Subject and Substance, Again

In the area I have been exploring most recently, we are rather far from the notions of subject and substance that I think Hegel worked back to in the course of asserting that “substance is also subject”, as if this were something new and unheard of.

It was unheard of in the context of relatively standard modern notions of substance and subject. But it is trivially true that “substance” (ousia) in the logical sense of Aristotle’s Categories (as distinct from the much deeper and more interesting sense developed in the Metaphysics) is a “subject” in the Aristotelian sense of “thing standing under”.

It is also true, I think, that substance in the deeper Aristotelian sense is the kind of thing that what I call the human essence or ethical being is, and the latter, I want to contentiously claim, actually deserves to be called a truer form of “subject” than the more standard modern notion of a psychological or spiritual subject-agent.

I’m very aware that I haven’t adequately explained what I mean by human essence, even if I gesture at something by equating it with ethical being. It is important to recognize that most 20th century philosophers rejected the very idea of a human essence. In the course of rejecting it, they made a lot of valuable criticism of notions of human essence that were too easy or had overly specific, arbitrary implications. But essence in general in the best Platonic sense ought to be taken as an open question. And by human, I just mean all of us animals that participate in meaningful language, as Aristotle said.

In having meaningful dialogue at all, we implicitly acknowledge some sort of ethics and standards of reasonableness, even if they are underdeveloped or poorly practiced). We become a “who” through participation in language and the elementary practices of mutual recognition that are entailed by such participation.

Hegel talks about “ethical substance” as the basis of traditional culture. Its “substantial” character is both a strength and a shortcoming. It is unalienated, but ultimately limited by the fact that it just “is what it is”. In his view, this kind of life comes to be eclipsed by modern individualism with its focus on the subject-agent ego, which (to simplify greatly) in turn can potentially be eclipsed or overcome by mutual recognition and “substance that is also subject”.

Ethical Substance to Personhood

We have now reached the beginning of Hegel’s “Spirit” chapter. Hegel writes, “Reason is spirit, when its certainty of being all reality has been raised to the level of truth, and reason is consciously aware of itself as its own world, and of the world as itself…. When reason ‘observes’, this pure unity of ego and existence, the unity of subjectivity and objectivity, of for-itself-ness and in-itself-ness — this unity is immanent, has the character of implicitness or of being; and consciousness of reason finds itself. But the true nature of ‘observation’ is rather the transcendence of this instinct of finding its object lying directly at hand” (Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 457).

H. S. Harris in his commentary notes that “Historically, the transition at the beginning of this chapter is a great leap backwards. From Kant’s Categorical Imperative we go back to a world of custom where there was no critical Reason at all” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 147). “The ‘advance’ from the world of Fichte to the world of Sophocles is a logical development” (p. 148). Harris thinks Hegel did regard the post-Kantian Hellenism of Schiller and Hölderlin as at least a partial advance over the ethics of Kant and Fichte. In any case, Hegel goes on to discuss the ethical message of one of the greatest of the Greek tragedies, Sophocles’ Antigone. Goethe had apparently also considered Antigone very important.

Antigone deals with a conflict between Antigone, whose brothers had fought over the throne and who wanted to give a proper burial to her brother who lost after attacking the city with foreign troops, and the regent Creon, who treated her brother as a traitor to the city and prohibited normal burial rites. Antigone asserts an unconditional family loyalty, claims the support of ancient custom, and openly defies the explicit edict of the duly appointed ruler, which was also supported by a majority of the citizens. In the play, there is no reconciliation, and Antigone and Creon are both “tragic” figures.

Hegel treats Antigone as taking her stand in what he calls Ethical Substance and True Spirit, which in a simple and sincere way identify with values they simply “find”. He sees a great virtue in this simplicity, and argues that it provides something that is missing from the purely critical perspective of Kant and Fichte that wants to judge everything by formal criteria. But he still thinks the critical perspective was a great advance.

The bottom line Hegel wants to bring out is that we need something of both. True Spirit, while genuinely admirable, is limited by the simplicity of its attitude. The critical perspective is limited by its formalism and by the inherent bounds of one individual’s isolated attempt to judge everything for herself.

Hegel next turns to a historical consideration of how the Roman empire tended to dissolve the Ethical Substance of traditional cultures, replacing it with considerations based on legal “personhood”. This is not the broad notion associated with Kantian respect, but a narrow one associated with property ownership that actually excluded women, children, and slaves. Hegel has a generally negative view of Roman culture, and speaks sarcastically about the abstraction of legal persons. This sets the stage for his famous discussion of “alienation”.

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).