The Phenomenology’s Ending

Having more or less completed a walk-through of Hegel’s Phenomenology in the company of Harris’ unique literal commentary, the first thing I want to comment on is Brandom’s decision not to cover the Phenomenology‘s last two chapters (on Religion and Absolute Knowledge) in A Spirit of Trust. Brandom argues that the actual climax of Hegel’s work is the end of the preceding Spirit chapter, where Conscience finds its completion in mutual recognition, confession, and forgiveness. This allows him to avoid entering into controversy on the secondary point of the status of historical, socially instituted religion. As my own coverage illustrates, this is indeed a thorny area. Brandom develops his own somewhat minimalist treatment of absolute knowledge, carefully avoiding the connections with historical religion and the issues of the latter’s status that Harris explicitly brings out.

In a historically Christian culture, it is difficult to speak of confession and forgiveness without implicitly invoking religious connotations. Clearly they can also be given a purely ethical meaning, though, and this is what Brandom does.

It seems clear that Hegel thinks the standpoint of Conscience already stands on the threshold of absolute knowledge, requiring only an explicit consideration of mutual recognition and forgiveness to complete it. In this regard, Brandom is right. Moreover, I think Brandom’s parallel path to absolute knowledge ultimately yields conclusions compatible with those that Harris draws from following the remainder of Hegel’s argument. They both give absolute knowledge a mainly ethical rather than theological (or epistemological) meaning.

Harris thinks, though, that the Religion chapter is the one place where Hegel does argue for a linear, progressive historical development. Brandom replaces this with references to Enlightenment political theory that Hegel does not explicitly discuss at all in the Phenomenology. Here we are concerned with the transition from ancient Greek recognition that “some are free” to Kantian/Fichtean and modern democratic recognition that “all are free”. For Hegel himself, this goes through historical Christianity.

Brandom charts an alternative linear development to “all are free” that goes through the attitude-dependence of norms in secular traditions of natural law and social contract theory. While I have serious issues with the political and legal voluntarism of these traditions, I do think Brandom’s alternate genealogy of the modern “all are free” is probably more factually historical than the path Hegel himself traces through the Unhappy Consciousness, primitive Christianity, and the Reformation.

Another important point that Harris makes, though, is that Hegel treats historical religion because he wants to be maximally socially inclusive. The peasant-wife with her cows in Sense-Certainty could be deeply touched by historical religion, but is most probably totally unaware of Enlightenment political theory. Harris says that religion already gives the most naive “natural” consciousness the sense that there is something greater than itself, which begins the path to Self-Consciousness and Spirit.

Another alternative path to the more political sense of “all are free” (which I like better than the one through natural law and social contract theory) goes through the more explicitly democratic concerns of the Spinozist movement and the French Encyclopedists (see Enlightenment).