For Itself

Hegel’s distinctive phrase “for itself” (für sich, literally “for self”) always seemed a little mysterious to me. It seems to refer to a self-aware being’s taking itself to be this or that, following a more or less Kantian model of judgment. That part is clear enough. But what in the world is something like “the concept in and for itself”?

Once again, the simple Kantian/Hegelian notion of reflection sheds a great deal of light on this. It applies on two levels.

First, there is a purely relational one that applies to anything that may be conceived as having characteristics that are mutually related to one another. These in turn may be construed in terms of a kind of self-relatedness of the underlying thing. In this sense, “for itself” would apply to things that have self-relatedness. This means practically everything, except perhaps some abstractly simple things like points in geometry.

Second, there is the level of self-relatedness that is internal to a reflective judgment or unity of apperception, and to the value-oriented self-consciousness arising from mutual recognition. Self-consciousness is not a detached spectator beholding multifarious relations, but has its very being within and amidst all those relations. We might say, then, that in this context the relations themselves are “self-conscious”. Similarly, concepts involved in reflective judgment are in a way necessarily “self-conscious” concepts.

In a way, our essence as human beings is the integral whole that results from — or is teleologically aimed at by — the self-consciousness of our concepts. This whole would be the totality of our commitments — everything we hold to be good, true, or beautiful.

For Hegel as for Aristotle, what count as “our” commitments and “our” concepts are not just whatever we assert are ours. The measure of what commitments and concepts are truly ours lies in what we do in life. And what we really did in any particular case is not just what we say we did or meant to do, but also what others can observe and evaluate.

In this way, to be “for oneself” is simultaneously to be for others, because what counts as one’s deed — and ultimately as oneself — is partly up to all those others who experience us. This doesn’t mean we are not entitled to make contrary assertions of our own that may be right; maybe in some particular case, the others affected by our deeds are prejudiced. For Hegel, the bottom line is that everyone affected gets a hearing in such cases, and the outcome — what is ultimately right — is not subject to a predetermined formula, but rather follows from all the fine details of each case. This is characteristic of the openness by which Kant first distinguished reflective judgment. It is also characteristic of Aristotelian practical judgment.

To be “for itself” or “for oneself” is to be a subject of reflective judgment. For humans, it is also to be a subject of mutual recognition.

At least in the first instance, “subject” here need not imply a self-conscious subject, just a thing with properties with which the judgment is concerned. But perhaps the human case suggests something about how a self-conscious subject could be thought of as a special case or elaboration of a simple Aristotelian “subject” or underlying thing.

What distinguishes Aristotle’s view of the higher levels of subjectivity (and, I think, Hegel’s too) from typical modern ones is that self-consciousness inheres not in the subject per se as a special kind of entity, but rather in the activity of reflection (contemplation, thought thinking itself, deliberation) in which the subject is involved.

Four Layers of Being Human

This is my own expansion of Aristotle’s classic “rational/talking animal” definition. In common with other animals, we have an organically grounded “imagination” that is a basis for consciousness and emotion. Then we have an acquired emotional disposition or character that corresponds to what Plato called the “middle part” of the soul. This is influenced by all the other layers. Third, our assimilation of language and culture and our more deliberately adopted values and commitments together constitute our ethos, as a kind of deeper essence of who we are. Finally, our vehicle for growth and change is our participation with others in the space of reasons.

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”. (See also Substance and Subject.)

Formal and Transcendental Logic

One of Edmund Husserl’s works that I had not looked at before is Formal and Transcendental Logic (German ed. 1929). This will be a very shallow first impression.

Although he goes on to argue for the importance of a “transcendental” logic, Husserl is far from denigrating purely formal logic. He explores developments in 19th century mathematics that have some relation to logic, like Riemann’s theory of abstract multiplicities. Formal logic itself comprises both a theory of objects and a theory of forms of judgment; Husserl aims to give a deeper meaning to both. Ultimately, he wants to give a “radical” account of sense, or meaning as distinguished from reference. For Husserl, we get to objects only indirectly, through the long detour of examining sense.

Having previously severely criticized the “psychologistic” account of logic made popular by John Stuart Mill, here he is at some pains to establish the difference between transcendental and psychological views of subjectivity. Husserl often seems overly charitable to Descartes, but here he writes, “At once this Cartesian beginning, with the great but only partial discovery of transcendental subjectivity, is obscured by that most fateful and, up to this day, ineradicable error which has given us the ‘realism’ that finds in the idealisms of a Berkeley and a Hume its equally wrong counterparts. Even for Descartes, an absolute evidence makes sure of the ego (mens sive animus, substantia cogitans [mind or soul, thinking substance]) as a first, indubitably existing, bit of the world…. Even Descartes operates here with a naive apriori heritage…. Thus he misses the proper transcendental sense of the ego he has discovered…. Likewise he misses the properly transcendental sense of the questions that must be asked of experience and of scientific thinking and therefore, with absolute universality, of a logic itself.”

“This unclarity is a heritage latent in the pseudo-clarities that characterize all relapses of epistemology into natural naivete and, accordingly, in the pseudo-clear scientificalness of contemporary realism. It is an epistemology that, in league with a naively isolated logic, serves to prove to the scientist… that therefore he can properly dispense with epistemology, just as he has for centuries been getting along well enough without it anyway.”

“… A realism like that of Descartes, which believes that, in the ego to which transcendental self-examination leads back in the first instance, it has apprehended the real psyche of the human being… misses the actual problem” (pp. 227-228).

“For a radical grounding of logic, is not the whole real world called in question — not to show its actuality, but to bring out its possible and genuine sense and the range of this sense…?” (p. 229).

“The decisive point in this confusion… is the confounding of the ego with the reality of the I as a human psyche” (p. 230).

This last is an argument I have been concerned to make in a Kantian context. However one chooses to pin down the vocabulary (I have been generally using “ego” for the worldly psychological thing, and “I” as actually referring to a nonempirical, transcendental index of certain commitments), the distinction is decisive. Empirical subjectivity in the realm of psychology and transcendental subjectivity in the realm of meaning are extremely different things, even though we live in their interweaving. These days I’m inclined to identify the human expansively with that possible opening onto the transcendental of values — or “Spirit” in a Hegelian sense — rather than contractively with the “merely human” empirical psyche.

Activity, Embodiment, Essence

I think any finite activity requires some sort of embodiment, and consequently that anything like the practically engaged spirits Berkeley talks about must also have some embodiment. On the other hand, the various strands of activity from which our eventual essence is precipitated over time — commitments, thoughts, feelings — are not strictly tied to single individuals, but are capable of being shared or spread between individuals.

Most notably, this often happens with parents and their children, but it also applies whenever someone significantly influences the commitments, thoughts, and feelings of someone else. I feel very strongly that I partially embody the essence and characters of both my late parents — who they were as human beings — and I see the same in my two sisters. Aristotle suggests that this concrete transference of embodied essence from parents to children is a kind of immortality that goes beyond the eternal virtual persistence of our essence itself.

Our commitments, thoughts, and feelings are not mere accidents, but rather comprise the activity that constitutes our essence. I put commitments first, because they are the least ephemeral. In mentioning commitments I mean above all the real, effective, enduring commitments embodied in what we do and how we act.

Time and Eternity

One of Kant’s innovations was a new analysis of the constitution of temporal experience. His famous theses about the role of synthesis in experience provide new insight into the paradoxes of temporal being or “becoming”, and its relation or non-relation to something outside of time. These had been raised by pre-Socratics like Heraclitus and Zeno of Elea, and more satisfactorily treated by Plato and Aristotle.

Heraclitus famously said that everything flows, you can’t step into the same river twice, and things change into their opposites. Zeno went in the opposite direction, conceiving space and time in terms of instants and points, neither of which have any magnitude. He then pointed out that motion at a durationless instant is a logical contradiction. On this basis, Zeno claimed to prove various things that violate common sense, such as that an arrow can’t fly, and that the speedy Achilles could never catch up with a turtle that had a head start. From this he concluded that motion, space, and time were mere illusions.

Plato seems to have at first focused on a sharp distinction between true “being” as eternal on the one hand, and becoming in time as mere appearance on the other. This distinction allowed him to have it both ways. But in dialogues that are thought to have been written later such as Theaetetus and The Sophist, he came to suggest that being and time are not simply two disjunct categories.

Aristotle made time and space more intelligible by developing notions of duration and extension. For Aristotle, duration and extension come first, while durationless instants, magnitudeless points, and pure flux are all abstractions. I see him as an early advocate of the primacy of process. For Aristotle, the key to making this viable is to be able to explain how becoming as we experience it is really not just a pure flux, but rather is full of islands of relative stability that allow us — contrary to Heraclitus — to reidentify objects as having an underlying basis of sameness that persists through various kinds of change. It turns out that the edges of the islands are not rigidly distinct, but he developed the notion conventionally translated as “substance” to explain our experience of the relatively persistent form of their middles.

It is here that Kant’s contribution is significant. Aristotle develops a plausible account of the persistence of form through change, but he discusses it mainly from the point of view of how things are, even though he separately suggests that experience is also shaped by processes of interpretation by us. Kant took up that suggestion, and developed it in considerable detail. Kant consistently emphasizes our role in constituting the stability of form of things we experience in time, though he also insists on an “empirical realism” that justifies most of what we get from so-called common sense. This implies that for Kant as well, there implicitly must be some basis in the way things are, for the stable constructs we come up with. Much of Hegel’s Phenomenology was devoted to a further development of these Kantian insights.

The neoplatonists and Augustine insisted that things in time have a source and destination in eternity. Classic neoplatonism attempted to treat this relation as a sort of quasi-logical unfolding of the divine essence, while Augustine identified it with the act of creation. The relation of temporal being to eternity remained a notorious point of difficulty in neoplatonism, while Augustine called it a mystery.

Hegel thought that Augustine ended up locating all reality in the Eternal, and that this resulted in a devaluation of actual life and experience. Aquinas already used ideas from Aristotle to allow for a more positive evaluation of temporal being. Some spiritual traditions go further and suggest that we humans have a sort of co-creator role in the world we experience. But it was Kant who mainly developed the basis for a non-supernatural explanation consonant with the spirit of this. The main point is that the world is not initially given in the form of pre-existing objects. We separate out objects from the sensible continuum, but at the same time this is not an arbitrary operation. We can’t just materialize a unicorn by thinking of one, but we do play a major active role in the construction of universals like “horse”, and in the recognition of persistent individuals.

Essences of things, once constituted, seem to “subsist” in some virtual way outside of time. The traditional view was that essences are straightforwardly built into the nature of things, or else simply dictated by God. Either way, this means that for us, they would be pre-given. I don’t think Aristotle really regards them this way, but only in the special case of biological organisms does he investigate their genealogy. Kant on the other hand effectively develops a generalized genealogy of essences, showing how they can be understood as temporally constituted.

Another of Kant’s big innovations is in explaining how we play a significant role in our own constitution. I think it is a grievous error to regard such processes of self-constitution as beginning with a blank slate, or as magically independent of real-world constraints, but there is a very important way in which we end up defining who we are — not by an explicit decision, but indirectly through the sum total of our commitments, actions, and responses to things.

That ethical “who we are”, while originating in time, is itself an essence with virtual subsistence. As with all essences, considered in its virtual subsistence, it is eternal. Aristotle would say that our essence stops evolving when our temporal being comes to an end. At that point, who we were is finally stabilized, as the total act of a life.