The relation of ancient skepticism to Hegel’s problem of the criterion in the Phenomenology of Spirit

Image: Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s
Le retour de Marcus Sextus (1799)

In introducing the method by which his Phenomenology of Spiritis to proceed, G.W.F. Hegel addresses the epistemological “problem of the criterion.” [1] The criterion problem, it turns out, inheres in all finite determinations of truth. For Hegel, the internal contradictions it engenders serve to demonstrate the essential inadequacy of all relative (versus absolute) forms of cognition. It thus facilitates the dialectical unfolding of consciousness as it speculatively approaches Absolute Spirit. This, put simply, is the stated goal of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Beyond examining its merely functional role in this work, however, the reader might observe the way in which the problem of the criterion directly emerges from the context of a discussion of skepticism,[2] which appears in the Introduction. Hegel’s procession from the topic of skepticism to criticism is no accident; indeed, its logic can be seen to mirror his understanding of their historical relation. Did not the historic problem of the criterion arise out of the resolute skepticisms of Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus, after all? Comparing the remarks in Hegel’s Introduction with some of the pertinent philosophical digressions in his later Lectures on the History of Philosophy, the connection between the logical order of his argument and the history of the event may be further established. Reflexively, this then has recourse to his phenomenological treatment of Skeptical self-consciousness in the second section of the earlier work, in which Hegel dismantles its principle of one-sided negativity by applying the critical method which ancient Skepticism had itself inspired.

Our investigation can thus be understood to contain two integrally related parts. The first claims that Hegel’s movement from the issue of skepticism to the problem of the criterion in the Introduction to the Phenomenology is tacitly modeled after their historical succession. Evidence supporting this assertion will be gathered from his interpretation of Skeptical philosophy in the History of Philosophy. This part of the inquiry is thus of a hermeneutic aspect. Conversely, the second part is oriented critically (one might say “autocritically”) back to Hegel’s answer to the problem of the criterion in the Phenomenology. We will assess the way in which the distinctive brand of self-relating skepticism he develops therein is then applied to the Skeptical self-consciousness as its object, both phenomenologically and historically.

It must be noted from the start that the two parts of this study simultaneously follow from and ground one another. At first glance, the reciprocity of this relation is bound to confuse the reader. But this operation is not as confounding as it may initially seem, and demands no great dialectical rigor. To begin with, Hegel’s methodological solution to the criterion problem presupposes his high regard for ancient Skepticism’s critical enterprise, as well as his concurrent dissatisfaction with its epistemological nihilism. If he did not take seriously the implications of skepticism’s problem of the criterion, he could forego the negativity of dialectic altogether. Hegel would have no reason not to relapse into the dogmatic metaphysical positivism that held sway before the appearance of the Kantian philosophy. On the other hand, if he had not objected to ancient Skepticism’s stubborn disbelief, he would have been comfortable with its purely negative result. Hegel’s critical method, which we seek to apply back to his own system, would thus seem to require that our prior hermeneutic claim be accurate. Oppositely, however, his historical interpretation of skepticism, on which our hermeneutic is based, can equally be seen to presume the critical apparatus he develops in the Introduction to the Phenomenology. Whatever the actual order in which they fell, for the purposes of this essay their logic will coincide. As such, the consequences of each will be borne in mind throughout.

Hegel’s interpretation of ancient Skepticism as it relates to the problem of the criterion

The problem of the criterion is perennial to philosophy. Most historical accounts trace its lineage back to ancient Skepticism, a movement whose luminary figures include Pyrrho, Aenesidemus, and Sextus Empiricus. Hegel, for his part, credits Skepticism with its official origin, though he also groups the New Academics with them as kindred spirits.[3] In his History of Philosophy, he characterizes Skeptic movement as a natural result of the prevailing dogmatisms of the day, Stoicism and Epicureanism.[4] For Hegel, ancient Skepticism can only be understood in contrast to these dogmatic philosophies. The pivotal issue, which determined the groups’ divergence, centered around the possibility of establishing definitive criteria for truth:

Dogmatic philosophy sets up a determinate principle or criterion, and indeed only a single principle of this sort. The one principle, then, can be only the principle of universality itself, and the other is the principle of singularity — in one case, the principle that thinking is the determinant, and, in the second, sensation (Stoicism and Epicureanism [respectively]). In contrast, the third position is the negation of every criterion, of all determinate principles, whatever kind they may be — the negation of representing or knowing, whether of a sensuous, a reflective, or a thoughtful sort. This is Skepticism.[5]

Whereas the dogmatists maintained the possibility for arriving at these fundamental criteria, the Skeptics vehemently denied the tenability of any such determinations. It is on this ground, Hegel writes, that “Skepticism has always enjoyed the reputation…of being the most formidable adversary of philosophy and of being invincible, inasmuch as it is the art of dissolving everything determinate and exhibiting it in its nullity.”[6] Hence, ancient Skepticism identified itself with the annihilation of all criteria for determining truth. With this went the possibility of affirmative metaphysics as such, since no foundational principle could be ascertained.

The essential program of ancient Skepticism was clearly the negation of all basic claims to truth. But how was such an annihilation possible?

In undermining the criterial determinations of the dogmatic philosophies, the Skeptics attacked them on their own grounds. Here the problem of the criterion enters in as such. Hegel marks off this approach as the most vital of the Skeptical argumentative tropes.[7] “This,” he writes, “they called the trope of reciprocity, δί άλλήλους; we can also call it the circular proof.” Essentially, the argument consists in exposing the dependence of criteria on other criteria, and the groundlessness of any criterion which claims to subsist in itself. In other words, those principles of knowledge alleged to be valid are discovered to rest on logically (atemporally) prior determinations, and can thus only be conceived as valid through them. Or, to use Hegel’s language: “Each element [criterion] is present only by virtue of the other; there is no being in and for itself.” Any truly substantial criterion would by necessity be self-referential, and would have to invoke itself to justify its own validity. To do so, of course, is logically invalid. No viable alternatives remain; one either commits the fallacy of circular reasoning by referring the criterion to itself or offers it no justification at all, in which case it constitutes a bald assertion. The temporal correlate to this lies in the determination of finite causal relationships, in which supposed causes are demonstrated to be mere effects of earlier causes. Consistently applied, such determination gives rise to an infinite regress, or a “falling away into infinity,” as Hegel calls it.[8]

This may be further elucidated by a simple example. The dogmatist, seeking to provide a solid, convincing ground for his philosophy, offers a criterion (X) as a standard against which the truth of his determinations is to be gauged. The Skeptic, unconvinced, approaches him with the question: What is your criterion for determining that criterion X is valid? Unphased, the dogmatist confidently answers the skeptic, referring him to the criterion Y, which he explains is the determining principle for X. To this, however, the Skeptic repeats his same question, only this time replacing “X” with “Y.” Several repetitions of this tends to frustrate (if not irritate) the dogmatist, who would prefer to uncritically proceed with his deductions. Instead, he is forced by the Skeptic to provide one criterion after another, each justifying the one that preceded it. Two options are available to the dogmatist: either 1) he continues to ground his criterial assertions, down the path of infinite futility, or 2) he tries to justify a criterion by appealing to itself. What is the criterion for determining that criterion Z is valid? The criterion Z is determined to be valid by criterion Z. To frame this in an even more vulgar (yet instructive) manner, we might imagine the inquisitive child taking the place of the Skeptic, repeatedly asking the question, “Why?” — to which the dogmatic adult answers, “Just because.”

Employing this method, it would seem that the Skeptic is able to render all determinate principles or criteria null on formal grounds alone. For it matters little, as we have seen above, whether the content of X, Y, or Z is cognitive (as with the Stoical “cataleptic fantasy”)[9] or intuitive (as with Epicurean sensation, anticipation, and opinion).[10] Skepticism lays bare the contradictions implicit in every dogmatic determination. It reveals the inescapable dialectic of the one and many, the universal and the particular, the infinite and finite.[11] In its critical capacity, Hegel defends ancient Skepticism, insisting that “[t]he skeptical consciousness or procedure is of great importance. For everything that is immediately accepted, but finite, it shows that it is nothing tenable, nothing secure, nothing absolute, nothing true; it shows that sensations are self-contradictory.”[12] Clearly, Hegel wants to preserve the corrosive negativity of Skeptical antiquity. At the same time, however, he must remain true to his speculative undertaking, and for this he requires that criteria be available as cognitive standards by which he can perform his logical determinations. How are these two aspects to be reconciled? How might Skepticism be sublated?

For an answer to these questions, we must (re)turn to the Introduction of Hegel’s Phenomenology. In this course of this section, Hegel discusses several distinct forms of skepticism. His own method, which he counts as one of these skepticisms, is mentioned first. He announces that the progressive “realization of the Notion” — the Spirit’s journey “through the series of its own configurations” — is nothing but “the pathway of doubt, or more precisely as the way of despair.”[13] This remark, while poetic, is rather cryptic for the moment. Its meaning can only be grasped by distinguishing it from the other historical modes of skepticism. Hegel’s skepticism must thus be kept separate from both the ancient Skepticism of Pyrrho and the modern skepticism of the liberal, individualist variety (Descartes).[14]

Regarding the difference between the ancient and modern skepticisms, a few words might be written. Hegel immediately dismisses the latter (the modern) as a facile, incomplete skepticism. It deludes itself by the consolation that it has independently investigated the foundations of its convictions, mistrusting the claims handed down to it by authorities. In the end, it vainly confirms the naïve outlook of natural consciousness.[15] “The only difference,” remarks Hegel, “between being caught up in a system of opinions and prejudices based on personal conviction, and being caught up in one based on the authority of others, lies in the added conceit that is innate in the former position.”[16] Hegel would in his later writings add to this subject, repudiating the generally uncritical attitude that modern skepticism takes toward the facts of natural consciousness. Against its more recent form he sets ancient Skepticism, as a more consistently negative epistemology.[17] The modern doubt was superficial, and stopped short of challenging our commonplace assumptions. The more radical negativity instead belonged to antiquity.[18]

While he clearly esteems ancient Skepticism over its modern counterpart, Hegel equally distances himself from its “merely negative procedure.” To adhere to this method would be to follow “just the scepticism which only ever sees pure nothingness in its result and abstracts from the fact that this nothingness is specifically the nothingness of that from which it results[19] — i.e., ancient Skepticism. Though he does not explicitly designate this variety as its Pyrrhonian form, the allusion is obvious. Compare the line just quoted with this one from the History of Philosophy: “[Skepticism’s] result is indeed the negative, the dissolution of everything determinate, everything true, all content.”[20] Such Skepticism is the purest nihilism; it negates everything but its own negativity. It uproots every system of reason, every criterion for truth. But it soon finds itself at a dead end, unable to overcome its suspicions. “The skepticism that ends up with the bare abstraction or nothingness,” Hegel observes, “cannot get any further from there, but must wait to see whether something new comes along and what it is, in order to throw it too into the same empty abyss.”[21]

For Hegel, this is unacceptable. In order to proceed to Science, the systematic negation of criteria for truth must be conceived as yielding some positive result, as begetting new criteria which are themselves negatively determined by those that have been overcome. This is the task of his Phenomenology — to dissolve every form of finite cognition as insufficient, and to critically arrive at the speculative point “where the Notion corresponds to object and object to Notion.”[22] This alone would be infinite, absolute knowledge.

Hegel’s solution to the criterion problem and its application to ancient Skepticism

As we have witnessed, Hegel defined his own philosophical skepticism negatively against both the ancient and modern forms. Positively formulated, he expresses his view in two ways, which generally amount to the same thing. His first alternative to the abstract, indeterminate negation of ancient Skepticism runs as follows: “[W]hen…the [negative] result is conceived as it is in truth, namely, as a determinate negation, a new form has thereby immediately arisen, and in the negation the transition is made through which the progress through the complete series of forms comes about of itself.” In other words, the skeptical negation of this or that criterion for truth must admit that it is the negation of something — “it is itself a determinate nothingness, one which has a content.”[23] Therefore, the result of the negation cannot be thought of as ontologically null, as in the barren, empty nothingness of a void. It is rather the negation of something which is, and the negation likewise has a positive reality, since it is defined by what it negates. Put simply, the negation is not that which is not, it is simply something else. Hegel’s distinction allows for his introduction of sublation as the metaphysically productive form of negation, since that which is negated is properly canceled but preserved in the thing which has replaced it.

The second positive expression occurs elsewhere in Hegel’s corpus, but not in the Introduction to the Phenomenology. Since it is given in the History of Philosophy, in direct reference to ancient Skepticism, it offers a convenient segue from the previous section into his solution:

Skepticism is the dialectic of everything determinate, and the universal, the indeterminate, or the infinite is not exalted above the dialectic, since the universal, the indeterminate, the infinite — which stand over against the particular, the determinate, and the finite respectively — are themselves only something determinate too; they are only the one side, and as such they are determinate. Only indeterminate and determinate together constitute the whole of determinacy. Skepticism is dialectic. The philosophical concept likewise is itself this dialectic, for genuine knowledge of the idea is the same negativity that is inherent in Skepticism. The only difference is that Skepticism stands pat with the negative as a result. It sticks with the result as a negative, saying that this or that has an internal contradiction; therefore it dissolves itself and so it is not. Thus this result is the negative, but this negative is itself just another one-sided determinateness over against the positive. That is to say, Skepticism functions solely as understanding. It fails to recognize that the negative is also affirmative, that it has positive determination within itself, for it is negation of negation. Infinite affirmation is self-relating negativity[24] [my italics]

The proposition that “the negative is also affirmative” comes quite close to the general form of determinate negation. The notion of a “negation of negation” is somewhat more distinct from this other articulation. Important as this concept is for the Hegelian system, the most revealing line from the passage just cited lies elsewhere. His succinct predication, that “Skepticism is dialectic,” is perhaps the most transparent definition of ancient Skepticism’s place within his own philosophy. This brings us directly to his answer to the problem of the criterion.

Hegel equates the criterion with several terms, which he uses more or less interchangeably: the “standard,” the “essence,” the “in-itself,” the “truth.”[25] With ordinary objects of our experience, we assert that these objects have some essential mode of existence in themselves which is, properly speaking, what they are in truth. We distinguish this from the way that we merely relate to these objects, or the way these objects are or appear for us (our own certainty of them).[26] Since our own knowledge or apprehension is the object of investigation in the Phenomenology, however, “[t]he essence or criterion would lie within ourselves, and that which was to be compared with it and about which a decision would be reached would not necessarily have to recognize the validity of such a standard.”[27] Herein lays the apparent downfall of the Stoic to his Skeptical detractors. The Stoic’s criteria are shown (by the Academic Arcesilaus, among others) to be nothing more than “good reasons,” rather than truth. For his thought no longer corresponds to the object it claims to seek, but rather to the “universal principle” which is its criterion.[28] Such would seem to be the plight of all philosophy against Skepticism.

But Hegel is not so pessimistic. He unabashedly asserts that “[c]onsciousness provides its own criterion from within itself, so that the investigation becomes a comparison of consciousness with itself.” Hegel points out that what we take to be the “in-itself” or truth of the object separate from consciousness is in fact something that is posited by consciousness. The criterion for truth is “what consciousness affirms from within itself as being-in-itself or the True.” This is thus nothing but the “standard which consciousness itself sets up by which to measure what it knows.” The phenomenological inquiry which Hegel is undertaking takes a variety of Notions as objective, or as they exist for others. “But the essential point to bear in mind,” he reminds us, “is that these two moments, ‘Notion’ and ‘object,’ ‘being-for-another’ and ‘being-in-itself,’ both fall within that knowledge which we are investigating.” As a result, the phenomenologist does “not have to import criteria, or make use of [his] own bright ideas and thoughts during the course of the inquiry.”[29] Hegel is not trying to furnish us with a criterion for truth; he only asks us to observe (in a manner akin to the Skeptic) how one criterion after another fails for cognition, until an adequate orientation is reached at which point internal contradictions are no more. The only way this is different from Skepticism is that cognition does not have to start back at nothing every time its criterion breaks down.[30] Instead, it bears in mind all the shortcomings of its previous criteria.

The Phenomenology follows the criteria and their objects through their mutations in the successive forms of consciousness. The arc of its movement proceeds asymptotically toward infinite cognition. Hegel states that “this dialectical movement which consciousness exercises on itself and which affects both its knowledge and its object, is precisely what is called experience.”[31] Insofar as Skepticism is dialectic itself, it participates in this process. But its negative result is never final; it issues forth from the things which are negated, and its own negativity is to be duly negated. Or, as Hegel puts it: “[W]e have here the same situation as the one discussed in regard to the relation between our exposition and scepticism, viz. that in every case the result of an untrue mode of knowledge must not be allowed to run away into an empty nothing, but must necessarily be grasped as the nothing of that from which it results — a result which contains what was true in the preceding knowledge.”[32] Only by this procedure, by dialectic followed with speculation, may Absolute cognition be reached.

Having now reconstructed Hegel’s argument, bypassing the Skeptical problem of the criterion, we can see the way this plays out in one of the modes of consciousness covered by the Phenomenology. What could be a more appropriate testing ground than the Skeptical self-consciousness, given the trajectory of our inquiry?

Paralleling its historical development, Skepticism also rises out of Stoicism logically.[33] Stoicism had tried to assert its freedom by relinquishing the ties that bound it to being. It found its locus of freedom in its own thought, which subsumes material objects and provides them with criteria for truth. Stoicism gives way to Skepticism of its own accord: “Skepticism is the realization of that of which Stoicism was only the Notion, and is the actual experience of what the freedom of thought is.”[34] Skepticism realizes that being has only negative significance for it. Its criterial principle is the same as the one held by Stoicism, “that consciousness is a being that thinks, and that consciousness holds something to be essentially important [critical].”[35] But the recognition of this fact seems to destroy the possibility of valid criteria as such, since criteria would be as arbitrary as freedom of thought would allow for. Scepticism thus understands that the criteria Stoicism claim as determinate for objective existence are only subjective (that is, thought).

Skepticism thus becomes infinitely removed from objectivity. It claims independence, but its independence is empty: “The skeptical self-consciousness thus experiences in the flux of all that would stand secure before its own freedom as given and preserved by itself. It is aware of this stoical indifference of a thinking which thinks itself, the unchanging and genuine certainty of itself.” But the Skeptical self-consciousness is quite far from the tranquility it would claim. For it only sees “a purely causal, confused medley, the dizziness of a perpetually self-engendered disorder.” The Stoical/Skeptical criterion of the truth of thought breaks down in the face of the contradictions that Skepticism embodies. Despite its pride in exposing the contradictions inherent in attempts to correspond our concepts to objects, Skepticism is unable to extract itself from its own inconsistencies.[36] Hegel lists just some of these: “It pronounces an absolute vanishing, but the pronouncement is, and this consciousness is the vanishing that is pronounced. It affirms the nullity of seeing, hearing, etc., it is itself seeing, hearing, etc. It affirms the nullity of ethical principles, and lets its conduct be governed by these very principles.”[37] The Skeptical self-consciousness therefore falls apart according to its own criterion. Its inconsistency lies in its negating every determinate thing but its own resolute negativity.


One might well claim that Hegel does not so much solve the problem of the criterion as he does bypass it. But this would be to miss the point. Hegel agrees with the ancient Skeptics that finite, relative forms of cognition which presume an absolute split between subject and object, self and world, etc., are doomed to failure. The criteria they provide cannot withstand their own internal contradictions. In the Phenomenology, Hegel seeks to harness all the negativity of ancient Skepticism so that he might provide a sort of negative proof for his own theory of Absolute cognition. Of course, he both constrains it (in making it determinate) and radicalizes it (by turning it on itself) as he sees fit. The dialectical skepticism which he uses is notably different in that it is productive/generative, but it is similar in that it attempts to discover the quandaries which persist in criteria belonging to finite modes of thought. His historical and phenomenological interpretations of Skepticism attest to this method.


[1] “[I]t may be useful to say something about the method of carrying out the [phenomenological] inquiry. If this exposition is viewed as a way of relating Science to emphenomenal knowledge, and as an investigation and examination of the reality of cognition, it would seem that it cannot take place without some presupposition which can serve as its underlying criterion. For an examination consists in applying an accepted standard, and in determining whether something is right or wrong on the basis of the thing examined; thus the standard as such (and Science likewise if it were the criterion) is accepted as the essence or as the in-itself.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller, with a foreword and an analysis by J.N. Findlay. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1977). Pg. 52, §81.
[2] In this paper, only ancient Skepticism will be capitalized, as it refers to the proper title of an historical movement. Modern skepticism, and the abstract category of skepticism in general, will not be capitalized.
[3] “Both [the Middle and New] Academies are very closely related to Skepticism, and the Skeptics themselves frequently have difficulty distinguishing Skepticism from the Academic principle. Often the difference amounts to only verbal definitions, to wholly external distinctions.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 1825-6: Volume II, Greek Philosophy. Translated by R.F. Brown and J.M. Stewart with the assistance of H.S. Harris, edited by Robert F. Brown. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 2006). Pg. 294.
[4] Following the end of what Hegel demarcates as the “first period of Greek philosophy” which “extended down to Aristotle,” there arose “a dogmatism that divides into two philosophies, Stoicism and Epicureanism, and the third philosophy, in which they both participate but which is nonetheless their ‘other,’ or contrary, Skepticism.” Ibid., pg. 263.
[5] Ibid., pg. 264.
[6] Ibid., pg. 302.
[7] Hegel lists all ten of Sextus Empiricus’ “tropes” of argumentation, but since our concern is mainly with the second and the eighth, we will only mention these two. Ibid., pgs. 310-311.
[8] Ibid., pgs. 312-313.
[9] “The issue here is to determine the source of our cognition of what is true, to determine what the criterion is. Each of the various schools has its own distinctive terminology. In that of the Stoics the criterion is called the representation of thought, the ‘cataleptic’ fantasy, φαντασία χαταλεπτχή.” Ibid., pg. 268.
[10] “According to Epicurus, the criterion of truth has three moments: the first is sensation, the second is πρόλεψις (anticipatio), and the third is opinion.” Ibid., pg. 282.
[11] “Sextus Empiricus derides the Stoics especially from the following angle. Thinking in the abstract is something simple and incorporeal that neither suffers [effects] nor is active, that is identical to itself. How then, asks Sextus, can an impression be made upon this simple element, how can change take place in it? This chief difficulty — that of deriving something particular, or a determination, from the universal, of showing how the universal determines itself so as to become the particular and, in doing so, is at the same time identical — certainly attracted the attention of the Skeptics. The basic point here is in a way quite correct, although it is at the same time wholly formal.” Ibid., pgs. 270-271.
[12] Ibid., Pg. 314.
[13] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Pg. 49, §77-78.
[14] A third variety might be seen to exist in the skepticism of Romantic irony, which Hegel seems to allude to in passing: “[I]ts fear of the truth may lead consciousness to hide, from itself and others, behind the pretension that its burning zeal for truth makes it difficult or even impossible to find any other truth but the unique truth of vanity — that of being at any rate cleverer than any thoughts that one gets by oneself or from others. This conceit which understands how to belittle every truth, in order to turn back into itself and gloat over its own understanding, which knows how to dissolve every thought and always find the same barren Ego instead of any content.” Ibid., pg. 52, §80.
[15] “[T]his thoroughgoing scepticism is also not the scepticism with which an earnest zeal for truth and Science fancies it has prepared and equipped itself in their service: the resolve, in Science, not to give oneself over to the thoughts of others, upon mere authority, but to examine everything for oneself and follow only one’s own conviction, or better still, to produce everything oneself, and accept only one’s own deeds as what is true.” Pg. 50, §78.
[16] Ibid., pg. 50, §78.
[17] “Skepticism essentially was very far from holding the things of immediate certainty to be true. In recent times Schulze in Göttingen has put on airs with his Skepticism; he has even written an ‘Aenesidemus’ and has also expounded Skepticism in other works, in opposition to Leibniz and Kant. This new Skepticism accepts what is quite contrary to the old — namely, that immediate consciousness or sense experience is something true…The [ancient] Skeptics had no intention of granting that such things are something true. Skepticism has been directed primarily against the truth of ordinary consciousness.” Hegel, History of Philosophy. Pg. 309.
[18] For an interesting discussion of Hegel’s preference for ancient Skepticism, see Michael Forster’s chapter “The Superiority of Ancient to Modern Skepticism” in his book Hegel and Skepticism. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1989). Pgs. 9-35.
[19] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Pg. 51, §79.
[20] Hegel, History of Philosophy. Pg. 302.
[21] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Pg. 51, §79.
[22] Ibid., pg. 51, §80.
[23] Ibid., pg. 51, §79.
[24] Hegel, History of Philosophy. Pg. 302.
[25] See note 1.
[26] The Fichtean formula: “Consciousness simultaneously distinguishes itself from something, and at the same time relates itself to it, or, as it is said, this something exists for consciousness…But we distinguish this being-for-another from being-in-itself; whatever is related to knowledge or knowing is also distinguished from it, and posted as existing outside of this relationship.” Ibid., pgs. 52-53, §82.
[27] Ibid., pg. 53, §83.
[28] Compare this line from Hegel’s Phenomenology: “What we asserted to be [the object’s] essence would be not so much its truth but rather just our knowledge of it” — with these lines from the History of Philosophy on the Academic/Skeptical critique of Stoicism: “”[The] assent of thinking is directed to a thought; and what thinking finds itself in conformity with can only be a thought…For the object is something alien to thinking, it is an other. So thinking cannot assent to an object of this sort but only to an axiom, to a principle in its universality.” Hegel further remarks that “Arcesilaus validates the distinctions that have been particularly emphasized and relied upon in recent times.” Hegel, History of Philosophy. Pg. 297.
[29] Hegel, Phenomenology of Spirit. Pgs. 53-54, §84.
[30] “Since consciousness thus finds that its knowledge does not correspond to its object, the object itself does not stand the test; in other words, the criterion for testing is altered when that for which it was to have been the criterion fails to pass the test.” Ibid., pg. 54, §85
[31] Ibid., pg. 55, §86.
[32] Ibid., pg. 56, §87.
[33] Hegel nowhere claims in the Phenomenology that the modes of self-consciousness correspond exactly to their historical progression, but statements like the following are certainly suggestive: “As a universal form of the World-Spirit, Stoicism could only appear on the scene in a time of universal fear and bondage, but also a time of universal culture which had raised itself to the level of thought.” Ibid., pg. 121, §199.
[34] Ibid., pg. 123, §202.
[35] Ibid., pg. 121, §198.
[36] “This consciousness is therefore the unconscious, thoughtless rambling which passes back and forth from the one extreme of self-identical self-consciousness to the other extreme of the contingent consciousness that is both bewildered and bewildering.” Ibid., pg. 125, §205.
[37] Ibid., pg. 125, §205.


Forster, Michael N. Hegel and Skepticism. (Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA: 1989).
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. The Phenomenology of Spirit. Translated by A.V. Miller, with a foreword and an analysis by J.N. Findlay. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 1977).
Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich. Lectures on the History of Philosophy, 1825-6: Volume II, Greek Philosophy. Translated by R.F. Brown and J.M. Stewart with the assistance of H.S. Harris, edited by Robert F. Brown. (Oxford University Press. New York, NY: 2006).

2 thoughts on “The relation of ancient skepticism to Hegel’s problem of the criterion in the Phenomenology of Spirit

  1. This is very nicely done. The stoic/skeptic chapter has always been the most central for me in the PhG. Hegel’s analysis is breathtaking and you did a nice job in describing it here, which is an achievement.

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