Pure Negativity?

Hegel often characterizes the “Concept” that overcomes the opposition of subject and object in terms of what he calls “pure negativity”. This is very far removed from what contemporary logicians call classical negation (see Contradiction vs Polarity). Hegelian pure negativity is just a name for pure difference or relation with no pre-given, contentful positive terms, where the meaning of every “thing” depends on the meaning of other things, and nothing is absolutely first. This is why he can legitimately call it “absolute”. Such a perspective needs to be taken together with Hegel’s dictum that strictly speaking, there is truth only in the whole development.

Any representation involving contentful positive terms can always be superseded, as Hegel thinks it inevitably will be. But without preconceived contentful positive terms, there is nothing to supersede. Pure difference or relation thus has a kind of finality to it, precisely because it preserves the substantial content and truth we care about within a sort of ideal open-endedness.

Further and crucially, the attitude Hegel is describing is “open” not only in the epistemological sense that it avoids prejudice and may gain new insights, but also in the practical ethical sense that it is “forgiving”.

Harris in his commentary says “The concept (of self-conscious Absolute Knowing) fulfilled itself as ‘forgiveness’ in the ‘self-certain spirit’ that had no content except an ideal community; and it fulfilled itself as a real community in the historical evolution of Religion. But that real community depends for its unity on a projected image (Vorstellung) of its eternal destiny. The self-certainty of the broken-hearted Beautiful Soul must take the place of this Vorstellung…. In this final confrontation it is the singular self who acts and the community that judges. The crucial moment of ‘forgiveness’ belongs therefore to the community; but the absolute knowing belongs to the absolved individual, who thinks and knows at once for herself and for the reconciled community. It is the moral agent who steps out of the reconciled community in action; and it is she who has the knowledge of return and forgiveness. Everyone must recognize the reconciliation; but that communal recognition only preserves the community — it is not a knowing that is capable of further development.”

“In contrast, the ‘absolute knowing’ towards which we are now moving is capable of development. It is the experience precisely of the philosopher.”

“Hegel regards the self-assertion of conscientious action as identical with the advent of ‘pure thought’ — the thinking that can do Hegelian logic” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 723).

This last reflects a vitally important insight about Hegel’s perspective as a whole, little recognized until recently. It is one manifestation of the Hegelian version of the primacy of practical (ethical) reason. Harris has already made the better-recognized point that Hegel regarded the standpoint reached at the end of the Phenomenology as identical with that presupposed at the beginning of his Logic. Patiently following out the twists and turns of the Phenomenology with Harris, it seems to me we have come to the inescapable conclusion that — contrary to the way it has been presented by most earlier commentators — the Phenomenology is above all a book of ethics. But this conclusion then has profound implications for what Hegel will mean by “logic”, which is again very different from the way it has been characterized by most commentators. I will have more to say about this in the future.

“Pure knowing is neither judging, nor acting; it involves the letting go (Ablassen) of both ‘determinacies’ of the Concept (the active subjectivity of the agent, and the substantial Objectivity of the community). Thus pure knowing is a kind of return to the paradisal state of ‘innocence’. But we can speedily disabuse ourselves of the idea that there is anything particularly remarkable about it, by reflecting that we ourselves achieved it fairly easily and without much conscious strain, in adopting the posture of speculative observers of consciousness. The Absolute has been with us from the start, in the form of our knowledge of what our own proper position is, and what our behavior as observers should be” (p. 724).

“The Beautiful Soul is the hero of this last movement of Spirit, because its moral act is the withdrawal into Self as a pure observer. It is the antithesis of the self-actualizing Begriff [Concept], because it does not act, and is not actual. It participates in the antithesis; and in so far as it is independent knowledge of the Concept as pure essence, it is self-assertive and ‘evil’. But, in that it has become the simple knowing (observing) of the essence, the knowing that has received forgiveness, and gives it back freely to everything that it observes, it remains ‘good’. It lets the Concept go through the very same motion as Substance, or as the absolute essence. The doubling that occurs in this state of free release lets the Concept be ‘in and for itself’. In this pure knowing, the one-sidedness of self-assertion and the one-sidedness of simple being are both renounced” (ibid).

“The point is that the Spirit is what it makes itself to be, and ‘absolute Spirit’ is the unity of the knowing self with its world…. The movement is the same as in forgiveness, but we should not call it that, because it is more radical. The sides die for each other, exactly as Man and God ‘die’ for each other in the religious Vorstellung” (pp. 724-725).

“This philosophical consciousness that the knowledge-seeking Self is the world’s own necessary process of self-interpretation is the last Gestalt of Consciousness in the Science of its ‘experience'” (p. 726).

As ethical beings we are the agents of the world’s self-interpretation.

Yorick

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” said Hamlet, cradling the unearthed skull of the jester who had played with him as a child. This Shakespearean reference is used by Hegel as a metaphor for the way our actions — and thus indirectly our very selves — become objectified from a retrospective point of view. Hamlet’s famous speech contrasting the living and the dead seems to inform Hegel’s frequent mention of objects as “dead” in contrast to living spirit.

I wanted to briefly expand upon the quote from Harris near the end of the last post. The Hegelian point he is commenting on is that the strictly singular self really is reducible to a “dead object”, but our participation in the ongoing incarnation of Spirit makes all human beings more than just singular selves.

Hegel constructs a parallel between the kind of objectification that applies to empirical individuals viewed externally, and the kind that applies to all the real-world manifestations of Conscience in action. Aristotle had noted that we can only judge the “happiness” of a whole life in hindsight, after it is complete. Hegel makes a similar point about actions in general. Our actions come from us and are the best guide to who we really are, but they have consequences that are not up to us, and their interpretation is ultimately up to others. (See also On Being a Thing; Real Individuality; Hegel on Willing; In Itself, For Itself.)

This latter kind of objectification plays an essential role in “absolute” knowledge. Only shareable contents like objectified actions as interpretable by others find their way into the Hegelian Absolute. But since all apparent immediacy is already a “mediated immediacy”, even the most rarified mediation can become immediate for us. From a “subjective” point of view, in “absolute” knowledge what is purely mediate and thus in itself has no dependency on anything pre-given becomes for us a new kind of mediated immediacy.

Insofar as as “absolute” knowledge is absolute, it has to be shareable. But insofar as it is actual concrete knowledge, it has to be the knowledge of actual individuals. Hegel wants us not to submerge ourselves as individuals and simply replace “I” with “We”, but rather to live in the “I that is We, and We that is I”.

Circling Toward Absoluteness

Hegel prominently refers to “absolute” knowledge as a kind of circle. Here I think he has in mind Aristotle’s notion of the “perfection” of circular motion. This in turn presupposes a Greek notion of “perfection” that — unlike the more theological sense it acquired later — is intended to be something realizable or finitely achievable, a kind of completeness within itself of a finite essence with respect to its ends that is still compatible with life and motion, and indeed requires the latter. The perfection of absolute knowledge also has to be construed in a way that is modest enough to allow for the contingency that comes with inhabiting a world. It is actually much more ethical than epistemological.

The circle metaphor here also involves an aspect of returning to the beginning. The immediate subjective “certainty” that throughout Hegel’s long development has been distinguished from real essential “truth” finally becomes adequate to the expression of “truth”, in part by going through development and learning from its mistakes, and in part by letting go of its self-centered pretensions.

The specific kind of completeness within itself involved here has to do with the way knowing, doing, and forgiving are brought together. Harris in his commentary says that for Hegel the putting together of knowing and doing — when its implications are followed out — leads “logically” to what Hegel has been calling the breaking of the hard heart, which Hegel also identifies with the forgiveness stressed in historic religious traditions.

“‘Immediate Dasein‘ [concrete, implicitly human being] already has no other significance than that of ‘pure knowing’ for the active Conscience. My conscientious conviction is that I have done the best I can in the circumstances as they are known to me; my ‘pure knowledge’ is precisely that it is my duty to do that. We expect, in simple justice, to be forgiven for the errors caused by ignorance; the [Sophoclean tragedy] Oedipus at Colonus already makes this point quite clearly. Of course, in my uneasy ‘shifting’, I do learn how ‘impure’ my motives always are. But the forgiving community comprehends and forgives the fact that I saw the whole situation in my way, and defined my duty according to some personal interest that is not universally (or as Kant would say ‘categorically’) imperative. Thus the community reduces ‘actuality’ to the pure knowledge of what the inevitable conditions of acting are.”

“The ‘determinate Dasein‘ that arises from action and judgment in their ‘relationship’ is the forgiving that comprehends the action in its concreteness. The acceptance of the action as ‘conscientious’ — or as objectively rational — involves as its ‘third moment’ the Spirit that says ‘Yes’ (rather than ‘No’, as the moral spirit must say). When the two sides are thus reconciled, the ‘universality’ or ‘essence’ in which both are comprehended is the ‘I = I’ or ‘the Self’s pure knowing of itself’.”

“This ‘pure knowing’, as a concrete experience, is necessarily both an achievement (for the two sides do indeed clasp hands in reconciliation) and an end or goal to be achieved (for we may spend a lifetime trying to comprehend the objective rationality of the other’s act or judgment)…. [I]n principle, this is how the singular rational self — the recognized Conscience or justified sinner, simul peccator et justus [simultaneously sinner and justified] in Luther’s phrase — both constitutes the community, and is constituted by it” (Hegel’s Ladder II, pp. 720-721).

“If consciousness is to come to the comprehension of what ‘truth’ is, (or what the word signifies) through a process of self-criticism that we [readers of the Phenomenology] simply observe, then we must necessarily begin from the side of the ‘for-itself’. The communal substance of our rationality is the ‘in-itself’ which can only gradually come to be ‘for itself’; and its last step must be later….”

“It is, of course, the motion of ‘the Concept’ as self-critical that drives both sides onward; but it is a mistake to identify the motion of the Concept with philosophy as speculation (or even as both speculation and critique) because the concrete historical movement of the whole world… is so essential to it. The lesson that philosophy is not to be understood apart from its history is widely understood; what Hegel’s science of experience teaches us is the much more demanding imperative that philosophy and religion must be comprehended together in the context of the actual history of the human community” (p. 722).

“The Concept” is Hegel’s term for concrete human thought for which there is none of the separateness that the object always has for what he calls Consciousness. This realizes Aristotle’s suggestion that in the case of pure thought, we ought not to separate the act of thinking or the thinker from the thing thought.

In the corresponding part of his separate quick overview Hegel: Phenomenology and System, Harris says, “The Self of Cognition has been shown to be the mediating moment between the finite spirit and the absolute Spirit. It is the self of the infinite community — the incarnate Logos, the ‘I that is We’. Now we have to show (on the one hand) how this absolute Concept comprehends all the experiences that have led us to it and (on the other hand) how we, as singular consciousness, actually comprehend it. We all embody the Concept (before we do any philosophizing at all) because it comprehends us — that is, it provides the context of all that we intelligently say and do, and of everything that we understand about what is unintelligent.” (p. 92).

“The human self is Yorick [the skull contemplated by Hamlet, as Hegel recalls]; our singularity is identical with our ‘thinghood’…. Finally, the sensible thing has to be understood as the essence of the self. This happened for us in the stabilization of the moral self as Conscience” (p. 93).

Conscience already identifies (its own point of view on) what it actually does as a direct expression of its essence. But what Conscience actually did and its consequences also have the same kind of retrospective, socially available “objective” status as Yorick’s skull.

Finally “It is the perfection of Conscience in Forgiveness that gives rise to the singular self as the pure knowing of the community” (ibid).

On Being a Thing

The next few paragraphs of Hegel’s final chapter are concerned with the notions of “thing” and “object” in an apparently completely general way, from the point of view of what happens with them in “absolute” knowledge.

Immediately after the paragraph I quoted in the previous post, Hegel specifies that “The surmounting of the object of consciousness is not to be taken one-sidedly as meaning that the object showed itself returning into the self” (Baillie trans., p. 789). This once again rules out any subjectivism that would abolish objectivity altogether.

Hegel continues, “It has a more definite meaning: it means that the object as such presented itself to the self as a vanishing factor; and, furthermore, that the emptying of self-consciousness itself establishes thinghood, and that this externalization of self-consciousness has not merely negative, but positive significance, a significance not merely for us or per se, but for self-consciousness itself. The negative of the object, its cancelling its own existence, gets, for self-consciousness, a positive significance; or, self-consciousness knows this nothingness of the object because on the one hand self-consciousness itself externalizes itself; for in so doing it establishes itself as object, or, by reason of the indivisible unity characterizing its self-existence, sets up the object as its self. On the other hand, there is also this other moment in the process, that self-consciousness has just as really cancelled this self-relinquishment and objectification, and has resumed them into itself, and is thus at home with itself in its otherness as such” (pp. 789-790).

The presentation of an object as a “vanishing factor” of which Hegel speaks — though it cannot be represented statically — is supposed to be something that really happens, so this is quite different and a great deal more subtle than simply saying the object is not really real. I think Hegel’s talk about the purely relational view “negating” the object qua object and other similarly strained uses of “negation” have not helped the understanding of his work, but as Hegel himself proceeds to remind us, this is only one moment of a larger movement, and it is the multifaceted whole and its transformations we ought to be concerned with. (In general I’ve found Brandom’s explanation of Hegelian negation in terms of material incompatibility very helpful, but it’s not clear to me there is a material incompatibility in this instance. In the bigger picture, though, Hegel seems to be saying that there is a sense in which every object is a reification, and another in which all its properties can be explained in relational terms.)

“Consciousness, at the same time, must have taken up a relation to the object in all its aspects and phases, and have grasped its meaning from the point of view of each of them. This totality of its determinate characteristics makes the object per se or inherently a spiritual reality; and it becomes so in truth for consciousness, when the latter apprehends every individual one of them as self, i.e. when it takes up towards them the spiritual relationship just spoken of” (p. 790).

The object is a spiritual reality in the sense that there is a purely relational account of its properties. Hegel here also has in mind his dictum that Reason is the certainty of being all reality. The object as reification is clearly separate from me, but as Aristotle might remind us, its objective relational form or essence is not distinct from the shareable intelligible thought of that form or essence.

“The object is, then, partly immediate existence, a thing in general — corresponding to immediate consciousness; partly an alteration of itself, its relatedness (or existence-for-another and existence-for-self), determinateness — corresponding to perception; partly essential being or in the form of a universal — corresponding to understanding. The object as a whole is the mediated result… or the passing of universality into individuality through specification, as also the reverse process from individual to universal through cancelled individuality or specific determination” (p. 790, brackets in original).

Even the most subtle and developed articulations far removed from what we might call immediate sensation have an aspect of immediacy analogous to what Hegel describes in Sense-Certainty, in that they recognize or assert certain discrete presented or represented “things” or their existence or their truth, taking “thing” in the broadest possible sense. But Hegel wants us to recognize that in real life we never stop at what he calls mere “certainty”. Nothing is ever just immediately there. Even in the most unphilosophical kind of practical life, distinctions are unavoidable. Then any distinction we make turns out to depend on other distinctions. Distinctions implicitly introduce universal “properties” of things that can be compared. This leads to the ramified world of Perception or “things with properties”, but Perception in general still holds fast to Sense-Certainty’s initial intuition of independent “things” as pre-given reference points in the sea of interdependent distinctions, and gets into logical difficulties as a result. Finally Understanding dissolves particular “things” into a purely universal field of constitutive relations with no pre-given terms, like what we find in mathematical physics or structural linguistics. We may experience all of the moments simultaneously in one experience of one thing. Of course, as we know, the Phenomenology is far from done at the end of Understanding and there are many other considerations to address, but these are the three basic moments of “consciousness” as that which takes an attitude toward things or objects.

I want to emphasize that this applies to all objects whatsoever, especially including those of ordinary life. Harris advocates the much narrower reading that Hegel’s main concern in this section is to implicitly suggest an application of these general notions to the preceding discussion of religion.

We have seen that what Hegel calls “absolute” knowledge does indeed have a close relation to the concerns of religion. In the Religion chapter, though I didn’t remark on it, Hegel had in passing explicitly applied the succession of Sense-Certainty, Perception, and Understanding to his schematic account of the history of religion. So, Harris’ reading between the lines here has some plausibility, but he seems for the moment to allow his interpolations continuing the focus on religion to eclipse the much more general apparent surface meaning of the text.

In Harris’ account, “it is the ‘object’ of Manifest Religion that has now to be turned over into the ‘Subject’ of ‘Absolute Knowing'” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 714). In general this seems reasonable, even though it is an interpolation in the present context.

“‘The object is in part immediate Being’. This is the ‘It is’ of Sense-Certainty; and all the modes of Natural Religion are subsumed under the ‘It is’…. For Natural Religion God is simply (and immediately) there. There is no distinction yet between His being-for-self and His being-for-another; and there cannot be any, because no ‘other’ has any independent essence of its own” (ibid).

Aside from Harris’ interpolation of religion into this discussion of the object, the last statement is historically anomalous, because the idea of a God before whom no other has independent essence belongs to traditions of strong monotheism that Hegel associates with the Unhappy Consciousness rather than with Sense-Certainty. However, if we abstract from actual history and just consider Hegel’s rather thin working notion of “natural” religion, it does seem accurate.

“Secondly the object is ‘partly an othering of itself, its relationship, or Being for Other and For-Self-Being, that corresponds to Perception’. This is how God is experienced in the Art-Religion; we make the Gods in our own image, while at the same time regarding ourselves as their servant, and envisaging our own free existence as a play for the Gods. God is thus an ambiguous relationship of Being for Other and For-Self-Being, just like the ‘thing and its properties’ in Perception” (ibid).

This interpolation seems relatively more historical, and consistent with what Hegel says elsewhere.

“Lastly, the object is ‘partly essence or as Universal, which corresponds to the Understanding’. This is how God is experienced in the Manifest Religion. Here He is the rational Force whose essence is to manifest itself” (ibid).

Hegel does seem to provocatively suggest that there is a parallel between the relation between Manifest Religion and its predecessors, on the one hand, and that between the purely relational view of mathematical physics and ordinary sensation and perception, on the other. It may seem surprising to see these categories from the phenomenology of religion reflected back into the elementary moments of “consciousness”, but this underscores how nonlinear Hegel’s overall development really is. As Harris points out, Hegel does also explicitly argue in the Religion chapter that the actual history of religion recapitulates the succession of moments he analyzed for object-oriented elementary “consciousness”. But to me, all this still seems a distraction from the new topic of “absolute” knowledge that Hegel is introducing here.

Hegel goes on to specify that the “knowledge” at issue now is not purely conceptual, but “is to be taken only in its development” (Baillie trans., p. 790). He notes that “the object does not yet, when present in consciousness as such, appear as the inner essence of Spirit in the way this has just been expressed” (ibid).

He recalls the recapitulation of Sense Certainty’s immediacy on a higher level in Observing Reason. “We saw, too, [Observing Reason’s] specific character take expression at its highest stage in the infinite judgement: ‘the being of the [Fichtean] ego is a thing’. And, further, the ego is an immediate thing of sense. When ego is called a soul, it is indeed represented also as a thing, but a thing in the sense of something invisible, impalpable, etc., i.e. in fact not as an immediate entity, and not as that which is generally understood by a thing. That judgment, then, ‘ego is a thing’, taken at first glance, has no spiritual content, or rather, is just the absence of spirituality. In its conception, however, it is the most luminous and illuminating judgment; and this, its inner significance, which is not yet made evident, is what the other two moments to be considered express” (p. 791).

Here again Hegel is considering two contrasting senses. The mere reification of a Fichtean ego as an empirical individual is rather banal; but to consider the universal Fichtean ego as an incarnated and concretely situated spiritual reality rather than in abstraction is a great advance.

“The trained and cultivated self-consciousness, which has traversed the region of spirit in self-alienation, has, by giving up itself, produced the thing as its self” (p. 792). This is a simple but vital point.

Hegel continues, “Or again — to give complete expression to the relationship, i.e. to what here alone constitutes the nature of the object — the thing stands for something that is self-existent; sense-certainty (sense experience) is announced as absolute truth; but this self-existence is itself declared to be a moment which merely disappears, and passes into its opposite, into a being at the mercy of an ‘other’.”

“But knowledge of the thing is not yet finished at this point. The thing must become known as self not merely in regard to the immediateness of its being and as regards its determinateness, but also in the sense of essence or inner reality. This is found in the case of Moral Self-Consciousness. This mode of experience knows its knowledge as the absolutely essential element, knows no other objective being than pure will or pure knowledge. It is nothing but merely this will and this knowledge. Any other possesses merely non-essential being, i.e. being that has no inherent nature per se, but only its empty husk. Insofar as the moral consciousness, in its view of the world, lets existence drop out of the self, it just as truly takes this existence back again into the self. In the form of conscience, finally, it is no longer this incessant alternation between the ‘placing’ and the ‘displacing’… of existence and self; it knows that its existence as such is this pure certainty of its own self; the objective element, into which qua acting it puts forth itself, is nothing other than pure knowledge of itself by itself” (pp. 792-793).

Here we have the ethical character of the path to the “Absolute”.

Harris comments, “So while, on the one hand, the moral consciousness ‘lets the natural world go free out of the Self’, to be whatever it contingently must be, it is equally true, on the other hand, that it takes that contingent natural order back into itself. In the unity of conscientious conviction, this contradiction is successfully sublated. But the community in which Conscience finds itself, and for which it claims to act, is in a state of moral anarchy, which is only overcome by the transition to the religious community of universal forgiveness. That community, having returned to itself as the shape of religious faith, has only to recognize itself in the ultimate community of finite Spirit, from which its religious journey began. That ultimate community of Spirit was able to make the religious journey because, in the final sublation of the standpoint of moral judgment, it is reconciled with humanity at all times, and in all places. It does not need to judge, but only to comprehend, i.e. to integrate the other as a member” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 719). I feel like we are back on track here.

He argues further that “In this final form, the ‘Manifest Religion’ ceases to be a revealed religion (in any but the historical sense) for it will comprehend that the whole range of religious ‘manifestation’ belongs to it in principle, because its God is just the intelligible force of Reason, whose very essence is to manifest itself. This concretely universal community of the human Spirit is ‘the Self’s pure knowledge of itself’. ‘Conscience’ is just its alienated, universally self-assertive shape” (ibid). Now the motivation for Harris’ interpolated argument about religion seems to make better Hegelian sense.

Harris adds, “We look over the course of the science and ask how ‘dead thinghood’ evolves logically. First we go from ‘singular thinghood for self’ to ‘universal thinghood for another’; and so to ‘the singular self that is lawgiver for the world of things’. And when we reach the third shape, we realize that we have not passed over to Kojève’s ‘anthropology’. In his world, the essential anarchy of Conscience takes us straight back to Hobbes” (pp. 719-720). (In the 20th century, Kojève promoted a subjectivist reading of Hegel that influenced Sartre and others. Hobbes famously described human society as a “war of all against all”.)

“[E]very judge must recognize the ‘sin’ of sundering knowing from doing. Absolutely pure knowing becomes possible only in and through the act of forgiving” (p. 720).

On the Threshold of “Absolute” Knowing

We have reached the final chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the good company of H. S. Harris’ unique paragraph-by-paragraph commentary, Hegel’s Ladder. This has been a long journey, but I at least have found it eminently worthwhile. Reading through Harris’ book for a second time, with Hegel’s own work in hand, and recording my own notes on the detailed development of Hegel’s actual literal argument has greatly improved my apprehension of the overall structure and movement of Hegel’s work. I first looked at the Phenomenology more than 45 years ago, and — like most people, I think — really failed to coherently grasp the forest, becoming lost in the trees. Now I think I understand the forest.

Of course, no one should regard my notes as a replacement for the original, either of Hegel’s or Harris’ work. But I hope they provide some helpful orientation.

I had thought this project was nearly done, but on rereading Hegel’s chapter on “Absolute Knowledge” this morning, most of the individual sentences strike me as potentially deserving their own posts. Though it presupposes the entire preceding development, this is perhaps the most lucid part of Hegel’s whole book, containing innumerable riches (even in the old Baillie translation, which I again apologize for using here — my copies of Miller and Pinkard are still MIA). It is where everything comes together. So, I will probably end up lingering on it longer than expected. (For my own earlier take on this, see “Absolute” Knowledge?)

The first paragraph of Hegel’s chapter reads, “The Spirit manifested in manifest [Baillie has “revealed”] religion has not as yet surmounted its attitude of consciousness as such; or, what is the same thing, its actual self-consciousness is not at this stage the object it is aware of. Spirit as a whole and the moments distinguished in it fall within the sphere of figurative thinking, and within the form of objectivity. The content of this figurative thought is Absolute Spirit. All that remains now is to cancel and transcend this bare form; or better, because the form appertains to consciousness as such, its true meaning must have already come out in the shapes or modes consciousness has assumed” (Baillie trans., p. 791). So far, this is just a summary of what went before, but there is more yet to come.

For now it is worth noting again that the “attitude of consciousness as such” is to focus on the presented or represented object as if it were self-contained and purely external, i.e., fully independent of us and our purposes. There is indeed truth in this, even from the beginning. It is a necessary partial perspective that recurs over and over again on many different levels. Since how things are is never just up to us to characterize in whatever way we might wish, a recognition of the “independence” of objects plays a salutary role. Moreover, every formulation of a view of the world necessarily takes a stance on how things “really are”.

What is naive is to think that the content of such a stance is the only story that needs to be told, or that we ever have completely isolated, pure “content”.

This is a completely general point that also applies to religion. Kant and Hegel have taught us that nothing that is an object for us is ever entirely separated from us. The main attitude and value of religion is a recognition of something greater than ourselves, but the quality and manner of our recognition of something greater than ourselves is nonetheless of central import. The further implications of this reach into territory that can easily become socially divisive, so they call for sensitive treatment.

Harris’ commentary on this paragraph begins, “Hegel’s Absolute Knowledge is simply the self-conscious awareness of what the ‘manifest religion’ of the universal human community really means as a concretely logical experience of the individual thinker in (and for) the community. We have now understood that the function of Religion in human life and experience is to express the universally shared consciousness that a community must have (if it is a community of rational consciousness). Religion is the consciousness of the community’s relation to the world, and of its own self-cognitive structure (as a unity with many members). When that actual structure is fully consistent with itself as cognition, then the community is rational. Knowing this, we can see that, if there is to be any ‘absolute knowledge’ it has to be the knowledge expressed in the religion of a community which has arrived a rational relationship with the world, and with itself; it is the knowledge that is finally and demonstrably necessary (in a logical sense, and not just as a matter or received general conviction) for the complete realization of human Reason. Reason is not ‘common’ to humans in the way that their body skeletons are. It is communally recognized, because it is the constructive achievement of the human community, by the community” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 709).

This seems technically correct to me, if a little cold. I would emphasize that we are talking about ethics here, not just cognition, and I think the message is better conveyed by Hegel’s own highlighting of mutual recognition and forgiveness. I somewhat prefer my own formula that religion for Hegel is ultimately what keeps conscience honest.

“The idea that we are all endowed with Reason ‘by nature’ and that it unfolds ‘naturally’ in us, is an error of the Enlightenment, from which the speculative recollection of the history of how our Reason has actually developed, decisively frees us. If we were not the spiritual offspring of a religion that teaches us that all human beings are the children of a God who is supremely rational, and who loves us all equally to the point where He took our nature (with all of its limits and sufferings) upon Him in order to exist for us as ‘Spirit’, we would not have the concept of human rationality (theoretical and practical) that we do have” (ibid).

The first part of this I think is extremely important. Reason is not innate.

Historically specific features of Christianity play an important role in Hegel’s overall narrative. I am myself still doubtful about claims privileging one particular tradition as a unique source or necessary prerequisite for what ought to be universal human values. Harris follows the common opinion that necessary ingredients are simply not there in Aristotle, for instance. While Kant historically heightened sensitivity to universal humanity in the form of equality, I contend that the idea is implicitly already there in Aristotle’s recommendation to broadly apply norms of friendship, and his clear recognition that social status should not affect our judgment of individuals.

“Having identified that form for us, Hegel must now show us that the consensus involves an unselfconscious recognition of what we know the rational function of religion in society to be; and secondly, that when this unselfconscious knowledge is logically interpreted, it provides a functionally complete and coherent concept of what human rationality is….. Reason is the living substance that becomes subjectively self-conscious in these mortal organisms whose intercommunication constitutes the distinctively ‘human’ (or free spiritual) world.”

“Religion continually refers to the eternal aspect of Reason in its purity, as if it were a supersensible Beyond…. but the Hegelian concept of ‘Spirit’ — combined with the concept of ‘the Spirit’ that we find empirically in our religion — sublates this necessity, and makes ‘eternity’ a moment of ‘time’, just as ‘time’ is a moment of ‘eternity’. [See Time and Eternity in Hegel.] By bringing out this identity, the philosophical interpretation of God’s Incarnation sublates His absolute otherness.”

Throughout Hegel’s Ladder, Harris has regularly alternated between religious forms of expression and “Enlightened” criticism of religion. In general I think he does an excellent job of steering a middle course through these difficult waters. In a number of cases he uses language that is more overtly religious than Hegel’s own. In the following he goes in the opposite direction.

“Scientifically there is no need to use the name ‘God’ at all” (p. 710).

Harris’ statement technically concerns the name only, and is probably technically correct when construed narrowly. Historically, though, statements of this kind have been considered inflammatory, and Hegel did not actually express himself this way. The passage in Hegel that Harris cites (paragraph 66 in the Miller numbering used by English-speaking scholars) is concerned with the general logical fact that proper names are not interchangeable with concepts, which I would fully endorse. Harris previously remarked that God seems to disappear in the Reason section of the Phenomenology, but then “appears” again in the Spirit section.

“Hegel always maintained that Religion and Philosophy were the knowledge of the ‘same’ content in different ‘forms’. But those who think that the change of ‘form’ leaves the truth of ‘Religion’ effectively untouched, are deceiving themselves either about what Hegel meant, or else about their own (not yet properly Hegelian) relation to the faith of the religious tradition from which Hegel’s language is derived” (ibid).

“Hegel accepts the claim of his religious tradition that ‘Faith is a kind of knowledge’; and we have seen what a vitally important ‘kind of knowledge’ it is. It is the universal context of all the ‘knowledge’ that saves us from a Hobbesian chaos. But equally Hegel accepts that faith is an imperfect kind of knowledge; and when he claims to turn it into absolute knowledge, he is quite consciously and deliberately claiming to do away with its ‘imperfect’ character as ‘faith’ altogether….” (p. 711).

This seems well balanced and textually accurate.

“[N]o ‘postulates’ that transcend experience are necessary. Specifically Hegel does away with the Kantian postulates (God, freedom, and immortality) by showing what the rational interpretation of the terms in actual experience is…. [O]f them all, the postulate of ‘God’ is the one that is the most radically affected” (ibid).

This is a technical point about postulation, which has to do with Kant’s particular approach to these matters.

“Faith knows that God is Man, that the eternal Reason is necessarily embodied” (p. 712). But “The surrendering of the human will to God’s Will is only possible because God’s real identity as human Reason, his necessary humanity, is recognized” (p. 713).

“[Faith] takes the home of its longing to be elsewhere than here” (ibid). A certain common traditionally accepted notion of faith treats it as a kind of other-worldly “knowledge”, but there are also grounds for arguing — even in a traditional context — that this is not its highest form. Elsewhere, I have suggested viewing faith as more primarily a way of being in real life rather than an abstract belief or knowledge claim.

“The whole journey of the Phenomenology is necessary in order to disabuse ‘Reason’ of this dialectical illusion” (ibid).

As a student of Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel, I don’t believe in dialectical illusion. This was Kant’s overly polite way of pointing out how Reason needs to be carefully separated from the dogmatic received “truths” accepted by Cartesians and Wolffians. The whole issue of the relation between philosophy and religion is difficult, not least because it embraces substantial social concerns. But it is true that Hegel wants to direct our attention to Spirit incarnate in this life.

Broken Synthesis

It is mainly Kant who is the thinker of synthesis. For Kant, synthesis is partly a moral ideal, and partly something we are always already caught up in, and need to deconstruct.

The Žižekians are right that Hegel specialized in pointing out how Kantian syntheses break. I’ve written at greater length about my own Brandomian take on this latter point under Error.

So-called absolute knowledge is actually a deconstruction, not a synthesis.

“Absolute” Knowledge?

The term “absolute” in Hegelian absolute knowledge refers only to a certain finality and stability of its form, not to any claim of infallibility or omniscience on the side of content. Intended for earthly actualization and thus finite, it also does not involve any infinite or immediate reflexivity. As a first approximation, it is simply the result of a thorough renunciation of implicit pretensions of Mastery — that is to say, it is a result of the abstraction or subtraction of something from ordinary knowledge, not of the acquisition of some kind of super powers.

At the risk of courting paradox, it might be said that “absolute” knowledge is absolute precisely because it recognizes itself as relative, and true freedom is freedom from false freedom.

This is related not only to an abstract recognition that finite concepts in general are provisional and that understandings in general are context-dependent. It is also requires concrete recognition that each finite concept we actually use is in principle provisional and subject to question, and that each understanding we actually rely on implicitly involves a dependence upon context, therefore also on an assessment of context that can be questioned.

Hegel offers two further developments of this. The first is associated with the perspective that “substance is also subject”. The second is a related one involving overcoming modern thought’s characteristic separation of subject and object. While the mention of either of these may initially raise further questions, they are not difficult to grasp once explained. (See also Rationality.)