Perils of Utility

Hegel derives the historic Enlightenment notion of Utility from a simple alternation of perspectives (being-in-itself, being-for-another, being-for-self) that is abstracted from all particular content. It is a sort of objective correlate for the “Pure Insight” that results from free use of the Understanding in practical matters.

The correlate of the Understanding’s freedom on the objective side is its abstraction from all content, which makes it “merely formal” in the sense we have seen Hegel criticize before. An alternation without content could go on without end, which makes it an instance of what he called “bad infinity”. Utility is “the awareness of the world as useful, not the comprehension of that world as the real self” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 380). It is the “pure self-estrangement of the Concept” (p. 386).

As with Understanding in general, Utility by no means appears only in a bad light. It is taken to presuppose a community of equal persons, and to imply the absolutely free Rousseauian general will of a sovereign People, which Hegel presents sympathetically. Consciousness is even said to “find its concept” in Utility (p. 384). Harris notes though that in Hegelian terms, the reference to “finding” indicates a less mature attitude than making or development.

A concept that generates a “bad infinity” ultimately cannot serve as a criterion for value judgment, because it leads to an infinite regress. But Hegel is not so much concerned with the theoretical error of the British Utilitarians’ reduction of all values to utility as with the political danger of the harshly “utilitarian” attitude of those who promulgated the Terror in the late stages of the French Revolution. The idea there was effectively that whatever action was deemed “useful” by the new authorities required no further justification. It seems clear to me, as it did to Hegel, that the French Revolution was a good thing on a historical level, but to acknowledge a generality like that is by no means necessarily to endorse every detail of the way it was carried out.

I have to say I think debates about whether or not “the end justifies the means” in general are pretty meaningless and unhelpful. We can meaningfully discuss the appropriateness of particular means to particular ends. The answer will be yes in some cases and no in others. Harsh measures that are unfortunately necessary in some cases are completely unjustifiable in others. Sometimes the tradeoffs can be very difficult. “Utility” as a putative criterion is only helpful in the easy cases. In difficult cases it ends up being tautological or sophistical. What is unequivocally wrong is the notion of arbitrary license, or the claim that no more substantive development of justification for an extreme course of action is even relevant in the first place.

Hegel is indeed concerned with a slippery slope here. The slippery slope concerns not the ends-means cliché but the use of utility as a criterion, which at the shallow end seems innocuous enough. But vague generality shades into arbitrariness, and utility is a vague generality. (My own judgment is that the notions of sovereignty and the general will are also tainted with what Hegel would call “bad infinity”.)

Culture

Hegel’s main word for culture (Bildung) has strong connotations of activity. More literally it refers to a process of education of one’s whole character and self-consciousness that necessarily involves an active engagement, a sort of training of our active capacities, linked to what people these days might call personal growth. It thus needs to be distinguished from culture in the sense of passively assimilated custom or belief.

In Harris’ summary, “Man’s true nature can only be regained by alienation from its natural state. This is how God’s will gets done and I get saved. My actuality and power depends on my self-educative effort. I put aside my natural self in order to be the self God knows. Quantitative differences in natural endowment do not matter” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 259).

“In his discussion of the Condition of Right Hegel remarked on the irrationality of the distribution of natural gifts to the rational personalities who enjoy formal freedom and equality in the Stoic view…. In the spiritual perspective of Culture, this irrationality and divine caprice is completely transcended, because the given nature of the individual counts for nothing…. It is by alienating oneself from nature, including one’s own nature, that one can establish one’s real status as a soul in God’s eternal world” (p. 260).

“The equality of the blessed (when we give it an actual interpretation in this world) becomes the objectively implicit presence of Reason” (ibid). “Faith sees the whole social order as established by God’s Will…. But, in reality, the general effort of everyone to do God’s will on earth is what produces the stable order of society” (p. 261).

“Hegel was convinced of the importance of the Reformation; and the formation of the national state, with the movement from feudal monarchy to popular sovereignty, is the main focus of interest in the present section. But we do not need to accept any of his particular historical views. Obviously he had to do the Science of Experience in terms of the history he knew. To interpret it in terms of what we know is only to test it appropriately” (p. 262).

“One thing that Hegel is not doing is the psychoanalysis of society. It does not belong to the phenomenology of spirit to talk about what is really hidden from view” (p. 275). “Most of those who charge Hegel with a priorism, or with forcing the facts into the straightjacket of his theories, are logically bound to read him the way they do, because they are themselves children of the Enlightenment, and they cannot conceive any relation between concept and fact except that of estranged ‘application'” (p. 276).

“Language is the means by which the surrender of all personal self-will to a universal actual self is achieved. For the self is its language. Speaking is an absolutely transient motion which passes away at once. But the meaning of what is said is absolutely abiding” (pp. 283-284).

It is in this context of the constitution of self through linguistic practice that Hegel discusses the prevalence of flattery in the aristocratic society of early modern absolute monarchy, and how it is inverted into the “Contemptuous Consciousness” depicted in Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew. Next he will diagnose an untenable pretentiousness in a common critique of religion associated with the Enlightenment.

Alienation

At the stage we have currently reached in Hegel’s development, my “self” is to be identified with my concrete spiritual and cultural world. H. S. Harris in his commentary says “In its independent (or truth-knowing) aspect the rational self is not, as Descartes thought, a ‘thinking substance’; but neither is it simply the Aristotelian ‘soul’ — the form of one mortal living body” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 151). I think Aristotle himself — in contrast to very influential Latin medieval interpretations of his work — would have agreed with this.

“The essentially evanescent process of using a common language is Spirit as the universal Self” (ibid). “But the immediate truth of this consciousness is ambiguous. My community is a ‘universal’ for me, only when it particularizes itself” (ibid). “All of the previous shapes of consciousness are ‘abstractions’ from this ‘self-maintaining absolutely real essence'” (p. 153). “What is ‘uncovered’ but beyond speech in the Greek experience, is not deep but shallow. It is the aesthetic surface of truth and no more. But there is no need for anyone (except artists) to become ecstatic about the rediscovery of it” (p. 163). “Nothing could be less Hegelian than [an] aesthetically intuitive concept of ‘Truth'” (ibid).

Under the Roman empire’s dissolution of traditional culture and face-to-face community, “The formal universal unity is a spiritless community of atomic individuals, who are all equally persons…. The ethical substance was true spirit; but now it is supplanted by personal certainty” (p. 230). “We have entered the world of independent self-conscious wills. Everyone is a separate person with her own legal rights” (p. 231), “a legally rigid, abstract self not dissolved in the substance” (ibid). “The law defines what is mine, and what is yours” (p. 235). In the Roman Imperial world, “we were all in bondage, and obliged to recognize the absolute selfhood of an earthly Lord” (p. 247). We have moved from “Ethical Substance” to “the Condition of Right”.

Here Hegel takes up a positive aspect of the Unhappy Consciousness. As Harris recounts, “The Spirit must now embark on the great labor of self-making…. We are now invited to recognize ourselves in the ‘absolute otherness’… of a Spirit who is ‘not of this world’. In this present life we are estranged from our true selves in God’s kingdom” (ibid). “The ruin that seems to come upon the Empire from outside, really comes from the self-alienating activity of the spirit. The destruction is necessary, because self-alienation is the actualization of the Substance” (p. 248).

“Thus it was not the barbarians outside the Empire, but the revelation that the legal self-consciousness is itself barbaric, that made the decline and fall of the empire inevitable. This is what became clear when formal Reason sought to establish ‘mastery’ (a relation of unequal recognition) over the natural passions. The attempt was inevitably transformed into the tyranny of aggressive self-consciousness (the military) over finite life (the civil population)…. The whole system based upon the immediate recognition of ‘Personality’ is arbitrary. The Empire falls, because all selves must learn the lesson of self-estrangement, the lesson of submission to a command from above” (p. 250).

“In the world of True Spirit, the self simply forgot itself in the otherness of the objective custom. The Condition of Right was ‘spiritless’ because there was no absolute otherness, there was only an absolute but natural self. That absolute self has now been recognized as nothing but its own otherness — the unconscious and uncontrolled forces of natural life. This factual otherness must now regain selfhood from ‘Beyond'” (ibid).

“Antigone’s Zeus… has to yield to the ‘absolute otherness’ of Destiny. It is Destiny that becomes a Self for Unhappy Consciousness”…. “The whole actual world… is now inverted into the subordinate status of a mere moment in the divine plan for humanity…. In order to stabilize a social world in which authority is natural (and therefore arbitrary) we are forced to postulate that it is founded upon supernatural Reason.”

“This is an absurd postulate, because ‘absolute authority’ is contradictory” (p. 251). But “Reason can only coincide with Freedom; the absurd postulate of a rational divine Will… is just the first step in the emergence and evolution of this ‘identity’. Universal Christianity, as a social institution, justifies what is logically and ethically experienced and known to be absolutely unjustifiable: the acceptance of arbitrary authority. But without the projection of Reason into the Beyond, humanity could never become what it essentially is: a free self-making spiritual community, not a community of ‘natural Reason'” (p. 252).

“In order to follow Hegel’s argument, we have to employ certain concepts (notably those of ‘self’, ‘self-consciousness’ and ‘Universal’ in unfamiliar ways that seem paradoxical, because they violate our ordinary assumptions…. But if we make these logical adjustments, we can not only turn all the otherworldly talk of the world of culture into straight talk, but we can understand why the otherworldly talk was necessary….”

“[I]n due course, the division of the world of estranged spirit into the visible and the intelligible, the realm of actuality and the realm of faith, will collapse back into the categorical identity of the rational self; and as ‘pure insight’ this rational self will unmask the irrationality of the claim of faith that we can receive the truth of ‘pure consciousness’ by revelation” (p. 253). But “the Beyond of Faith is reborn almost at once as the necessary Beyond of Reason. Estrangement ends when Faith becomes Reason; but Reason is left to liquidate its own Beyond, the realm of ‘moral consciousness’ or ‘rational faith'” (p. 254).

“[H]istory and logic do not stay evenly in step in the story of the estranged world…. Faith in its stillness is not a mode of knowledge at all. It is the ‘devotion’ of the Unhappy Consciousness at the threshold of thought. In that strictly singular shape, it falls into contradiction whenever it seeks to realize itself in the world. Faith proper, has crossed the threshold into actual thought; and it does successfully transform the world. But as Pure Insight it will come back to the experience of contradiction” (p. 255). “Religion proper will be the overcoming of this whole conceptual pattern of estrangement…. With the dawning of ‘pure Culture’ we shall be equipped to deal with the ‘pure consciousness’ of Faith” (p. 257).

Individuality, Community

The last sections of Hegel’s “Reason” chapter begin to introduce a notion of community, still starting from the point of view of the individual. Here he wants to suggest a broad developmental arc from the simplicity of what he calls “True Spirit” — in which personal identity is experienced as coming directly from one’s place in a traditional, “natural” face-to-face community — through the emergence of individual freedom, which he sees occurring in a necessarily “alienated” way that also tends to undermine ethical values — to Hegel’s anticipated recovery of ethical values in a future community based on something like love of one’s neighbor, that also gives the individual her due. In the course of it he discusses the limits of “law-giving Reason” and “law-testing Reason”, with Kant and Fichte in mind. Sophocles’ Antigone is used to illustrate a conflict between perspectives of family loyalty and formally instituted law.

H. S. Harris in his commentary says that from the naive perspective of True Spirit, “Individual self-consciousness just knows what is right. The laws are there” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 113). “These laws are ‘laws of nature’. They need no warrant” (p. 112). He characterizes this as another return to the immediacy-based logic of Sense Certainty. It will be “the determination to fulfill Apollo’s command [know thyself] that brings to pass the downfall of the Ethical Substance…. [But the] climax of the effort to ‘know ourselves’ in one another individually is the recognition that we must forgive one another for the inevitability of our failure to act with universal unselfishness” (p. 115).

“It is a logical fact that we cannot go immediately from the universal to the singular. We can only produce formal universals (non-contradictions)…. So we are left with a logical form (non-contradiction) as the form of law” (p. 116).

The “internal dialectic of justice is much more important than the fact that different standards of justice are justifiable in terms of their abstract rationality” (p. 120).

“Hegel made clear that it is the speculative sense of identity that matters. The stability and harmony of the Substance we have lost is ‘identical’ with that which we are just now in the process of regaining. Neither Antigone nor Jesus is formally a Kantian. But the piety of both requires us to ‘respect humanity as an end'” (p. 117).

“Our own law-testing procedure is a moment in the greater cycle of logical comprehension; and it has always known itself to be that. It is not formal in the sense in which Stoicism is formal; we saw at the beginning why error and ignorance are necessary in the comprehensive cycle. Those who complain that ‘dialectic and absoluteness are ultimately at loggerheads’, or that Hegel seeks to ‘close the gates of truth’, are merely expressing the Skeptic’s absolute knowledge regarding the folly of Stoic pretensions. It is precisely the justification of their own critical reason that Hegel wants to offer” (p. 121).

“[Hegel’s] criticism of Law-Testing Reason… is meant to bring home to us the fact that a long historical experience is required for the laying down of the substantial foundation that gives law-testing the sort of range and validity it can and does have” (ibid).

A feeling of spiritual “identity” with the goddess Athena motivated the Athenian to be willing to die for his city. Harris thinks this qualifies as a supra-personal motivation, but argues against those who attribute a notion of other-than-individual “consciousness” to Hegel. Rather, “certain experiences of a deeper or higher identity that every individual has, or can have, reveal the true meaning of what it is to be rational (or human)” (p. 127).

“We ought not to permit any reduction of the rhetoric of ‘Spirit’ to the rhetoric of ‘humanism’ because humanity has… two necessary sides, and it is the ‘human animal’ side that is naturally fundamental. For the human animal to go to the death in a struggle is (functionally) irrational; but that is not necessarily the case for a ‘human spirit'” (p. 128).

On the other hand, Hegelian Spirit also has nothing in it of what Hegel called the “bad infinite” or of the Sublime, which Kant associated with seemingly infinite (and definitely more-than-human) power.

“Whether we look outside or inside ourselves, the bad infinite, or the ‘more-than-individual’, is no suitable object of religious reverence. We must maintain Hegel’s ‘spiritual’ terminology because his language clarifies the religious language of tradition in a rational way. Those who use it become functionally liberated from the bad infinite or Sublime; for even as ‘believers’ they are bound to agree with Thomas Aquinas that what they are talking about is not rationally comprehensible in its ‘sublime’ aspect; and they will be morally rational in the sense that they will not try to impose their religious faith on others by the use of force (which would contradict its spiritual essence)” (p. 129).

“All that Hegel, the observer, does is talk to us about the ways in which our poets and prophets have spoken, and to show us several necessary truths that we are not usually conscious of. First, he proves that the way they spoke was necessary for the advent of morally autonomous Reason; and then he makes us see how these modes of speech form a pattern that forces us to admit that all rational speech (not just that of the poets and prophets) is the utterance of a different ‘self’ than the one who is fighting a losing battle to stay alive encased in a human skin. We all know this perfectly well. But never, until Hegel wrote, did we know how to put our rational and our natural knowledge together without speaking in ways that are not humanly interpretable and testable. A critic who accuses Hegel of speaking not as the poets and prophets speak, but in some peculiar philosophically prophetic way of his own, is committing the ultimate rational injustice of obscuring his supreme achievement. [The influential critic Charles] Taylor’s theory of a ‘self-positing Spirit’ that is somehow ‘transcendent’ is itself ‘the sin against Hegel’s Spirit'” (p. 131).

“The chapter on Reason closes into a perfect circle. It begins and ends in ‘Observation’; and the Observing Reason that goes forward is comprehensive. It does not just observe Nature as an external or found ‘objectivity’; it observes the Ethical Substance — the total unity or identity of Nature and Spirit as a harmony that has made itself. It is the Ethical Substance, seen clearly as the source of self-conscious individual Reason, that becomes the subject of the new experience.”

“True Spirit is the self-realizing consciousness that takes its own self-making to be the direct expression of nature. What True Spirit lacks is the awareness that Spirit must make itself in the radical sense of expressing a freedom that is opposed to Nature. True Spirit does not know that it must ‘create itself from nothing’.”

“This ‘nothing’ is the speculative observing consciousness” (p. 134).

“On the side of Consciousness, all pretense of a ‘difference’ between itself and its object can now be dropped…. When ‘difference’ is reborn (as it immediately will be) it is because the Object itself (the Sache selbst as a communal self-consciousness) cannot maintain itself as a living object… without an essential differentiation…. But at the moment [consciousness] has come to self-expressive identity with the Sache selbst that it merely observes” (p. 135).

Alienation, Modernity

The positively connotated (and actually not anti-naturalist) “alienation” of Spirit from nature noted earlier did turn out to be an exception. Hegel’s more usual, negatively connotated talk about alienation is explained by Brandom as picking out any asymmetry between authority claimed and responsibility acknowledged. On this reading, traditional Sittlichkeit that takes responsibility for too much would be just as alienated as the modernity that takes responsibility for too little.

The model of a positively connotated alienation is still interesting, though, and may possibly shed further light on the vexed question of how modernity is to be picked out and assessed. Perhaps the thought is not only that any move in any direction away from the unquestioned governance of tradition is ultimately progressive, even if only through its eventual consequences, but also that a given degree of asymmetry on the modern side is therefore less bad than an equivalent asymmetry on the traditional side, because the modern one starts a dynamic that (normatively, not causally) leads to something better, while the traditional one just preserves the status quo.

Karl Mannheim in his 1925 essay on the sociology of knowledge adopted a vaguely Hegelian notion of modernity as the progressive self-relativization of thought. (He was at pains to argue that this did not lead to the “relativism” decried by some of his contemporaries.) I was fascinated by this in my youth. Here is a modernity with a Hegelian pedigree that bears no trace of Cartesianism. Mannheim’s version is more practical-epistemological than normative, and merely programmatic rather than really developed, where Brandom has a very thorough account of recognition-based normativity in many different circumstances. But it does seem to correlate with the move away from tradition that Brandom talks about. It focuses more on the notion of progress itself, and less on a particular achieved status.

Alienation, Second Nature

In chapter 14 of Spirit of Trust, Brandom points out a distinction developed by Hegel in the Spirit chapter of the Phenomenology between “actual” and “pure” consciousness. These turn out to correspond closely to practical and theoretical culture, respectively. Here it is important to note that “consciousness” is therefore a very different thing from the “consciousness” of the Consciousness chapter, where we began with a putatively immediate awareness and discovered that even then, every apparent immediacy eventually revealed itself as mediated.

Acculturation, and therefore the “consciousness” of the later chapter basically is a form of mediation. We are no longer making any pretense of beginning with the putatively immediate. Culture is very thick, and a long journey. More superficially, it includes all our attitudes.

In chapter 13, Brandom had quoted Hegel saying it is through culture that the individual acquires actuality. The “individual” here is not the atomistic psychological individual beloved of the Enlightenment, externally confronting objects and others, but a participant in Geist with some much more interesting topology. True individuality for Hegel is not given but emergent. Its borders are much wider, and not topologically closed. Atomic psychological individuals are a hallucination of the modern illness Hegel called Mastery. (Hegel explicitly says the pure “I”, by contrast — conceived after Kant as having no content of its own, but as a mere index of the unity of a transcendental unity of apperception — depends on language for its existence. Brandom reminds us that language is the medium of recognition, the sea in which normative fish swim; and that things said, in being public, acquire a significance that runs beyond what the speaker intended. The purely linguistic “I” becomes the focus of commitment and responsibility, which depend on linguistic articulation.)

In the same passage Hegel also speaks of Spirit as alienation from our natural being. Reading those words I sort of cringe, but in fact Hegel is not talking about anything like Gnostic or Plotinian alienation. The word has that heritage, but Hegel uses it in the same breath with actualization. This alienation is supposed to be a good thing. It is de-immediatization, which is just the other side of the coin of mediation. Hegel is here using an originally negatively connotated Gnostic and Plotinian word for what is for him a positively connotated Aristotelian concept of actualization, which Brandom associates with expression and making explicit. Mediation is in this passage allegorized by Hegel as, in effect, becoming strange (alien) to our putative atomistic psychological selves.

Spirit as alienation should not be read as any repudiation of nature. As Terry Pinkard points out in Hegel’s Naturalism, Hegel is in fact a naturalist, but of the expansive, Aristotelian sort, explicitly antireductionist. The difference with 2oth century naturalisms is that it allows for the emergence of increasingly higher forms of Geist and Hegelian “freedom” over a natural basis. In Aristotelian terms, 20th century naturalism only addresses “first” nature, the more primitive one. Aristotelian and Hegelian naturalism also recognize second nature that includes culture. Even though in other contexts there will still be talk of overcoming alienation, at least one meaning of “alienation” is just the move to second nature.