Alienation, Second Nature

In chapter 14 of Spirit of Trust, Brandom points out a distinction developed by Hegel in the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology between “actual” and “pure” consciousness. These turn out to correspond closely to practical and theoretical culture, respectively. Here it is important to note that “consciousness” is therefore a very different thing from the “consciousness” of the Consciousness chapter, where we began with a putatively immediate awareness and discovered that even then, every apparent immediacy eventually revealed itself as mediated.

Acculturation, and therefore the “consciousness” of the later chapter basically is a form of mediation. We are no longer making any pretense of beginning with the putatively immediate. Culture is very thick, and a long journey. More superficially, it includes all our attitudes.

In chapter 13, Brandom had quoted Hegel saying it is through culture that the individual acquires actuality. The “individual” here is not the atomistic psychological individual beloved of the Enlightenment, externally confronting objects and others, but a participant in Geist with some much more interesting topology. True individuality for Hegel is not given but emergent. Its borders are much wider, and not topologically closed. Atomic psychological individuals are a hallucination of the modern illness Hegel called Mastery. (Hegel explicitly says the pure “I”, by contrast — conceived after Kant as having no content of its own, but as a mere index of the unity of a transcendental unity of apperception — depends on language for its existence. Brandom reminds us that language is the medium of recognition, the sea in which normative fish swim; and that things said, in being public, acquire a significance that runs beyond what the speaker intended. The purely linguistic “I” becomes the focus of commitment and responsibility, which depend on linguistic articulation.)

In the same passage Hegel also speaks of Spirit as alienation from our natural being. Reading those words I sort of cringe, but in fact Hegel is not talking about anything like Gnostic or Plotinian alienation. The word has that heritage, but Hegel uses it in the same breath with actualization. This alienation is supposed to be a good thing. It is de-immediatization, which is just the other side of the coin of mediation. Hegel is here using an originally negatively connotated Gnostic and Plotinian word for what is for him a positively connotated Aristotelian concept of actualization, which Brandom associates with expression and making explicit. Mediation is in this passage allegorized by Hegel as, in effect, becoming strange (alien) to our putative atomistic psychological selves.

Spirit as alienation should not be read as any repudiation of nature. As Terry Pinkard points out in Hegel’s Naturalism, Hegel is in fact a naturalist, but of the expansive, Aristotelian sort, explicitly antireductionist. The difference with 2oth century naturalisms is that it allows for the emergence of increasingly higher forms of Geist and Hegelian “freedom” over a natural basis. In Aristotelian terms, 20th century naturalism only addresses “first” nature, the more primitive one. Aristotelian and Hegelian naturalism also recognize second nature that includes culture. Even though in other contexts there will still be talk of overcoming alienation, at least one meaning of “alienation” is just the move to second nature.

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