Activist Reason?

We are still in the middle of the “Reason” chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology. From “observing” Reason we now move to “active” Reason. In the immediate context Hegel here seems to have in mind neither activity in an Aristotelian sense nor a Reason he really wants to endorse, but instead a sort of political “activism” driven by negative, “hard-hearted” emotion. This particular kind of “activist” attitude turns out really not to be very reasonable in its pursuit of “reasonableness”.

In the bigger picture though, we have finally reached the threshold of ethics. Harris in his commentary anticipates that this will eventually lead to a “Happy Consciousness of the Ethical Substance” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 7), in contrast to the Unhappy Consciousness of the Unchangeable. But for now we are still at the very beginning of this movement. As anyone following the development will have come to expect by now, there will still be many twists and turns to come, and many more false starts to overcome.

As Harris puts it, in Observing Reason we ended up with “the embodied mortal self that knows that it is free” (ibid). Having patiently followed the development so far, we already have a much less one-sided view of this freedom. Hegel often makes simple, unqualified remarks of this sort about both Freedom and Necessity that can easily be misunderstood if taken in isolation; in reality he sharply rejects both voluntarism and determinism. Here I think the “knowledge” he charitably ascribes at this stage is really akin what he elsewhere calls (a merely subjective) “certainty”. It does contain a very important grain of truth, though.

According to Harris, “The observing self was immediately identical with its observed knowledge. Self-Actualizing Reason is a higher mode of Self-Consciousness; it knows that the objective world is there, but it is there to be transformed. Selfhood is not to be found in the world, but expressed there; Reason is not to be observed, but made. This making is an interaction, because the immediate object of this self-conscious activity is another self (and is soon to be recognized as a world of other selves)” (ibid). But “The active self has to learn how to recognize itself in the other” (p. 8).

Expanding on Hegel’s reference to Goethe’s Faust, Harris uses the literary character of Faust to illustrate this stage. “Faust is quite aware that everyone recognizes his rational status; and he recognizes theirs, likewise. He is not in any danger of getting into a life and death struggle, and he does not keep serfs in fear of their lives. But the self-realization of others is not his concern; and the first lesson that life teaches him is that that is a mistake” (ibid).

Hegel here refers back to the unalienated character of traditional Sittlichkeit or “ethical life”. Harris notes that many readers have misunderstood Hegel as simply advocating communal values over the individual. He says the Greek polis or city-state with its large reliance on custom and tradition did not in fact realize Hegel’s Ethical Substance, but was only a kind of ethical “thing”, even though Ethical Substance implicitly had to be there already, in the form of the Greek people.

Moving on, “The ‘active Reason’ that we are actually observing… is the Self-Consciousness that has emerged from the ‘night of the supersensible Beyond into the daylight of the present'” (p. 16). “Neither the natural nor the rational self-consciousness has any memory of a ‘Paradise Lost’ that is to become ‘Paradise Regained'” (p. 18). The self-consciousness that we are observing has to begin again “from nothing” (p. 19).

But “Like the freedom of the Lord in the world of the natural self, the higher freedom of Reason now exists (paradoxically) only in order to organize the life of natural necessity” (ibid). The rational self “lives in a world of utilities” (p. 18). At this stage “The social substance is selbstlos [selfless]; ‘selfhood’ belongs only to the individuals who have their careers to make, and their family fortunes to maintain” (p. 19). This is the modern world of civil society.

“Faust’s lesson is about human relations. He has to learn from actual experience that his own rational self is constituted by its relations with others” (p. 21).

What Hegel calls the attitude of “Active Reason” here seems to have more to do with a desire to impose a personal conception of “reasonableness” on the world and others whom we encounter than with “reasoning”.

Active Reason’s first approach to morality is grounded in a crusading form of personal conscience that Hegel calls the Law of the Heart. Purely in its own name, it passes judgment on the world and everything in it. It finds that something is wrong with the world, and sets out naively to make things right. This can quickly go overboard. Harris here speaks of “an insane crusade to bring the false Heart into subjection” (p. 23). Hegel himself refers to the Law of the Heart as a “frenzy of self-conceit” (quoted, p. 32). The Heart concludes that “The world is mad, and the madness is induced and sustained by the selfish interests of its rulers. The fault lies… with certain bad apples” (p. 42). Hegel thinks this kind of personally blaming attitude inevitably goes wrong.

Rousseau had used the term “Law of the Heart” to express a positive ideal. Hegel’s overwhelmingly negative discussion can thus be read as implicit criticism of Rousseau, but he also uses the term to characterize the attitude of some Romantic literary characters.

A “second inversion” of active Reason takes the form of a certain abstract modern notion of “Virtue” like that promoted by Robespierre and the Jacobins in the French Revolution, where everyone is called upon to unconditionally subordinate themselves to the needs of the social order. This takes us from an error of one-sided individualism to an error of one-sided collectivism.

What would deserve to be called ethical Reason does not appear fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus. For Hegel it is always a matter of human practice. These unbalanced early stages of human Reason’s self-actualization reflect its immaturity at this point, but (according to Hegel, if we take a long view) constitute necessary stages in its process of learning.