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…

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.

Adverbial Otherness

Hegel’s German word Anderssein has a more concrete feel than its usual English “otherness”. Literally it is more like “being differently”, a noun made from an adverb applied to a verb. Hegelian difference is not only constitutive, but has an adverbial character.

He says in a passage near where the term is introduced, “[True reality] is the process of its own becoming, the circle which presupposes its end as its purpose, and has its end for its beginning; it becomes concrete and actual only by being carried out, and by the end it involves…. Precisely because the form is as necessary to the essence as the essence to itself, absolute reality must not be conceived of and expressed as essence alone, i.e. as immediate substance, or as pure self-intuition of the Divine, but as form also, and with the entire wealth of the developed form. Only then is it grasped and expressed as really actual” (Phenomenology, Baillie trans., pp. 80-81; I seem to have misplaced the Pinkard and Miller translations).

In this very Aristotelian passage, he invokes ends, form, actuality, and actualization, while pointing out the inadequacy of what are really modern contractions of the notions of substance and essence.

Harris notes that for Hegel, “a self-thinking substance must necessarily be a community of rational equals within the natural order who recognize themselves in one another as a spiritual community that transcends that order. This is Hegel’s concept of ‘Spirit’…. Here it is called die Reflexion im Andersssein in sich selbst, ‘the reflection within the otherness into [or within] itself'” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 56, brackets in original). Otherness is the native element of self for Hegel.

Harris’ abstract of paragraph 19 reads, “Divine knowledge is the interplay of divine love. But the loving must comprehend its own opposite, the suffering, patience, and labor of human experience. Logically it is untroubled, but this peace is abstract. The form of its realization is as important as its logical essence (since it belongs to the essence)” (p. 57).

Ethical Being

Previously I suggested that a modest discourse about beings is all the ontology we need.

At this level, the most distinctive thing about us talking animals is that we are what I would call ethical beings, that is to say beings with potentiality for ethical reason. With Aristotle, I identify each being with its distinctive way of being. Ethical being in the singular is just a name for the quality of being an ethical being. It also translates Hegel’s term sittliches Wesen. Hegelian spirit is actualized by the actions and ethical being of ethical beings. (See also Back to Ethical Being.)

Aristotelian Actualization

Having just concluded a series broadly on the actualization of freedom in Hegel, I’d like to say a few words on the Aristotelian roots of the important concept of actualization. A discussion of actualization is arguably the centerpiece of Aristotle’s diverse lecture notes related to first philosophy placed by the editor “after the physics”, which came to be traditionally called Metaphysics. From that discussion, actualization is clearly a process, and comes in degrees.

Aristotle also made the pregnant remark that while what he called soul is the “first actuality” or “activity” of the body (associated with its life), intelligence or reason (associated especially with language and ethics) is a kind of second actuality of a human being.

For all Aristotle’s praise of the soul, unlike Plato he did not treat it as an independent substance. It is only the hylomorphic unity of soul and body that gets this key designation. As I read him, things like soul and intellect are complex adverbial and ultimately normative characterizations expressing how we function and act in relation to ends. They are made into nouns only as a matter of convenience.

Aristotle distinguished stages of actualization. In a famous example, an unschooled youth has the potential to learn geometry. Someone who has already acquired an understanding of geometry has the potential to use it. This is an intermediate degree of actualization. In someone who is actively using such an understanding in work on a proof, there is said to be a higher degree of actualization.

This already suggests a kind of process of development that is not reducible to the model of simple organic growth (in which Aristotle was also quite interested). Rather, he approaches such developments in terms of his notion of dialectical inquiry or cumulative exploratory reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty, which in my view is the essential kernel from which Hegel’s very extensive original (and sometimes confusing) development of “dialectic” proceeded.

Commentators on Aristotle like Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century CE) and al-Farabi (10th century CE) further refined this notion of degrees of actualization, especially with regard to intelligence or reason. In the Latin tradition, this was taken up especially by the school of Albert the Great. These writers tended to hypostatize intellect as something transcendent or even divine to which the human soul could nonetheless become progressively “joined”, approximating something like the seamless hylomorphic unity of soul and body. But it is possible to put such claims of strong transcendence in brackets, while focusing on the detailed dialectical development of notions of progressive mixture, layers, and stages. These medieval notions of layered actualization seem to lead in a very different and more interesting direction than the tedious cliché of the “Great Chain of Being”.

Be that as it may, the essential point is that in Aristotle himself, actualization is discussed dialectically rather than in terms of organic growth. (See also Actuality; Second Nature; Parts of the Soul; Intelligence from Outside; Fortunes of Aristotle.)

Actualization of Freedom

Chapter 4 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy is concerned with the actualization of freedom.  Hegel makes abundant use of the Aristotelian concepts of actuality and actualization.  To begin with, Pippin wants to resolve worries that Hegel’s emphasis on the actuality of Spirit submerges the agency of individuals, or that it gives too strong a “providential” sanction to existing states of affairs.  Hegel indeed had little use for the narrow “self-will” of individuals, and in his semi-popular lectures on the philosophy of history applied potentially misleading metaphors of providence and theodicy to history.  As Pippin observes, the meaning especially of some of Hegel’s more rhetorical statements is sometimes “profoundly unclear”, and apparently at odds with his more careful articulations.

If we step back and consider what actuality is in both Aristotle and Hegel, individualization is one of its fundamental characteristics.  Actual things are specific, concretely embodied, and indeed particular.  The actuality of spirit is not some ghostly presence over and above things, but lies rather in the concrete actions of individual people as ethical agents.  And actuality, as Pippin notes, “is not merely a question about whether a concept does or does not have instances corresponding to it in the real world” (p. 95).  

Hegel distinguished “ideas” from mere concepts precisely as taking into account their actuality and embodiment.  In language that could very easily be misunderstood, he also spoke of the concept giving itself its own actuality.  Pippin begins to explain this by noting that concepts for Hegel always involve an “ought”.  They are “rules telling us how to make categorical distinctions, principles that govern material inferences, that prescribe what ought or ought not to be done” (p. 97), and “the Concept” with a capital “C” just is normativity.  All concept use is involved with considerations of rightness.  “By virtue of what is one inferential move legitimate, another not?” (ibid).  To be able to judge what anything is, we must be able to distinguish it from what it is not.  

Hegel gives unqualified praise to Kant’s thesis that the unity of the concept is none other than the unity of apperception.  Pippin says this gives the concept a non-empirical origin that ties it to self-legislation.  “[A]ll judgment rests on excluding and inferring relations [Brandom’s material incompatibility and material consequence] that constrain what we can intelligibly think and articulate by normatively constraining ‘what we ought to think’, not by being psychological propensities or limits” (p. 99).  This all has to do with the determination of what is right, not with any causing of things to exist in a certain way.  

Pippin says the whole third part of Hegel’s Logic – the “logic of the concept” – is concerned with these Kantian considerations related to self-legislation.  He concludes that actuality for Hegel especially refers to the objective validity of a normative status, not simple existence.  This is what is behind Hegel’s famous and tremendously misunderstood phrase “the rational is the real, and the real is the rational”.  Both reason and actuality or reality for Hegel are normative concepts.  

Here we have an answer to the worries about a conservative providential seal on factual existence.  What is metaphorically said to be governed by something like rational providence is not factual existence but normative validity.  “The Science of Logic’s argument suggests that… such a responsiveness to reason… is neither an imposition nor an unreflective subordination to the ‘practically given’” (p. 102). 

In talk about self-legislation “The point being made is about the autonomy of the normative domain, in both theoretical and practical contexts.  It is because of this claim that Hegel is completely untroubled by the threat of scientific or any other form of determinism….  This is not a claim about the theoretical requirement of an uncaused spontaneity of thought, as Kant flirted with…, but a claim about the space of reasons itself and what could and could not in the Hegelian sense be ‘logically’ relevant to it” (p. 103).  

For Hegel, conceptual determinacy is not separable from conceptual legitimacy.  Normative authority is “constructed we might even say, not discovered” (p. 104).  Pippin says Hegel’s notion that the concept should be understood as a “free” structure only makes sense in these terms.  “Conceptual legitimacy is not secured by being shown to be hooked onto the world in a certain way, but by virtue of its being instituted and sustained in the right way” (p. 105).

Hegel is concerned to develop “a theory of the possibility of content in general – how concepts in their judgmental use and claims to normative authority, might successfully pick out and re-identify an aspect of reality” (p. 107).  For both Kant and Hegel, objectivity is no longer a matter of representation, but rather a matter of a kind of legality.  “[W]e will not be searching about in the metaphysical or empirical world for the existent truth-makers of such claims” (p. 109).

“Whereas Kant held out some hope for a deductive demonstration of a notion’s or a norm’s actuality, or objectivity or bindingness, Hegel’s procedures in all his books and lectures are developmental, not deductive….  The proof procedure shifts from attention to conceptually necessary conditions and logical presuppositions to demonstrations of the partiality of some prior attempt… and the subsequent developments and reformulations necessary to overcome such partiality” (pp. 109-110).

“I am only subject to laws I in some sense author and subject myself to.  But the legislation of such a law does not consist in some paradoxical single moment of election….  The formation of and self-subjection to such constraints is gradual and actually historical” (p. 117).

Suther on Hegel on Freedom

I’m always nervous about strong emphasis on “Freedom” in treatments of German idealism, but recent literature has considerably improved the situation. Jensen Suther in “Hegel’s Logic of Freedom: Towards a ‘Logical Constitutivism’” makes a number of points I would endorse. While his is a “metaphysical” reading, it also owes something to Sellars and Brandom.

Hegelian logic for Suther is “a logic of freedom not only in the sense that it articulates the logic of what it means to be free, but also in the sense that it is a fully free practice of logic, leaving no presupposition uncontested and demanding of thought that it learn to think for itself” (see my The Autonomy of Reason). Suther also says “the only true or intelligible conception of being is one of which the good is taken to be constitutive” (emphasis in original). He recognizes that purposes are not merely subjective. Further, “it is essential to the intelligibility of what is that it be rendered intelligible, that reasons be given and asked for as to why we take things to be as they are”. He also recognizes the positive importance of error. (See also Reasons; Being, Existence; Freedom and Free Will.)

It gets a bit more problematic when he says “rational agency is not something we achieve, but is instead the distinctive form of living beings that are capable of being initiated into a social and historical process of progressive actualization of the potential for agency”. I don’t see why a distinctive form cannot also be something achieved. He seems mainly concerned to deny that it is an individual achievement, a view he attributes to Robert Pippin. I would agree that rational agency is at least as much a historical achievement as an individual one, but every human qua rational/talking animal or even just every modern person is not thereby a full-fledged rational agent. To be a rational animal (or to be sapient in Brandom’s sense) is just to be capable of being initiated, etc., to borrow Suther’s words quoted above.

In the Aristotelian commentary tradition, al-Farabi (10th century CE) and others explicitly developed a notion of a distinct form of acquired intellect, such that being “acquired” was considered key to the distinctness of that form. (Intellect for al-Farabi was at root more cosmic than cultural, but that is not the point here.) Only second-nature things could be of an acquired kind. The “acquired” status was part of an elaboration of several structural degrees of actualization. A classic example would be someone who has already learned something, say geometry, but is not currently using it. Actualization of intellect only advances to the further degree of “active” by being in use, as when the geometer is busy proving a theorem.

Suther generalizes about “the neo-Aristotelians”, referencing John McDowell and Robert Stern. I appreciate it when people like McDowell make significant positive references to Aristotle, but McDowell is hardly a full-blooded Aristotelian. According to Suther, what counts as freedom for McDowell and Stern is something given in advance. Suther calls this a neo-Aristotelian position. I don’t think Aristotle considered anything to be “given in advance”. He was the original emergentist.

Suther has a great quote from Hegel that “there is nothing degrading about being alive”, and a nice emphasis on the unity of life and knowing. For me, this comes back to the way second nature positively builds on first nature, rather than standing in opposition to it. Suther, though, seems to think there is something essential about death, fear, anxiety, and pain. While these are not entirely absent in Hegel, in this respect Suther’s reading seems influenced by early Heidegger. Contra Heidegger, I would cite Spinoza’s “the philosopher thinks of nothing less than of death”. I prefer Brandom’s explanation of the struggle to the death in the Phenomenology as a dramatic extreme example of a much more general concept of commitment to what we hold dear as willingness to sacrifice something else for it.