Fichte’s Ethics

Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798) has been called the most important work of moral philosophy between Kant and Hegel. Unavailable in English till 2005, it is apparently a source for some key themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology. It also shows the more nuanced side of Fichte that impressed Paul Ricoeur. Fichte was an unusually powerful speaker, reportedly electrifying audiences with his intensity and bold rhetorical strokes. His thought greatly influenced German Romanticism.

Fichte begins by asking, “how can something objective ever become something subjective; how can a being for itself ever become something represented (vorgestellt)?” (p. 7). He continues, “No one will ever explain how this remarkable transformation takes place without finding a point where the objective and the subjective are not at all distinct from one another…. The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason, or whatever one wishes to call it.”

“This absolute identity of the subject and the object in the I can only be inferred; it cannot be demonstrated, so to speak, ‘immediately’, as a fact of actual consciousness. As soon as any actual consciousness occurs, even if it is only the consciousness of ourselves, the separation [between subject and object] ensues…. The entire mechanism of consciousness rests on the various aspects of this separation of what is subjective from what is objective, and, in turn, on the unification of the two” (ibid; brackets and emphasis in original).

Fichte revives an explicit appeal to “intellectual intuition” that Kant had proscribed and I find untenable, but carefully limits its scope, mainly using it for the existence of “the I”. Importantly, as the above quote shows, he does not claim to have a direct intuition of the identity of subject and object.

Next he asks, “how we ever come to take some of our representations to be the ground of a being” (p. 8), and answers, “I find myself to be acting efficaciously in the world of sense” (ibid).

This seems like a good pragmatist insight. Here and above, he asks questions about the status of representation and how it comes to be that anticipate aspects of Brandom’s work in this area.

“Insofar as I know anything at all I know that I am active” (p. 9). “I posit myself as active” (p. 10). Hegel criticized Fichte’s reliance on “positing” or postulation of various key notions.

Fichte goes on to specify that “I ascribe to myself a determinate activity, precisely this one and not another” (p. 11), and determinate activity implies resistance. “Wherever and whenever you see activity, you see resistance as well, for otherwise you see no activity” (p. 12). “[F]reedom can never be posited as able to do anything whatsoever about this situation, since otherwise freedom itself, along with all consciousness and all being, would fall away” (p. 13).

Throughout his career, while picking up and intensifying Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric and even aiming to build a system around it, Fichte made things more interesting and complicated by emphasizing that objectivity always involves a resistance to free action. Fichte goes on to specify that activity involves a kind of agility — i.e., ways of acting successfully in spite of the the object’s or the world’s resistance. Here we find ourselves on the threshold at least of the territory more fully explored by Ricoeur in Freedom and Nature (see Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action).

“I posit myself as free insofar as I explain a sensible acting, or being, as arising from my concept, which is then called the ‘concept of an end'” (p. 14). “[T]he concept of an end, as it is called, is not itself determined in turn by something objective but is determined absolutely by itself” (p. 15).

Freedom here is acting in accordance with concepts or ends. While Kant and Fichte both tended to identify this with a kind of exemption from the natural order, this second move is separable from the first. The need to treat freedom as an exemption presupposes a view of natural causality as completely rigid. But more fluid “tendencies” also exhibit the resistance that Fichte makes characteristic of objectivity.

He then claims in effect that the resistance we encounter in the world of sense is actually nothing but an appearance. “[N]othing is absolute but pure activity…. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency” (p. 17). I think Hegel and Ricoeur would each in their own way regard formulations like this as one-sided, and as a step back from his previous acknowledgement of resistance to our action as a basic fact of life, but that is in part because Hegel and Ricoeur both in a sense vindicate appearance itself as being something more than mere appearance.

Fichte is not actually contradicting himself or going back on a promise here, but moving to a different level. I think his point is that objects as separate are ultimately always a matter of appearance. I would agree as far as strictly separate objects are concerned, but I see objectivity in the first instance as a resistant but non-rigid sea of non-separate relations, tendencies, and currents that is not just an appearance, and is only secondarily divided into separate objects that insofar as they are separate are just appearances.

He comes a bit closer to Hegel again when he says “it is the character of the I that the acting subject and that upon which it acts are one and the same” (p. 28; emphasis in original).

But a few pages later he concludes that “all willing is absolute” and that the will is “absolute indeterminability through anything outside itself” (p. 33). “As an absolute force with consciousness, the I tears itself away — away from the I as a given absolute, lacking force and consciousness” (p. 37). One of Hegel’s main concerns in the Phenomenology was to show the inadequacy and undesirability of this ideal of total “independence”. I take “absolute force” as a kind of poetic language in Fichte’s rhetorical style that I would not adopt.

He repeats Kant’s claim that the will has “the power of causality by means of mere concepts” (p. 41). I agree that concepts can have a kind of efficacy in the world, though I would not call it causality in the narrow modern sense. On the other hand, I think talk about will as if it were a separate power not encompassed by the union of feeling and reason is misguided. I don’t think there is any will-talk that doesn’t have a better analogue in feeling-and-reason talk. So the question of the will’s causality does not even come up for me.

“According to Kant, freedom is the power to begin a state [Zustand] (a being and subsistence) absolutely” (p. 41). I don’t consider formulations like this to be typical of Kant’s thought as a whole. It rhetorically recalls voluntarist views in the Latin medieval tradition that saw human freedom as a sort of microcosmic analogue of creation from nothing. The notion of literal creation from nothing, though it achieved wide circulation in the monotheistic traditions, is actually an extreme view in theology whose main use has been to support radically supernaturalist claims of all sorts that are entirely separable from the broader spiritual purport of the world’s religions. Scholars have pointed out that creation from nothing is not inherent to the Old Testament text, and only emerged as an interpretation in the Hellenistic period with figures like Philo of Alexandria. One of Kant’s great contributions was actually to have developed other ways of talking about freedom that do not presuppose any of this kind of strong supernaturalism. (I adhere to the view commonly attributed to Aristotle in the Latin tradition that nothing comes from nothing in any literal sense.) Fichte of course was not at all a supernaturalist like Philo; but like Kant and even more so, in relation to freedom he nonetheless used some of the same rhetorical strategies originally developed to “rationalize” supernaturalism. (And if nature already participates in divinity, supernaturalism is superfluous.)

Fichte improves things by specifying, “It is not the case that the state that is begun absolutely is simply connected to nothing at all, for a finite rational being thinks only by means of mediation and connections. The connection in question, however, is not a connection to another being, but to a thinking” (ibid).

Much as I welcome this emphasis on mediation and connections, it is important to mention that he earlier strongly relied on the claim of a limited kind of direct intellectual self-intuition (pp. 25ff). Fichte was honest enough to acknowledge that he did not have inferential grounds for his strong notion of “I-hood”. The texture of his thought is a unique hybrid of a sort of inferentialism about things in general with an intuitionism about self. The points at which he relies on intuition are the same places where he applies the bold rhetorical strokes for which he initially became famous and popular with the Romantics. But in the long run, it is his emphasis on mediation — both in the form of inference and in the form of resistance to our projects — that holds the greatest value.

In a somewhat Kantian style that seems both more abstract and more simple and direct than that of Kant himself, Fichte sets out to “deduce” first the principle of morality, then the reality and applicability of the principle. For Fichte, the single principle of morality is the “absolute autonomy of reason” (p. 60). Reason is finite, but depends on nothing outside itself. Consciousness is always limited and in that sense determined by the objects it “finds”, but in conscience there is a pure identity of subject and object. Here again we can see how Hegel was in part taking up Fichtean ways of speaking.

Unlike Hegel, though, for Fichte “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness. Conscience is itself the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself” (p. 165).

From this it seems clear that Fichte recognizes no standpoint higher than that of Conscience. He identifies morality with good will (p. 149). Hegel on the other hand regards mutual recognition as a higher standpoint than that of the autonomy of Conscience. Although Fichte briefly refers to the concept of mutual recognition he had developed in Foundations of Natural Right (1797), the System of Ethics revolves mainly around a version of Kantian autonomy: “the formal law of morals [Sitten] is…. do what you can now regard with conviction as a duty, and do it solely because you have convinced yourself that it is a duty” (p. 155).

Surprisingly, he says “all free actions are predestined through reason for all eternity” (p. 216), and claims to have reconciled freedom with predestination. This provides a noteworthy additional perspective on his earlier love-hate relation with Spinoza.

“The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it,…. This process of drawing nearer to my final end is my finite end.”

“The fact that nature placed me at one point or another and that nature instead of me took the first step, as it were, on this path to infinity does not infringe upon my freedom” (pp. 217-218). This theme of “drawing nearer” and the “path to infinity” was sharply criticized by Hegel, but I rather like it.

I worry a bit when he says “The necessary goal of all virtuous people is therefore unanimous agreement [and] uniformity of acting” (p. 224). He did however also say that “anyone who acts on authority necessarily acts unconscionably” (p. 167; emphasis in original).

“I possess absolute freedom of thought… freedom before my own conscience…. [I]t is unconscionable for me to make the way in which I tend to the preservation of my body dependent on the opinions of others” (p. 225).

“What lies outside my body, and hence the entire sensible world, is a common good or possession” (ibid). “[I]n communal matters, I ought to act only in accordance with the presumptive general will” (p. 228). “I should… act in such a way that things have to become better. This is purely and simply a duty” (ibid). “As a means for bringing about the rational state, I have to take into account the present condition of the makeshift state” (ibid). In the case of unjust tyranny and oppression, “every honorable person could then in good conscience endeavor to overthrow this [makeshift] state entirely, but only if he has ascertained the common will” (ibid; emphasis in original).

“How then can one become aware of that upon which everyone agrees? This is not something one could learn simply by asking around; hence it must be possible to presuppose something that can be viewed as the creed of the community or as its symbol.”

“It is implicit in the concept of such a symbol or creed that it presents something not in a very precise or determinate manner, but only in a general way…. Moreover,… the symbol is supposed to be appropriate for everyone…. [T]he symbol does not consist in abstract propositions but rather in sensory presentations of the latter. The sensible presentation is merely the costume; what is properly symbolic is the concept. That precisely this presentation had to be chosen is something that was dictated by need… because they were not yet capable of distinguishing the costume that the concept had received by chance from the essence of the concept” (p. 230).

“[W]hat is most essential about every possible symbol or creed is expressed in the proposition, ‘there is something or other that is supersensible and elevated above all nature’…. What this supersensible something may be, the identity of this truly holy and sanctifying spirit, the character of the truly moral way of thinking: it is precisely concerning these points that the community seeks to determine and to unify itself more and more, by mutual interaction” (pp. 230-231).

Here we see some anticipation of Hegel’s account of religion in the Phenomenology.

“Not only am I permitted to have my own private conviction concerning the constitution of the state and the system of the church, I am even obliged by my conscience to develop this same conviction just as self-sufficiently and as broadly as I can.”

“Such development… is possible, however, only by means of reciprocal communication with others.” (p. 233).

Like Hegel, he makes mutual recognition a foundation of religion.

“The distinguishing and characteristic feature of the learned public is absolute freedom and independence of thinking” (p. 238). “Since scholarly inquiry is absolutely free, so must access to it be open to everyone” (p. 239).

“No earthly power has the right to issue commands regarding matters of conscience…. The state and the church must tolerate scholars” (ibid).

“All of a person’s efficacious acting within society has the following goal: all human beings are supposed to be in agreement; but the only matters that all human beings can agree on are those that are purely rational, for this is all they have in common” (p. 241).

“Kant has asserted that every human being is himself an end, and this assertion has received universal assent” (p. 244).

“The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of being perfected and remaining so, and this same law absolutely prohibits us from treating human beings in the opposite manner” (p. 229). Fichte argues at some length that this last point would be true no matter how dismal we might judge actual history to be.

Unfortunately, Fichte retained some of the prejudices of his time and place. He thought women should be subordinate to men, and his contribution to early German nationalism was not without a chauvinistic side.

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).

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).

Room for Faith

Kant famously spoke of leaving room for faith in his philosophy, but also wrote a historically important essay on “Religion Within the Limits of Reason Alone”. He tended to see religion mainly in ethical terms, and Fichte and Hegel did so likewise. Fichte lost his Jena philosophy chair over accusations of atheism he strenuously repudiated. The generation after Hegel was notoriously divided into “Left” and “Right” Hegelians, who both attributed (nearly opposite) views on religion to Hegel that I think he would have called very one-sided. It is difficult to meaningfully comment on this kind of controversy without offending someone, or perhaps both sides.

With Hegel and other historic philosophers who lived in communities with a commonly accepted orthodoxy of some sort, it is often relevant to carefully distinguish the sometimes unspoken implications of their thought from their explicit rhetorical stance, without assuming in advance that these are perfectly aligned. In my older age though, I have come to consider that what I just called the philosopher’s “rhetorical stance” may reflect important practical, social considerations that may have merit of their own. While we should not necessarily take everything a historic philosopher says on these delicate topics at face value, if we are engaged in charitable reading we certainly ought not to assume that the philosopher’s rhetorical stance is “mere” rhetoric that need not be taken seriously.

In medieval terms, I am for the complete independence of philosophy. At the same time, I want to treat the world’s religious traditions (not just one of them) with respect. When touching on theological topics, I try to balance occasional focused sharp remarks with a general live-and-let-live policy, inspired in part by the stances of Leibniz and Paul Ricoeur.

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.

Individuality, Community

The last sections of Hegel’s “Reason” chapter begin to introduce a notion of community, still starting from the point of view of the individual. Here he wants to suggest a broad developmental arc from the simplicity of what he calls “True Spirit” — in which personal identity is experienced as coming directly from one’s place in a traditional, “natural” face-to-face community — through the emergence of individual freedom, which he sees occurring in a necessarily “alienated” way that also tends to undermine ethical values — to Hegel’s anticipated recovery of ethical values in a future community based on something like love of one’s neighbor, that also gives the individual her due. In the course of it he discusses the limits of “law-giving Reason” and “law-testing Reason”, with Kant and Fichte in mind. Sophocles’ Antigone is used to illustrate a conflict between perspectives of family loyalty and formally instituted law.

H. S. Harris in his commentary says that from the naive perspective of True Spirit, “Individual self-consciousness just knows what is right. The laws are there” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 113). “These laws are ‘laws of nature’. They need no warrant” (p. 112). He characterizes this as another return to the immediacy-based logic of Sense Certainty. It will be “the determination to fulfill Apollo’s command [know thyself] that brings to pass the downfall of the Ethical Substance…. [But the] climax of the effort to ‘know ourselves’ in one another individually is the recognition that we must forgive one another for the inevitability of our failure to act with universal unselfishness” (p. 115).

“It is a logical fact that we cannot go immediately from the universal to the singular. We can only produce formal universals (non-contradictions)…. So we are left with a logical form (non-contradiction) as the form of law” (p. 116).

The “internal dialectic of justice is much more important than the fact that different standards of justice are justifiable in terms of their abstract rationality” (p. 120).

“Hegel made clear that it is the speculative sense of identity that matters. The stability and harmony of the Substance we have lost is ‘identical’ with that which we are just now in the process of regaining. Neither Antigone nor Jesus is formally a Kantian. But the piety of both requires us to ‘respect humanity as an end'” (p. 117).

“Our own law-testing procedure is a moment in the greater cycle of logical comprehension; and it has always known itself to be that. It is not formal in the sense in which Stoicism is formal; we saw at the beginning why error and ignorance are necessary in the comprehensive cycle. Those who complain that ‘dialectic and absoluteness are ultimately at loggerheads’, or that Hegel seeks to ‘close the gates of truth’, are merely expressing the Skeptic’s absolute knowledge regarding the folly of Stoic pretensions. It is precisely the justification of their own critical reason that Hegel wants to offer” (p. 121).

“[Hegel’s] criticism of Law-Testing Reason… is meant to bring home to us the fact that a long historical experience is required for the laying down of the substantial foundation that gives law-testing the sort of range and validity it can and does have” (ibid).

A feeling of spiritual “identity” with the goddess Athena motivated the Athenian to be willing to die for his city. Harris thinks this qualifies as a supra-personal motivation, but argues against those who attribute a notion of other-than-individual “consciousness” to Hegel. Rather, “certain experiences of a deeper or higher identity that every individual has, or can have, reveal the true meaning of what it is to be rational (or human)” (p. 127).

“We ought not to permit any reduction of the rhetoric of ‘Spirit’ to the rhetoric of ‘humanism’ because humanity has… two necessary sides, and it is the ‘human animal’ side that is naturally fundamental. For the human animal to go to the death in a struggle is (functionally) irrational; but that is not necessarily the case for a ‘human spirit'” (p. 128).

On the other hand, Hegelian Spirit also has nothing in it of what Hegel called the “bad infinite” or of the Sublime, which Kant associated with seemingly infinite (and definitely more-than-human) power.

“Whether we look outside or inside ourselves, the bad infinite, or the ‘more-than-individual’, is no suitable object of religious reverence. We must maintain Hegel’s ‘spiritual’ terminology because his language clarifies the religious language of tradition in a rational way. Those who use it become functionally liberated from the bad infinite or Sublime; for even as ‘believers’ they are bound to agree with Thomas Aquinas that what they are talking about is not rationally comprehensible in its ‘sublime’ aspect; and they will be morally rational in the sense that they will not try to impose their religious faith on others by the use of force (which would contradict its spiritual essence)” (p. 129).

“All that Hegel, the observer, does is talk to us about the ways in which our poets and prophets have spoken, and to show us several necessary truths that we are not usually conscious of. First, he proves that the way they spoke was necessary for the advent of morally autonomous Reason; and then he makes us see how these modes of speech form a pattern that forces us to admit that all rational speech (not just that of the poets and prophets) is the utterance of a different ‘self’ than the one who is fighting a losing battle to stay alive encased in a human skin. We all know this perfectly well. But never, until Hegel wrote, did we know how to put our rational and our natural knowledge together without speaking in ways that are not humanly interpretable and testable. A critic who accuses Hegel of speaking not as the poets and prophets speak, but in some peculiar philosophically prophetic way of his own, is committing the ultimate rational injustice of obscuring his supreme achievement. [The influential critic Charles] Taylor’s theory of a ‘self-positing Spirit’ that is somehow ‘transcendent’ is itself ‘the sin against Hegel’s Spirit'” (p. 131).

“The chapter on Reason closes into a perfect circle. It begins and ends in ‘Observation’; and the Observing Reason that goes forward is comprehensive. It does not just observe Nature as an external or found ‘objectivity’; it observes the Ethical Substance — the total unity or identity of Nature and Spirit as a harmony that has made itself. It is the Ethical Substance, seen clearly as the source of self-conscious individual Reason, that becomes the subject of the new experience.”

“True Spirit is the self-realizing consciousness that takes its own self-making to be the direct expression of nature. What True Spirit lacks is the awareness that Spirit must make itself in the radical sense of expressing a freedom that is opposed to Nature. True Spirit does not know that it must ‘create itself from nothing’.”

“This ‘nothing’ is the speculative observing consciousness” (p. 134).

“On the side of Consciousness, all pretense of a ‘difference’ between itself and its object can now be dropped…. When ‘difference’ is reborn (as it immediately will be) it is because the Object itself (the Sache selbst as a communal self-consciousness) cannot maintain itself as a living object… without an essential differentiation…. But at the moment [consciousness] has come to self-expressive identity with the Sache selbst that it merely observes” (p. 135).

Toward Spirit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Unhappy Consciousness

After treating Skepticism, Hegel’s Phenomenology passes to a rather longer treatment of what he calls the “Unhappy Consciousness”. This seems to be the abstract figure of a kind of Christianity that lacks the optimistic, life-embracing perspective Hegel wants to promote. Harris in his commentary suggests that some of Hegel’s remarks have the great Church father Augustine particularly in mind. Augustine drew a sharp contrast between God as the Eternal, and what he saw as the fundamental infirmity and insufficiency of finite being. The “unhappy” consciousness sees before all else a stark opposition between our finitude and God’s eternity.

While vigorously rejecting the quasi-fundamentalism of his teacher at the Tübingen seminary and embracing many Enlightenment values, Hegel in later life always publicly identified as a Lutheran. He valorized Luther and the historic social role of both early Christianity and Lutheranism, though Harris suggests that some of Hegel’s perspectives actually seem more “Catholic” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 44), and Hegel has been read as anything from an orthodox Lutheran to a mystic to an atheist.

I think the bottom line on this is that Hegel is Hegel. He was neither an orthodox anything nor an atheist. The great development of medieval Latin philosophy and theology was hardly known in Hegel’s day, in part because very little of it existed in printed book form. I see his valorization of Luther in light of the more general principle of adopting a charitable and respectful attitude toward accepted values of one’s community unless they clearly conflict with a universal ethical principle.

Hegel says “the Unhappy Consciousness, the Alienated Soul which is the consciousness of self as a divided nature, [is] a doubled and merely contradictory being” (Baillie trans., p. 251). “[I]t takes one, namely, the simple unalterable, as essential, the other, the manifold and changeable as the unessential. For it, both are realities foreign to each other” (pp. 251-252). “Consciousness of life, of its existence and action, is merely pain and sorrow over this existence and activity” (p. 252). It adopts an attitude of “Devotion” to the unattainable “Beyond”. “Consciousness, therefore, can only come upon the grave of its life” (p. 258). In the words of Harris’ abstract, “Life is a perpetual repentance for living” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 401) .

Harris comments, “The ‘movement’ must all be produced by the Unchangeable in my changeable consciousness” (p. 402). This gives it the character of Revelation.

“What makes the enterprise rational for the Unhappy Consciousness is what we ordinarily call its ‘faith’. It looks forward to emerging from its self-annihilation in this life, into another life in which it will enjoy ‘union’ with the Unchangeable. Hegel refuses to call this leap ‘faith’ at all, because there is nothing in the Beyond that can be experienced. What he calls ‘Faith’… uses the same rhetoric, but can be shown to make an effective reference to ‘experience'” (p. 400).

“[O]nly when the ‘movement’ is complete will the consciousness that we are observing be able to resolve the paradox of the Unchangeable’s appearing to change, by grasping the ‘movement’ as its own necessary contribution” (p. 402 ).

Hegel looks forward to “the transformation of the Unhappy Consciousness into ‘Faith’, and of the Beyond into Here” (ibid). It is in the earthly ethical actualization of community that the presence of Spirit among us is realized.

The Ladder Metaphor

Hegel’s figure of a “ladder”, adopted by H.S. Harris in the title of his commentary on the Phenomenology, stands in contrast to the notion of a metaphorically life-risking intuitive leap of faith or salto mortale that had been popularized by the fideistic proto-existentialist German literary figure F. H. Jacobi. Harris has not said it yet and I don’t recall whether he will, but it seems clear to me that the ladder is a metaphor for dialectic.

He emphasizes that for Hegel, except in his very early period, “knowledge is actual only as system” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 63) and “Only a community of knowers can constitute the presence of the Spirit to itself as science” (p. 64).

What will turn out to be essential to Hegel’s notions of “system” and “Science” is neither a foundationalist construction nor some kind of closure, but the much more modest idea that (as Brandom might say) meaning has its basis in mutual recognition and shareable inferential articulation.

Harris’ abstract of paragraph 26 reads in part, “The element of Wissen [knowledge] is self-cognition in otherness. This conceptual soil is the substance of spirit. So Science presupposes that we self-consciously exist in this element; but we have a good right to ask for the ladder by which to get into heaven where it is” (ibid).

He comments that “from 1797 onwards, Hegel was explicating the religious experience of ‘love’…. [H]e expounded religion philosophically because he regarded the intuitive leap to the awareness of living, moving, and having one’s being in God as the sin qua non of all speculative insight…. It was through long meditation upon Greek religion, and upon the experience of the religious founders Moses and Jesus, that Hegel’s concept of philosophic science was shaped. But from about the middle of 1803 onwards, he had begun to believe that the leap could be replaced by a ladder of explanatory discourse” (p. 65). For the mature Hegel, religion gives an accessible imaginative representation to what philosophy develops in thought.

In the course of this exposition, Harris notes that “The ‘antithesis’ between consciousness and its objects arises from the concern with controlling or being controlled; no matter how much ‘self-control’ we have, or how much control we are consequently able to exercise over our environment, what we desire and what we fear controls us. ‘Science’ transcends this relationship; it inverts control into freedom. When Jesus claimed identity with ‘the Father’…, he was not claiming to control anything. He was not even claiming to control his own thinking…. Rather, he was adopting a noncontrolling attitude towards experience; and in so doing he ceased to be controlled by it in any practical sense” (ibid).