Real Individuality?

“Real Individuality is the last singular shape of Consciousness” (H. S. Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 77). After this, the focus will move to shareable contents.

We are still in the “Reason” chapter of the Phenomenology. Aristotelian considerations of actualization figure prominently here, along with Hegel’s concerns about Kant’s use of autonomy as an ethical criterion.

According to Harris, in the “internal language of Individuality”, “I am my own project, which is always ‘self-expression’; and the realization of my ‘self’ in some external material is the publication of what I am to others…. The little girl, of whom I once heard in a philosophy class, who asked ‘How can I know what I think, until I see what I say?’ had her feet set firmly on the path towards a Real Individuality that will not deceive itself” (p. 88). “We are all ‘expressing ourselves’ as perfectly as possible all the time” (p. 89). But this means that Real Individuality cannot be used as a criterion of truth, or as an ethical criterion.

“Hegel insists that the identity of project and performance, the identity of the Real End with what is actually done, is so fundamental, so essential, that even the most spontaneous feelings of success… or of failure and regret… are illegitimate. Not even the agent is allowed to compare the project with the performance, because the certainty of Reason that it is all reality implies that the whole ‘inner consciousness’ of the agent is an illusory fiction” (p. 90). (Robert Pippin’s account of this is similar but not quite so sharply worded.) On this view, strictly speaking it would never be legitimate to say I didn’t really mean to do what I actually did, or to neglect what I actually neglected. At the end of the “Spirit” chapter though, Hegel will balance this ultra-strong notion of responsibility with an unprecedentedly strong notion of forgiveness.

“We ourselves find out what we are by seeing what we do” (p. 91). “In any case, what my words mean is a matter of interpretation, and I am not in a privileged position on that question” (ibid). “It is in the Werk [work, or product of action], says Hegel, that consciousness comes to be for itself what it truly is. In his view it is the ’empty concept’ of Real Individuality that disappears as a result. The Werk is what survives; and it survives as belonging to everyone. So the immediate identity of thought and speech… must give way to actions that leave a record of self-realization” (p. 93). “The first ‘experience’ of Real Individuality is the discovery that it is not the agent and the process that is real. What is real is the result, the product” (p. 94).

“What the ‘self-identical form of pure action’ really constructs is the harmony that Leibniz had to ascribe to God’s pre-establishment at the moment of Creation” (p. 96). “We have reached the spiritual ‘perception’ of Reason as a Thing” (p. 97).

But this is Hegel, and there is seemingly always another consequent “shape” of things waiting to emerge beyond the current one. Harris continues, “[N]ow the Werk vanishes back into the vanishing action; in this reciprocal process ‘vanishing vanishes’. For the ‘objective actuality’ of the Werk is only a vanishing moment of the actuality that is truly objective” (p. 97). Harris says Hegel is here switching from use of a pre-Kantian notion of objectivity as independence from us, to a Kantian notion of objectivity as universality. A bit later, the question of independence from us will re-emerge again.

“What Hegel wants to emphasize is that I am my own other, I am always beyond what I say; I can react to it myself…. But it is very useful to have the reaction of another self (especially one that says ‘Nohow’ or ‘Contrariwise’) if I am to become conscious that when I reformulate what I said the first time, my self-critical activity is controlled by an ‘objective’ standard. I want to put something ‘right’ that was ‘not right’ before. ‘Feelings of lamentation and repentance’ are not out of place now; and when I feel that I have got it right finally, the feeling may even be one of ‘exaltation'” (p. 98). Here the Real Individual seems to assert its rights again.

But this leads to a new worry about the Real Individual’s objectivity. “[A]s the naive consciousness of the [thing itself], Real Individuality is the perfectly reconciled or Happy Consciousness. Its own ideal standard always applies to its action in some way or other. The action always deserves to be ‘honored’ by everyone, once the agent has presented it in the right light” (p. 101). “The ‘honor’ of this consciousness arises from its not putting its thoughts together. Anything said, done, thought, or just luckily found can be made into the [thing itself]” (ibid). This I think is related to Hegel’s critique of the Kantian autonomy criterion of normativity, which — contrary to what Kant clearly wanted to be the case — Hegel found to leave the door open to arbitrariness on the part of the autonomous Real Individual.

I have previously claimed that it is not really that hard to be what the Greeks called “blameless”, and I still think that is true. But I would certainly concede to Hegel that there is no way for a third party to conclusively distinguish valid self-certification from subtly self-serving attitudes, which is why Hegel argued that mutual recognition is a better criterion. On the other hand, much as I generally admire it, the universal forgiveness that Hegel will ultimately recommend seems to downplay the spectrum of distinction between ordinary human fallibility and real evil. It is better to err on the side of charity. But it is also better to avoid error when we can…

Active Reason

We are still in the middle of the “Reason” chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology. From “observing” Reason we now move to “active” Reason. Here 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 this 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).

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.

A “second inversion” of active Reason takes the form of a certain abstract modern notion of Virtue, 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.

Toward Spirit

To hazard a simple analogy, for Hegel active “Reason” is to the inherently mediated character of “Self-Consciousness” as statically representational “Understanding” is to putatively direct “Consciousness”. So far in the development of the Phenomenology, Reason has not yet embraced its own character as fundamentally social, shareable, and essentially ethical as well as individually embodied.

“Spirit” will be Hegel’s name for shared ethical culture. Hegel figuratively identifies his ethical ideal of mutual recognition with Christian love or agape, and ethical Spirit with the concrete presence of the Holy Spirit in a community practicing such love.

H. S. Harris begins the second volume of his commentary with an anticipation of what is to come. “First the singular rational agent takes itself to be the principle of a freedom that must replace the law of worldly necessity; then it becomes the true consciousness of the law as opposed to a false worldly consciousness of it; and when the two sides of this consciousness recognize each other as equally necessary, rational Individuality is achieved.”

“Even then the identity of singular desire with universal law is ambiguous and unstable. The rational individuals all have their own lives to lead; and when they claim to be exercising their Reason, by doing what is best for everyone, it is evident both that their view of the rational good is biased, and that there is a competition to be the one individual who does the rational Thing” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 1).

“The singular rational consciousness cannot say what is right, universally, and without regard to the social situation and circumstances…. We only think that we can do this… because we already know (instinctively) what we must do, not rationally and universally, but within the definite community of which we are already members.”

“With this discovery, singular consciousness leaves the center of the stage and withdraws to the wings. The subject of experience now is the Spirit. ‘Spirit’ has been implicitly present (for us) as the universal side of the singular consciousness…. But now this universal side emerges as an independent ‘shape of consciousness'” (pp. 1-2).

“The Dasein [concrete being] of the Spirit is language. Wherever I hear (or read) a speech which I recognize to be not mine or yours, but equally mine, yours, and ‘ours’… there the Spirit is” (p. 2).

“[F]rom the inevitable conflict between the universal voice that speaks to all, and the particular voice that Custom designates as authoritative for our particular group, springs disaster for the immediate (or True) Shape of Spirit as a communal self.”

“From the breakdown of Spirit as customary unanimity, ordinary commonsense ‘selves’ emerge. But this world of private individuals is not, and cannot be, a properly rational world…. [T]he execution of the law still requires a singular agent; and the authority of the law must be maintained by a power that is no longer ‘ours’ but alien and arbitrary” (ibid).

“To escape from this breakdown, the voice of the universal Spirit must be alienated conceptually…. But this discarnate voice still has to be incarnated in individual agents” (ibid). The ideal of universality is first transferred from a traditional face-to-face community to an abstract nation-state. But “the faith in a divine authorization of the constitution, is faced by the insight that every rational consciousness must be recognized as such, and hence as equal” (ibid).

“At this point, the Spirit must retreat into the inward voice of moral duty” (p. 3). But this will eventually lead to the explicit appearance of God as the “word of forgiveness” (ibid). The “final reality of the Absolute Spirit… makes its first appearance as the ‘Yes’ of acceptance exchanged mutually between the judging consciousness and the agent” (ibid).

Harris emphasizes that were it not for the “science” of “experience” Hegel develops in the Phenomenology, true communication of content between the singular ethical being and a larger community “would only be effective between the philosopher and us, the philosophically prepared audience. But through the demonstrated identity of the religious community with ‘us’, the communication becomes universal” (ibid). Meanwhile, “in the ‘Yes’ of comprehending acceptance exchanged between agent and judge… the impersonal voice of the universal good… has become completely incarnate as a human relation” (ibid).

Observing Reason

Hegel had suggested that a Fichtean idealism ends up attempting to fill out its extreme abstraction by ad hoc adoption of a complementary Lockean empiricism. He goes on to treat something like Lockean empiricism, under the title of “Observing Reason”. The bulk of Hegel’s discussion ends up focusing on the empirical study of organic nature, with brief remarks on attempts to define psychological “laws of thought” and other psychological “laws”. Then he turns to physical anthropology, polemicizing at length against the old pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology, which purported to make predictions about human character from body types and skull shapes. Here we also reach the end of the first volume of Harris’ commentary on the Phenomenology, subtitled “The Pilgrimage of Reason”. The concluding second volume will be “The Odyssey of Spirit”.

Hegel dwells at length on the concept of organism, taking up Kant’s practical vindication of Aristotelian teleology in biology. The unity of an organism has to do with a pure “purpose” internal to the organism. None of its particular observable characteristics turn out to be essential in themselves; rather, they all have a fundamentally relational character. In Force and Understanding he had argued that mathematical physical law is purely relational; here he treats an organism as a purely relational unity held together by an internal “purpose”. Force and Understanding had been concerned with the formal unity of the physical world; the notion of organism introduces the notion of individuation within a world. Hegel picturesquely says that animals actively individuate themselves — distinguish themselves from the surrounding world — by means of their teeth and claws. By comparison, plants in their “quiescence” have only a minimal kind of individuality. Previously, he had quipped that animals must be unimpressed by the putative separateness of objects, because without ceremony they fall to and gobble them up.

Harris says in his commentary, “Observing Reason is a ‘return’ of Sense-Certainty and Perception together, because it is concerned with the ‘essence’ of real things. It wants to conceptualize them, but it is naive, like the Understanding” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 474).

“Locke’s standpoint differs from that of Sense-Certainty and Perception, both because he insists that the mind can know only its own ideas, and because what he calls the ‘plain historical method’ is a descriptive technique that aims to uncover the universal laws and principles of rational epistemology” (p. 475). The world is “stripped” to the pure concept of “matter or extension” (p. 476). “Here at the beginning we are faced by a Reason that wants to know not itself, but the world of things” (p. 477).

In the context of organic nature, “[Hegel] is now going to show us that the Kantian concept of mathematical schematism (which is a direct descendant of Gailleo’s distinction [between primary and secondary qualities of bodies]) fails completely as a bridge between the observed data and the conceptual structures used by the scientific ‘observers’. The observing consciousness of Reason itself is now going to learn what we learned when we observed the perceptual consciousness. It will learn that the thing is a Hegelian concept, (not a Galilean or Lockean one). The consciousness we are observing will discover that the [Galilean or Lockean “thing”] cannot correspond to Reason because it is essentially and necessarily dead” (p. 478).

(I confess I don’t recognize the reference to Kantian “schematism” as mathematical; I think of Kantian schematism more generally as a mediation between sensible “intuition” and conceptual thought through imagination.)

“Everywhere it observes things; but what it seeks is their Concept, or the law of their behavior…. It will observe first the natural world, then itself (as subjective spirit); and finally it will observe the relation between subjective spirit and its natural embodiment. But because the object of observation must always be a stably inert Gestalt, an observable thing, the results achieved become less satisfactory at every step” (pp. 478-479).

“[T]he ‘immediacy’ of the standpoint means that we are not observing it in the proper way…. Consciousness must first descend ‘into its own depth’. Thinking must discover what it is, as an activity; it must discover the dialectical logic that is its own ‘living spirit'” (p. 479). But this is only a beginning.

“The logical priority of ‘consciousness’ as the ‘own proper shape’ of Reason can only be established by the reductio ad absurdum of the alternate route through ‘things’. It must be established in this way, because the structure of ‘consciousness’ determines that Reason will naturally begin by trying to find itself in ‘things’…. Hence it is part of the object of the present chapter to show that we cannot make a direct descent into the depths of consciousness as subjectivity. If we try to do this (as Kant and Fichte did) what we discover is only an abstract essence of Reason that is perfectly valid, but almost completely useless. Its only real use will be to serve as the guiding light for the subsequent descent into the depths of our cultural world. We have to experience both the quest for the ‘essence of things’ and the quest for the ‘essence of consciousness’ before we can properly embark upon the discovery of the self in its thing-world” (ibid).

Harris develops Hegel’s distinction between inert “representations” of “things” and active thought. “The controlling conception in Hegel’s mind is the self-individuation of the Aristotelian form” (p. 486).

In this context of organic nature, Harris notes Hegel’s general preference for Plato and Aristotle over Newton, and thinks Hegel also takes from Aristotle the less fortunate view that nature has no history. I take Aristotle’s remarks about the “eternity” of species, the motions of the stars, etc., as having the valid pragmatic sense that such things had not been observed to change within living social memory. (I note also that Plato in the Laws already suggested that organic species do in fact come to be and perish.) Hegel defends Aristotelian “internal” teleology, while rejecting both the biological mechanism of Descartes and the “external” teleology of the argument from design used by Newton and others. Purposefulness for Hegel does not presuppose a mind (p. 502).

In spite of his criticisms of philosophical empiricism, Hegel defends the importance of empirical verification of hypotheses. Harris actually calls Hegel a “spiritual empiricist” in both natural science and ethics (p. 490). He says that Hegelian “necessity” is neither physical nor formal, but “logical” in Hegel’s sense. Hegel is much more concerned to criticize the “formalism” of philosophies of nature developed by followers of Schelling than actual scientific work.

In spite of the importance of “Life” in contrast to “dead” things in Hegel’s view, he has no use for vitalism. “Life is not more on the ‘inside’ of the organism than it is on the ‘outside’…. It is the ‘general fluidity’ within which the parts and organs of the body are formed and dissolved…. Observing Reason makes the Newtonian mistake of granting priority to visible stability” (p. 507). Hegel discusses notions of “sensibility” and “irritability” current in the biology of his time, adding in his own notions of “fluidity” and “elasticity”. He is very skeptical about “laws” in biology.

Between remarks on zoology and psychology, Hegel briefly (and dismissively) discusses so-called “laws of thought”. These relate to the early modern tradition of psychologizing in logic. With somewhat different motivation, Hegel anticipates Frege and Husserl’s rejection of such “psychologism”.

He also has no use for early modern psychology. In Harris’ summary, “Observational psychology operates with a mechanical toy that is all in pieces, so that the soul is observed and discussed like a bag full of loose bits” (p. 562). Hegel adds some sympathetic remarks on biography before launching a devastating critique of the now-forgotten pretensions of physiognomy and phrenology to discern purely physical indications of human character. What is important in the last is his general contention that even animal behavior cannot be adequately explained in a purely mechanistic way.

In spite of all of this, the idea of “observing” the objective dimension of a self in its concrete actualization in the world as contrasted with any direct intuition of pure interiority will turn out to have pivotal importance in the development to come. This is in fact how we experience others, and how others experience us. For Hegel it is our shared experience of one another rather than anyone’s private experience that is the basis of ethics.

Idealism?

The next stop in our odyssey through Hegel’s Phenomenology is a discussion of “Idealism”, which Harris in his commentary associates especially with Fichte. Though Kant is sometimes called a “German Idealist”, he never simply characterized his views as idealist, and often used the term in a negative way. It was Fichte who mainly gave “Idealism” a positive sense. Because of the extreme subject-centeredness of his better known early works he is easy to caricature, but recent scholarship shows him to be a serious and interesting philosopher in spite of that. Paul Ricoeur also saw value in his work.

Hegel says “Now because, in this way, the pure essential being of things, as well as their aspect of difference, belongs to reason, we can, strictly speaking, no longer talk of things at all, i.e. of something which would only be present to consciousness by negatively opposing it” (p. 277). Here the qualification “strictly speaking” is essential.

Without questioning the relevance of the ready-made objects of common sense to everyday life, Kant had already decisively shown the weakness of attempts to treat objects as philosophically foundational. As Hegel put it, Perception in discerning identifiable objects still takes the immediate presentations of Sense Certainty largely for granted.

The most distinctive feature of Fichte’s early work was his concentration on a rational “I”. This already distinguishes him from garden-variety subjectivism, which subordinates everything else to a particular empirical “I”. Kant had contrasted a moral ideal of reason with the effective subjectivism of a particular “I”. Fichte boldly asserted that what really deserves to be called “I” is actually a universal, rational “I” and not the particular “I” of my wants. Fichte’s “I” just is a concretely instantiated reflexivity of pure Reason, to which he claims we all in principle have access.

It is this notion of a concretely instantiated reflexivity of Reason that Hegel takes up here. From Hegel’s point of view, this rational “I” is a big step forward, but still very abstract and in need of further development.

Harris in his commentary contrasts this with the point of view of the Unhappy Consciousness, and suggests that Hegel at least in part wants to suggest that the point of view of “Reason” has a historical connection to the religious perspective of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, as distinct from the Catholic tradition. This is consistent with Hegel’s valorization of Luther elsewhere, which seems to me to reflect a somewhat one-sided charity of interpretation. Hegel contrasts a greater attribution of authority to the Church and its human representatives in the Catholic tradition with a more self-determining direct personal relation to God and the Bible in the Protestant tradition, and wants to connect the latter with what he sees as the self-determining character of Reason. This is not without some validity, but ignores the fact that Luther’s point of view has also been a wellspring of fundamentalisms that have nothing to do with reason or good ethics.

Harris also connects the point of view of “Reason” with the scientific revolution (p. 456). “Hegel is using the terminology of Critical Idealism (Kant and Fichte) for what the consciousness that we are observing expressed in the language of Bacon and Descartes” (p. 455). “From the historical references that Hegel gives, it is clear that ‘Reason’ comes on the scene before ‘Idealism’; and it appears immediately as the certainty of being all reality” (p. 456). This abstract, “dogmatic” Reason has “forgotten” the long previous development we have been following.

“[P]rimitive self-consciousness does not really want any definite object at all; it just wants to get its own way about whatever objective occurs to it…. This self just wants to be master” (p. 457). In contrast, “the Stoic regards those who do not dwell in the light of Reason, as brothers and sisters nonetheless — sparks of the same divine fire…. But their goals are irrational… For the consciousness of ‘Reason’, on the other hand, every goal it can recognize at all, it recognizes as reasonable” (ibid).

“The great critical reasoner, Kant, declared that they are all dogmatists, and that their disagreements must continue forever, until they admit that Reason cannot say what is in any absolute sense” (ibid). But nonetheless “The Phenomenology aims to validate Kant’s hope by showing how the dialectic of Pure Reason [of which those disagreements are a symptom] can be overcome” (p. 459).

“Reflective Reason must begin again with Sense-Certainty, at the extreme of the ‘It is’, and traverse once more the forgotten path to self-possession…. But Fichte’s idealism will reveal itself as an error that turns round into a much higher truth than the philosophy of nature can give us…. ‘Idealism’ is handled almost as sarcastically as Stoicism was, and for the same reason: it has only a formal truth. But that formal truth is the actual concept of Spirit” (p. 460).

“My forgotten history is myself; it is the substance, or foundation, of my subjectivity…. It is the objective self from which self-conscious singular Reason has emerged, because the logical destiny, or the rational Bestimmung [calling] of the Spirit, is to be cognizant of what it has been. In the light of that cognizance we shall finally be able to know the not-self (in which subjective Reason will here strive unsuccessfully to find itself) as the necessary ‘otherness’ of my ‘absolute’ self” (p. 461).

“Reason is ‘all reality and all truth’ in the sense that it is the categorical structure and motion of all experience. In its moving aspect, Reason itself is ‘singular’. There is more to it than purely universal categories, because it is active, it is a principle of change in the world” (p. 464).

“As a ‘schema’ — an intellectual ‘middle’ between ‘thought’ and ‘sense’ — the thinking ego necessarily refers… to the world of experience that is to be comprehended. This ‘referring’ is the reflective (or transcendental) repetition of the naive ‘pointing’… of sense-certainty…. The formal ‘schema’ that Hegel derives from Fichte has a long way to go before its ‘certainty’ will become ‘truth'” (p. 465).

“Hegel fixes our attention here on the way that Fichte took over Locke’s empiricism wholesale” (p. 467). For Locke, “What we can know is only ‘our own ideas’; and our rational certainty is that they are indeed all ours. This is the return of sensible certainty at the level of Reason” (ibid).

“Actual Reason is… bound to abandon this empirical, observational stance, and to move on from its naive expectation that truth is to be discovered or found” (p. 468).

Being All Reality

Here we are transitioning to the “Reason” chapter of the Phenomenology. Hegel here famously says that “Reason is the certainty of being all reality” (Baillie trans., p. 276). This difficult phrase relates to the “living unity” he had contrasted with the self-divided, alternatively serf-like and lord-like attitudes of the Stoic, the Skeptic, and the Unhappy Consciousness. It harkens back to Aristotle’s thesis of the identity of thought and the thing thought, which in Aristotle’s Greek are two different grammatical forms of the same word. Hegel has been one of the few to explore the meaning of this without shackling it to some very non-Aristotelian notion of immediate intellectual intuition, as Plotinus and others did. A lot of work is required to make sense of it.

As with Sense Certainty, the “certainty” here does not imply anything that I would call knowledge. Sense certainty gave us a purely nominalistic “this” that strictly speaking could only be pointed at. An initial condition of Reason’s self-certainty is its abstraction from any specific content or presumed truths. A certainty of Reason can contain no prejudice. It has nothing in common with the arrogance and ownership claims of the lord, though we need to be very careful to be really free of all that. As Hegel might say, the certainty of Reason is “purely negative” and “infinite”. Eventually, through social processes of mutual recognition, it will begin to acquire concrete form again.

For now, the point is that the standpoint of Reason is founded on a kind of nonseparation of self and other. This I think is what Hegel meant earlier in saying “the truth is the whole”. Contrary to the stances of the Stoic, the Skeptic, and the Unhappy Consciousness, “I” cannot be sharply separated from my circumstances and the whole world I inhabit, but rather exist in “living unity” with them.

Harris introduces his comments on this part saying “Between the last sentence of chapter IV and the first sentence of this chapter, an enormous step forward is taken: Self-Consciousness moves from the intellectual Vorstellung [representation] of itself to the pure thought of itself” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 447).

Representation and reference presuppose sharp separation between the object and “us”. Reason and inference on the other hand focus on the mediating adverbial relations that give substance and meaning, while cutting across the divide between self and other.

Already with the Unhappy Consciousness, Harris observes “We have seen how this free supersession of its own singular self-will establishes the free self as the universal identity of thought and being; and even the consciousness we are observing knows that it has become united with God, although this happens (for it) only in God’s kingdom of thought, and only by God’s grace” (ibid).

“Since we have now reached the self-conscious identity of the thinking self with God as Universal Reason, we really do have Fichte’s Ego before us (or at least a plausible interpretation of Fichte’s Ego). But we are not yet in Fichte’s world. We are still in the world of the Unhappy Consciousness, the world of Divine Authority. ‘Reason’, as an immediate phenomenon, is the revolutionary critic of that world. It knows that it has within itself the absolute authority of Faith. This is the same sort of immediate certainty that the natural self-consciousness had about the universe of natural life which it had comprehended as Understanding; and it is destined for the same sort of disappointment, though one that is less radical. The singular natural self-consciousness sacrificed itself finally in order to bring God’s Will into the world; singular Reason will perish when it recognizes its identity with the rational will of the human community. At that point the Concept of Spirit will emerge” (p. 449).

Aristotle said that Reason of all things most deserves to be called divine, and Hegel sometimes speaks of “identity” in cases where he also recognizes distinction, as when he speaks of the “identity” of inner and outer, which I have interpreted as a kind of continuity. To my ear it’s still a bit jarring to speak straightforwardly as Harris does here of “identity” of the self with God. The Self that is explicitly one with God in the Upanishads is already a kind of microcosmic divinity, very different from the nascent reflexive mediation that has been been developed at this point in the Phenomenology. Al-Hallaj was stoned to death for the more ambiguous saying “I am the Real”, which seems closer to the “certainty of being all reality”. What I think Hegel is really saying here is that we are “not separated” from that which deserves to be called divine, not that there is no distinction between it and us.

Hegel says, “From the fact that self-consciousness is Reason, its hitherto negative attitude toward otherness turns around into a positive attitude. So far it has been concerned merely with its independence and freedom; it has sought to save and keep itself for itself at the expense of the world or its own actuality…. But qua reason, assured of itself, it is at peace so far as they are concerned” (Baillie trans., p. 272-273).

Harris comments “Reason is ‘all reality’ because it establishes the continuum between the unknown concept and the self-knowing one” ( Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 453).

I actually want to argue that there is nothing intrinsically immodest about identifying with all of reality, which has nothing at all to do with self-will, but rather quite the contrary. Self-will is bound up with narrow identification. Furthermore, even if it is ec-static in the etymological sense of taking us out of our empirical “selves”, identification with the other as Hegel presents it is distinguished above all by a kind of sobriety, rather than any kind of ecstasy of enthusiasm.

The Unhappy Consciousness

After treating Skepticism, Hegel’s Phenomenology passes to a rather longer treatment of what he calls the “Unhappy Consciousness”. This seems to be the abstract figure of a kind of Christianity that lacks the optimistic, life-embracing perspective Hegel wants to promote. Harris in his commentary suggests that some of Hegel’s remarks have the great Church father Augustine particularly in mind. Augustine drew a sharp contrast between God as the Eternal, and what he saw as the fundamental infirmity and insufficiency of finite being. The “unhappy” consciousness sees before all else a stark opposition between our finitude and God’s eternity.

While vigorously rejecting the quasi-fundamentalism of his teacher at the Tübingen seminary and embracing many Enlightenment values, Hegel in later life always publicly identified as a Lutheran. He valorized Luther and the historic social role of both early Christianity and Lutheranism, though Harris suggests that some of Hegel’s perspectives actually seem more “Catholic” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 44), and Hegel has been read as anything from an orthodox Lutheran to a mystic to an atheist.

I think the bottom line on this is that Hegel is Hegel. He was neither an orthodox anything nor an atheist. The great development of medieval Latin philosophy and theology was hardly known in Hegel’s day, in part because very little of it existed in printed book form. I see his valorization of Luther in light of the more general principle of adopting a charitable and respectful attitude toward accepted values of one’s community unless they clearly conflict with a universal ethical principle.

Hegel says “the Unhappy Consciousness, the Alienated Soul which is the consciousness of self as a divided nature, [is] a doubled and merely contradictory being” (Baillie trans., p. 251). “[I]t takes one, namely, the simple unalterable, as essential, the other, the manifold and changeable as the unessential. For it, both are realities foreign to each other” (pp. 251-252). “Consciousness of life, of its existence and action, is merely pain and sorrow over this existence and activity” (p. 252). It adopts an attitude of “Devotion” to the unattainable “Beyond”. “Consciousness, therefore, can only come upon the grave of its life” (p. 258). In the words of Harris’ abstract, “Life is a perpetual repentance for living” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 401) .

Harris comments, “The ‘movement’ must all be produced by the Unchangeable in my changeable consciousness” (p. 402). This gives it the character of Revelation.

“What makes the enterprise rational for the Unhappy Consciousness is what we ordinarily call its ‘faith’. It looks forward to emerging from its self-annihilation in this life, into another life in which it will enjoy ‘union’ with the Unchangeable. Hegel refuses to call this leap ‘faith’ at all, because there is nothing in the Beyond that can be experienced. What he calls ‘Faith’… uses the same rhetoric, but can be shown to make an effective reference to ‘experience'” (p. 400).

“[O]nly when the ‘movement’ is complete will the consciousness that we are observing be able to resolve the paradox of the Unchangeable’s appearing to change, by grasping the ‘movement’ as its own necessary contribution” (p. 402 ).

Hegel looks forward to “the transformation of the Unhappy Consciousness into ‘Faith’, and of the Beyond into Here” (ibid). It is in the earthly ethical actualization of community that the presence of Spirit among us is realized.

Hegel on Skepticism

The next shape of self-consciousness after “Stoicism” in Hegel’s Phenomenology is “Skepticism”. H. S. Harris in his commentary thinks some of Hegel’s remarks apply specifically to Carneades, perhaps the best known “Academic” Skeptic, who shocked the Romans by arguing for opposite theses on alternating days, as an exercise on Platonic dialectic. Carneades also wrote a work arguing in detail against the great early Stoic Chryssipus. Although I like to stress the less textually obvious role of Aristotelian dialectic in Hegel’s work, Hegel’s explicit remarks emphasize a kind of Platonic dialectic with Skeptical inflections (see Three Logical Moments).

For Hegel, neither pure Understanding — which excels in clarity, utility, and systematic development but tends toward dogmatism — nor a skeptically inclined Dialectic, whose movement undoes everything that is apparently solid — is adequate to characterize what he wants to call Thought. Thought ought to involve a sort of Aristotelian mean that combines the insights of both.

Hegel writes, “Skepticism is the realization of that of which Stoicism is merely the notion, and is the actual experience of what freedom of thought is…. [I]ndependent existence or permanent determinateness has, in contrast to that reflexion, dropped as a matter of fact out of the infinitude of thought” (Baillie trans., p. 246). “Skeptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self…. [This] consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this melée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved…. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an entirely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder” (pp. 248-249).

Harris comments, “[T]he Stoics had to be taught by the Sceptics that no Vorstellung [representation] (not even that of the great cosmic cycle) could comprehend Erscheinung [appearance]” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 393). “[Skepticism] knows that ‘language is truer’… than the simple assumption that truth is the name of an extralinguistic Sache [thing or content]” (ibid).

“The Sceptic ideal is to be untroubled in the face of the sensory flux. Sceptical reason tells us not to worry about what we cannot help” (ibid). But “Far from behaving like one who is undisturbed, [Carneades] enjoys being an active disturber; and on the practical side his life has to be controlled by the felt motive actually present at a given moment” (p. 394). “Achieving ‘suspension of judgment’, by setting whatever contingent arguments one can discern in the whirl against those that someone else offers, is a cheat. The Sceptic lives in the world, and allows himself to be guided by senses which he says we ought not to trust” (ibid).

“Every effort the Stoic makes to realize his freedom is tantamount to a serf’s fantasy that he really owns the land” (p. 395). “The Sceptic is a laughing sage because he has the Stoic to laugh at. We laugh at both of them” (ibid).

“[The Skeptic] has not recognized that the [self] he identifies with is only a formal ideal by which the concretely actual self can measure itself. Nobody is that ideal self. No finite consciousness can be that self (by definition). There is no Lord walking the earth: not the one that the serf fears; not the Stoic who thinks he is free; and not the Sceptic who knows what thinking is, and what it is not” (p. 396).

Freedom of Self-Consciousness?

“[Stoicism] is a freedom which can come on the scene as a general form of the world’s spirit only in a time of universal fear and bondage, a time, too, when mental cultivation is universal, and has elevated culture to the level of thought” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 245).

Why is it that the Phenomenology talks about Stoicism and Skepticism but not about Plato and Aristotle, whom Hegel regarded as “humanity’s greatest teachers”? The Phenomenology is a quite different undertaking from Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy, where he made the latter remark. Although it partly follows a development in time, it is mainly concerned with a backward-looking perspective on stages leading to the formation of a new shape of spirit Hegel optimistically sees emerging.

Spirit for Hegel belongs to all of us, not just great philosophers. He is aiming to talk about social development, particularly of his own culture. Modern Europe grew up from the ashes of the Roman empire, already far removed from the world of the Greek city-states. The Roman empire was indeed a “time of universal fear and bondage”. In relation to the emperor, everyone else was like a serf.

Stoicism was actually the first Western philosophy to have widespread social influence. Hegel implicitly connects the Stoic emphasis on reason and reasonableness with the development of Understanding he discussed earlier. Stoicism historically propounded a theory of complete determination in the world, alternating between physicalistic accounts and appeals to the will and reason of a supreme deity.

Hegel’s treatment of Stoicism here is very brief, very abstract, and expressed in something closer to the language of Fichte than to that of the Stoics themselves. “Stoicism” is said to realize a kind of Freedom, but it is only an “abstract” freedom of Understanding in relation to its representations, not affecting life. The Stoic sage aimed to achieve a kind of indifference to pain and adversity through detachment from worldly concerns and identification with the completeness of God’s plan. Unlike Hegel’s serf, the Stoic is supposed to have no fear of death.

“The freedom of self-consciousness [here] is indifferent toward natural existence…. [T]his lacks the concrete filling of life. It is, therefore, merely the notion of freedom, not living freedom itself” (ibid). Hegel is not wrong to associate this indifference with an abstract kind of freedom.

The figure of “Stoicism” stands for a perspective that is like that of the serf in its relation to life and the world, but like that of the lord in the separate interiority of its own thought. Hegel regards this split perspective as a kind of alienation.

Here he also suggests a notion of Thought as concerned with pure distinction that is basically unrelated to historical Stoicism.

Harris in his commentary writes, “For the [Stoic] Sage organic life is a servitude, towards which she should be indifferent. If that indifference is threatened, if the freedom of thought is physically denied to her, she can herself deny nature and die freely. She is the lord’s consciousness in the serf’s situation” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 385). “When she is asked for the criterion of truth and virtue she can produce nothing but analytically true statements: ‘The True is the Divine Reason’, ‘Virtue is living according to Reason’, ‘Happiness is living in accordance with Nature’. So the Stoic wisdom never makes us any wiser, but we do get bored” (p. 387).

Nonetheless “Something begins with Stoicism that comes to its climax in the Phenomenology. The Stoic logos, the spark of divine Reason recognizable in each of us, is an individuality which must both display itself as living in its action (Handeln) and grasp (fassen) the world as a system of thought…. Only the advent of the Gospel will provide the requisite account in thought itself for the ‘expansion’ (Ausbreitung) of individuality as alive in action, and comprehensive of the living world as a system in its thinking” (ibid).

To comprehend the living world as a “system” (i.e., to interpret the actual world as a coherent but unfinished whole) is vastly different from simply asserting or propounding a world-view that is “systematic” in some abstract sense.

I would emphasize that Aristotle already closely approached Hegel’s ideal of a living unity here, and greatly influenced his formulation of it. The difference is that Stoicism, Christianity, and Hegel all put more emphasis on what might be called our abstract equality before God. Aristotle too recognized that all “rational animals” have the same abstract potential for reason and ethical being, but his ethics put great emphasis on distinguishing different degrees of actualization, or what we practically succeed in doing with our potential and our values. Hegel combines an Aristotelian emphasis on concrete actualization as a criterion in value judgments with Kant’s stronger universalization of Aristotelian friendship-like respect for other rational beings, which has a historically Christian source.

Self, Recognition, Work

“Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized'” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 229).  Thus Hegel begins the “Self-Consciousness” division, which in the final version of his outline occupies the remainder of the book.

Looking forward, Harris comments “‘Recognition’ is the Concept of Spirit as such.  We are going to observe the motion of this Concept which is a ‘multi-sided and multi-significant complexity'” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 344). 

Its ethical destiny is to become mutual recognition, but it begins as a deformed self-will.  “We must realize that we are concerned with the pure self-will that has been communally designated as ‘original sin’, and that will typically designate itself as absolute virtue or duty (because it cannot have any other social justification)” (p. 353).

“When I recognize what I want to be in someone else, then I have ‘come out of myself’.  The attraction (which is all that was attended to in the desiring posture) reveals itself first to be ‘self-repulsion’.  The self that I presently am, I do not want.  I have lost myself.  Empirically I could be in despair.  Those who recognize their ideal self in another sometimes are in despair.  But logically the other side of the truth is more dangerous.  As the object of my desire, what I see out there is not another independent self, but only a passive essence waiting for me to take possession of it.  Actually, however, my relationship with that other self is more complicated.  The self I want to emulate is not simply an object.  She has to make herself into an object for my sake.  If I am to know how to achieve what I want, she must help me, she must negate herself willingly and be at my disposal.  But she may not see herself as the self that I see; or she may not want to be that.  Above all, she may not want to help me to become that self” (p. 345).

Hegel famously discusses a life-and-death struggle that leads to servitude.  The experience of servitude, however, will turn out to contain a vital key to further development.  Labor provides a concrete model not only for the “constructive” role of the mind in interpreting things and the various practical constraints on doing this well, but also for the acquisition of skills, and for work on oneself.

In Harris’ words, “Serfdom reduces the free human agent to a thing.  The serf himself is property for the free self-consciousness of his lord….  In place of the one thing and its many properties we have the one free self and his many serfs.”

“But there is a much more significant inversion of Perception here.  Perception ‘takes the truth from things’ as they are given.  But the human thing makes the truth of things, by controlling their properties.  Serfdom is a new relation of the perceiving mind to its truth….  The lord turns the serf into a thing; but then in his labor the serf turns himself into a made thing.  He trains himself into the shape of the practical Understanding” (p. 366).

“The [being-for-self] of the serf is different from that of the lord, because it is incorporated in his body — a laboring instrument which has ‘independent being’ for him.  The being-for-self of the lord is just his commanding voice” (ibid). 

“Through the laboring activity pure being-for-self comes to be a subsisting thing” (p. 367).

“Hegel’s reason for holding that the fear of death is essential to the right comprehension of the cycle at its finite climax is now fairly easy to graph, even if we do not find it convincing.  Without the daily piecemeal discipline of obedience, the serf would never come to regard everything he touches as belonging to the lord and hence requiring to be treated with absolute respect….  If the sheep were his own, then his private interest, which Hegel calls ‘a vain sense of one’s own’, would have to be dominant.  The discipline of service creates ultimately the recognition that the object has its own good, its own sense” (p. 369).

“And even if the Hellenic (or more precisely the Platonic) conviction abides with us — the conviction that spontaneous ‘desire’ can be developed into ever higher degrees of ‘love’, and that love not fear is the true road to practical objectivity — still we cannot deny that the ‘fear of the Lord’ (both the earthly and the heavenly Judge) has in fact been crucial to the evolution of our presently more fraternal (but how feebly effective) value-consciousness” (p. 370).

I think it’s also worth noting implications of this second beginning.  Hegel’s approach is clearly developmental and in that sense “historical”, but it clearly does not follow a linear path that could correspond to a single progression in time.  We just completed an arc from simple sensation to mathematical physics, and now we are beginning a new ethical arc, starting from the quasi-mythical origin of lordship and servitude.

On the other hand, I think Hegel actually thinks real human consciousness is always already self-consciousness, and actually considers the separate treatment of mere “consciousness” to be artificial.  The ethical part of the book covers his main intent; the whole previous arc was a kind of preamble.