Conscience and Conscientiousness

For Hegel traditional cultures were full of Ethical Spirit as a sort of direct identification with the customs of a community, but they did not recognize the genuine agency of living individuals. Harris in his commentary identifies three successive shapes of a spiritual self in Hegel’s Phenomenology. The crudest is the deeply alienated notion of a person as a bearer of legal rights, which dates back to imperial Rome. Far more sophisticated is the modern moral self, exemplified in the philosophies of Kant and Fichte. We saw that the moral self for Hegel came to grief in contradictions between its ideal of moral perfection and the imperfect reality of its actual life. It became stuck in an alternation between its certainty of an ideal truth that it externalized in God or a separate intelligible world, and the recognition that it was not that ideal and could not meet it.

A third form of spiritual self for Hegel is identified with Conscience and a “conscientious self”. Whereas the moral self externalizes its values in God and/or a separate intelligible world, the conscientious self internalizes its values and thoroughly identifies with them. In this way, the conscientious self avoids all the “real versus ideal” contradictions the moral self becomes mired in.

The standpoint of Conscience carries a different danger from that of the moral self. Hegel spoke of the moral self as “displacing” its values into a Beyond not unlike that of the Unhappy Consciousness. The self of Conscience is entirely “happy” in that its values are right here and its very own, but it is in danger of being too “happy”. Because all its standards are internalized, it is especially easy for it to fall into self-deception or hypocrisy.

I have puzzled more than usual over the transitions in this section. Harris’ commentary on this particular part, while containing many insightful remarks, did not really help me better grasp the transitions, as it generally has in the other parts.

After speaking about Conscience, Hegel goes on to talk about the Beautiful Soul. The term “Beautiful Soul” was already established in German Romantic literature. Hegel makes sharper negative remarks about it than he just had about the possible self-deception or hypocrisy of Conscience. Nonetheless, it seems that “Beautiful Soul” is just an alternate term for Conscience after all.

When Conscience goes too far in the direction of self-satisfaction, it degenerates into a smug figure perfectly insulated from all questioning or criticism. Confidence is a good thing, but a bad Beautiful Soul is always too easy on itself. It never doubts that everything it does is right.

Then we move suddenly from the Beautiful Soul to the evil-doer. The best explanation I’ve so far worked out for this is that the attitude of the evil-doer in general resembles the hypocrisy of a bad Beautiful Soul. As Plato said, all beings always seek the good (or rather what seems good to them); evil is precisely a distorted, overly narrow “good” accompanied by non-recognition of others or other points of view.

Hegel goes on to suggest that the “hard-hearted” judgmental attitude of the moralist who wants to hold others to standards unconditionally is subject to a hypocrisy of its own that is structurally not that different from the hypocrisy of the evil-doer. When they confront one another, each fails to adequately recognize the other. Hegel encourages us to look forward to a world in which each of them could freely confess the inadequacy of its recognition of the other, and then forgive the other’s inadequate recognition.

(Here my reading is departing slightly from that of Harris. Harris briefly criticizes language like I just used, which sounds like a moral ideal for the future, which he thinks would be too Fichtean for Hegel. I still worry about misconceptions of Hegel as an apologist for his own particular community, so I prefer Brandom’s suggestion that Hegel does not intend to claim the transition to mutual recognition is yet completed.)

We can always find fault with someone if we try hard enough. Hegel cites the aphorism that “no man is a hero to his valet”, but wants us to do better than that. The better perspective is that fallible humans with weaknesses can still be heroes.

Middle Part of the Soul

Paul Ricoeur’s 1960 work Fallible Man (see Fallible Humanity) adopted Plato’s metaphor of a “middle part” of the soul that is an essentially mixed form influenced by both desire and reason. It’s not really a part, but more like what Hegel would call a moment of the whole, in this case the unique moment of combination that makes us us. Thinking of its mixed nature, Ricoeur recalls Kant’s saying that “understanding without intuition is empty, intuition without concepts is blind”, along with the Kantian imagination that linked the two.

“The riddle of the slave-will, that is, of a free will which is bound and always finds itself already bound, is the ultimate theme that the symbol gives to thought” (p. xxiii; emphasis in original). “Today it is no longer possible to keep an empirics of the slave will within the confines of a Treatise of the Passions in Thomist, Cartesian, or Spinozist fashion” (p. xxii) . One ought to consider psychoanalysis, politics, justice.

Striking a somewhat Augustinian note, he goes on “In joining together the temporal ‘ecstasies’ of the past and the future in the core of freedom, the consciousness of fault also manifests the total and undivided causality of the self over and above its individual acts. The consciousness of fault shows me my causality as contracted or bounded, so to speak, in an act which evinces my whole self. In return, the act which I did not want to commit bespeaks an evil causality which is behind all determined acts and without bounds. Where it is a question of a reflection attentive to projects alone, this causality divides itself in bits and fritters itself away in a disjunctive inventing of myself; but in penitent retrospection I root my acts in the undivided causality of the self. Certainly we have no access to the self outside of its specific acts, but the consciousness of fault makes manifest in them and beyond them the demand for wholeness which constitutes us” (p. xxvii). (See also Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Guilt

Ricoeur says the notion of sin is first of all the violation of a personal bond that involves “not essence but presence”. This is “from beginning to end… a religious dimension and not a moral one” (p. 52). His gloss of guilt as a consciousness of sin (p. 81) suggests that guilt is also not a moral concept and not related to essence. I think of guilt as a legal concept rather than an ethical one; Ricoeur’s train of thought suggests it is also ultimately religious. It seems to me what goes beyond positive law should be love and forgiveness, but Ricoeur briefly shows an overly diplomatic deference to what I would call the unholy idea of a supra-essential and supra-ethical command.

I’m also a bit nervous about a privileging of presence over essence, and about the work that presence is supposed to be doing.

Essence has often been denigrated, and some very shallow notions of it have been propounded. But insofar as we use that word to translate Plato and Aristotle, I treat their works as the gold standard for what it ought to mean. Problems arise when in opposition to Plato and Aristotle, so-called essences are assumed to be simply known, and thus taken for granted. Husserl had a different, thinner, perhaps even overly precise, almost mathematical notion of essence, adapted to a different context, aiming to be as abstract as possible, whereas I think even Plato and especially Aristotle aimed much more at the concrete.

Ricoeur speaks of a “realism of sin” (pp. 81ff) in the sense that sin is not fully captured by the consciousness of even the repentant sinner. This seems sound, but I’d still rather talk about justice and love than sin and guilt.

“There is no question of denying that the personal imputation of fault marks an advance over the scandalous collective responsibility that permits someone other than the guilty person to be punished. But it must be understood that the price of this advance is the loss of the unity of the human species…. The pseudo-concept of original sin is only the rationalization at the third degree, through the Adamic myth, of that enigmatic bond which is acknowledged rather than understood in the ‘we’ of the confession of sins” (p. 84). Now we seem to have divine blessing of a social bond among all of us talking animals rather than a supra-intelligible command, and I am happy again.

Fault should not be reduced to guilt (p. 100). We are “responsible and captive” (p. 101; emphasis in original). “[M]an had the consciousness of responsibility before having the consciousness of being cause, agent, author” (p. 102). This may begin to anticipate the need for something like the expanded notion of responsibility that Brandom has developed in his work on Hegel. Ricoeur says the recognition of individual responsibility and of degrees of guilt were decisive steps forward.

He stresses a paradoxical character of the “servile will” that is both free and in bondage. I don’t see any paradox in this. The reality just is that we have meaningful freedom, but it is far from total. Aristotle already pointed the way, and Ricoeur himself explained it very well in Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man.