Suther on Hegel on Freedom

I’m always nervous about strong emphasis on “Freedom” in treatments of German idealism, but recent literature has considerably improved the situation. Jensen Suther in “Hegel’s Logic of Freedom: Towards a ‘Logical Constitutivism’” makes a number of points I would endorse. While his is a “metaphysical” reading, it also owes something to Sellars and Brandom.

Hegelian logic for Suther is “a logic of freedom not only in the sense that it articulates the logic of what it means to be free, but also in the sense that it is a fully free practice of logic, leaving no presupposition uncontested and demanding of thought that it learn to think for itself” (see my The Autonomy of Reason). Suther also says “the only true or intelligible conception of being is one of which the good is taken to be constitutive” (emphasis in original). He recognizes that purposes are not merely subjective. Further, “it is essential to the intelligibility of what is that it be rendered intelligible, that reasons be given and asked for as to why we take things to be as they are”. He also recognizes the positive importance of error. (See also Reasons; Being, Existence; Freedom and Free Will.)

It gets a bit more problematic when he says “rational agency is not something we achieve, but is instead the distinctive form of living beings that are capable of being initiated into a social and historical process of progressive actualization of the potential for agency”. I don’t see why a distinctive form cannot also be something achieved. He seems mainly concerned to deny that it is an individual achievement, a view he attributes to Robert Pippin. I would agree that rational agency is at least as much a historical achievement as an individual one, but every human qua rational/talking animal or even just every modern person is not thereby a full-fledged rational agent. To be a rational animal (or to be sapient in Brandom’s sense) is just to be capable of being initiated, etc., to borrow Suther’s words quoted above.

In the Aristotelian commentary tradition, al-Farabi (10th century CE) and others explicitly developed a notion of a distinct form of acquired intellect, such that being “acquired” was considered key to the distinctness of that form. (Intellect for al-Farabi was at root more cosmic than cultural, but that is not the point here.) Only second-nature things could be of an acquired kind. The “acquired” status was part of an elaboration of several structural degrees of actualization. A classic example would be someone who has already learned something, say geometry, but is not currently using it. Actualization of intellect only advances to the further degree of “active” by being in use, as when the geometer is busy proving a theorem.

Suther generalizes about “the neo-Aristotelians”, referencing John McDowell and Robert Stern. I appreciate it when people like McDowell make significant positive references to Aristotle, but McDowell is hardly a full-blooded Aristotelian. According to Suther, what counts as freedom for McDowell and Stern is something given in advance. Suther calls this a neo-Aristotelian position. I don’t think Aristotle considered anything to be “given in advance”. He was the original emergentist.

Suther has a great quote from Hegel that “there is nothing degrading about being alive”, and a nice emphasis on the unity of life and knowing. For me, this comes back to the way second nature positively builds on first nature, rather than standing in opposition to it. Suther, though, seems to think there is something essential about death, fear, anxiety, and pain. While these are not entirely absent in Hegel, in this respect Suther’s reading seems influenced by early Heidegger. Contra Heidegger, I would cite Spinoza’s “the philosopher thinks of nothing less than of death”. I prefer Brandom’s explanation of the struggle to the death in the Phenomenology as a dramatic extreme example of a much more general concept of commitment to what we hold dear as willingness to sacrifice something else for it.