At Home in Otherness

This is part 3 of my direct walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology. It seems that the phrase “being at home in otherness” originated in my own notes on H.S. Harris’ commentary, and literally occurs neither in Hegel nor in Harris. Nonetheless, I still want to suggest that the underlying idea is central to the perspective Hegel wants to recommend. Hegel speaks at length about what might be called thinking in the element of otherness, and provocatively ties it to the overcoming of alienation, thereby seeking to transform our pre-existing notions of what that might mean.

More conventionally, the overcoming of alienation has been represented as the recovery of a lost possession or lost innocence that we originally had, like a figurative return to the garden of Eden. The German Romantics of Hegel’s time had popularized this sort of comfortable and reassuring notion. Hegel wants to give it an altogether different and much more challenging meaning.

He points out the inherent weakness of all isolated theses and unelaborated statements of principle.

“[A]ny further so-called fundamental proposition or first principle of philosophy, if it is true, is for this reason alone also false just because it is a fundamental proposition or principle. — It is consequently very easily refuted. Its refutation consist in demonstrating its defects; however, it is defective because it is only the universal, or, only a principle, or, it is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, then it is derived from and developed out of that fundamental proposition or principle itself — the refutation is not pulled off by bringing in counter-assertions and impressions external to the principle. Such a refutation would thus genuinely be the development of the fundamental proposition itself” (Pinkard trans., p. 15).

No matter how good the principle, a shallow statement of it will be “false”.

“Conversely, the genuinely positive working out of the beginning is at the same time just as much a negative posture toward its beginning; namely, a negative posture toward its one-sided form, which is to be at first only immediately” (p. 16).

Everything that Hegel would recognize as genuine development and improvement begins with thoughtful criticism of what went before.

“[Spirit] must be, to itself, an object, but it must likewise immediately be a mediated object, which is to say, it must be a sublated object reflected into itself” (ibid).

“To sublate” translates German aufheben, a famous Hegelian term that means simultaneously to absorb and to transform (literally, “to on-lift”).

“Pure self-knowing in absolute otherness, this ether as such, is the very ground and soil of science, or knowing in its universality. The beginning of philosophy presupposes or demands that consciousness is situated in this element. However, this element itself has its culmination and its transparency only through the movement of its coming-to-be. It is pure spirituality, or, the universal in the mode of simple immediacy. Because it is the immediacy of spirit, because it is the substance of spirit, it is transfigured essentiality, reflection that is itself simple, or, is immediacy; it is being that is a reflective turn into itself” (pp. 16-17).

In a very characteristic gesture, he begins to point out that in human life, even mediation and immediacy don’t just stand alongside each other as statically independent opposites. Rather, we end up with all sorts of mixed forms of “mediated immediacy” and “immediatized mediation”. This interweaving is especially typical of what he calls “spirit”.

By “science”, once again, he means mediated rational understanding. “Absolute otherness” is the antithesis of the identity-oriented simplicity and rigidity of the point of view of ordinary consciousness. What we mainly encounter in life are mixtures of these two, with a tilt toward the ordinary. I’m inclined to think there could be no human experience at all without some admixture of otherness. A stronger otherness disturbs our complacency and takes us out of our comfort zone, but Hegel wants to gently suggest that this can be a good thing.

“However much the standpoint of consciousness, which is to say, the standpoint of knowing objective things to be opposed to itself and knowing itself to be opposed to them, counts as the other to science — the other, in which consciousness is at one with itself, counts instead as the loss of spirit — still, in comparison, the element of science possesses for consciousness an other-worldly remoteness in which consciousness is no longer in possession of itself. Each of these two parts seems to the other to be an inversion of the truth” (p. 17).

Here he acknowledges that what he is recommending must seem incredibly strange from the perspective of ordinary consciousness.

He continues, “For the natural consciousness to entrust itself immediately to science would be to make an attempt, induced by it knows not what, to walk upside down all of a sudden. The compulsion to accept this unaccustomed attitude and to transport itself in that way would be, so it would seem, a violence imposed on it with neither any advance preparation nor with any necessity. — Science may be in its own self what it will, but in its relationship to immediate self-consciousness, it presents itself as an inversion of the latter…. Lacking actuality, science is the in-itself, the purpose, which at the start is still something inner, at first not as spirit but only as spiritual substance. It has to express itself and become for itself, and this means nothing else than that it has to posit self-consciousness as being at one with itself” (ibid).

Hegel’s own favored attitudes, like rationality or “science”, are not exempt from the general requirement of development. To simply try to foist “science” or our favored view of rationality or the value of otherness on the public as ready-made conclusions differs little from attempts to socially impose any arbitrary prejudice. It is a means not at all suited to the ends of philosophy.

In speaking of “immediate self-consciousness”, he applies another paradoxical mixed form. The very essence of self-consciousness for Hegel is mediation, or the opposite of immediacy. But even the most highly mediated form can also be named, pointed at, presented, represented, or recalled in a more immediate way. Every level of development has its own characteristic reflection in relative immediacy.

He continues, “This coming-to-be of science itself, or, of knowing, is what is presented in this phenomenology of spirit” (ibid).

“Knowing, as it is at first, or, as immediate spirit, is devoid of spirit, is sensuous consciousness. In order to become genuine knowing, or, in order to beget the element of science which is its pure concept, immediate spirit must laboriously travel down a long path…. In any case, it is something very different from the inspiration which begins immediately, like a shot from a pistol, with absolute knowledge, and which has already finished with all other standpoints simply by declaring that it will take no notice of them” (pp. 17-18).

Immediate spirit is devoid of spirit in the deeper sense that travels down a long path. But still it contains a beginning.

“The aim is spirit’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience demands the impossible, which is to say, to achieve the end without the means. On the one hand, the length of the path has to be endured, for each moment is necessary — but on the other hand, one must linger at every stage along the way, for each stage is itself an entire individual shape” (p. 19).

Rational understanding has to grow organically — to be actively taken up and worked over by its participants — to realize its value. Once again, it is never enough to just present summary conclusions and expect the world to agree, no matter how right they are. A long, patient working out is essential to achieving the goal he has in mind.

“In this movement… what still remains is the representation of and the familiarity with the forms” (ibid).

“The element thus still has the same character of uncomprehended immediacy, or, of unmoved indifference as existence itself, or, it has only passed over into representational thought. — As a result, it is at the same time familiar to us, or, it is the sort of thing that spirit has finished with, in which spirit has no more activity, and, as a result, in which spirit has no further interest” (ibid).

Familiarity is an issue because it leads us to take things for granted and become inattentive. Hegel contrasts all forms of static representation of knowledge with the kind of active coming-to-be of knowing he is aiming at.

He continues, “However much the activity, which is finished with existence, is itself the immediate, or however much it is the existing mediation and thereby the movement only of the particular spirit which is not comprehending itself, still in contrast knowing is directed against the representational thought which has come about through this immediacy, is directed against this familiarity, and it is thus the doing of the universal self and the interest of thinking” (ibid).

In more Aristotelian language, once an understanding is acquired, it becomes passively available for easy use. The mode of this availability and easiness is a kind of habit. Habits have a great utility for action and responding to the world, but in exercising a habit we are not learning anything new. The active becoming of knowing, on the other hand, demands continuous learning.

“What is familiar and well-known as such is not really known for the very reason that it is familiar and well-known. In the case of cognition, the most common form of self-deception and deception of others is when one presupposes something as well known and then makes one’s peace with it. In that kind of back-and-forth chatter about pros and cons, such knowing, without knowing how it happens to it, never really gets anywhere. Subject and object, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are, as is well known, all unquestioningly laid as foundation stones which constitute fixed points from which to start and to which to return…. Thus, for a person to grasp and to examine matters consists only in seeing whether he finds everything said by everybody else to match up with his own idea of the matter, or with whether it seems that way to him and whether or not it is something with which he is familiar” (p. 20).

“To break up a representation into its original elements is to return to its moments, which at least do not have the form of a representation which one has merely stumbled across, but which instead constitute the immediate possession of the self. To be sure, this analysis would only arrive at thoughts which are themselves familiar and fixed…. However, what is separated, the non-actual itself, is itself an essential moment, for the concrete is self-moving only because it divides itself and turns itself into the non-actual” (ibid).

Actualization as a process is not just the tranquil extension of what is already actual. The emergence of new actuality essentially depends on what is currently non-actual.

He continues, “The activity of separating is the force and labor of understanding, the most astonishing and the greatest of all the powers, or rather, which is the absolute power” (ibid).

Hegel is better known as a sharp critic of the limits of the understanding that divides and sees only fixed things. But here, against the Romantics he defends analytical understanding’s creatively disruptive role in unsettling our complacency.

He continues, “The circle, which, enclosed within itself, is at rest and which, as substance, sustains its moments, is the immediate and is, for that reason, an unsurprising relationship. However, the accidental, separated from its surroundings, attains an isolated freedom and its own proper existence only in its being bound to other actualities and only as existing in their context; as such, it is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thinking, of the pure I” (ibid).

Just as new actualization depends on what is non-actual, the complacency of substantial existence is only spurred to new learning by what first appears as accident.

“Spirit only wins its truth by finding its feet in its absolute disruption” (p. 21).

To “find its feet in absolute disruption” is to be at home in otherness.

He continues, “Spirit is not this power which, as the positive, avoids looking at the negative, as is the case when we say of something that it is nothing, or that it is false, and then, being done with it, go off on our own way on to something else. No, spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face and lingering with it” (ibid).

“Negation” for Hegel is not the simple thing that it is in Boolean logic. Boolean negation is purely formal, and yields the exact opposite of its input. For Hegel, every manifestation of otherness is a sort of “negation”. Personally, I prefer the language of otherness. Thus I would say, “looking otherness in the face and lingering with it”. This involves looking beyond fixed thoughts and everything that has the form of givenness.

“[I]n modern times, the individual finds the abstract ready-made…. Nowadays the task before us consists not so much in purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate and in making him into a thinking substance… It consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal through the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts. However, it is much more difficult to set fixed thoughts into fluid motion than it is to bring sensuous existence into such fluidity” (ibid).

Ready-made abstractions are the bane of deeper understanding. It is far easier to announce that we ought to overcome them than to actually succeed in doing so.

“Thoughts become fluid by pure thinking, this inner immediacy, recognizing itself as a moment, or, by pure self-certainty abstracting itself from itself — it does not consist in only omitting itself, or, setting itself off to one side. Rather, it consists in giving up the fixity of its self-positing as well as the fixity of the purely concrete…. Through this movement, pure thoughts become concepts, and are for the first time what they are in truth: self-moving movements” (pp. 21-22).

In Hegel’s usage, a “concept” is not a fixed thought but an active rational disposition. Further, he suggests that real immersion in active thought implicitly involves letting go of a fixed presupposed self separate from the activity of thinking. At the same time thoughts, instead of being identified with inert fixed contents, become “self-moving movements” (see Ideas Are Not Inert).

“[I]t ceases to be the type of philosophizing which seeks to ground the truth in only clever argumentation about pros and cons or in inferences based on fully determinate thoughts and the consequences following from them. Instead, through the movement of the concept, this path will encompass the complete worldliness of consciousness in its necessity” (p. 22).

The “complete worldliness” of consciousness is the overcoming of the habitual duality of consciousness and object in which consciousness “sets itself off to one side” from everything else.

“Consciousness knows and comprehends nothing but what is in experience, for what is in experience is just spiritual substance, namely, as the object of its own self. However, spirit becomes the object, for it is this movement of becoming an other to itself…. And experience is the name of this very movement in which the immediate, the non-experienced, i.e., the abstract (whether the abstract is that of sensuous being or of ‘a simple’ which has only been thought about) alienates itself and then comes around to itself out of this alienation” (pp. 22-23).

“The inequality which takes place in consciousness between the I and the substance which is its object is their difference, the negative itself. It can be viewed as the defect of the two, but it is their very soul or is what moves them” (p. 23).

Here inequality manifests otherness. Notably he refers to it “taking place” rather than simply existing.

Even the core defect of the standpoint of ordinary consciousness — its duality, in which consciousness stands “off to one side” of its objects — in its capacity as a source of unrest already points beyond itself, kicking off the whole long movement that the Phenomenology aims to characterize.

“However much this negative now initially appears as the inequality between the I and the object, still it is just as much the inequality of the substance with itself. What seems to take place outside of the substance, to be an activity directed against it, is its own doing, and substance shows that it is essentially subject” (ibid).

Unqualified “substance” in Hegel’s sense really encompasses everything there is, even though we imagine that we are somewhere off to the side. Thus the apparent duality between us and substance that we think about turns out to be internal to substance itself. What seemed to be “our” separate activity turns out to be equally the activity of substance that is no longer “just” substance. The substance that is thought of loses its fixity and becomes an active thought.

“Why bother with the false at all?…. Ordinary ideas on this subject especially obstruct the entrance to the truth…. To be sure, we can know falsely. For something to be known falsely means that knowing is unequal to its substance. Yet this very inequality is the differentiating per se, the essential moment. It is indeed out of this differentiation that its equality comes to be, and this equality, which has come to be, is truth. However, it is not truth in the sense that would just discard inequality, like discarding the slag from pure metal, nor even is it truth in the way that a finished vessel bears no trace of the instruments that shaped it. Rather, as the negative, inequality is still itself immediately present, just as the self in the true as such is itself present” (pp. 23-24).

Hegel’s usage of “knowing” is much more inclusive than the strict Platonic or Kantian sense that I have been recommending here.

Here we reach another delicate point. What is false, he is saying, is not purely and simply false, because it also creates the unrest that is the impetus for further development. But this is very easily misunderstood, and can lead to complete nonsense.

To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, he continues, “For that reason, it cannot be said that the false constitutes a moment or even a constitutive part of the true. Take the saying that ‘In every falsehood, there is something true’ — in this expression both of them are regarded as oil and water, which cannot mix and are only externally combined. It is precisely for the sake of pointing out the significance of the moment of complete otherness that their expression must no longer be employed in the instances where their otherness has been sublated. Just as the expressions, ‘unity of subject and object’ or of ‘the finite and the infinite’, or of ‘being and thinking’, etc., have a certain type of clumsiness to them in that subject and object, etc., mean what they are outside of their unity, and therefore in their unity, they are not meant in the way that their expression states them, so too the false as the false is no longer a moment of truth” (pp. 24-25).

Here he is employing an Aristotelian “said in many ways” distinction to avoid confusion and nonsense. It remains the case that everything for Hegel being more than it “just” is requires a great wakefulness on the part of the reader, to avoid slipping into just the kind of nonsense he is warning about.

Incidentally, he suggests that “otherness” is a better alternative to talk about the unity of subject and object, finite and infinite, being and thinking, etc.

Wrapping up this part of the argument, he continues, “The dogmatism of the way of thinking, in both the knowing of philosophy and the study of it, is nothing but the opinion that truth consists either in a proposition which is a fixed result or else in a proposition which is immediately known…. [E]ven bare truths… do not exist without the movement of self-consciousness…. Even in the case of immediate intuition, acquaintance with them is linked to the reasons behind it” (p. 25).

Substance and Subject

This is part 2 of my walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. We’ve reached the point where he says “In my view, which must be justified by the exposition of the system itself, everything hangs on grasping and expressing the true not just as substance but just as much as subject” (Pinkard trans., p. 12).

I’ve previously written two posts (Substance Also Subject; Subject and Substance, Again) that try to bring this aspect of Hegel as close as possible to the deeper sense that Aristotle gives to “substance” in the Metaphysics. I still think this fits well with Hegel’s larger perspective, but here I want to deal with the text as it stands.

Just two sentences after the one quoted above, there is an unmistakable reference to Spinoza’s controversial view that God is the only substance there is. Spinoza defines substance as “what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e., that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed” (Ethics book 1 definition 3; Collected Works, Curley trans., vol. 1 p. 408). The sentences in which Hegel literally speaks of substance in the Preface appear to be consistent with this. In general, Hegel most often speaks of “substance” as something whose main attributes are self-containedness and immediate identity with itself. This is very far indeed from the Metaphysics-based notion of substance I have been concerned to develop here. But as we will see, Hegel makes up for this in other ways.

A “subject” for Hegel is always a conscious or self-conscious being. But consciousness for Hegel always comes paired with an object. Self-consciousness eventually overcomes the duality of consciousness and object, but it is constituted in irreducible relation with other rational beings.

So when Hegel says “substance is also subject”, it is a paradoxical expression saying that what is self-contained “also” has irreducible relations to objects or other beings. Language is here strained to the breaking point. Perhaps he wants to imply that the very thing that the Schellingians claimed was entirely self-contained is in reality essentially embedded in otherness.

Overall, Hegel stresses irreducible relations far more than self-containedness. In the opening quote, he just told us that in his discourse, we should not expect to find a “substance” that is only substance and nothing more. In Hegel, even the absolute is never “just” absolute. Everything for Hegel is more than it “just” is.

When he speaks of ethical substance or spiritual substance, what he seems to really want to convey is just that these have an aspect of self-containedness or simple immediacy, not that they are strictly reducible to it.

“The true is not an original unity as such, or, not an immediate unity as such. It is the coming-to-be of itself, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal and has its end for its beginning, and which is actual only through this accomplishment and its end” (pp. 12-13).

The circular relation here is importantly different from that by which Plotinus strictly identifies the end of all things with the origin of all things (for him, the One is both of these). In Hegel, the circle explicitly involves actualization of the end via coming-to-be, which escapes strict identity, whereas in Plotinus the circle is supposed to be eternal and to figuratively represent a simple identity. Directly contrary to Hegel, Plotinus would tell us that the true is both an original unity and an immediate unity.

Hegel expands his previous statement as follows:

“However much the form is said to be the same as the essence, still it is for that very reason a bald misunderstanding to suppose that cognition can be content with the in-itself, or, the essence, but can do without the form — that the absolute principle, or absolute intuition, can make do without working out the former or without the development of the latter. Precisely because the form is as essential to the essence as the essence is to itself, the essence must not be grasped as mere essence, which is to say, as immediate substance or as the pure self-intuition of the divine. Rather, it must likewise be grasped as form in the entire richness of the developed form, and only thereby is it grasped and expressed as the actual.”

“The true is the whole. However, the whole is only the essence completing itself through its own development. This much can be said of the absolute: It is essentially a result, and only at the end is it what it is in truth. Its nature consists just in this: to be actual, to be subject, or, to be the becoming-of-itself. As contradictory as it might seem, namely, that the absolute is to be comprehended essentially as a result, even a little reflection will put this mere semblance of contradiction in its rightful place. The beginning, the principle, or, the absolute as it is at first, or, as it is immediately expressed, is only the universal. But just as my saying ‘all animals’ can hardly count as an expression of zoology, it is likewise obvious that the words, ‘absolute’, ‘divine’, ‘eternal’, and so on, do not express what is contained in them; — and it is only such words which in fact express intuition as the immediate. Whatever is more than such a word, even the mere transition to a proposition, is a becoming-other which must be redeemed, or, it is a mediation” (p. 13).

“Hence, reason is misunderstood if reflection is excluded from the truth and is not taken to be a positive moment of the absolute. Reflection is what makes truth into the result, but it is likewise what sublates the opposition between the result and its coming-to-be” (p. 14).

As with “substance”, Hegel gives essence a much more restrictive meaning than I have been developing here. On the other hand, he has a lively Aristotelian notion of form that is quite unusual among modern writers.

To pay attention to mediation is to “be at home in otherness”. Here I think we are much closer to Aristotle again, perhaps in spite of what I find to be the awkward earlier words about substance and subject. Hegel seems to confirm this by explicitly comparing what he has just said to the larger scheme of Aristotelian teleology, just as I had hoped before (see Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity; Hegel’s Preface). Now that the ground is clear, I’ll apply this to the earlier point about Kant and Aristotle in a future post.

“What has just been said can also be expressed by saying that reason is purposive doing. Both the exaltation of a nature supposedly above and beyond thinking, and especially the banishment of external purposiveness have brought the form of purpose completely into disrepute. Yet, in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive doing, purpose is the immediate, the motionless, which is self-moving, or, is subject…. For that reason, the result is the same as the beginning because the beginning is purpose — that is, the actual is the same as its concept only because the immediate, as purpose, has the self, or, pure actuality, within itself. The purpose which has been worked out, or, existing actuality, is movement and unfolded coming-to-be” (ibid).

As an added bonus, he puts an explicit caveat on the previous talk about the subject. What really matters is the actuality of the concept as self-moving, not the putative fixed point of the subject. I like this vocabulary much better.

“The subject is accepted as a fixed point on which the predicates are attached for their support through a movement belonging to what it is that can be said to know this subject and which itself is also not to be viewed as belonging to the point itself, but it is solely through this movement that the content would be portrayed as the subject. Because of the way this movement is constituted, it cannot belong to the point, but after the point has been presupposed, this movement cannot be constituted in any other way, and it can only be external. Thus, not only is the former anticipation that the absolute is subject not the actuality of the concept, but it even makes that actuality impossible, for it posits the concept as a point wholly at rest, whereas the concept is self-movement” (p. 15).

Not only does he emphasize the movement of the concept, but he even mentions the content being “portrayed” as the subject. (See also Ideas Are Not Inert.)

Hegel’s Preface

In Nature, Ends, Normativity I raised the question of what happens to Aristotelian teleology when we look at it through a Kantian critical lens, then made a preliminary gesture toward its resolution by invoking Hegel’s challenge and admonition to us in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit to make ourselves at home in otherness. Just how making ourselves at home in otherness helps with the question about Aristotle and Kant may not be at all clear yet. For now it’s just a thought to keep in mind.

First I want to try to explore Hegel’s larger point in the Preface that I risked reducing to the phrase “make ourselves at home in otherness”, and let that lead where it may. This post won’t get to the point where the phrase is introduced. It’s even possible that I’m remembering it from a paraphrase in H. S. Harris’ outstanding commentary. I’ll walk through the Preface over the course of several posts, using Terry Pinkard’s translation published in 2018.

Hegel’s Preface is an extremely dense text that seems to very deliberately follow a non-linear order. It does have a development, but it doesn’t just proceed from beginning to middle to end. Rather, it seems to repeatedly circle around several key insights, adding a little more each time. Famously, he begins by rejecting the very idea that philosophical truth is the kind of thing that could be “introduced” or made easily digestible by a conventional preface.

He goes on to repeatedly criticize two chief ways in which philosophy is made digestible and shallow — one that treats truth as something merely formal, and one that claims to leap into absolute knowledge by means of intellectual intuition. Especially in some of the later parts, Hegel gives a number of valuable hints at what he thinks serious philosophy ought to look like.

“[C]onventional opinion holds that the opposition between the true and the false is itself fixed and set…. It does not comprehend the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive development of truth as much as it sees only contradiction in that diversity…. However, at the same time their fluid nature makes them into moments of an organic unity in which they are not only not in conflict with each other, but rather, one is equally as necessary as the other” (p. 4).

Hegel is not at all advocating some trite relativism or erasure of distinctions here. He is objecting to the artificially “fixed and set” way in which what he calls formalism sees the truth of propositions taken in isolation. More positively, he seems to be suggesting that we view the great philosophers as participants in a common, mutually enriching dialogue rather than as competitors.

“[T]he subject matter [of philosophy] is not exhausted in its aims; rather, it is exhaustively treated when it is worked out. Nor is the result which is reached the actual whole itself; rather, the whole is the result together with the way the result comes to be…. [T]he unadorned result is just the corpse that has left the tendency behind…. The easiest thing of all is to pass judgment on what is substantial and meaningful. It is much more difficult to get a real grip on it, and what is the most difficult of all is both to grasp what unites each of them and to give a full exposition of what that is” (p. 5).

Here Hegel makes a very Aristotelian point about the essential role of actualization. What he is directly applying it to is philosophical accounts of things. We should be interested not just in philosophy’s ostensible conclusions, but in how they were arrived at. (But an analogous point could be made about the actual working out of Aristotelian teleology in the world. What is relevant to this is not just pure ends by themselves, but the whole process by which ends are actualized by means of concrete tendencies.)

“In positing that the true shape of truth lies in its scientific rigor — or, what is the same thing, in asserting that truth has the element of its existence solely in concepts — I do know that this seems to contradict an idea (along with all that follows from it), whose pretentiousness is matched only by its pervasiveness in the convictions of the present age. It thus does not seem completely gratuitous to offer an explanation of this contradiction even though at this stage such an explanation can amount to little more than the same kind of dogmatic assurance which it opposes” (p. 6).

By “scientific” he basically means rational. Hegel here aligns himself with Kant’s emphasis on the conceptual and discursive character of rationality, and with Kant’s closely related rejection of claims to immediate knowledge by intellectual intuition. He is particularly alluding to claims of intellectual intuition in the philosophy of nature by followers of Schelling, as well as to the religiosity of immediate feeling promoted by followers of the German literary figure F. H. Jacobi, from whom Kierkegaard borrowed the image of the leap of faith.

The “true shape of truth” Hegel contrasts these with lies in conceptual elaboration — interpretation and explanation, not just asserted conclusions. The measure of truth is the insight and understanding it gives us. He also notes a difficulty that I often feel in attempting to summarize the results of a substantial development: summaries always run the risk of shallowness and dogmatism.

Hegel continues ironically that for his contemporary opponents, “The absolute is not supposed to be conceptually grasped but rather to be felt and intuited” (ibid).

“There was a time when people had a heaven adorned with a comprehensive wealth of thoughts and images. The meaning of all existence lay in the thread of light by which it was bound to heaven and instead of lingering in this present, people’s view followed that thread upwards towards the divine essence; their view directed itself, if one may put it this way, to an other-worldly present. It was only under duress that spirit’s eyes had to be turned back to what is earthly and kept fixed there, and a long time was needed to introduce clarity into the dullness and confusion lying in the meaning of things in this world, a kind of clarity which only heavenly things used to have; a long time was needed both to draw attention to the present as such, an attention that was called experience, and to make it interesting and to make it matter. — Now it seems that there is the need for the opposite, that our sense of things is so deeply rooted in the earthly that an equal power is required to elevate it above all that. Spirit has shown itself to be so impoverished that it seems to yearn for its refreshment only in the meager feeling of divinity, very much like the wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple drink of water. That it now takes so little to satisfy spirit’s needs is the full measure of the magnitude of its loss” (pp. 7-8).

Hegel was critical of traditional Augustinian other-worldliness, but saved his special disdain for followers of Schelling and Jacobi.

“The force of spirit is only as great as its expression, and its depth goes only as deep as it trusts itself to disperse itself and to lose itself in its explication of itself. — At the same time, if this substantial knowing, itself so totally devoid of the concept, pretends to have immersed the very ownness of the self in the essence and to philosophize in all holiness and truth, then what it is really doing is just concealing from itself the fact that instead of devoting itself to God, it has, by spurning all moderation and determinateness, instead simply given itself free rein within itself to the contingency of that content and then, within that content, given free rein to its own arbitrariness” (ibid).

It is not enough just to have a concept like the absolute Idea.

“However, just as little of a building is finished when the foundation is laid, so too reaching the concept of the whole is equally as little the whole itself. When we wish to see an oak tree with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn. In the same way, science, the crowning glory of a spiritual world, is not completed in its initial stages. The beginning of a new spirit is the outcome of a widespread revolution in the diversity of forms of cultural formation; it is both the prize at the end of a winding path as it is the prize won through much struggle and effort” (p. 9).

He implicitly recalls Aristotle’s argument that the oak tree is logically prior to the acorn, and cautions against assuming perfection in beginnings.

“Only what is completely determinate is at the same time exoteric, comprehensible, and capable of being learned and possessed by everybody. The intelligible form of science is the path offered to everyone and equally available to all” (p. 10).

When the Idea is kept vague, it becomes the province of claims of esoteric knowledge and special genius. Here he links the idea of rational “science” to a democratic tendency. But we should also beware of premature claims.

“At its debut, where science has been wrought neither to completeness of detail nor to perfection of form, it is open to reproach” (ibid).

He goes on at length about the formalism of the Schellingians’ insistence that all is one. The rhetoric is strong, but he is standing up for the importance of difference and distinction, which I completely support.

To condense a good deal, “when what is demanded is for the shapes to originate their richness and determine their differences from out of themselves, this other view instead consists in only a monochrome formalism which only arrives at the differences in its material because the material itself has already been prepared for it and is something well known…. [N]owadays we see the universal Idea in this form of non-actuality get all value attributed to it, and we see that what counts as the speculative way of considering things turns out to be the dissolution of the distinct and determinate, or, instead turns out to be simply the casting of what is distinct and determinate into the abyss of the void…. To oppose this one bit of knowledge, namely, that in the absolute everything is the same, to the knowing which makes distinctions… that is, to pass off its absolute as the night in which all cows are black — is an utterly vacuous naivete in cognition” (pp. 11-12). (See also Substance and Subject.)

The Phenomenology’s Ending

Having more or less completed a walk-through of Hegel’s Phenomenology in the company of Harris’ unique literal commentary, the first thing I want to comment on is Brandom’s decision not to cover the Phenomenology‘s last two chapters (on Religion and Absolute Knowledge) in A Spirit of Trust. Brandom argues that the actual climax of Hegel’s work is the end of the preceding Spirit chapter, where Conscience finds its completion in mutual recognition, confession, and forgiveness. This allows him to avoid entering into controversy on the secondary point of the status of historical, socially instituted religion. As my own coverage illustrates, this is indeed a thorny area. Brandom develops his own somewhat minimalist treatment of absolute knowledge, carefully avoiding the connections with historical religion and the issues of the latter’s status that Harris explicitly brings out.

In a historically Christian culture, it is difficult to speak of confession and forgiveness without implicitly invoking religious connotations. Clearly they can also be given a purely ethical meaning, though, and this is what Brandom does.

It seems clear that Hegel thinks the standpoint of Conscience already stands on the threshold of absolute knowledge, requiring only an explicit consideration of mutual recognition and forgiveness to complete it. In this regard, Brandom is right. Moreover, I think Brandom’s parallel path to absolute knowledge ultimately yields conclusions compatible with those that Harris draws from following the remainder of Hegel’s argument. They both give absolute knowledge a mainly ethical rather than theological (or epistemological) meaning.

Harris thinks, though, that the Religion chapter is the one place where Hegel does argue for a linear, progressive historical development. Brandom replaces this with references to Enlightenment political theory that Hegel does not explicitly discuss at all in the Phenomenology. Here we are concerned with the transition from ancient Greek recognition that “some are free” to Kantian/Fichtean and modern democratic recognition that “all are free”. For Hegel himself, this goes through historical Christianity.

Brandom charts an alternative linear development to “all are free” that goes through the attitude-dependence of norms in secular traditions of natural law and social contract theory. While I have serious issues with the political and legal voluntarism of these traditions, I do think Brandom’s alternate genealogy of the modern “all are free” is probably more factually historical than the path Hegel himself traces through the Unhappy Consciousness, primitive Christianity, and the Reformation.

Another important point that Harris makes, though, is that Hegel treats historical religion because he wants to be maximally socially inclusive. The peasant-wife with her cows in Sense-Certainty could be deeply touched by historical religion, but is most probably totally unaware of Enlightenment political theory. Harris says that religion already gives the most naive “natural” consciousness the sense that there is something greater than itself, which begins the path to Self-Consciousness and Spirit.

Another alternative path to the more political sense of “all are free” (which I like better than the one through natural law and social contract theory) goes through the more explicitly democratic concerns of the Spinozist movement and the French Encyclopedists (see Enlightenment).

Logic as Ethics

Since the groundbreaking work of Boole, De Morgan, Pierce, and Frege in the later 19th century, logic has been treated as either the foundation of mathematics — as Russell argued — or as a branch of mathematics, as suggested by contemporary type theory and category theory. This all builds on the “formal” view of logic that has been dominant in the West since the later middle ages.

In fact, the place of formalism in the practice of mathematics is debated by mathematicians. A century after Hilbert and Bourbaki, the complete systematic formalization of mathematics remains an unrealized ideal, although new work in homotopy type theory seems the most promising development yet for this (see New Approaches to Modality).

Plato and Aristotle never thought that reasoning should be “value free”. On the contrary, they treated it as an essential part of ethical life. Aristotle pioneered formal reasoning by composition, but justified the principle of non-contradiction in unmistakably ethical terms. Plato and Aristotle reasoned mainly by examining meanings, whereas in the formal view of logic, all that matters are formal rules for mechanical manipulation of arbitrary symbols. (See also Formal and Informal Language.)

Taking up Kant’s thesis of the primacy of practical (ethical) reason, Hegel took what he called “logic” in a very different direction from that of the modern formalists, focusing like Plato and Aristotle on the development of concrete meanings rather than rules for formal, meaning-agnostic operators.

Within the tradition of modern analytic philosophy, Wilfrid Sellars and Robert Brandom have revived interest in non-formal approaches to logic that are closer to the reasoning we employ in everyday life. Brandom has also written extensively on the ethical content of Hegel’s work and its connections to Hegelian logic. He has always acknowledged that his earlier work on inferential semantics is deeply indebted to Hegel. Brandom’s “inferentialism” puts reason and the interpretation of meaning in relations of reciprocal dependence, in this respect recovering what I think is the perspective of Plato and Aristotle as well as Hegel.

The suggestion here — also supported, I believe, by Harris’ commentary on the Phenomenology — is that “logic” is most fundamentally concerned with what we ought to conclude from what, within the open philosophical perspective of what Hegel somewhat confusingly called “pure negativity”, where our view of the world is “inferential all the way down”. At the level of practical application with real-world meanings that I want to say is most important, logical “laws” are neither tautologies nor some strange kind of abstract facts, but rather a kind of best practices that themselves require interpretation to be applied.

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.

Yorick

“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” said Hamlet, cradling the unearthed skull of the jester who had played with him as a child. This Shakespearean reference is used by Hegel as a metaphor for the way our actions — and thus indirectly our very selves — become objectified from a retrospective point of view. Hamlet’s famous speech contrasting the living and the dead seems to inform Hegel’s frequent mention of objects as “dead” in contrast to living spirit.

I wanted to briefly expand upon the quote from Harris near the end of the last post. The Hegelian point he is commenting on is that the strictly singular self really is reducible to a “dead object”, but our participation in the ongoing incarnation of Spirit makes all human beings more than just singular selves.

Hegel constructs a parallel between the kind of objectification that applies to empirical individuals viewed externally, and the kind that applies to all the real-world manifestations of Conscience in action. Aristotle had noted that we can only judge the “happiness” of a whole life in hindsight, after it is complete. Hegel makes a similar point about actions in general. Our actions come from us and are the best guide to who we really are, but they have consequences that are not up to us, and their interpretation is ultimately up to others. (See also On Being a Thing; Real Individuality; Hegel on Willing; In Itself, For Itself.)

This latter kind of objectification plays an essential role in “absolute” knowledge. Only shareable contents like objectified actions as interpretable by others find their way into the Hegelian Absolute. But since all apparent immediacy is already a “mediated immediacy”, even the most rarified mediation can become immediate for us. From a “subjective” point of view, in “absolute” knowledge what is purely mediate and thus in itself has no dependency on anything pre-given becomes for us a new kind of mediated immediacy.

Insofar as as “absolute” knowledge is absolute, it has to be shareable. But insofar as it is actual concrete knowledge, it has to be the knowledge of actual individuals. Hegel wants us not to submerge ourselves as individuals and simply replace “I” with “We”, but rather to live in the “I that is We, and We that is I”.

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).

On Being a Thing

The next few paragraphs of Hegel’s final chapter are concerned with the notions of “thing” and “object” in an apparently completely general way, from the point of view of what happens with them in “absolute” knowledge.

Immediately after the paragraph I quoted in the previous post, Hegel specifies that “The surmounting of the object of consciousness is not to be taken one-sidedly as meaning that the object showed itself returning into the self” (Baillie trans., p. 789). This once again rules out any subjectivism that would abolish objectivity altogether.

Hegel continues, “It has a more definite meaning: it means that the object as such presented itself to the self as a vanishing factor; and, furthermore, that the emptying of self-consciousness itself establishes thinghood, and that this externalization of self-consciousness has not merely negative, but positive significance, a significance not merely for us or per se, but for self-consciousness itself. The negative of the object, its cancelling its own existence, gets, for self-consciousness, a positive significance; or, self-consciousness knows this nothingness of the object because on the one hand self-consciousness itself externalizes itself; for in so doing it establishes itself as object, or, by reason of the indivisible unity characterizing its self-existence, sets up the object as its self. On the other hand, there is also this other moment in the process, that self-consciousness has just as really cancelled this self-relinquishment and objectification, and has resumed them into itself, and is thus at home with itself in its otherness as such” (pp. 789-790).

The presentation of an object as a “vanishing factor” of which Hegel speaks — though it cannot be represented statically — is supposed to be something that really happens, so this is quite different and a great deal more subtle than simply saying the object is not really real. I think Hegel’s talk about the purely relational view “negating” the object qua object and other similarly strained uses of “negation” have not helped the understanding of his work, but as Hegel himself proceeds to remind us, this is only one moment of a larger movement, and it is the multifaceted whole and its transformations we ought to be concerned with. (In general I’ve found Brandom’s explanation of Hegelian negation in terms of material incompatibility very helpful, but it’s not clear to me there is a material incompatibility in this instance. In the bigger picture, though, Hegel seems to be saying that there is a sense in which every object is a reification, and another in which all its properties can be explained in relational terms.)

“Consciousness, at the same time, must have taken up a relation to the object in all its aspects and phases, and have grasped its meaning from the point of view of each of them. This totality of its determinate characteristics makes the object per se or inherently a spiritual reality; and it becomes so in truth for consciousness, when the latter apprehends every individual one of them as self, i.e. when it takes up towards them the spiritual relationship just spoken of” (p. 790).

The object is a spiritual reality in the sense that there is a purely relational account of its properties. Hegel here also has in mind his dictum that Reason is the certainty of being all reality. The object as reification is clearly separate from me, but as Aristotle might remind us, its objective relational form or essence is not distinct from the shareable intelligible thought of that form or essence.

“The object is, then, partly immediate existence, a thing in general — corresponding to immediate consciousness; partly an alteration of itself, its relatedness (or existence-for-another and existence-for-self), determinateness — corresponding to perception; partly essential being or in the form of a universal — corresponding to understanding. The object as a whole is the mediated result… or the passing of universality into individuality through specification, as also the reverse process from individual to universal through cancelled individuality or specific determination” (p. 790, brackets in original).

Even the most subtle and developed articulations far removed from what we might call immediate sensation have an aspect of immediacy analogous to what Hegel describes in Sense-Certainty, in that they recognize or assert certain discrete presented or represented “things” or their existence or their truth, taking “thing” in the broadest possible sense. But Hegel wants us to recognize that in real life we never stop at what he calls mere “certainty”. Nothing is ever just immediately there. Even in the most unphilosophical kind of practical life, distinctions are unavoidable. Then any distinction we make turns out to depend on other distinctions. Distinctions implicitly introduce universal “properties” of things that can be compared. This leads to the ramified world of Perception or “things with properties”, but Perception in general still holds fast to Sense-Certainty’s initial intuition of independent “things” as pre-given reference points in the sea of interdependent distinctions, and gets into logical difficulties as a result. Finally Understanding dissolves particular “things” into a purely universal field of constitutive relations with no pre-given terms, like what we find in mathematical physics or structural linguistics. We may experience all of the moments simultaneously in one experience of one thing. Of course, as we know, the Phenomenology is far from done at the end of Understanding and there are many other considerations to address, but these are the three basic moments of “consciousness” as that which takes an attitude toward things or objects.

I want to emphasize that this applies to all objects whatsoever, especially including those of ordinary life. Harris advocates the much narrower reading that Hegel’s main concern in this section is to implicitly suggest an application of these general notions to the preceding discussion of religion.

We have seen that what Hegel calls “absolute” knowledge does indeed have a close relation to the concerns of religion. In the Religion chapter, though I didn’t remark on it, Hegel had in passing explicitly applied the succession of Sense-Certainty, Perception, and Understanding to his schematic account of the history of religion. So, Harris’ reading between the lines here has some plausibility, but he seems for the moment to allow his interpolations continuing the focus on religion to eclipse the much more general apparent surface meaning of the text.

In Harris’ account, “it is the ‘object’ of Manifest Religion that has now to be turned over into the ‘Subject’ of ‘Absolute Knowing'” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 714). In general this seems reasonable, even though it is an interpolation in the present context.

“‘The object is in part immediate Being’. This is the ‘It is’ of Sense-Certainty; and all the modes of Natural Religion are subsumed under the ‘It is’…. For Natural Religion God is simply (and immediately) there. There is no distinction yet between His being-for-self and His being-for-another; and there cannot be any, because no ‘other’ has any independent essence of its own” (ibid).

Aside from Harris’ interpolation of religion into this discussion of the object, the last statement is historically anomalous, because the idea of a God before whom no other has independent essence belongs to traditions of strong monotheism that Hegel associates with the Unhappy Consciousness rather than with Sense-Certainty. However, if we abstract from actual history and just consider Hegel’s rather thin working notion of “natural” religion, it does seem accurate.

“Secondly the object is ‘partly an othering of itself, its relationship, or Being for Other and For-Self-Being, that corresponds to Perception’. This is how God is experienced in the Art-Religion; we make the Gods in our own image, while at the same time regarding ourselves as their servant, and envisaging our own free existence as a play for the Gods. God is thus an ambiguous relationship of Being for Other and For-Self-Being, just like the ‘thing and its properties’ in Perception” (ibid).

This interpolation seems relatively more historical, and consistent with what Hegel says elsewhere.

“Lastly, the object is ‘partly essence or as Universal, which corresponds to the Understanding’. This is how God is experienced in the Manifest Religion. Here He is the rational Force whose essence is to manifest itself” (ibid).

Hegel does seem to provocatively suggest that there is a parallel between the relation between Manifest Religion and its predecessors, on the one hand, and that between the purely relational view of mathematical physics and ordinary sensation and perception, on the other. It may seem surprising to see these categories from the phenomenology of religion reflected back into the elementary moments of “consciousness”, but this underscores how nonlinear Hegel’s overall development really is. As Harris points out, Hegel does also explicitly argue in the Religion chapter that the actual history of religion recapitulates the succession of moments he analyzed for object-oriented elementary “consciousness”. But to me, all this still seems a distraction from the new topic of “absolute” knowledge that Hegel is introducing here.

Hegel goes on to specify that the “knowledge” at issue now is not purely conceptual, but “is to be taken only in its development” (Baillie trans., p. 790). He notes that “the object does not yet, when present in consciousness as such, appear as the inner essence of Spirit in the way this has just been expressed” (ibid).

He recalls the recapitulation of Sense Certainty’s immediacy on a higher level in Observing Reason. “We saw, too, [Observing Reason’s] specific character take expression at its highest stage in the infinite judgement: ‘the being of the [Fichtean] ego is a thing’. And, further, the ego is an immediate thing of sense. When ego is called a soul, it is indeed represented also as a thing, but a thing in the sense of something invisible, impalpable, etc., i.e. in fact not as an immediate entity, and not as that which is generally understood by a thing. That judgment, then, ‘ego is a thing’, taken at first glance, has no spiritual content, or rather, is just the absence of spirituality. In its conception, however, it is the most luminous and illuminating judgment; and this, its inner significance, which is not yet made evident, is what the other two moments to be considered express” (p. 791).

Here again Hegel is considering two contrasting senses. The mere reification of a Fichtean ego as an empirical individual is rather banal; but to consider the universal Fichtean ego as an incarnated and concretely situated spiritual reality rather than in abstraction is a great advance.

“The trained and cultivated self-consciousness, which has traversed the region of spirit in self-alienation, has, by giving up itself, produced the thing as its self” (p. 792). This is a simple but vital point.

Hegel continues, “Or again — to give complete expression to the relationship, i.e. to what here alone constitutes the nature of the object — the thing stands for something that is self-existent; sense-certainty (sense experience) is announced as absolute truth; but this self-existence is itself declared to be a moment which merely disappears, and passes into its opposite, into a being at the mercy of an ‘other’.”

“But knowledge of the thing is not yet finished at this point. The thing must become known as self not merely in regard to the immediateness of its being and as regards its determinateness, but also in the sense of essence or inner reality. This is found in the case of Moral Self-Consciousness. This mode of experience knows its knowledge as the absolutely essential element, knows no other objective being than pure will or pure knowledge. It is nothing but merely this will and this knowledge. Any other possesses merely non-essential being, i.e. being that has no inherent nature per se, but only its empty husk. Insofar as the moral consciousness, in its view of the world, lets existence drop out of the self, it just as truly takes this existence back again into the self. In the form of conscience, finally, it is no longer this incessant alternation between the ‘placing’ and the ‘displacing’… of existence and self; it knows that its existence as such is this pure certainty of its own self; the objective element, into which qua acting it puts forth itself, is nothing other than pure knowledge of itself by itself” (pp. 792-793).

Here we have the ethical character of the path to the “Absolute”.

Harris comments, “So while, on the one hand, the moral consciousness ‘lets the natural world go free out of the Self’, to be whatever it contingently must be, it is equally true, on the other hand, that it takes that contingent natural order back into itself. In the unity of conscientious conviction, this contradiction is successfully sublated. But the community in which Conscience finds itself, and for which it claims to act, is in a state of moral anarchy, which is only overcome by the transition to the religious community of universal forgiveness. That community, having returned to itself as the shape of religious faith, has only to recognize itself in the ultimate community of finite Spirit, from which its religious journey began. That ultimate community of Spirit was able to make the religious journey because, in the final sublation of the standpoint of moral judgment, it is reconciled with humanity at all times, and in all places. It does not need to judge, but only to comprehend, i.e. to integrate the other as a member” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 719). I feel like we are back on track here.

He argues further that “In this final form, the ‘Manifest Religion’ ceases to be a revealed religion (in any but the historical sense) for it will comprehend that the whole range of religious ‘manifestation’ belongs to it in principle, because its God is just the intelligible force of Reason, whose very essence is to manifest itself. This concretely universal community of the human Spirit is ‘the Self’s pure knowledge of itself’. ‘Conscience’ is just its alienated, universally self-assertive shape” (ibid). Now the motivation for Harris’ interpolated argument about religion seems to make better Hegelian sense.

Harris adds, “We look over the course of the science and ask how ‘dead thinghood’ evolves logically. First we go from ‘singular thinghood for self’ to ‘universal thinghood for another’; and so to ‘the singular self that is lawgiver for the world of things’. And when we reach the third shape, we realize that we have not passed over to Kojève’s ‘anthropology’. In his world, the essential anarchy of Conscience takes us straight back to Hobbes” (pp. 719-720). (In the 20th century, Kojève promoted a subjectivist reading of Hegel that influenced Sartre and others. Hobbes famously described human society as a “war of all against all”.)

“[E]very judge must recognize the ‘sin’ of sundering knowing from doing. Absolutely pure knowing becomes possible only in and through the act of forgiving” (p. 720).

On the Threshold of “Absolute” Knowing

We have reached the final chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the good company of H. S. Harris’ unique paragraph-by-paragraph commentary, Hegel’s Ladder. This has been a long journey, but I at least have found it eminently worthwhile. Reading through Harris’ book for a second time, with Hegel’s own work in hand, and recording my own notes on the detailed development of Hegel’s actual literal argument has greatly improved my apprehension of the overall structure and movement of Hegel’s work. I first looked at the Phenomenology more than 45 years ago, and — like most people, I think — really failed to coherently grasp the forest, becoming lost in the trees. Now I think I understand the forest.

Of course, no one should regard my notes as a replacement for the original, either of Hegel’s or Harris’ work. But I hope they provide some helpful orientation.

I had thought this project was nearly done, but on rereading Hegel’s chapter on “Absolute Knowledge” this morning, most of the individual sentences strike me as potentially deserving their own posts. Though it presupposes the entire preceding development, this is perhaps the most lucid part of Hegel’s whole book, containing innumerable riches (even in the old Baillie translation, which I again apologize for using here — my copies of Miller and Pinkard are still MIA). It is where everything comes together. So, I will probably end up lingering on it longer than expected. (For my own earlier take on this, see “Absolute” Knowledge?)

The first paragraph of Hegel’s chapter reads, “The Spirit manifested in manifest [Baillie has “revealed”] religion has not as yet surmounted its attitude of consciousness as such; or, what is the same thing, its actual self-consciousness is not at this stage the object it is aware of. Spirit as a whole and the moments distinguished in it fall within the sphere of figurative thinking, and within the form of objectivity. The content of this figurative thought is Absolute Spirit. All that remains now is to cancel and transcend this bare form; or better, because the form appertains to consciousness as such, its true meaning must have already come out in the shapes or modes consciousness has assumed” (Baillie trans., p. 791). So far, this is just a summary of what went before, but there is more yet to come.

For now it is worth noting again that the “attitude of consciousness as such” is to focus on the presented or represented object as if it were self-contained and purely external, i.e., fully independent of us and our purposes. There is indeed truth in this, even from the beginning. It is a necessary partial perspective that recurs over and over again on many different levels. Since how things are is never just up to us to characterize in whatever way we might wish, a recognition of the “independence” of objects plays a salutary role. Moreover, every formulation of a view of the world necessarily takes a stance on how things “really are”.

What is naive is to think that the content of such a stance is the only story that needs to be told, or that we ever have completely isolated, pure “content”.

This is a completely general point that also applies to religion. Kant and Hegel have taught us that nothing that is an object for us is ever entirely separated from us. The main attitude and value of religion is a recognition of something greater than ourselves, but the quality and manner of our recognition of something greater than ourselves is nonetheless of central import. The further implications of this reach into territory that can easily become socially divisive, so they call for sensitive treatment.

Harris’ commentary on this paragraph begins, “Hegel’s Absolute Knowledge is simply the self-conscious awareness of what the ‘manifest religion’ of the universal human community really means as a concretely logical experience of the individual thinker in (and for) the community. We have now understood that the function of Religion in human life and experience is to express the universally shared consciousness that a community must have (if it is a community of rational consciousness). Religion is the consciousness of the community’s relation to the world, and of its own self-cognitive structure (as a unity with many members). When that actual structure is fully consistent with itself as cognition, then the community is rational. Knowing this, we can see that, if there is to be any ‘absolute knowledge’ it has to be the knowledge expressed in the religion of a community which has arrived a rational relationship with the world, and with itself; it is the knowledge that is finally and demonstrably necessary (in a logical sense, and not just as a matter or received general conviction) for the complete realization of human Reason. Reason is not ‘common’ to humans in the way that their body skeletons are. It is communally recognized, because it is the constructive achievement of the human community, by the community” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 709).

This seems technically correct to me, if a little cold. I would emphasize that we are talking about ethics here, not just cognition, and I think the message is better conveyed by Hegel’s own highlighting of mutual recognition and forgiveness. I somewhat prefer my own formula that religion for Hegel is ultimately what keeps conscience honest.

“The idea that we are all endowed with Reason ‘by nature’ and that it unfolds ‘naturally’ in us, is an error of the Enlightenment, from which the speculative recollection of the history of how our Reason has actually developed, decisively frees us. If we were not the spiritual offspring of a religion that teaches us that all human beings are the children of a God who is supremely rational, and who loves us all equally to the point where He took our nature (with all of its limits and sufferings) upon Him in order to exist for us as ‘Spirit’, we would not have the concept of human rationality (theoretical and practical) that we do have” (ibid).

The first part of this I think is extremely important. Reason is not innate.

Historically specific features of Christianity play an important role in Hegel’s overall narrative. I am myself still doubtful about claims privileging one particular tradition as a unique source or necessary prerequisite for what ought to be universal human values. Harris follows the common opinion that necessary ingredients are simply not there in Aristotle, for instance. While Kant historically heightened sensitivity to universal humanity in the form of equality, I contend that the idea is implicitly already there in Aristotle’s recommendation to broadly apply norms of friendship, and his clear recognition that social status should not affect our judgment of individuals.

“Having identified that form for us, Hegel must now show us that the consensus involves an unselfconscious recognition of what we know the rational function of religion in society to be; and secondly, that when this unselfconscious knowledge is logically interpreted, it provides a functionally complete and coherent concept of what human rationality is….. Reason is the living substance that becomes subjectively self-conscious in these mortal organisms whose intercommunication constitutes the distinctively ‘human’ (or free spiritual) world.”

“Religion continually refers to the eternal aspect of Reason in its purity, as if it were a supersensible Beyond…. but the Hegelian concept of ‘Spirit’ — combined with the concept of ‘the Spirit’ that we find empirically in our religion — sublates this necessity, and makes ‘eternity’ a moment of ‘time’, just as ‘time’ is a moment of ‘eternity’. [See Time and Eternity in Hegel.] By bringing out this identity, the philosophical interpretation of God’s Incarnation sublates His absolute otherness.”

Throughout Hegel’s Ladder, Harris has regularly alternated between religious forms of expression and “Enlightened” criticism of religion. In general I think he does an excellent job of steering a middle course through these difficult waters. In a number of cases he uses language that is more overtly religious than Hegel’s own. In the following he goes in the opposite direction.

“Scientifically there is no need to use the name ‘God’ at all” (p. 710).

Harris’ statement technically concerns the name only, and is probably technically correct when construed narrowly. Historically, though, statements of this kind have been considered inflammatory, and Hegel did not actually express himself this way. The passage in Hegel that Harris cites (paragraph 66 in the Miller numbering used by English-speaking scholars) is concerned with the general logical fact that proper names are not interchangeable with concepts, which I would fully endorse. Harris previously remarked that God seems to disappear in the Reason section of the Phenomenology, but then “appears” again in the Spirit section.

“Hegel always maintained that Religion and Philosophy were the knowledge of the ‘same’ content in different ‘forms’. But those who think that the change of ‘form’ leaves the truth of ‘Religion’ effectively untouched, are deceiving themselves either about what Hegel meant, or else about their own (not yet properly Hegelian) relation to the faith of the religious tradition from which Hegel’s language is derived” (ibid).

“Hegel accepts the claim of his religious tradition that ‘Faith is a kind of knowledge’; and we have seen what a vitally important ‘kind of knowledge’ it is. It is the universal context of all the ‘knowledge’ that saves us from a Hobbesian chaos. But equally Hegel accepts that faith is an imperfect kind of knowledge; and when he claims to turn it into absolute knowledge, he is quite consciously and deliberately claiming to do away with its ‘imperfect’ character as ‘faith’ altogether….” (p. 711).

This seems well balanced and textually accurate.

“[N]o ‘postulates’ that transcend experience are necessary. Specifically Hegel does away with the Kantian postulates (God, freedom, and immortality) by showing what the rational interpretation of the terms in actual experience is…. [O]f them all, the postulate of ‘God’ is the one that is the most radically affected” (ibid).

This is a technical point about postulation, which has to do with Kant’s particular approach to these matters.

“Faith knows that God is Man, that the eternal Reason is necessarily embodied” (p. 712). But “The surrendering of the human will to God’s Will is only possible because God’s real identity as human Reason, his necessary humanity, is recognized” (p. 713).

“[Faith] takes the home of its longing to be elsewhere than here” (ibid). A certain common traditionally accepted notion of faith treats it as a kind of other-worldly “knowledge”, but there are also grounds for arguing — even in a traditional context — that this is not its highest form. Elsewhere, I have suggested viewing faith as more primarily a way of being in real life rather than an abstract belief or knowledge claim.

“The whole journey of the Phenomenology is necessary in order to disabuse ‘Reason’ of this dialectical illusion” (ibid).

As a student of Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel, I don’t believe in dialectical illusion. This was Kant’s overly polite way of pointing out how Reason needs to be carefully separated from the dogmatic received “truths” accepted by Cartesians and Wolffians. The whole issue of the relation between philosophy and religion is difficult, not least because it embraces substantial social concerns. But it is true that Hegel wants to direct our attention to Spirit incarnate in this life.