For Itself

Hegel’s distinctive phrase “for itself” (für sich, literally “for self”) always seemed a little mysterious to me. It seems to refer to a self-aware being’s taking itself to be this or that, following a more or less Kantian model of judgment. That part is clear enough. But what in the world is something like “the concept in and for itself”?

Once again, the simple Kantian/Hegelian notion of reflection sheds a great deal of light on this. It applies on two levels.

First, there is a purely relational one that applies to anything that may be conceived as having characteristics that are mutually related to one another. These in turn may be construed in terms of a kind of self-relatedness of the underlying thing. In this sense, “for itself” would apply to things that have self-relatedness. This means practically everything, except perhaps some abstractly simple things like points in geometry.

Second, there is the level of self-relatedness that is internal to a reflective judgment or unity of apperception, and to the value-oriented self-consciousness arising from mutual recognition. Self-consciousness is not a detached spectator beholding multifarious relations, but has its very being within and amidst all those relations. We might say, then, that in this context the relations themselves are “self-conscious”. Similarly, concepts involved in reflective judgment are in a way necessarily “self-conscious” concepts.

In a way, our essence as human beings is the integral whole that results from — or is teleologically aimed at by — the self-consciousness of our concepts. This whole would be the totality of our commitments — everything we hold to be good, true, or beautiful.

For Hegel as for Aristotle, what count as “our” commitments and “our” concepts are not just whatever we assert are ours. The measure of what commitments and concepts are truly ours lies in what we do in life. And what we really did in any particular case is not just what we say we did or meant to do, but also what others can observe and evaluate.

In this way, to be “for oneself” is simultaneously to be for others, because what counts as one’s deed — and ultimately as oneself — is partly up to all those others who experience us. This doesn’t mean we are not entitled to make contrary assertions of our own that may be right; maybe in some particular case, the others affected by our deeds are prejudiced. For Hegel, the bottom line is that everyone affected gets a hearing in such cases, and the outcome — what is ultimately right — is not subject to a predetermined formula, but rather follows from all the fine details of each case. This is characteristic of the openness by which Kant first distinguished reflective judgment. It is also characteristic of Aristotelian practical judgment.

To be “for itself” or “for oneself” is to be a subject of reflective judgment. For humans, it is also to be a subject of mutual recognition.

At least in the first instance, “subject” here need not imply a self-conscious subject, just a thing with properties with which the judgment is concerned. But perhaps the human case suggests something about how a self-conscious subject could be thought of as a special case or elaboration of a simple Aristotelian “subject” or underlying thing.

What distinguishes Aristotle’s view of the higher levels of subjectivity (and, I think, Hegel’s too) from typical modern ones is that self-consciousness inheres not in the subject per se as a special kind of entity, but rather in the activity of reflection (contemplation, thought thinking itself, deliberation) in which the subject is involved.