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The Tree of Knowledge

Escaping Scepticism with Hegel & Heidegger

Benedict O’Connell asks, must reasoning ultimately rest upon mere assumption?

When we examine any particular belief or particular line of reasoning, we need to compare it with some accepted standard to test whether or not it is sound. But herein lies a problem, for this accepted standard must itself be examined for its validity; and the standard used to examine that standard also examined, and so on, and so on. In attempting to justify a means of examination of ideas, evidently one is led to a potential infinite regress, since every examination apparently involves an accepted standard, but every accepted standard requires an examination of its own validity to justify its own use… Is there any foundation upon which we might properly examine our ideas?

Hegel and Heidegger
Hegel and Heidegger by Darren McAndrew 2021

This issue is already found in ancient sceptical thought, most notably in the writings of Sextus Empiricus (160-210 AD). It also illustrates a problem that GWF Hegel considers in his Phenomenology of Spirit (1807). As Hegel explains, whether the accepted standard for testing ideas be science or some other means of examination, if it is not itself examined, then a valid examination simply will not occur. In other words, if an examination of a standard does not occur, then one holds that particular standard by mere assumption.

There are two obvious responses to this situation: either one may enter into circular reasoning at some point, or at some level one may abstain from attempts at justification, and so work on mere assumption. Both options seem unappealing. Ludwig Wittgenstein alludes to the latter option when he states in On Certainty (1969): “The questions that we raise and our doubts depend on the fact that some propositions are exempt from doubt, are as it were like hinges on which those turn… We just can’t investigate everything, and for that reason we are forced to rest content with assumption. If I want the door to turn, the hinges must stay put.”

In response to this so-called ‘dilemma of the criterion’, Sextus Empiricus and the school of Pyrrhonian scepticism to which he belonged held that it is necessary to adopt a position of radical doubt with regards to the possibility of finding rational justifications. It seems to me that this sceptical position of doubt concerning any justification for, ultimately speaking, any of our ideas, immediately renders our examinations impotent. It means that one becomes completely unjustified in choosing one means of thinking over another, and therefore one’s conclusions hold no validity. Even more startlingly, it seems that one is not justified in conducting any examination of ideas at all.

So what are we to base our examinations on, if the process of justification for our examinations is fundamentally flawed? I hope to show that a suitable reply can be given to the sceptic by forming a hybrid response from the arguments given by Hegel and by Martin Heidegger.

Hegel’s Approach

Can anyone refute the sceptic’s claim that all examinations of reasoning entail an infinite regress or vicious circularity in their justification? The project of attempting to do so is clearly apparent in Hegel’s writing. Hegel tries to show that the self-critical structure of human consciousness can help one avoid circularity through building up a reasoned account of one’s beliefs.

Hegel begins by criticising two theories of justification, coherentism and foundationalism. For the coherentist, the justification for a belief lies in that belief’s coherence with other beliefs. If a particular belief is logically consistent with other, well-established beliefs, then this gives us justification in accepting it. However, as Hegel points out, this kind of justification is by no means sufficient on its own. After all, it’s possible that one may have a magnificently coherent set of beliefs that are mutually interdependent with one another but which may nevertheless all be false. Hegel also shows possible flaws in foundationalism. The foundationalist says a given belief is justified if it has the right relation to certain basic or foundational beliefs. To put it curtly, the validity of a belief may be calculated by the extent to which it is grounded in our foundational beliefs. However, for Hegel, this leads to the very problem that it is supposed to fix. A set of beliefs may be well grounded in certain foundational beliefs; but on what grounds are these foundational beliefs themselves justified? So when the coherentist or foundationalist is pushed to justify their justification of ideas, they are faced with the same regress that Empiricus’ scepticism highlights.

Hegel’s response to the problem starts with an analysis of the nature of human consciousness. He sees consciousness’s relationship to the world in a way noticeably different from that usually presupposed by the sceptic. Scepticism arises in opposition to the assumption that we may know a thing as it truly is through its appearance to us. Rather, the sceptic will point out, our knowledge is limited by the nature of our perceptual apparatus. This notion of the limitations of perceptual knowledge is held by many philosophers preceding Hegel. But for Hegel, this model of human consciousness is erroneous in its assertion that human beings are essentially limited in their ideas. He provides an alternative account of consciousness that gives the subject direct access to reality. Fundamentally, for Hegel, the nature of human consciousness does not exclude the possibility of accessing reality as it is. This is because for Hegel, the self, the perception of reality, and reality itself, are interdependent, as it is all the working of Spirit or the Idea through history. Within this situation, Hegel presents an account of human consciousness in which truth is attainable through our ability to be self-critical and to revise our conception of reality until the truth becomes self-evident. If a particular area of one’s reasoning is unsatisfactory – if either a belief or a means of examination is problematic – then it is possible for an individual to alter their claims or the standards they use for examining them by developing their reasoning.

Whilst Hegel’s emphasis lies in the potential for self-criticism, this process ought not to occur in solitude if one wishes it to be successful or productive. The necessity of the input of others comes from their holding a piece of the picture that is not identical to one’s own. At this point in Hegel’s philosophy I am reminded of a mantra used by the former leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. To a crowd at Glastonbury music festival in 2017 (and indeed throughout his election campaigns), he stated: “Everyone knows something we don’t know, is slightly different to us in some ways. Don’t see them as a threat. Don’t see them as the enemy. See them as a source of knowledge.” I am not sure that Corbyn and Hegel would have been intellectual bedfellows in other respects, but on this point specifically there seems to be some mutual agreement. For both of them, knowledge is in essence fragmentary and not held in monopoly by any sole individual. So it is through interaction with others, that consciousness may begin to piece together a justification for, or better put, come into an experiential knowledge of, a particular belief or set of beliefs.

Heidegger’s Approach

Hegel confronts the problem of infinite regress head-on by trying to show how the self-critical nature of consciousness, which already exists entwined with reality, as it were, makes it possible to avoid circularity. In Being and Time (1926), Martin Heidegger suggests other responses to the problem of infinite regress, but also explains that it is not an issue that needs to be defeated. The important matter “is not to get out of the circle, but to come into it in the right way.” (Being and Time 153)

Heidegger’s response to the problem of infinite regress may well appear less direct than Hegel’s. In Being and Time, Heidegger seeks to explore the fundamental nature of human existence, with a view to understanding how it is that we may even ask questions regarding our existence, so gaining problems such as that of the apparent infinite regress of justification.

Since Heidegger’s project is concerned with ontology, or the nature of being, he often refers to human existence as ‘being-there’, or in German, Dasein. Every judgement Dasein makes involves a level of understanding of the world and of Dasein’s role within the world. However, this means that for Heidegger no interpretation or examination of any ideas could be devoid of preconceptions. Rather, as Heidegger says, we are ‘thrown into the world’ in all the complexity of human experience. Indeed, an absence of at least some starting ideas would make it impossible to grasp anything at all. This realisation leads to Heidegger’s suggestion concerning the approaches one may take to the problem of the criterion.

For Heidegger, meaning, being intimately linked to interpretation, is based neither on fact nor convention. Instead, it finds its basis in a manner of life in which we necessarily reside. The position that Heidegger presents is not preoccupied with facts or deductive logic, and is therefore not concerned with presenting proof in the standard way. He instead suggests recognising the inevitability of the preconceptions that are tied to Dasein’s thinking anything at all. Given the necessity of these preconceptions to understanding anything, he says we should fully embrace the circle which bases interpretations on preconceptions, with a view to gaining a sense of Dasein’s being. The critic should be concerned not only with determining preconceptions, but also with evaluating their fruitfulness. In other words, the circularity that is an inevitable part of Dasein’s understanding may not always be vicious.The task of the philosopher is only to avoid negative circularity. Circularity that is a part of Dasein may be a way to capture the ontological structure of inquiry or understanding but this need not entail logical circularity which is pernicious to understanding.

Mary Midgley considers a similar process in The Myths We Live By (2003). She understands ‘myths’ here not as lies or falsehoods, but as imaginative patterns – networks of symbols or habits of mind which shape our thoughts, without necessarily being apparent to those doing the thinking. Myths help us organise our perceptions, but they can also do harm by slanting our thinking. Myths, as Midgley would put it, are not viciously circular without qualification, and are therefore not all to be totally debunked, as one modern general view would suggest. She develops this point by explaining that the patterns that shape our thinking are not simply a distraction from thought. Rather, myths “are the matrix of thought, the background that shapes our mental habits. They decide what we think important and what we ignore. They provide the tools with which we organise the mass of incoming data.” So mythical thinking in this sense is our modus operandi, or as Heidegger might put it, is part of a form of life in which we necessarily dwell. It is up to us to differentiate between patterns of thought that badly infect our thinking, and those that shape it positively or innocuously. Heidegger also recognises this distinction, explaining that we can differentiate between preconception and prejudice in our thinking, the first being good, the second, bad.

Heidegger believes that to build a constructive form of criticism, it is not necessary to map the route out of the infinite regress. Rather, we must distinguish between circularity that is vicious and circularity that is virtuous; between preconception (useful) and prejudice (invalid). As he argues, criticism should include determining the legitimacy of preconceptions and discovering in what sense they may be beneficial. In this way, circularity in our reasoning is part of our understanding the sense in which one may work towards a full grasp of Dasein’s being. So, for Heidegger, the job of the critic is to identify preconceptions and evaluate their validity for life’s circumstances, as opposed to attempting to free oneself from them. Of course these unknown knowns – things that we ‘know’ but don’t know that we know them – may be difficult to uncover, but this is the challenge of self-criticality. Heidegger’s overarching point remains pertinent: one must accept that preconceptions are an inevitable part of one’s understanding.


In responding to the problem of a possible infinite regress in knowledge, both Hegel and Heidegger challenge those who pose the problem. In Hegel’s Phenomenology, this challenge is directed towards the Pyrrhonian sceptic who has supposed a particular relationship between human consciousness and reality which Hegel thinks is false. In Being and Time, Heidegger explains that assessing any claim necessarily involves a degree of understanding of the conditions in which that claim has been made or applies, and understanding always involves preconceptions. Even those who pose the problem of the criterion have accepted certain standards or preconceptions. Both Hegel and Heidegger seek to combat these presuppositions. This is why an important notion within both their works is the value placed on criticism, and the judgement that it is possible to gain ground in understanding.

Hegel’s approach is concerned with knowledge, whereas Heidegger points out the problem in knowing how we may even ask questions about knowledge. In this sense, Heidegger’s account shows greater humility.

What emerges from both Hegel and Heidegger is the importance of constant reassessment and revision to one’s beliefs. Both perceive it to be possible to make progress in reasoning through criticism. For Hegel this means, with the assistance of others, building up a picture of the totality of knowledge; and for Heidegger this entails identifying one’s preconceptions and determining their legitimacy through the context of life in which one is doing the evaluating. Although Heidegger doesn’t explicitly say so, it seems his process of preconception-evaluation would indeed also be more fruitful with the engagement of others. To gain a fuller understanding of the context in which one finds oneself, it’s important to tease out the perspective of other selves through critical engagement with them.

A Heideggerian hue could be placed on the vital role of others. With the input of others’ criticism, and through the use of one’s own criticisms to distinguish between circularity that is vicious or virtuous, the gaining of a fuller picture of one’s being may be attained. As Carl Jung (likely the source of Jeremy Corbyn’s election mantra) remarked: “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t know but need to know. Learn from them.”

© Benedict O’Connell 2021

Benedict O’Connell teaches Philosophy and Religious Studies at BHASVIC, Brighton. His main philosophical interests are ethics, animal liberation, epistemic humility and artificial intelligence. His philosophy and ideas Instagram is @benedict.oconnell.

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