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Any representation involving contentful positive terms can always be superseded, as Hegel thinks it inevitably will be.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.

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).

Religion

The “Spirit” chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology is followed by a discussion of religion that is “phenomenological” in Hegel’s sense. The ultimate sense of “religion” that he develops could perhaps be summed up as what keeps Conscience honest.

We saw that Conscience faces a danger of self-deceit or hypocrisy when it becomes too comfortable in its self-certainty. The general antidote for this is the recognition of others, and of something greater than ourselves. More particularly, Hegel had concluded his discussion of mutual forgiveness at the end of the Conscience section as follows:

“The reconciling affirmation, the ‘yes’, with which both egos desist from their existence in opposition, is the existence of the ego expanded into a duality, an ego which remains therein one and identical with itself, and possesses the certainty of itself in its complete relinquishment and its opposite: it is God appearing in the midst of those who know themselves in the form of pure knowledge” (Baillie trans., p. 679).

This is a form of what Hegel calls the “I that is We, and the We that is I”, by which he characterizes “Absolute” Spirit. Harris notes that Hegel had appropriately introduced this formula as far back as the discussion of the Unhappy Consciousness, but here it begins to appear in an unalienated form.

In introducing the Religion chapter, Harris says “What happens when the Hard Heart breaks, and we make the transition to Religion proper is that the God within is projected outwards. God becomes recognizable as the spirit of the actual community in which we live and move. We give up the moral standpoint altogether, because we recognize the one-sided inadequacy of moral judgment, and the universal necessity of forgiveness for our finitude. Forgiveness is recognized as the only moral duty that can be absolutely fulfilled. Whether as moral agents, or as moral critics we need forgiveness; and we can receive it only if we give it, for that is the only way to deserve it and so to be able to forgive ourselves. The soul that flies from the world to the God within, is guilty for that flight, and doubly guilty when it pretends to condemn the world in the name of the God within. This inner God must appear; he must become ‘manifest’. That was already the fundamental importance of the Moral World-View. But God can only be manifest as the spirit of universal forgiveness, the spirit that transcends the whole moral standpoint.”

“This transcending of the moral standpoint does not constitute a ‘moral holiday’…. On the contrary, it is the climax of moral judgment, [and] resolves all the problems of the Moral World-View” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 521).

“But this ‘mercy’ of forgiveness is something with which (even for the religious consciousness that sees it as coming from a transcendent source) we must collaborate. God cannot forgive us, unless we can forgive ourselves; and to be able to do that we must both forgive others, and have the conscientious consciousness of commitment to the doing of our duty as best we can. For the absolute Self that is now manifest to us as an Absolute Subject ‘proceeding between’ the finite and imperfect moral self and its universal community is that same being that first appeared to Antigone as the ineluctable ‘unwritten law’ of family piety which has no known origin…. Thus we can now see that ‘the Absolute’ has indeed been ‘with us from the start'” (pp. 521-522).

“The Spirit does not cease to be an ‘object’ just because it has now appeared as a subject. For it is Substance just as much as it is Subject. The moral authority of Conscience is not affected by the recognition that the deliverance of Conscience is always one-sided, and hence in conflict with others. But the last law of Conscience, the one through which all consciences are reconciled is: ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged’…. [A] philosopher… must not presume to condemn anyone; for when he does that he falls short of his scientific goal, which is to comprehend them.”

“… It is only when we abandon the stance of moral judgment, only when we do not seek to be moral valets, that we can be scientific observers at all…. For it is only in this spirit of universal forgiveness, universal ‘absolution’, that we can be scientific observers at all” (p. 522).

“[T]he contradiction between the finiteness of the actual spirit and the infinity of the Absolute Spirit… is only overcome when we recognize that the adequate embodiment of Reason is in an actually infinite community of finite spirits. The rational spirit of forgiveness is ‘actually infinite’, precisely in virtue of having surrendered its office of legislation” (p. 523). (I prefer to say “potentially infinite”.)

“Religion is more truly practical than theoretical, because the reconciliation of practical disagreements in the spirit of fraternity, and the absolution of the necessary consciousness of finitude as ‘sinful’, is its logical goal” (ibid).

“The reconciled community continues to disagree; and its disagreements must at times be as absolute as Luther’s defiance of the Council of Worms” (p. 524).

“The object of Hegel’s chapter on Religion is to make the actual infinity of the human community appear in its visible concreteness…. [T]he ideal of community that we comprehended when we recognized the universal necessity of forgiveness, must now realize itself through the recollection of how our actual, far from holy, community has come to be” (p. 525).

According to Harris, “[R]eligious experience… must be generated in life (and in every aspect of life” (p. 534).

“The Dasein [concrete being] of Absolute Spirit is the total experience of the [world spirit] all spread out in space and time. In this sense, Absolute Spirit is the ‘Word, by which all things were made’; and this is the ultimate sense in which the Dasein of Spirit is language. We have to grasp that this is not just a theological metaphor. It expresses the logical truth that all modes of consciousness are modes of human self-interpretation…. ‘Spirit’ itself means only the actual finite communal spirit that is conscious of an external world. It is human religious experience that is the ‘self-consciousness’ of the Absolute Spirit.”

“Spirit does not have its properly absolute Self, until we become its self-consciousness as philosophical historians. We have to forgive and forget the moral struggle of singular agents, and observe how the social substance expresses itself in all of the active singular consciousnesses who are themselves preoccupied by their moral struggles.”

“Of course, being well schooled in the academic ethic of forgiveness (at least), we have been observing ‘experience’ from this ‘absolute’ standpoint all the time” (ibid).

“‘Finding out where we are’ when we adopt the stance of the critical observer is a long and complex task. We have to begin by trusting the instinct of our natural consciousness, and letting it criticize itself progressively. Then, in the end, we discover that our speculative observing standpoint is properly just the ‘compassionate’ attitude that our religion ascribes to God” (p. 535).

“It is vital to recognize that no transcendent subjectivity is involved in this ‘grabbing up’ of a particular Gestalt [shape] of Consciousness, Self-Consciousness, and Reason. There is only the human community building up its own way of life in the natural environment” (p. 540).

“It is a mark of the ‘natural rationality’ of the Greeks, that they realized their ‘God’ was not in charge of Fate” (p. 542).

“Hegel speaks of ‘God appearing’, only when the community understands its own function of forgiveness…. But when we arrive at the consciousness that ‘God is Love’, we are recognizing a divinity whose very being is constituted by our recognition” (ibid).

“At the end of the development, the distinction between actual life and religious consciousness is overcome” (ibid).

“God’s creative activity as Spirit has to be conceived as the progressive creation, not of the eternal order of Nature grasped by the Understanding, but of the embodied community of Reason…. [T]he ‘creation of the world’ signifies God’s creation of himself as Spirit” (p. 543).

“There is no ‘self’ involved in the process, except the one that comes to be through it; and the deepest truth about that ‘One’ is that it is necessarily the infinite unity of the many selves who are members of its community” (ibid).

“Only after the bad infinity of the certainty that Reason is God has been experienced in every possible way, can the adequate concept of Religion itself be born” (p. 546).

“The immortal spirit must speak to us not with natural noises but in our own speech; and what she tells us we must be able to recognize as what we all knew or ought to have known. Her utterance must be recognizably divine because it is the voice of Reason” (p. 566).

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.

Toward Spirit

To hazard a simple analogy, for Hegel active “Reason” is to the inherently mediated character of “Self-Consciousness” as statically representational “Understanding” is to putatively direct “Consciousness”. So far in the development of the Phenomenology, Reason has not yet embraced its own character as fundamentally social, shareable, and essentially ethical as well as individually embodied.

“Spirit” will be Hegel’s name for shared ethical culture. Hegel figuratively identifies his ethical ideal of mutual recognition with Christian love or agape, and ethical Spirit with the concrete presence of the Holy Spirit in a community practicing such love.

H. S. Harris begins the second volume of his commentary with an anticipation of what is to come. “First the singular rational agent takes itself to be the principle of a freedom that must replace the law of worldly necessity; then it becomes the true consciousness of the law as opposed to a false worldly consciousness of it; and when the two sides of this consciousness recognize each other as equally necessary, rational Individuality is achieved.”

“Even then the identity of singular desire with universal law is ambiguous and unstable. The rational individuals all have their own lives to lead; and when they claim to be exercising their Reason, by doing what is best for everyone, it is evident both that their view of the rational good is biased, and that there is a competition to be the one individual who does the rational Thing” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 1).

“The singular rational consciousness cannot say what is right, universally, and without regard to the social situation and circumstances…. We only think that we can do this… because we already know (instinctively) what we must do, not rationally and universally, but within the definite community of which we are already members.”

“With this discovery, singular consciousness leaves the center of the stage and withdraws to the wings. The subject of experience now is the Spirit. ‘Spirit’ has been implicitly present (for us) as the universal side of the singular consciousness…. But now this universal side emerges as an independent ‘shape of consciousness'” (pp. 1-2).

“The Dasein [concrete being] of the Spirit is language. Wherever I hear (or read) a speech which I recognize to be not mine or yours, but equally mine, yours, and ‘ours’… there the Spirit is” (p. 2).

“[F]rom the inevitable conflict between the universal voice that speaks to all, and the particular voice that Custom designates as authoritative for our particular group, springs disaster for the immediate (or True) Shape of Spirit as a communal self.”

“From the breakdown of Spirit as customary unanimity, ordinary commonsense ‘selves’ emerge. But this world of private individuals is not, and cannot be, a properly rational world…. [T]he execution of the law still requires a singular agent; and the authority of the law must be maintained by a power that is no longer ‘ours’ but alien and arbitrary” (ibid).

“To escape from this breakdown, the voice of the universal Spirit must be alienated conceptually…. But this discarnate voice still has to be incarnated in individual agents” (ibid). The ideal of universality is first transferred from a traditional face-to-face community to an abstract nation-state. But “the faith in a divine authorization of the constitution, is faced by the insight that every rational consciousness must be recognized as such, and hence as equal” (ibid).

“At this point, the Spirit must retreat into the inward voice of moral duty” (p. 3). But this will eventually lead to the explicit appearance of God as the “word of forgiveness” (ibid). The “final reality of the Absolute Spirit… makes its first appearance as the ‘Yes’ of acceptance exchanged mutually between the judging consciousness and the agent” (ibid).

Harris emphasizes that were it not for the “science” of “experience” Hegel develops in the Phenomenology, true communication of content between the singular ethical being and a larger community “would only be effective between the philosopher and us, the philosophically prepared audience. But through the demonstrated identity of the religious community with ‘us’, the communication becomes universal” (ibid). Meanwhile, “in the ‘Yes’ of comprehending acceptance exchanged between agent and judge… the impersonal voice of the universal good… has become completely incarnate as a human relation” (ibid).

Brandom on Postmodernity

Brandom’s third Brentano lecture offers a nice summary of his ethical vision of a Hegelian postmodernity, which has nothing to do with fashionable “postmodernism”, but did inspire the masthead here.

What might be called the traditional view of normativity treats normative statuses as just being what they are, and as simply given to us. According to this view, normative attitudes ought to simply respect pre-given values, and there is no place for inquiry into what is right. Actions are judged in a completely external way, with no regard for the actor’s intent. Hegel used the tragedies of Sophocles to illustrate this. Oedipus accepted full moral responsibility for consequences of which he was totally unaware. This is the stance of a tragic hero. Viewed charitably, it has the benefit of recognizing that everything is not up to us, and that values have a kind of objectivity.

The “modern” view — which I think appeared already among the Greek Sophists — is the polar opposite of the traditionalist view. In its pure form, it reduces all normative considerations to attitudes in the shallow sense, and denies any possible objectivity of values. The attitudes in question can be completely arbitrary. Depending on whether the attitudes that count are anyone’s or only those of the sovereign or of the privileged, the modern view can be anarchistic or authoritarian. But viewed charitably, it has the benefit of suggesting that intentions and personal conscience do matter, while avoiding reliance on a simple givenness of values.

These are both what Hegel called “one-sided” views, each asserting the complete independence of something. Neither statuses nor attitudes can really be completely independent of the other.

The “postmodern” view that Brandom develops out of Hegel recognizes that every thing has some dependence on other things, while also allowing for relative independence. In this view, everyone has both some responsibility and some authority, and responsibility for any given thing is ultimately shared by all of us. All normative statuses are instituted by normative attitudes, but only attitudes that have the structure of mutual recognition can institute genuine normative statuses. Hegel also spoke of confession and mutual forgiveness in this context.

“How can we both make the norms and be genuinely governed by them?”, Brandom asks (p. 76). We do both, but the same person does not do both with respect to the same thing at the same time. “The short answer, I think, is that our past attitudes institute norms that provide the normative standards of assessment for our current attitudes. Such a slogan conceals the rich fine-structure of [Hegel’s] account, however” (p. 77).

Norms are instituted through recollection of an expressively progressive trajectory, Brandom will say (see Hegelian Semantics). “It is in particular the recollective phase of diachronic recognitive processes that explains the attitude-transcendence of normative statuses, which provide standards for normative assessment of the correctness of attitudes” (p. 88).

At any given moment, we should aim “at acknowledging and attributing what we and others are really committed and entitled to, our actual responsibilities and authority” (p. 76). But what we are really committed to can only be seen retrospectively (see Hegel on Willing) and by taking into account the assessments of others. What we are really committed to may on this account be quite different from what we tell ourselves we are committed to.

“The challenge to the intelligibility of normative governance comes from the idea that the authority of norms over attitudes must be total in order to be genuine. It is a manifestation of the deformed conception of pure independence: the idea that authority (normative independence) is undercut by any sort of correlative responsibility to (dependence on) anything else. This is the practical normative conception Hegel criticizes allegorically under the rubric of ‘Mastery.'” (p. 93).

Just because something might be explained without reference to values does not mean that we should so explain it. That would be the cynical attitude that, e.g., people only do good in order to feel good about themselves. Where apparently virtuous actions also appear to have ulterior motives, it is not valid on that basis to assume that there is no genuine ethical motive in play.

“Taking recollective responsibility for another’s doing is practically acknowledging the obligation to tell and endorse a certain kind of retrospective story about that doing. That is the responsibility to rationally reconstruct it as norm-governed. The forgiving recollector must discern an implicit norm that governs the development of the deed.” (p. 98).

“Some things people have done (both ourselves and others), we want to say, are simply unforgivable. (The last century or so provides a host of notorious, alarmingly large-scale candidates.) In some cases, though we might try to mitigate the consequences of evil doings, we just have no idea at all how to go about discerning the emergence of a governing norm we could endorse ourselves. And this situation does not just arise in extraordinary or exceptional cases. Any actual recollective story will involve strains: elements, aspects, or descriptions of what is actually done, at every stage in the developing process, that cannot be smoothly, successfully, or convincingly given such a norm-responsive explanation” (p. 101).

“It might well be that one is in fact incapable of fulfilling that commitment, of carrying out that responsibility. If and insofar as that is so, it is a normative failure that the unsuccessful would-be forgiver should confess. To take proper recognitive recollective responsibility requires the forgiving agent to confess her own inadequacy to the recollective task. Your confession of a failure of your practical attitudes appropriately to acknowledge a norm is a petition for my recognition in the form of my forgiving taking of (co-)responsibility for your doing. My subsequent failure to adopt adequately forgiving recollective recognitive attitudes is something I am in turn responsible for confessing. That confession is itself an act of identification with you: ‘I am as you are.’ My attitudes, like yours, fail adequately to satisfy the norms that they nonetheless acknowledge as binding, as governing those attitudes” (p. 102).

“Paying one’s dues as a member of a recognitive community structured by trust is acknowledging that one is always already implicitly committed to forgiving, responsible for forgiving what one’s fellows do or have done” (ibid).

Referring to Hegel’s famous figure of the cynical valet, Brandom says “The Kammerdiener stands for a view that explains all attitudes in terms of other attitudes, without needing to appeal to governing norms or statuses that they are attitudes towards and acknowledgments of. Hegel does not deny that this sort of explanation in terms of attitudes alone can be done…. But we can ask: what sort of disagreement is it that divides the Kammerdiener and the ‘friend of the norms’ for whom some heroes really are heroes? Is it a cognitive, matter-of-factual disagreement about what there is in the objective world? After all, for Hegel, modernity was right that normative statuses are attitude-dependent. Hegel diagnoses the issue instead as a difference in meta-attitude. He denominates the norm-blind reductive naturalism of attitudes, for which the Kammerdiener stands, debasing: ‘niederträchtig’ (literally, something like “pulling down or under”). The contrasting, norm-sensitive, status-responsive, hero-acknowledging meta-attitude that takes some attitudes to be themselves genuinely norm-sensitive and norm-acknowledging he calls magnanimous: ‘edelmütig’ (literally: noble spirited)” (pp. 90-91).

“[T]he trusting conception is heroic, like the tragic conception, in that responsibility is total. Responsibility is taken for the whole deed. There is no aspect of intentional doings that overflows and falls outside the normative realm of responsibility—no specification of the deed for which no-one takes responsibility” (pp. 106-107).

“Agency as understood and practiced within the magnanimous recognitive structure of confession and forgiveness combines these two heroic aspects of the premodern conception: sittlich appreciation of the status-dependence of normative attitudes and acknowledging total responsibility for the deed as consequentially extended beyond the knowledge and control of the agent. It can maintain a heroic expanded conception of the deed for which responsibility is taken because it has an expanded conception of who is responsible for each doing” (p. 107).

“The neo-heroic postmodern form of practical normativity replaces fate with something we do. What happens is given the form of something done. Immediacy, contingency, particularity and their recalcitrance to conceptualization are not done away with. But they now take their proper place. For we appreciate the necessary role they play in the process of determining the contents of the norms we both institute by our recognitive attitudes and acknowledge as governing that experiential process. The burdens of tragic subjection to fate are replaced by the tasks of concrete magnanimous forgiveness. Where our normative conceptual digestion and domestication of immediacy, contingency, and particularity shows its limitations, when (as in each case, as the Kammerdiener reminds us, at some point they must) they outrun our recollective capacity to incorporate them into the mediated, normative conceptual form of governing universals, that failure of ours is properly acknowledged by confession, and trust in the forgiveness of that failure to fulfill our responsibilities, by more knowledgeable and capable future recollectors” (p. 108). (See also Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Ricoeur on Forgiveness

The epilogue to Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is entitled “Difficult Forgiveness” (after this I’ll return to the beginning).  Forgiveness is “an eschatology of the representation of the past.  Forgiveness – if it has a sense, and if it exists – constitutes the horizon common to memory, history, and forgetting.  Always in retreat, this horizon slips away from any grasp” (p. 457).  

Forgiveness results in “unbinding the agent from the act”.  “In order to be bound by a promise, the subject of an action must be able to be released from it through forgiveness” (p. 459).   Nonetheless, some acts are completely unjustifiable; in particular, crimes against humanity.  In these cases, “justice must be done” (p. 473).  “My thesis here is that a significant asymmetry exists between being able to forgive and being able to promise” (p. 459).   In general, we should not too easily forgive ourselves.  And “The commandment to love one’s enemies begins by breaking the rule of reciprocity and demanding the extraordinary” (p. 482).  “[F]orgiveness has a religious aura that promising does not” (p. 487).

Ricoeur recalls Jacques Derrida’s paradox that “forgiveness is directed to the unforgiveable or it does not exist” (p. 468).  He returns to the theme of “fault”, originally developed 40 years earlier in Fallible Man: “[S]elf-recognition is indivisibly action and passion, the action of acting badly and the passion of being affected by one’s own action” (p. 462).   His analyses have been “an exploration of the gap opened between the unforgivable fault and this impossible forgiveness” (p. 490).  He agrees with Derrida that “forgiving the guilty person while condemning his action, would be to forgive a subject other than the one who committed the act” (ibid).  

Still, he thinks there could be “a more radical uncoupling… at the heart of our very power to act – of agency – namely, between the effectuation and the capacity that it actualizes” (ibid).  This would be an instance of Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality.  Several times in his later works, Ricoeur pointed out the importance of actuality and potentiality in Aristotle, though he tended to assimilate potentiality to a more Platonic notion of power in the sense of “power to”.  This is what is in play in Ricoeur’s oft-expressed concern for “the capable human”.  Plato’s association of being a being with this kind of “power to” was already richly provocative, but Aristotle took the same word dynamis and gave it a much more subtle and developed meaning, which I summarized as “multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality” (see The Importance of Potentiality).  But either way, forgiveness can be understood as a kind of trust in someone’s potentiality over against past actuality. (See also Fallible Humanity; Middle Part of the Soul.)

Memory, History, Forgetting

I’ll be devoting several upcoming posts to Paul Ricoeur’s last big book Memory, History, Forgetting (French ed. 2000), to which I just added a reference in I-Thou, I-We. This work weaves fascinating discussions of memory and forgetting as well as more explicitly ethical considerations into the results of Ricoeur’s earlier Time and Narrative, to which I devoted an eight-part series, culminating in the post Narrated Time. Near the beginning, Augustine and Husserl’s more specific discussions of memory are incorporated and reflected upon. Husserl’s “egological” view is criticized after a sympathetic interpretation, and Ricoeur develops an important critique of Locke’s influential views on memory and personal identity. The middle of the book further develops Ricoeur’s thought on the writing of history. At the end, there is a long meditation on forgiveness.

Hegel and the French Revolution

Rebecca Comay’s Mourning Sickness: Hegel and the French Revolution (2011) is a far better book than her recent collaboration with Frank Ruda (see Hopes Dashed). This is in the genre of literature people doing a sort of philosophy, and tends to dwell too much for my taste on broadly “existentialist” themes like sickness, loss, anxiety, etc., but it is a prolonged meditation on its subject matter, ending with a substantial discussion — and ultimately a positive, if somewhat paradoxical assessment — of the role of forgiveness in Hegel’s Phenomenology, as politically liberating.

Around 1800 in Germany, it was something of a commonplace to claim that Germany did not need a political revolution like France did, because Germany had already had the Reformation, as well as Kant’s Copernican revolution as interpreted by Fichte. Kant had expressed sympathy with the French Revolution’s ideals, but horror both at the idea of revolution, and at the execution of the French monarch in particular. (See also Enlightenment.) To oversimplify a bit, the German Romantics tended to feel that the freedom of the Subject claimed by Fichte captured everything good about the Revolution.

Hegel distanced himself from the Romantics, and mixed praise of Fichte with sharp criticism of his one-sidedness. Though Hegel championed what he considered to be true freedom, he also noted there was an uncomfortable relation between one-sided freedom and Terror. This should not be too surprising, since one-sided freedom on Hegel’s analysis is a kind of mastery. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

In the context of the paranoia that drove the Terror, which Comay associates with Hegel’s allegory of the hard-hearted judge, Comay quotes Hegel saying “the fear of error is itself the error” that “mistrusts everything except [its] own mistrust” (p. 121).

I think every state and every revolution has sometimes followed a kind of Realpolitik, under which ethical goods are sacrificed in the name of what are expediently deemed to be greater goods, e.g., the conformist political “Virtue” promoted by Robespierre. It becomes all too easy to denounce others as counter-revolutionaries or Reds or terrorists or the moral equivalent thereof, while equating one’s own Terror with Virtue. There is a rather desperate need for an Aristotelian mean here. People should not be unconditionally pacifist in the face of oppression or aggression, but we ought to be very selective and conditional about endorsing the legitimacy of violence in the name of a greater good. (See also Stubborn Refusal; Sanctions.)

Hegelian forgiveness, Comay says, “evacuates the substantial plenitude of every community. The opening of the universal is thus neither reconstructive (forgiveness does not presuppose the stable identity of the social context) nor constructive (it does not stipulate a social norm).” (p. 133.) Then “The event is historicized: instead of determining the future, the past is freed to receive a new meaning from the future…. I am freed from the past, freed to act differently, only by exposing myself to the moral claim of others…. If I am no longer the prisoner of my act, this is because I am not its proprietor either.” (p. 133.) And “The reconciling yes… retains its participial, unfinished aspect. It speaks not of reconciliation but of an unfinished and ongoing movement of reconciling” (p. 136).

Rhetorical differences notwithstanding, this much seems to me entirely compatible with Brandom’s reading of Hegelian forgiveness.

Comay says, however, that it “challenges every politics of recognition (especially those formulated in Hegel’s name) constructed on a model of dialogical transparency” (p. 135). I’m not quite sure what is meant to be implied here by “dialogical transparency”, but I don’t think the work of reason in dialogue is “transparent”. Work is not a metaphor here. Dialogue involves actual conceptual/interpretive and communicative work leading to developments that do not come ready-made.

Comay goes on to associate a politics of recognition with identity politics, without saying of whom she is thinking. I’m used to a more positive, universalist Kantian-ethical view of recognition that has nothing to do with identity politics.

Magnanimity

Magnanimity (literally “great-souledness”) has a special place among the Aristotelian virtues. It is said to be a mean that avoids both vanity and small-mindedness. In the later tradition under Christianity, pride often tended to be regarded simply as a sin, but Aristotle made a strong distinction between vanity or arrogance and a legitimate, well-founded kind of pride that leads to good actions.

Aristotle says a person who has this legitimate kind of pride will be very willing to help others, but will generally avoid asking for help. Such a person will be open and frank, caring more about the truth than about negative judgments of others. They will generally not hide what they feel. They will have the confidence to assert themselves with others who have power and authority, but will treat others — especially those less fortunate — with kindness and respect, and perhaps ironic self-depreciation. Also, “it is not a mark of greatness of soul to recall things against people, especially the wrongs they have done you, but rather to overlook them”.