ceres and Bacchus, in order to learn the secret of eating bread and drinking wine. For whoever has been initiated into these secrets comes not only to doubt [zweifeln] the being of sensuous things, but to despair [verzweifeln] of it; in part he himself brings about [vollbringen] their nothingness, and in part he witnesses it being brought about. Even animals are not excluded from this wisdom, but prove to be its deepest initiates, for they do not stand still before sensuous things as though these had being in themselves, but despairing of this reality and in the full certainty of its nothingness, they fall to without further ado and devour them. And all of nature celebrates, as they do, these revealed [offenbare] mysteries that teach us the truth of sensuous things. (GW 9:69)

When we compare this passage to the early poem, several differences are immediately apparent. First of all, Hegel’s characterization of the Mysteries as a “most elementary school of wisdom” implies a significant demotion over against the esoteric priesthood of the ode. The feeding animals who are its deepest initiates serves to underscore Hegel’s exoteric reappraisal of the cult. Furthermore, the accent lies here on the nothingness and perishability of the things of sense experience and not, as in the ode, on the Godhead “that falters not when all else perishes.” The presence of bread and wine, closely associated with the Christian mystery of transubstantiation, resonates with precisely those themes of death and resurrection so strikingly absent from the early text. And when we recall that in the paragraph immediately following this one, Hegel will explicitly equate the linguistically inexpressible with all that is worthless and insubstantial (cf. GW 9:69-70), the disjunction between the two texts seems complete. Indeed, the speechlessness of the dumb animals, mutely feeding, would again underscore the dramatic revaluation of the ineffability Hegel formerly celebrated.

While all these points of contrast are accurate, they do not yet tell the whole story about the relation between “Sense Certainty” and “Eleusis.” Hegel’s reappraisal of language not as the tomb of the soul, but as the life-element of spirit, is of course a cornerstone of his mature philosophy and a real difference from his earlier position. The turn away from pantheism and toward an emphasis on the ontological dignity of the individual more deeply akin to Christianity-from “substance” to “subject” (GW 9:18)-is also a key feature of Hegelian thought. So I will not be trying to explain away any of the discrepancies between the later text and “Eleusis.” And yet there is a deeper continuity between them that sheds light on both the text of “Sense Certainty” and its place in Hegel’s broader philosophical development and theory of religion.

More specifically, I will argue that the oceanic experience of a Spinozist henkaipan, valorized in “Eleusis,” is in substance identical with the experience of pure being Hegel now exhibits as the truth of sense certainty. Moreover, Hegel’s criticism in the Phenomenology’s opening chapter is not directed at this experience of selflessness and the negation of individuality; this experience maintains its positive value. Indeed, that is what it means for it to be the truth of sense certainty. In contrast to “Eleusis,” however, Hegel does not celebrate the pantheistic extinguishing of personality as “the highest moment of life,” but as a subordinate moment in the achievement of rational selfhood. I will take these points in order.

Substance Monism, “Immediate” Religion, and the Truth of Sensuous Experience

We can begin to see the metaphysical implications of “Sense Certainty” as well as its systematic links to the philosophy of religion if we approach the chapter from the perspective of Hegel’s later lectures on religion.

We know that Hegel viewed Spinozism as the position from which everyone must begin when she first starts to philosophize (cf. TWA20:165). We also know that he identified Spinoza’s philosophy as the site of a momentous encounter between the dualism of European thought (epitomized, but not exhausted, by Descartes) and the Zoroastrian or “Oriental” vision of “the unity of the infinite and the finite” (TWA20:158). This is not just an occasional description of Spinoza’s philosophy. In the lectures of religion, Hegel locates what he calls “immediate religion” in Persia:

In general the Orient is [sc. the home of?] the undivided intuition … of God in all things without distinction-God is all things-hen kai pan … God is not separate from what is earthly and temporal-not the creator (in the proper sense of the term) and lord-rather he is immediately everything He himself [er ist unmittelbar Alles Er selber]-Shahinshahnameh. (GW 17:88).

Jacobi had already pointed out that the refusal to separate the Godhead from the infinitude of temporal, finite things is a distinctive feature of Spinoza’s theology. And only a few pages after the passage just quoted, Hegel too makes this connection explicit: “Nature is viewed, represented as God. ~ Spinozism” (GW 17:93).

Now, the metaphysics implicit in ancient Persian religion as interpreted by Hegel is also recognizably identical to Spinoza’s metaphysics in the interpretation Hegel shares with Jacobi:

Because this many-colored world of the manifold, the multiform and many-this infinite number of determinate qualities of determinate being, of particular beings is, so too is pure being, the simple, the universal.-In the many, in particular determinate being, lies the thought of pure, universal being.-Specifically: the many, the particular necessarily has something else as its ground, it does not ground itself-it is not independent … That which is positive in all determinate being [Daseyn], that which is independent, the ground, is being [das Seyn]. (GW 17:89-90).

Such a deus-sive-natura or, as Hegel calls it in the Phenomenology in direct reference to Zoroastrianism, the Lichtwesen (“Being of Light,” GW 9:370-72), is metaphysically deficient to the extent that it is wholly indeterminate negativity: the Godhead is identical with the “many-colored world of the manifold,” and yet the specific, individual, determinate qualities of the sensuous manifold do not positively express the Godhead. On the contrary, the Godhead expresses itself in a thoroughly negative manner as the flux, negation, and perishing of determinate sensible particulars. It is present only in their metaphysical insufficiency and dependence, and thus the only real conceptual content left for the Godhead is abstract negativity, nothingness. Like the pure being that emerges as the truth of sense certainty, the Being of Light manifests itself to consciousness only in its mediation by the “wesenloses Beyherspielen” of particularity, the ephemeral and epiphenomenal play of transitory shapes: its only concretion lies in the continuous melting away of the concrete:

The content that this pure being develops, or its perception, is therefore an insubstantial play of forms [wesenloses Beyherspielen] upon this substance that only rises [aufgeht] without ever descending [niedergehen] into itself to become a subject and to stabilize its differences by way of the self. Its determinations are only attributes that do not achieve independence, remaining only names of the One of many names. (GW 9:371).

Again, this is the same criticism Hegel also lodges against Spinoza, whose

absolute substance is not understood as the point of departure for distinctions, particularization, individuation, or whatever form distinctions may take, be it as attributes and modes, as being and thought, understanding, imagination or what have you. And hence everything is merely submerged and perishes in a substance which remains motionless within itself and out of which nothing ever resurfaces.

If I am right about Hegel’s equation of Spinozism with Zoroastrianism, and about the architectonic links between these two and “Sense Certainty” within the Phenomenology, and furthermore about the lingering resonance between his use of the Eleusinian Mysteries here and in the early ode, then we can now clearly identify two distinct positions within the book’s opening chapter. Hegel finds both positions to be lacking, but he criticizes them in two very different keys. On the one hand, there is the position of those “who want to say” (GW 9:70) or express the truth of sense certainty in words. We may associate them with the “eternally dead” and “complacent” ones of “Eleusis,” who are satisfied with “moulder” and decay. These are the philosophers of common sense realism who believe they can grasp the positive being of what exists absolutely in the quality of sensuous particulars. On the other hand there is the proper insight that the truth of sense certainty is itself inexpressible in language, or rather that it is this inexpressibility itself. This position corresponds to Hegel’s own earlier valorization of the mystical in “Eleusis.” The first position is, if you will, fundamentally irreligious in that it affirms human entanglement with the merely sensuous and transient and proclaims it as the only truth. The second position is the immediate negation of the first, and it corresponds to what Hegel calls “immediate religion” and identifies with the religion of ancient Persia (GW 17:88). It represents the emergence of religious consciousness as the immediate and hence indeterminate negation of the merely sensuous and transient as radically un-true and insubstantial. It is the “practical” critique of this second, only relatively superior position, that Hegel “anticipates” in the allusion to the Eleusinian Mysteries to which I now return.

The Christian Transubstantiation: From Pure Being to Individual Embodiment

Hegel’s critique of pure, indeterminately (or abstractly) negative being as the truth of sense certainty, like his critique of Spinozist substance monism and, by extension, of his own earlier mystical pantheism, is that it fails to grasp the reality of individuality. To this extent, Hegel shares Jacobi’s position. Differently from Jacobi, however, Hegel does not believe that we have to rely on a “marvelous revelation” or faith to grasp that reality, nor does he believe that individuality is an original and internally unstructured given. Rather, he conceives individuality as achieved in the structure of expressive action. A privileged site for the emergence of individuality as a conscious idea (or ideal) is religion-specifically Greek religion and its transition to Christianity. The reason is that in Greek religion sacrifice exhibits an important twofold structure: (1) Nature’s fruits as the Godhead’s negative other are sacrificed to the Godhead; in this way, the sacrificing subject brings about (vollbringt!) their nothingness. At the same time, though, (2) the sacrificing subject also enjoys the same sacrificed fruits for himself. In this way, Hegel says, the indeterminately negative or “selfless” Godhead of ancient Persian religion has “completed the movement of its realization,” in that what before was merely an indifferent and transient particular gains existence “for the other, for the self by which it was devoured” (GW 9:386). In granting itself enjoyment of what is sacrificed to the Godhead, the subject shares with the absolute; and in its enjoyment in place of and for the sake of the Godhead, it both lends subjectivity to the impersonal Godhead and allows it to manifest itself not merely as the negation of the concrete, but in the affirmative guise of enjoyment. In this active and selfdirected relation to sensuous being, Greek religion moves decisively toward the realization of individuality as a religious ideal.

This characterization still requires some qualification, but it will be easier to put the necessary details in context if we first reconsider the Eleusinian allegory as it occurs in “Sense Certainty.” There Hegel introduces the motif of the mystery cult by way of anticipating “considerations of the practical” (GW 9:69). What does he mean by this? When we begin to make the connections between sense certainty in Chapter 1, animal desire in Chapter 4, and religious enjoyment of nature’s gifts in Chapter 7, we see the multidimensionality of what Hegel refers to as “the practical.” At this juncture we need at the very least to observe that with this “anticipation” Hegel is superimposing a form of active, practical negation of sensuous being in the sacrifice onto a passive, contemplative negation of sensuous being in the (pantheistic) religion of light. The association of Greek religious sacrifice is obviously the dominant one in the Eleusis allegory, and yet it is as though we could see Hegel’s older, pantheistic use of the mystery cult bleeding through and coloring his use of it here. In the self-directed activity of enjoyment, the merely theoretical negation of the sensuous manifold has become practical.

As noted above, however, Hegel’s reference to bread and wine adds a recognizably Christian facet to the passage. What I would like to show now is how the idea of a mutual belongingness of death, resurrection, and transubstantiation is in its turn superimposed upon the Persian and Greek layers of this highly compressed allegory.

Greek religion exceeds the religion of light, on Hegel’s view, in that the sacrificing subject experiences the negativity of sensuous being in the form of his own enjoyment. Here, then, self-directedness comes to the fore in a crucial step along the Phenomenology’s path “from substance to subject.” Yet the content which comes to be for the self in the enjoyment of the sacrificial fruits is still the same inwardly undifferentiated absolute we found at the core of the religious counterpart of Spinozist substance monism. For Hegel, the religious discovery of self-conscious individuality as itself substance and as the only substance belongs to Christianity: the life of the mystery cult is “only the mystery of bread and wine, of Ceres and Bacchus, … not yet the mystery of the flesh and the blood” (GW 9:387).

A crucial step therefore remains to be taken in order to create a counterpart in religious consciousness for the full structure of self-conscious individuality: the identity of the self in its embodied particularity with substance in its indeterminate negativity or abstract universality has to be posited in such a way that particularity does not, on the one hand, merely perish and disappear into being (as is the case in the pantheistic religion of light) nor, on the other hand, remain in the shapeless form of enjoyment. The identity must be posited in such a way that particularity is preserved as the expression of absolute being. The Christian analogue of this identity is the relation between the Father and the Son. The Father’s gift is a Son to be sacrificed in his individuality (and thereby “sent back” or reflected into his unity with the Father)-yet sacrificed in such a way that the Son is preserved in his individuality in the resurrection. The enjoyment of the transubstantiated bread and wine in the Christian cult is both the commemoration and the recurring performance of this complex relation. Importantly, this very relation of expressivity between the Father (being qua abstract universality) and the Son (being qua determinate being) is what constitutes individuality.

Now, in the chapter on religion Hegel is explicit about the special character of Christianity:

The fact that absolute spirit has assumed the shape of self-consciousness in itself and hence also for consciousness, takes the form that it is the faith of the world that spirit is there [ist da] as a self-consciousness, i.e. as an actual human being, that it is there for immediate certainty, that the faithful consciousness sees and feels and hears this divinity … God is sensuously intuited as a self, as an actual individual human; only in this way is He self-consciousness. (GW 9:404-5).

So there is an unmistakable link between his interpretation of Christ, his analysis of “the This” in “Sense Certainty,” and his understanding of the emergence of self-conscious individuality.

The main stages in the transition from spirit-less sensualism through the negation of and elevation over sensuous individuality in “immediate religion” to the recovery of sensuous immediacy in self-conscious spirit are thus virtual in “Sense Certainty,” and the historical, philosophical, and religious agenda of the Phenomenology is already telescoped into its first chapter as the iridescent allegory of Eleusis.

A Direct Argument for the Spinozist Context of “Sense Certainty”

Up to now I have mounted an indirect argument for my thesis by tracing out a series of connections in the wider system of Hegelian thought and suggesting how “Sense Certainty” would fit into it. I have not yet argued directly on the basis of Hegel’s presentation of “Sense Certainty” that it is in fact part of that system of concerns. I will now offer such a direct argument.

Within the framework typical of a chapter in the Phenomenology, Hegel treats of “Sense Certainty” in a series of three thought experiments. The shape of sense certainty comprises two poles, the I and the object, one or both of which are required to conform to the definition of “the true” or “the essence” as conceived by sense certainty, namely to be a self-sufficient, enduring, and fully determinate “This” or sensuous spatiotemporal individual. The succession of experiments is generated by identifying the true or the essence with each pole in turn and then with the two poles taken together as an indivisible unity. The first experiment accordingly attributes the determination of essentiality (“This”-ness) to the object pole; the second attributes it to the subject pole; and the third attributes it to the two poles taken together as a unity.

The first experiment culminates in the insight that the this is ein Negatives überhaupt, i.e. something whose determinateness is a product solely of negation: “This enduring Now is thus not something immediate, but something that is mediated, for insofar as it is something permanent and enduring, it is determined by the fact that something else, namely day or night, is not” (GW 9:65). This is already a paradoxical result. Taking for a moment, as seems natural, endurance to be an affirmative characteristic, i.e. a characteristic of being, what we are told is that being is something thoroughly negative. That is, to the extent that it is being (i.e. something enduring), its determinate character lies solely in the non-being of whatever determinate guises (Bestimmtheiten) it takes on. Equivalently, it is the non-being of the determinate. For note that night and day are not something other than or outside the Now; they do not exist for themselves somewhere or sometime else; rather, to the extent that they exist, they exist now or are the Now. So to follow this out a step further, they have their being only in and as the Now, while the Now itself is or exists as the non-being of those determinate guises. But this is equivalent to the statement that the Now exists purely and solely as the being-conditioned of the determinate. Day, night, noon, etc. are none of them essentially Now, as Now is not essentially any of them: the qualitative relationship between the Now and any positive determination is therefore fundamentally contingent, while its only necessary determination is fundamentally negative (viz. to be insofar as something else is not).

From this Hegel concludes: “[A] simple unity of this kind [ein solches Einfaches] which exists by negation, neither this nor that, a not-This, but which with the same indifference is both this and that, is what we call a universal; the universal is therefore actually what is true for sense certainty” (GW 9:65).

We should pause before too hastily interpreting this to mean that “Now” is a concept and thus by definition a universal. For Hegel draws his conclusion by way of reference to a complex of relations formulated primarily in terms of being, non-being, determinateness, and indeterminateness. There is no explicit mention of subsumption, subordination, abstraction and comparison, or other features associated with conceptual structures and their formation. Moreover, it is not even clear that ‘the Now’ denotes a concept formed by acts of abstraction, reflection, and so on. We do not compare night, day, noon, and other “determinations” in order to isolate what they have in common (“nowness”), nor could we since they never all have it at once. “Now,” if it is a universal at all, does not seem to be a concept in the ordinary sense of the term. By “being” night, day, noon, etc., the Now is not instantiating itself. Quite the reverse: it is by being the Now that the determinations we may indeed call concepts in the ordinary sense, viz. night, day, noon, and so on, which do subsume various instantiations and are themselves subordinate determinations of higher concepts like “time of day,” actually come to be instantiated. In short, ‘universality’ cannot refer here to the structures of intension and extension, content and instantiation that inform our customary talk of concepts and universals. Rather, we are dealing with something that is more like the ground of conceptual structures in that customary sense, underlying the facts of instantiation and subsumption.

I therefore suggest that we interpret universality as thematized in “Sense Certainty” in the metaphysical terms characteristic of Hegel’s Spinoza reception. The experience of the This opens onto a difference between all positive determinateness on the one hand and on the other a ground whose only determination lies in the fact that positive determinations are conditioned, contingent, non-selfgrounding, transitory, and that both their being and their non-being are grounded in it. Nothing, however, of their qualitative character-the warmth and light of the day, the darkness and coolness of the night, and so on-expresses any reality or aspect of that ground. They are conditioned by it, but not determined by it. As we saw above, herein lies the core of Spinoza’s substance monism as conceived and criticized by Hegel.

Rebuffed by the outcome of the first experiment, sense certainty embarks on the second, this time identifying essentiality (“This”-ness) with the subject-pole. The overall shape of this experiment is identical to that of the first. The difference I would like to emphasize concerns the aspect of selflessness. Selflessness, a privative expression, could not have entered into the discussion of the first experiment where we were dealing with something that is per se selfless (the object-pole of consciousness). However, the second experiment takes up as the new candidate for truth or essentiality something that is by definition a self, an “I.” According to Hegel’s result, what is preserved is

I, as a universal, whose seeing is neither a seeing of the tree nor of this house, but a simple seeing which though mediated by the negation of this house and so on, is just as simple and indifferent to the play of forms [was … beyher spielt], to house and tree … [I]n saying I, this single I, I am saying all I’s; everyone is what I say; I, this, single, I.” (GW 9:66)

If we approach “Sense Certainty” already convinced that it is intended to demonstrate that certain epistemic conditions must be met even for immediate selfreference, then we will find that sense certainty has, by its own lights, failed to meet those conditions. It actually experiences its failure to refer determinately to itself! But if we do not come to the text having already made this assumption, then it rather looks like Hegel is saying this: When sense certainty posits the I as what is essential, what it finds is not itself but consciousness of a non-objective, non-individually-“tethered” seeing, a non-self-individuating pure consciousness that may condition individual consciousness, but neither qualitatively determines it nor is positively expressed by it-not unlike “thinking” as one of the impersonal attributes of Spinozist substance. Such a result would not be unprecedented. In part two of The Vocation of Man (which Hegel studied closely) Fichte argues for a similar conclusion: “I” am individuated negatively, by way of the singular, determinate transitory contents of consciousness (“this determinate thinking and ‘this’ and ‘this'”) which I am not: “‘I’ would never signify anything but non-thing” (FW 2:242, 244). The upshot is a nihilistic denial of personal identity and substantiality: “Nowhere is there anything permanent, neither outside nor inside of me, but only an unceasing flux. Nowhere am I conscious of any being, not even of my own. There is no being. I myself am not conscious at all, and do not exist” (FW 2:245). As with Hegel, this result is presented as the consequence of taking the I to be the only substantial element in sense experience, and there is no suggestion that the prospect of self-abandonment associated here and in other texts with Spinozist fatalism might be forestalled by careful attention to the conditions of reference. The problem can only be overcome by positing the primacy of action (FW 2:248-51). Whether we conceive of such de-individuation as a threat or as the promise of liberation, the straight reading of either text demands that we confront it as the inevitable consequence of situating selfhood at the level of non-practically oriented sense consciousness.

My discussion of the final thought experiment can be briefer. The key here, regarding both space and time, is first to recognize Kant’s discussion of the forms of intuition in the Transcendental Aesthetic (B 39-40) as the reference point for Hegel’s “simple complexion” of Here-points and Now-points (GW 9:68). Space and time are immediately and for themselves infinite quanta whose determinateness (i.e. determinate places and times) is the result of limitation, i.e. negation. Any individual position in time and space is thus determined by negation of the potential or actual spaces enclosing it. The analogy between Kant’s views on the forms of intuition and Spinoza’s conception of substance in its relation to determinate modes was recognized early on: Jacobi draws attention to it in the Letters on the Doctrine of Spinoza, and it was the subject of a critical response in the Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung. Since Paul Franks has provided a complete and lucid analysis of the ramifications of this analogy for German Idealist reception of Kant, I refer the reader to his text. Essentially, Jacobi interprets Kant’s theory of space as instantiating both the principle omnis determinatio est negatio and the principle totum parte prius esse necesse est, which together generate the nihilist consequences of Spinoza’s substance monism as discussed above. Here again, therefore, the metaphysical terms associated with Hegel’s critical understanding of Spinozism shed valuable light on the textual details of “Sense Certainty.”

Conclusion: Understanding Indexicals “Wholly from the Stand Point of Spirit and Interms of the Spirit.” Current Approaches to “Sense Certainty” in Light of This Analysis

If I have been right to treat Hegel’s metaphorically rich allusion to the Eleusinian Mysteries not as merely incidental to the philosophical motivations and goals of the “Sense Certainty” chapter, but as telling us something about its place within the Phenomenology as a whole and about its own peculiar systematic weight, then Hegel’s opening arguments are bound to appear in a rather different light from that in which we are accustomed to view them. In this concluding section, I would like to relate my analysis to what has become the dominant approach to the chapter, namely the reconstruction of “Sense Certainty” as an Hegelian meditation on the conceptual presuppositions of demonstrative reference and hence of knowledge claims at their “most basic” level.

Since Frege and Russell, theories of the singular proposition and demonstrative reference have achieved great depth and sophistication, and become numerous in their various kinds and combinations. Given the massive philosophical development that has taken place over the last one hundred years, it is natural that we should view Hegel’s treatment of sense certainty in light of it. A number of conspicuous features of the text clearly invite this approach. As Willem de Vries remarks, “[A] noticeable peculiarity of Hegel’s ‘Sense-Certainty’ chapter … is Hegel’s emphasis on the word ‘this’ and other indexical terms such as ‘I,’ ‘here,’ and ‘now.'” The paradigmatic utterances of this “shape of consciousness” are (in Hegel’s significantly deviant formulation) indexical expressions like “The Now is night,” “The Here is a tree” (GW 9:64, 65). Furthermore, his critique of sense certainty appears to center on difficulties involving spatiotemporal change, objective and subjective localization, and the role of linguistic expression. Correspondingly, there is wide consensus among modern theorists of demonstrative reference that the ability to locate the intended referent both within a framework of objective spatial coordinates and (subjectively or egocentrically) in relation to one’s own position in space forms a necessary condition for successful acts of referring, as does the ability to identify and re-identify the referent by way of descriptions involving sortal predicates. These conceptual preconditions and the importance of generally predicable terms seems, in turn, to harmonize with the centrality of “mediation” and “the universal” in Hegel’s alternative account of the truth of sense certainty.

In light of such observations, a number of contemporary Hegel scholars have found it promising to reconstruct the arguments in “Sense Certainty” from the vantage point of Russellian propositions and the theories of direct reference that have emerged in response to weaknesses in Russell’s own account. Hegelian talk of mediation and universality is here spelled out in terms of the concepts and conceptual abilities a subject must possess in order to fix reference to a singular item of sense perception. And since theories of demonstrative reference are naturally oriented toward the conditions of referential success, i.e. the conditions under which a subject actually succeeds in referring to a unique individual, the linchpin of Hegel’s critique is now located in the proof that, by her own lights, a proponent of sense certainty would necessarily fail to fix reference to the intended individual item of sense perception.

Yet it is not obviously the case that, on Hegel’s view, success for sense certainty would consist in the successful fixing of reference, and so neither is it obvious that his critique of sense certainty should be read as adumbrating ex negativo the conceptual conditions of such success. Nor again is it obvious that Hegel is engaged anywhere in the Phenomenology in a project that would acknowledge or require singular propositions as epistemically basic, thus entailing an account of how singular referring expressions make contact with reality so as to anchor and justify the cognitive content of the corresponding propositions-hence the scare quotes above in the phrase “knowledge claims at their ‘most basic’ level.” An approach of this kind ought, at any rate, to find troubling Hegel’s pointed criticism of empirical science in “Observing Reason,” where he represents it as constraining itself “to that form of knowledge which is not knowledge of the true; it thus willingly and wittingly condemns itself to an untrue knowledge, and cannot let go of an opining [Meinen] and perceiving [Wahrnehmen] that have no truth for it” (GW 9:136).

Recent work on “Sense Certainty” in this vein does indeed seem to show that Hegel’s arguments there are compatible with a theory of reference such as that of Gareth Evans. However, the assumption that “Sense Certainty” and the immediately following chapters are more or less consciously intended to adumbrate these kinds of conditions on empirical truth claims is misleading. In fact, most scholars who seek to give a post-Kantian “transcendental”-style interpretation or a referencetheoretic account of the chapter acknowledge that, on their reading, Hegel’s text comes out seeming either implausible or at any rate less than straightforward.

By contrast, when approached on the basis of the metaphysical concerns central to my analysis, Hegel’s text reads much more straightforwardly. We see that ‘the Now,’ ‘the Here,’ and ‘the This’ are not pronomial or adverbial determinations, but-as their nominalization indicates-determinations of a singular referent Hegel calls “das Wesen” (the essence, cf. GW 9:64, 66, 67). We can acknowledge his characterization of the true “This” as “something negative as such” (ein negatives überhaupt, GW 9:65) as unsurprising, indeed predictable. His characterization of the Here and the Now as “simple complexions” (GW 9:68), which, in their negativity, are in immediate negative unity with the manifold of determinate heres and nows, fits seamlessly into the paradigmatically Spinozist model of a substance which maintains no independent ontological determinacy above and beyond the indeterminately many finite modi in which it is realized. The “disappearing” (GW 9:65) of the different determinate heres and nows in each other may easily be seen as emblematic of the metaphysical non-self-sufficiency of the concrete on this “immediate” understanding of being or Wesen. And Hegel’s insistence in the concluding paragraph (clearly in his own voice and from the non-oblique “for us”-perspective) that sensuous particulars are things that have no true existence of their own loses the appearance of being a leap from linguistic analysis to metaphysical dogmatism. In fact, the scenario Hegel imagines in this concluding paragraph obviously presupposes just the intersubjective referential capabilities some recent scholars believe him to be urging upon the all-too-naïve proponent of sense certainty:

During the actual attempt to say [this piece of paper], it would crumble away; those who began its description would be unable to complete it, and would have to leave it to others who would at last themselves concede that they were speaking of a thing that is not. (GW 9:70)

To carry out a description of a particular spatiotemporal object over the lengthy period of time Hegel polemically envisages here clearly requires conceptual abilities including the command of sortal predicates and the ability to reidentify the object in question. Moreover, if the task of description is imagined as being handed down to others, the intersubjective communicability of such identification must also be presupposed. But Hegel makes nothing of this fact, and his critique of sense certainty remains focused exclusively on the metaphysical point that sensuously determinate objects are radically ungrounded (nichtig) in themselves.

Considerations like these suggest that the broadly Sellarsian, epistemological, reference-theoretic approach to the early chapters of the Phenomenology fails to engage with, and may blind us to, the interests that shape the book as a work of systematic philosophy. This is not to say that the guiding insights of that approach are incompatible with Hegelian philosophy or mistaken in themselves. In whatever case, I share the systematic, philosophical convictions about the conceptual determination of experience that underlie such readings. But we must recognize the extent to which such concerns are, for Hegel, fundamentally oriented by a conception of spirit that is not only not mentalistic, but whose paradigmatic phenomena are to be sought in the realms of religion, art, philosophy, and the political life of the state. As Heidegger observed, “The scandal of the Hegelian interpretation of sensibility is-and this is rooted in the very way he poses the problem-that he understands it wholly from the standpoint of spirit and in terms of the spirit [ganz aus dem Geiste und im Geiste].” Although I do not adopt Heidegger’s reading of “Sense Certainty,” I embrace his insight into the systematic place of Hegel’s treatment of sense experience and the interpretive approach it demands.

But what are we to make of the fact that reference-theoretic interpretations do manage after all to give an independent account of what is going on in the thought experiments that form the body of “Sense Certainty”? If the approach is not wholly successful, neither is it an outright failure, else it would not have convinced as many brilliant and knowledgeable scholars as it has.

One possible answer emerges when we look beyond the narrowly technical details of the theory of demonstrative reference and singular predication, beyond the conditions merely of referential success, in order to consider the universally and specifically human orientation toward the whole of being with which those referential abilities are deeply intertwined. In a recent work, Ernst Tugendhat has drawn connections between the conceptual abilities underlying singular reference, the human capacity for self-reference or egocentricity, and the anthropological potential for mystical experience of a purely indeterminate or selfless being.

Singular reference depends for its success on my being able to pick out which of all possible things it is that I mean. Both for myself and for others, I must be able to (re)locate that object in egocentric space: I have to know which way to turn or move in order to find it, and this involves a grasp of indexical expressions like ‘here,’ ‘over there,’ ‘behind me,’ and so on. I must also be able to (re)locate the referent in objective space and time: I have to be able to navigate a unified spatiotemporal frame of reference, an ordered totality of spatiotemporal points that is, in its turn, fixed by the positions of certain perceptual objects. And these reference objects must, in their turn again, be specifiable in terms of sortal predicates. Finally, my perceptual environment is constantly changing both because of my own movement through it and because of its own inherent dynamics and transience. Successful reference thus depends on making my referential act independent of the perceptual situation at the place and the instant of its origin. For this a system of ordered substitutions among the indexical terms is required: ‘yesterday’ must be substitutable for ‘today,’ ‘then’ for ‘now,’ ‘there’ for ‘here,’ according to stable rules. And to keep track of the referent in relation to my changing position, as well as to communicate reference successfully to third persons, I must be able to grasp myself as one determinately located material object among others in a world of objects. In short, “[o]ne can only to refer to individuals by at the same time referring to a world.”

In the statement just cited, Tugendhat uses two different but related words for referring: one refers to individuals (bezugnehmen) by referring or relating oneself (sich beziehen) to a world. It is this ability to take up, or rather find oneself in, a relation to the world as a whole that is a necessary concomitant of demonstrative reference. Such a relation is by its very nature at once both egocentric (the world I relate myself to is my world, the world that has me at its center) and nonegocentric (I am one object within a world which is utterly without any center or, to borrow the mediaeval characterization of the Godhead, a world whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere). To refer demonstratively is to be in the world in both these contradictory ways at one and the same time.

Now Tugendhat gives an extended account of the ethical and otherwise normative categories that grow up around this basic structure, including the emotional or spiritual need to step back from or distance oneself from one’s own egocentric position as well as from the manifold of worldly things in which one finds oneself entangled by virtue of that position. He contrasts a state of scatteredness with one of collectedness. But in orientation toward what (worauf hin) am I to collect myself or pull myself together? According to Tugendhat, the focus of “collection” can be either myself, in a meditative reditus in se ipsum, or it can be a unity which, in one way or other, is conceived as transcending the worldly manifold. This latter alternative is constitutive of what he calls “the mystical.” Such a unity may, in its turn, be conceived either as a negative unity into which the worldly manifold disappears, or as the totality as such of the worldly manifold, in which the plurality of what exists is maintained in existence.

In a highly nuanced discussion, Tugendhat sorts through the virtues and weaknesses of these alternative conceptions of unity, and of how to understand their significance to the egocentric self, which, of course, as the origin and locus of need and desire for such selfless identification with the one-and-all, endures within it and is integral to it. For present purposes, Tugendhat’s resolution of these issues is less important than his central insight that concomitant with the conceptual abilities underlying demonstrative reference is a more or less explicit relation to the totality of determinate, intramundane objects such that that totality is essentially indeterminate or determined purely negatively by its relation to determinate, finite objects.

My intention here is not to suggest that Hegel held Tugendhat’s views on demonstrative reference; attributing to him any worked-out theory of reference would be anachronistic. Triangulation with Tugendhat’s views indicates, however, that a deeper systematic issue is present here and approachable both in Hegelian terms and in those of recent work in analytic philosophy. The interesting point is that an authentically Hegelian insight converges both with certain forms of mystical attitudes toward the world and with insights into how reference works at the most basic level of our ordinary epistemic access to things. That Tugendhat independently arrives at a similar insight is not coincidental. The same capacities that enable us, alone among all the animals we know of, to make knowledge claims about the objects of experience, also open us toward a totality of being that, in one sense or other, transcends the existence and determinacy of those objects. If Tugendhat is right about this deep connection between the possibility of singular propositions and the proto-religious, cognitive relation to “something negative as such” (to take up Hegel’s phrase in “Sense Certainty”), then it is no coincidence that reference-theoretic discussions of the Phenomenology’s opening chapter have found so much to work with. What Hegel identifies as the truth of sense certainty is precisely an indeterminate universal or pure being of the kind constitutive of radically non-egocentric, mystical experience. The vehicle through which he makes it visible is an instinctive, though nonetheless sophisticated, reflection on the conditions of demonstrative reference. This is what it means to understand indexicals ganz aus dem Geiste und im Geiste.