Naturalness, Mindedness

I’ll be devoting several posts to Robert Pippin’s important book Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life (2008). Pippin suggests we translate “philosophy of Geist (Spirit)” in a non-metaphysical way as “practical philosophy”, taking “practical” in the ethical sense. He will be centrally concerned to elaborate Hegel’s notion of freedom — which avoids any kind of dualism or voluntarism — and to explore the significance of Hegel’s claims that freedom is the most important thing in ethics. He calls Hegel’s account of the real possibility of freedom the most ambitious in the history of philosophy.

Pippin says he wants to suggest with Hegel that we are free when we can recognize our deeds and projects as expressing our own meaningful agency. According to Hegel, even organic life already involves purposes as distinct from causal relations, but freedom in the sense of arbitrary choice is a delusion. Rather, freedom for Hegel involves “a certain sort of self-relation and a certain sort of relation to others; it is constituted by being in a certain self-regarding and a certain sort of mutually recognizing state” (p. 39). Hegel’s name for these normative relations is Spirit.

For Hegel, things like spirit and individual soul are distinguished from simple nature “logically” rather than ontologically or metaphysically. They are not separate “substances” in the medieval or early modern sense, but “way[s] of being” (pp. 39-40). Freedom — said to be the essence of spirit — does not involve “having a special causal origin or being undertaken by a causally exempt being” (p. 40).

Pippin suggests that when Hegel talks about “the concept”, he effectively means normativity. Freedom involves a kind of normative self-determination. “[T]he truth that will set spirit free will not be a revelation or a discovery but its coming to act as fully what it is, a being constrained and guided by self-imposed norms” (ibid). He quotes Hegel saying it is freedom that makes spirit true, and that the philosophy of spirit can be neither empirical nor metaphysical.

Kant’s dualism was ethical rather than metaphysical, Pippin says, but it was strict. Hegel develops a continuity between nature and spirit, while enthusiastically embracing Kant’s critique of so-called rational psychology and his conclusion that the soul is not a thing, but rather to be identified with the “I” and with freedom. Hegelian Spirit is a form of activity .

Hegel says in freedom we are “with self in another” (p. 43). Pippin says this means “an achievement in practices wherein justificatory reasons can be successfully shared” (ibid). What could count as free action depends on this achievement of shareability of reasons.

Spirit’s self-legislation — in which we participate — can be identified with “the unconditioned”. Spirit as realized freedom is a historical achievement, related to the extension of freedom from a few to all. Spirit’s “production of itself”, while not reducible to natural terms, occurs as a result of the agency of natural beings. This must be distinguished from all empirical or philosophical psychologies. Hegel is quoted saying reason constitutes the substantial nature of spirit.

Nature is not a manifestation of cosmic spirit, or a mere appearance or illusion. Hegel’s complex view of teleology is not as a sort of providence or any kind of neoplatonic unfolding. Hegelian Spirit always presupposes nature. “Natural beings begin to understand themselves in ways not explicable as self-sentiment or mere self-monitoring because the form of their reflexive self-relation is an aspect of what is to be represented, not a separable, quasi-observational position” (p. 46). Once we begin talking about what a being takes itself to be, we have moved beyond simple nature. Wilfrid Sellars is quoted saying to think of someone as a person is not to “classify or explain, but to rehearse an intention” (p. 61).

Hegel vindicates “the oldest and original premise of ancient rationalism, that to be is to be intelligible” (p. 49; emphasis in original). Pippin characterizes his reading as “clearly neo-Aristotelian”. He concludes that there is no “missing ontology” in a position like this. Moreover, “the issues that dominate so much of the modern post-Cartesian, post-Kantian discussion about nature and mentality do not ever arise for Hegel: subjective self-certainty, raw feels, intentional states, mental objects, … and the problem of spontaneous causation in action” (p. 57).

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.)

Self, Infinity

Ricoeur’s idea of an ethical Self as an aim is an important new variant in the menagerie of nonequivalent concepts of self. Perhaps this one has been implicit for a while, but I had not clearly made this exact connection. I very much like Aristotelian ends and Brandom’s reading of Kantian unity of apperception as an ethical goal though, so it is a welcome addition. Now I suspect this is behind what Ricoeur later called ipse identity and narrative identity, which had been troubling me.

The same older work of Ricoeur’s also uses the term “infinite” for the relatively modest if still noteworthy kind of freedom that is indirectly apparent in ordinary language use and ordinary determination of concepts. I would probably still choose a different word to avoid other connotations, but have no objection to that meaning. Again though, a couple of later, less clear references to infinity that had troubled me could be explained by this.

Consent?

The final part of Paul Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature was to discuss our “aquiescence to necessity” (p. 341). At one point he says he is looking for a way to ground something like Nietzsche’s amor fati or “love of fate”. The idea would be to explain how to achieve reconciliation to what must be, but without falling into an overly passive stance. Here he notes that “Pure description raises more problems than it resolves or than it presents as resolved” (p. 347).

His attempts to describe various aspects of necessity — principally under the forms of character, the unconscious, and life, which he notes also involve other wills, history, and the whole course of nature — he finds to be irremediably tainted by the “spell of objectivity” (ibid). The problem seems to be that he honestly thinks empirical data — or psychoanalytic theories, in the case of the unconscious — give the best insight into the operations of “bodily necessity” (p. 343), but then his Marcellian concerns about objectification lead him to conclude that none of the work he surveys in this context is usable for achieving the kind of reconciliation he wanted.

He ends up hinting that this will be resolved in a future work that does not rely on a Husserlian “bracketing” of questions related to what Ricoeur calls Transcendence that he had announced would limit the scope of this work. Transcendence, he suggests, will be addressed in the new context of a “poetics” of the will, rather than the modified Husserlian phenomenology he was pursuing here. He seems to have believed that ultimate reconciliation of freedom and necessity could only be achieved through a spiritual relation to Transcendence. Without in any way diminishing the value of such a spiritual relation, I am more optimistic that there is a purely philosophical resolution of this issue, using Aristotelian and Brandomian resources. Meanwhile, having myself already used the term “poetic” to describe statements about spiritual beliefs, I look forward to seeing how he developed this notion of a “poetics”. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action.)

Freedom from False Freedom

This is just a tricky phrase rather than a new idea, but the idea is vital.

No person or institution has a “right” to do arbitrary things. Here, “arbitrary” means having no justification by ethical reason broadly construed. It thus applies to things like disrespecting others, or engaging in wanton destruction. Freedom should not be allowed to serve as a cover for unethical action.

With regard to wanton destruction, I would point out that we have no right to destroy the planet we live on. This raises issues of diffuse, expansive responsibility that no one wants to deal with, and for which most people at least cannot be individually blamed.

We all need to take more responsibility in cases where we could not be blamed for failing to do so. (See also Expansive Agency; Freedom Without Sovereignty; Mutual Recognition; Stubborn Refusal; Economic Rationality?)

Rationality

Ethical reason can potentially comprehend anything and it can influence things going forward, but it does not make everything or govern events. (See also Fragility of the Good.) Understanding comes late. Reason becomes free or autonomous only by a long, slow process. (See also Iterative Questioning.) Even so-called absolute knowledge — only “absolute” because it is free of the actually self-disruptive presumptions of the false freedom of Mastery — is just this freedom of reason.

There is after all a kind of negative freedom of reason at work here, but it is forever incomplete, and also has nothing to do with any negative freedom of a power, which is a fiction. We negatively free ourselves of unthinking assumptions while positively increasing our ability to make fine distinctions, our sensitivity to subtlety and nuance. This gives us new positive freedom in doing, with our still-finite power. (See also Ethical Reason, Interpretation.)

Acts in Brandom and Žižek

Both Brandom and Žižek recognize what Brandom has called the “world’s stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”, and yet hold out for the possibility of transformative action.

Brandom ingeniously secures the practical reality of choice through the indirect route of an Enlightenment idea that we can only be bound by values to which we have at least implicitly committed ourselves. The recalcitrance of the Real prevents this from becoming a subjectivism, specifically by virtue of his complementary thesis that the meaning of our commitments is not up to us. But actively taking responsibility for things beyond our power turns out to indirectly have a kind of efficacy. Retrospectively, this may change meant reality.

A lengthy article by Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner discusses agency in Žižek from various angles. This account at least is happily free of the Badiouian narrowing of consideration to a few inflationarily conceived “exceptional” acts that afflicts some of the Žižekians (see “Hard” Kantianism?). The concern is with acts in general, and subjectivity in general. Here I can find a good deal more common ground.

For Žižek, our desires are not our own, but the split in the subject that makes us never fully ourselves also connects us with the social. A subject is contrasted with subjectivation. Although passive, alienating subjectivation is inescapable, it also can never be complete. A subject is positively constituted by its own nonidentity or “impossibility” (i.e., impossibility of complete identity with itself). According to Vighi and Feldner, “this decentred kernel of otherness embodies my self-consciousness, the only place where I have a chance to locate the truth about myself”. The conscious activity of individuals is said to be not free, but we can nonetheless accomplish a free act through identifying with the destabilizing effect of what is “in us more than ourselves”. They argue that Žižek does not hypostatize an abstract negativity in the way that I think Sartre did.

Žižek himself wrote that “To ‘pass to the act’ means to assume the risk that what I am about to do will be inscribed into a framework whose contours elude my grasp” (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 31). This connects agency with the Lacanian Real. He also wrote that freedom corresponds to “my ability to choose/determine which causes will determine me. ‘Ethics’, at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility” (The Parallax View, p. 203).

So, despite huge differences in approach and terminology and Žižek’s negative comments about Brandom, on this question at this level of abstraction, there is a similar practical import.

Sartre

Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-80), the name most associated with existentialism, was a leading literary figure, public intellectual, and political activist in mid-20th century France. He initially became famous for dwelling on things like nausea and absurdity.

Sartre propounded one of the most extravagant voluntarisms ever conceived, grounded in a novel, atheistic metaphysics rather than the extreme supernaturalism that has usually supported such views. “[N]o limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself…. [F]or human reality, to be is to choose oneself; nothing comes to it either from the outside or from within which it can receive or accept…. Man… is wholly and forever free” (Being and Nothingness, pp. 439-441). We are “condemned” to freedom, are free even in prison, were never freer than during the Nazi occupation, and so on. For my own contrasting view, see Freedom and Free Will; Freedom Without Sovereignty; Choice, Deliberation; Structural Causality, Choice; Brandomian Choice.

Later, he developed a theory of what he called totalization. “If dialectical Reason exists, then, from the ontological point of view, it can only be a developing totalisation, occurring where the totalisation occurs, and, from the epistemological point of view, it can only be the accessibility of that totalisation to a knowledge which is itself, in principle, totalising in its procedures.” (Critique of Dialectical Reason, p. 47). This sounds like a nightmare of the sort of bad old metaphysical Hegelianism that would swallow everything, completely opposed to Hegel’s own acute sensitivity to context and the essential role of mediation.

What is common to Sartre’s notions of freedom and totalization is their inflationary character. This is not a sound basis for anything.

Pure Negativity?

I’m still hoping to arrive at a more constructive engagement with the Žižek school of contemporary Hegel interpretation. Žižek’s reading is more “metaphysical” than the Aristotle-and-Brandom-inspired one I’ve been developing here, and I’m not fond of his penchant for showmanship, but there is a broad proximity of concerns. I’m looking now at Sbriglia and Žižek, Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism (2020). The unusual “materialism” at issue here is openly proclaimed to be a development of German idealism. The contributors seek to distinguish themselves from other recent currents of so-called “cultural materialism”, “new historicism”, “new materialism”, and “object-oriented ontology”. I’ve briefly reviewed one of the representative works from which the Žižekians want to distinguish themselves.

Common to all these trends, the Žižek school, and the work pursued here is a rejection of a classic Cartesian Subject. As against the others, the Žižek school and I both also want to nonetheless affirm the importance of subjectivity. While I am not a Lacanian, I also think Lacan deserves serious engagement, and the Žižek school is pursuing that.

Sbriglia and Žižek write that “the self-limitation of the phenomenal that renders matter un-whole, the fact that the phenomenal field is in itself never ‘all’, never a complete, consistent whole, is strictly correlative to subjectivity as such” (p. 10, emphasis in original). Mladen Dolar in his contribution writes, “Subject is rather the very impossibility of substance to be substance” (p. 38). Žižek in his contribution adds, “when Kant asserts the limitation of our knowledge, Hegel does not answer him by claiming he can overcome the Kantian gap…. the Kantian gap already is the solution: Being itself is incomplete…. This dimension gets lost in Fichte and Schelling, who both assert intellectual intuition” (pp. 107-108, emphasis in original). This seems exactly right.

I would add that for similar reasons having to do with criteria of identity, there is an impossibility like Dolar’s (developed by Aristotle himself in the central books of the Metaphysics) for Aristotelian “what it was to have been” a thing to just be the kind of quasi-grammatical substrate that came to be commonly understood by Latin substantia. The above-quoted formulations are a big advance over notions of mere epistemic incompleteness due to the inexhaustibility of a naively conceived in-itself. In my more Aristotelian language, not only do we rational animals never have a completely univocal perspective on the whole, but we should not be afraid to speak of equivocal determination in the real. Equivocal determination is still determination, but it is incomplete.

My only caveat to Sbriglia and Žižek’s formulation would be on the Schellingian sound of “self-limitation of the phenomenal”. It seems to me the Žižek school sometimes wants to put a Schellingian spin on Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” claim, which would be an unfortunate regression. I think Hegel not only wanted to sharply distinguish his perspective from that of Schellingian identity philosophy, but succeeded in doing so.

Sbriglia and Žižek use the picturesque Lacanian language of a “hole in reality” as a defining characteristic of subjectivity, commenting that “the inaccessibility of the transcendent In-itself… is a result of the inscription of the perceiving subject into reality” (ibid). I prefer to minimize implicit identity claims, and thus to say (some) subjectivity rather than “the” subject. In some contexts, I think this is merely a terminological difference. Insofar as they just mean a decentered subjectivity with roots in the unconscious, the formulation seems fine, provided “perceiving” is taken as referring to something like Hegelian “Perception” and higher levels of the Phenomenology, not to something like his intended-to-be-discarded starting point of putative empirical “Sense Certainty”.

I get less comfortable with their talk about “the” subject as an abyss of pure negativity. Here I hear echoes of Sartre. While this is neither a substantial Cartesian-medieval intellectual soul nor even a Husserlian transcendental Ego, talk about “pure” negativity or an “abyss” seems to imply a kind of immanent infinity, albeit stripped of traditional theological associations. Sartre used this kind of metaphysics of negativity to bolster an extreme voluntarist anthropology, ironically transferring claims from old bad theology to the service of a strident atheism. Alain Badiou, who is a significant influence on the Žižek school, began as a Sartrean, and is perhaps the most outspoken extreme voluntarist today. I think it is a disservice to bring Sartre and Badiou into the reading of Hegel. Voluntarism is at root a naked expression of the attitude of one-sided Mastery, and should have no place in a discourse that aims at emancipation. Emancipation cannot come from an imposition of will. It comes rather from the increase of justice through processes furthering concrete realization of the autonomy of reason and mutual recognition. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Claims of immanent infinity may get a bit of added credibility these days, due to circulating complaints against Kantian “finitude”. It is easy to superficially enlist quotes from Hegel that appear to support such complaints. Here I want to explicitly defend the Kantian perspective of the essential finitude of human reality, relating it back to the happily rather than unhappily finite perspective of Aristotle, and supporting that by an Aristotelian-Brandomian reading of Hegel. A perspective of human finitude can also draw on charitable understandings of much traditional wisdom.

I do also think there is an inherently good but distinctly inhuman Hegelian “negative infinity” that can be anonymously intimate to our finite reality and the formation of our values, through the mediation of second nature, without actually being “us” or “ours” or immanent in us. Even if that negative infinity is to be identified with the “pure Self” Sbriglia and Žižek mention from Hegel’s 1805-06 lectures, it should not be identified with any empirical or existentialist or common-sense self. The Žižek school’s way of expressing this is to speak of a “split subject” or a split in the subject. Various strands of traditional wisdom can be seen in retrospect to have bearing on such a distinction as well. Members of the Žižek school would probably eschew any favorable reference to “traditional wisdom” of the kind I am making here as incompatible with academic-leftist credentials important to them, but Hegel himself often showed an irenic and even valorizing attitude on matters of this sort. (See also Acts in Brandom and Žižek; Self, Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Freedom Without Sovereignty

Talk about freedom tends to be terribly ambiguous. Do we mean freedom from compulsion, or freedom from determination, or freedom resulting from some positive power? Do we mean anything other than complete unfreedom, or a super-strong total freedom, or something in between?

As to the last question, we ought at least to avoid claiming we are subject to an overly strong unfreedom, without claiming we possess an overly strong freedom. There is an Aristotelian mean here waiting to be clarified.

A first step toward such a clarification is to recognize that freedom ought not to be understood as implying something like sovereignty. Sovereignty is a kind of unconditional, total, exclusive authority or power over a domain. I want to say that nothing in the real world really does or ought to work like that. True freedom involves freedom from this kind of false freedom.

Historically, theories of sovereignty trace back to the absolute and arbitrary power attributed to the Roman emperors. The modern concept of sovereignty originated in arguments for absolute monarchy, e.g., by Jean Bodin in the late 16th century. In later political thought, the notion of sovereignty was transferred to the state as an institution, or in Rousseau’s case to a supposed general will of the people. To the extent that sovereignty of nations really just implies a kind of respect, it is unobjectionable, but to the extent that it is taken to imply a right to do arbitrary things, it is harmful.

Modern notions of individual unilateral rights, while in many cases referring to things that ought to be protected and respected more than they are, are a bad theoretical basis for good ethical concern. The notion of unilateral rights is implicitly grounded in a notion of sovereignty of each individual over a certain domain. At best, rights are a safeguard against failures of mutual recognition and Kantian respect for people, which ought to come first.

We need to think about responsibility in ways that do not presuppose that we must have some kind of sovereignty in order to be responsible. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Rationality; Choice, Deliberation; Brandomian Choice; Kantian Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Free Will and Determinism; Freedom and Free Will; Desire of the Master; Independence, Freedom; Ego; Euthyphro; Strong Omnipotence; Tyranny.)