Apperceptive Judgment

What Hegel calls “the concept” is not a simple content to be grasped, as if it were already completely formed as what it will turn out to be, and all of that in advance of and independent of the activity of judgment. Rather, it emerges out of the activity of judgment in the space of reasons. It also turns out to have an inherently normative character.

Pippin quotes Kant: “I find that a judgment is nothing other than the way to bring given cognitions to the objective unity of apperception…. I do not mean to say that these representations necessarily belong to one another in the empirical intuition, but rather that they belong to one another in virtue of the necessary unity of the apperception in the synthesis of intuitions” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 102).

As a first approximation, “apperception” here means something like apprehension of intelligible meaning. For Kant, “the basic feature” of the “general or content-less logic as rules for valid judgings and inferrings” is that “judging is apperceptive” (p. 103).

The significance of this will become a bit clearer further below. Hegel will go further than Kant in construing apperception in a purely “logical” (as opposed to psychological) way.

“Kant was well aware that with this notion of apperceptive judging he was breaking with the rationalist (and Lockean) notion of reflection as inner perception, and as we shall see, Hegel’s language is everywhere carefully Kantian in this respect” (p. 112).

(Aristotle too carefully distinguished thought from inner sense, rather than identifying them in the style of Descartes and Locke.)

Pippin quotes Hegel: “It is one of the profoundest and truest insights to be found in the Critique of Pure Reason that the unity which constitutes the essence of the concept is recognized as the original synthetic unity of apperception, the unity of the ‘I think’, or of self-consciousness” (ibid).

This suggests a three-way mutual explication of the essence of the concept, unity of apperception, and self-consciousness. Self-consciousness for Hegel turns out to be not a separate substantive “subject” distinct from its “object”, but rather an essential adverbial property of self-reference that is intrinsic to the thinking of every concept (see The Ambiguity of “Self”).

From Hegel’s perspective “it is quite misleading for Kant to formulate the point by saying that the ‘I think’ must ‘accompany’ (begleiten) all my representations…. Representing objects is not representing objects, a claiming to be so, unless apperceptive…. And that has to mean, in a very peculiar sense that is important to Hegel and that will take some time to unpack, that such judgings are necessarily and inherently reflexive, and so at the very least are self-referential, even if such a reflected content is not substantive, does not refer to a subject’s focusing on her judging activity as if it were a second consciousness…. Virtually everything in the Logic of significance descends in one way or another from the proper understanding of this claim” (ibid).

Judgings as activities are “necessarily and inherently… self-referential”. The suggestion seems to be that apperception and self-consciousness consist in complex self-referential judgings, rather than anything resembling perceptive receptivity or simple consciousness. “Reflexivity” for Hegel is an elemental property of judgments as judgments, not a global property of consciousness. To assert the inherent self-referentiality of judging activity is quite different from asserting the sort of inherent reflexivity of consciousness that Descartes and Locke presuppose.

“[W]e have to be clear that this has nothing to do with inner perception or the mind observing itself” (p. 105).

“There must be some way of saying that the self-conscious dimension of thought and action is a matter of the way a claim is made or an action undertaken. To adopt the formulations used by Ryle in accounting for many similar phenomena, they are accomplished ‘self-consciously’, rather than accompanied by or even identical with another act of consciousness” (p. 106).

“There is a self-referential component in any judgment or action too (‘I think this, I act thus’), but it can be misleading to think that this is the same problem as ‘how does the first-person pronoun have sense, and thereby pick me uniquely out’. As we shall see, it is misleading because it suggests a punctuated moment of awareness” (p. 107).

“Finally, there is little doubt that Hegel realized that apperception was not a kind of consciousness” (ibid).

In support of this he quotes Hegel: “[I]n this original deed there is not yet the representation of the ‘I’…. [T]his objectifying deed, liberated from the opposition of consciousness [between subject and object], is closer to what may be taken simply as thinking as such. But this deed should no longer be called consciousness; for consciousness holds within itself the opposition of the ‘I’ and its intended object which is not to be found in that original deed” (ibid).

Apperception thus implicitly becomes the middle term of a syllogism: self-consciousness is apperception; apperception is not a kind of consciousness; therefore (contrary to what the formation of the word suggests) self-consciousness is not a kind of consciousness, but something “else”.

I take consciousness to be a form of presentation in what Aristotle called imagination, and self-consciousness to be the form of the self-referential character of judgment or apperception. Outside the context of the Logic (e.g., in the Phenomenology), self-consciousness has an inherently social or intersubjective dimension; in both the Phenomenology and the Logic it has a normative dimension. Human as opposed to purely animal experience is always a mixture of “consciousness” and “self-consciousness”.

“I know what I am doing not by identifying myself with the one acting, but by being the one acting. So how can such a Two also be One? We are in the middle of everything of significance in Hegel’s Logic, not to mention Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Schelling’s early idealism…. This unusual identity is constitutive of ‘theoretical thought’ as such” (pp. 108-109).

“This too is important to state carefully. Hegel scholars often assume that Hegel inherits ‘identity philosophy’ from Schelling, and that it means ‘the identity of subject and object’. They then formulate various implausible versions of such an identity, such as that true reality is divine thought thinking itself, that objects are moments of this thought’s ‘intellectual intuition of itself’. But the Logic is not committed to anything remotely like this” (p. 109).

Rather, the identity Hegel is principally interested in is that “the thought (belief, assertion) of some content… is at the same time the thought of the reasons that are required for such an ‘answer'” (p. 110, emphasis added). This what it means to say that thought is inherently self-referential.

This helps to explain why it is true that “It is a condition of use of a concept that the use is subject to a norm of correct and incorrect use, and that norm is internal to the concept…. Such capacities as judgment and self-consciousness are called into play in a way that can be redeemed if challenged, for example” (p. 106).

Pippin elaborates, “being committed to the truth of a proposition, I am just thereby committed to the denial of everything inconsistent with it. The latter is not a separate inference I draw, on the basis of my first commitment. It is a dimension of the content of my first commitment. This is not to say I must be conscious of these implications and incompatibilities, but just that I could not be thinking of that content were I not able to be responsive to such considerations. This is all so just as someone’s believing something and her thought that it is something right to believe ‘are the same reality‘” (p. 112).

The idea that a proposition should be identified with the distinctions and entailments that it presupposes and that follow from it — rather than with a simple Boolean value of true or false, as in mainstream 20th century logic — has been developed with extraordinary thoroughness by Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit, which Richard Rorty credited with ushering in a new “Hegelian” stage of analytic philosophy.

“[N]o one could be said to ‘just’ assert, or just believe, or just act. Any such undertaking, if self-conscious, must be potentially responsive to the question of ‘Why?’; that is, to reasons. (An assertion is such a responsiveness; the latter is not a secondary or even distinct dimension of the former.)” (ibid).

This formulation that an assertion is such a responsiveness — which relies on the essential self-referentiality of judgment that Pippin is arguing for here — seems in a way more radical than the way Brandom puts it. For Brandom and Brandom’s Hegel, the concomittant commitments are material inferences, and there is a sort of Kantian imperative that we ought to show such responsiveness to everything with a material-inferential connection to our assertions. According to Pippin’s Hegel, the concommitant commitments are not inferences at all but integral to the true identity of the assertion, and we would not really have made an assertion at all if we did not show responsiveness to them. But they ultimately agree that we ought to show such responsiveness — that addressing the concomittant commitments of our assertions is not something we could legitimately choose to ignore — and that this has something to do with the very nature of assertion-making.

“And it is at least plausible to say that the greater the extent of such potential responsiveness (or said another way, the greater the self-understanding), the ‘freer’ the activity, the more I can be said to redeem the action as genuinely mine, back it, stand behind it. We thus have formulated what [Sebastian] Rödl rightly identifies as the heart of German Idealism, the principle ‘that self-consciousness, freedom and reason are one'” (pp. 113-114).

Statements like “self-consciousness, freedom and reason are one” used to give me no end of trouble, because I assumed they were meant to assert the sovereignty of a Subject (i.e., in this case that the Subject is self-conscious; the Subject has free will; and the Subject is the seat of reason). What I eventually realized through the closer study of Kant and Hegel is that I was assuming dictionary meanings of self-consciousness and freedom that are not applicable, and that Hegel and even Kant are much less “subject-centered” than common readings make them out to be. A strong concern for subjectivity need not be identified with the assumption of a sovereign Subject.

Because what Hegel means by “concept” is so fundamental to understanding the Logic and so far from the way it is commonly understood, Pippin repeats an earlier message in different words:

“[C]oncepts are determinate only by virtue of their roles in judgment, the ‘bringing to the objective unity of apperception’, in Kant’s definition” (p. 115).

“So a concept like ‘essence’, for example, can be said to be delimitable as just that concept by virtue of its possible uses in various contrasts to ‘appearance’ or by virtue of its negation (in the grand structure of the [Science of Logic]) of the concept ‘being’, or its role in distinguishing accidental from essential predicates. These are all roles in judgments (and are thereby tied to judgmental roles in inferences). Any of these uses, though, involves any such claim in a network of justifications, a normative order. The application of any such concept in judgment, since apperceptive, self-consciously applied, must be, just thereby, responsive to its possible misapplication, and the question of the general contours of its correct use implicates any one notion in the normative proprieties governing many others. Hence, as we shall see, the course of the ‘movement’ of the logic” (ibid).

“A proper understanding of the self’s relation to itself in thinking, the form of any conceiving and thereby any concept, and thereby any inferential relation, is also the core meaning of what Hegel calls the ‘infinity’ treated by speculative philosophy” (p. 118).

“This is yet again not an easy thought: some sort of self-relation that is not a two-place relation, but something like a circular structure, in which the self’s self-relation never terminates in a distinct object or determinate posit, but in so attending, returns to itself as a relating…. This is ‘infinity’ in the proper sense, Hegel tells us frequently, and… ‘Self-consciousness is thus the nearest example of the presence of infinity'” (p. 119).

I need to study this part of the Logic more closely. My current impression is that what Hegel calls the “good” infinite has something to do with what I would tentatively call relational structures with cyclic dependencies, and he thinks we can and do implicitly use something like this in life, without getting stuck in what could be a mathematically infinite cyclic traversal of the structure. (That something like this is at least conceivable is anecdotally supported by the existence of computable and hence in that sense “finite” implementations of infinitely extensible data structures.) The more usual notion of infinity — at root mathematical, a paradoxical “value greater than any definite value” — Hegel derides as “bad” infinity, regardless of whether it is potential or actual (which was a key distinction for Aristotle).

Hegel in effect seems to ask us to suspend the assumption that standard mathematical infinity is what infinity is, and to step back to the more general idea of the non-definite. Further, he identifies the contrasting term of finitude specifically with a non-relational view of things, as being whatever they are even in complete isolation from one another, so his condemnations of finitude are not at all condemnations of the view of things as finite in the sense of depending on other things. Pippin earlier even suggested that some kind of notion of things depending on other things for their intelligibility is the main source of the famous and difficult-to-understand “motion” in Hegelian logic.

“Discriminating what belongs together with what, what is connected to what in a temporal order, knowing that the successive perceptions of a house do not count as the perception of a succession in the world, requires an apperceptive unity; it does not just happen to consciousness” (p. 121).

“Without this ability to distinguish how things are from how they seem to me, there would be as many ‘I’s’ as associated seemings, and no unity of self-consciousness. Or, achieving the unity of self-consciousness is differentiating seeming from being” (p. 122).

Pippin returns to his larger argument about the Kantian basis of what Hegel is doing.

“The attempt has been to understand the Kantian claim about apperception as a logical, not psychological claim, and this goes some way toward understanding the link between this reflexive character of judging as the essence of intelligibility and ‘the intelligibles’. If it is possible to establish that certain a priori judgments have… objectivity, but without Kant’s limitation thesis, restricting that thesis to possible objects of sense experience (phenomena, not noumena), we will have a way into Hegel’s claim that logic can be understood as metaphysics. Our claim about Kant was that even for him, this relation to objects is not established by the imposition of subjective form onto received sensory material. Kant’s position is not ‘impositionist’ in this sense, and both he and Hegel are following the nonimpositionist, more Aristotelian (hylomorphic) line” (p. 125).

He includes several more quotes from Kant and one from Beatrice Longuenesse that offer hints in this more Aristotelian direction, then says, “We need only remember that for Hegel this is the core of Kant’s own position once we give up any notion of separable contributions from sensibility and understanding, and give up referring to pure forms of intuition as species-specific…. If we do, we get the careful statements about the identity within difference of concept and being in and for itself with which we began” (p. 126).

He returns to the more basic point that “There is no indication that Hegel thinks that being or God has an apperceptive discursive intellect and that we are manifestations of it. We are manifestations of the finitude of Verstand [understanding] and the possibility inherent in Verstand of the transcendence of such self-imposed finitude” (ibid).

In referring to “self-imposed” finitude, I think Pippin means the viewing of concepts as independent, isolated objects or fixed representations, rather than as pure moments in the traversal of the relational network of the space of reasons.

“[W]e need a kind of stereoscopic vision to keep in mind two aspects of this issue that Hegel keeps stressing…. The first is that conceiving is an activity and concepts are ‘moments’ of this activity. This is something stressed in a different way when Hegel tells us that concepts are not things, objects. The second is that… such activities are not actions, doings, and that Kant’s position, when properly understood (and so not as Kant understood it), should not be taken as a part of a two-step or impositionist account of such activity” (p. 127).

That activity is not reducible to punctual actions is a thesis I have been pursuing in an Aristotelian context.

“Hegel says that (Kant’s) objective or transcendental logic ‘replaces’… general metaphysics or ontology. Logic so construed also takes account of and replaces special metaphysics, the a priori doctrines of the soul, the world, and God” (p. 128).

Once again, Hegel’s “logical” alternative to rationalist metaphysics and psychology does not presuppose any fixed concepts. Pippin returns to this to avoid misunderstanding, because he has been emphasizing the non-psychological character of apperceptive judgment for Hegel.

“If we think, as some do, of Hegel’s Denkbestimmungen [thought determinations] as something like Fregean thoughts, objective in a Platonic sense, as abstract entities, then what I am quoting [to the effect that the “objective” part of Hegel’s logic is the true critique of such determinations] is very puzzling. Hegel certainly knows that Kant’s transcendental logic is in some sense or other a logic of subjectivity” (p. 129).

The distinction that is beginning to be made explicit here is between subjectivity in general and specifically psychological subjectivity. This will allow Hegel to develop a “subjective” logic that has nothing to do with psychology.

By analogy, Pippin notes that “Frege interpreters argue that there is no reason to go as far as the historical Frege did (a form of Platonism) to differentiate objective thought from mental episodes, private associations, etc.” (ibid).

“In a claim we shall have to return to and investigate, [Hegel] repeats often that the true critical question is not whether subjective forms of thought have any objective purchase, but whether the concepts of a logic ‘in and for themselves’ provide what they are supposed to provide: what is required for successful conceptual determination…. Kant did not sufficiently investigate what these pure concepts are; he did not pursue the question of their ‘nature’ and their very possibility” (p. 130).

Broadly speaking, the answer will be that concepts are not Platonic forms but get their meaning from their uses, as normatively evaluated in the space of reasons.

“Commentators are sometimes so eager to observe the spirit of this sort of critique of Kantian ‘subjectivism’ that they assume that the Logic is something like the ‘pure’ manifestation of the objective dependence and implication relations among ‘pure essentialities’, thoughts in the objective sense, logical entities that are in those relations in ways that have nothing to do with anyone ‘thinking them'” (p. 131).

The delicate point here is that we can take the activity of thinking into account by treating it as its own “subject”, rather than attributing it to a separate Subject.

“But the apperceptive or inherently reflexive determination of conceptual content… is no more external than the ‘I think’ is external to a content thought. Judgment and the consciousness of judgment are one act. No content represents anything except as thought/judged” (ibid).

Recalling the syllogism I constructed above from Hegel’s statements — which concluded that what he calls self-consciousness is not a kind of consciousness — I think Pippin should have said “self-consciousness” rather than “consciousness” in the above. “Self-consciousness” for Hegel is normative and non-psychological. What he calls “consciousness” (the aspect of immediacy and of presentation in the form of objects) does have a psychological character. In real life, we encounter mixtures of the two.

“The movement of pure thought is like the movement in a proof, on the assumption that the moves are inferences a thinker, on pain of contradiction, must make, and not merely formal-structural functions, as in a symbolic logic” (p. 132).

A proof involves not just a sequence of propositions but a sequence of judgments or assertions. Frege explained this difference in terms of an additional dimension of “assertoric force” alongside his Platonic view of concepts and propositions. For Pippin and Brandom, the consideration of assertoric force is where normativity enters into logic.

“[I]t is also question-begging to assume that anyone who makes the assertoric force inseparable from the logical structure of a unit of meaning (as Hegel unquestionably does) is thereby guilty of psychologism, or of relying on some ‘experiential’ standard of adequacy. Even Frege was willing to make the question of assertoric force a part of ‘logic’ in his own terms” (ibid).

Hegel takes assertoric force into account by treating it normatively rather than psychologically. Meanwhile, the movement of judging activity that is the bearer of Hegel’s notion of truth must also be distinct from the mere inspection of logical structure.

[O]bjects moving about [in Hegel’s Logic]… is a mystification. At any rate, I have no idea what it would be to ‘observe’ one thought-object developing into another. (We don’t observe what happens when one step in a proof ‘becomes’ another; the inference has to be drawn, and drawn for a reason.) Such an objectivism makes it almost impossible to understand what Hegel calls the Logic‘s inner ‘drive’…, and it especially does not take account of the claim that conceptual form is itself apperceptive, that ‘the truth is self-consciousness’ (pp. 133-134).

“Essentialities do not move or establish relations with other essentialities…. A proposition cannot be the bearer of truth, does not even represent any state of affairs, except as judged, and therewith the identity of the acts of thinking involve[s] a wide variety of other commitments at the same time…. (I mean such things as being committed to the denial of all judgments inconsistent with the one that one asserts as true, and this not as a second act of thought.) By contrast, the basic unit of intelligibility for Hegel is not an internally complex object, even if in relations with other objects, but as he says in many ways and many different times, a result, the accomplishment of the ‘active universal’, which activity is judging…. The mode of logical connection is inseparable from the mode of connecting. They are co-constituting” (pp. 134-135).

Objective “thoughts” in Hegel’s sense are not just pure Platonic essentialities but judgments that have a shareable meaning and that inherently invite normative evaluation.

“Said another way, a strong way of insisting that Hegel’s new ‘metaphysics’ is a logic, none of this has anything to do with what anything is made of, consists in, with the furniture of the universe. What we want to know… about these concepts is their ‘logic’, how they function with account-givings governed by the norms of explanatory satisfactoriness and truth” (p. 137).

“This means that any concept of thinking and of the content of thought involves normative proprieties, exclusions, and implications, without which any thinking a thought could not be the thinking and the thought that it is. These normative commitments are independent of what a thinker might herself be able to acknowledge, but they cannot be denied on being noticed, on pain of incoherence, of not thinking anything at all” (ibid).

Thus apperception — or what we might call “pure” as opposed to empirical subjectivity, which need not be tied to an assumed separate Subject, but only to some judging activity — for Hegel is purely “logical” (having to do with the determination of meaning). It is independent of anything psychological, and at the same time it is inherently normative.

Logic and Metaphysics

In Emancipatory Logic? I began a walk-through of Robert Pippin’s important Hegel’s Realm of Shadows. This post borrows its title from his second chapter, though it only addresses the first part of it.

According to Pippin, Hegel’s Science of Logic is intended to exhibit the “spontaneous” or “self-generating” actualization of intelligibility. This takes places through the higher-order universals that Kant following Aristotle called “categories”.

Hegel’s “logic” provides his alternative to Kant’s notoriously long and difficult argument for the possibility of a priori knowledge that is not merely analytic, and to Kant’s derivation of the categories. As an exercise in what Aristotle called first philosophy, it is not supposed to depend on anything else.

By his own lights Hegel is extremely concerned with concreteness. He is therefore very conscious that his “logic as first philosophy” only addresses possible actualizations of intelligibility, and doesn’t derive anything real. We might think that the actualization of intelligibility would be a realm of light, but here the concern is with the emergence of light, hence his curious metaphor that “logic” is a realm of shadows.

“Hegel follows Kant’s innovation in his response to the empiricist challenge…. The basic question is, How could there possibly be objectively valid concepts, true of all objects, but not derived from experience? Where could they come from? In Hegel’s terms, this amounts to the question, How do concepts that are the products of thought alone ‘give themselves’ content, where by content we mean something extraconceptual?” (pp. 39-40).

Pippin says that Hegel will want “to determine objects in their thinkability, where that means their suitability not for a finite, subjective power, but for thought as such, that is, objects in their intelligibility, in their being at all intelligibly what they are. Their being what they are is their concept, or their ‘being their concept’, for Hegel. The concepts did not come from anywhere, any more than the thinking power comes from anywhere” (p. 40). Hegel aims for a “logic of the knowable as such” (p. 41).

“[Kant’s] critique concerns the modern tradition stemming from Descartes, embodied in Arnauld’s and Nicole’s Port Royal Logic in 1662, as well as the Leibnizian/Wolffian metaphysical tradition. The former held that clarity about the relations between ideas could lead the mind closer to the bearers of philosophical truth, clear and distinct ideas, known passively by the ‘light of reason’. For the latter, the laws of thought simply are the ‘laws of truth’ (to use Frege’s phrase), or a general logic is just thereby a logic of objects, because all philosophical truth is what Kant would call ‘analytic’, arrived at by logical analysis alone” (pp. 41-42).

Pippin emphasizes that Kant and Hegel both reject the early modern (originally Thomistic) idea of passive illumination by a “natural light” of reason. In the original Thomistic context, the idea of a natural light of reason played what I think was a very positive role as a counter-weight to sectarian tendencies in religion, but in the early modern context it led to a new kind of dogmatism.

“With general logic as it was understood in the Port Royal and the Wolffian traditions, [Hegel] agrees that logical reasoning, understood in that way, does not provide knowledge of objects. He especially agrees with Kant that reason and understanding are activities, not passively ‘illuminated’. As ‘that great foe of immediacy’, in Sellars’ phrase, he does not mention or rely on such receptive or noetic intuition. As such a great foe, Hegel is opposed to any notion of self-standing, atomic conceptual content. As he wants so famously to show in a dialectical logic, determinateness is a function of determination, always an identification ‘through an other’, his formulation for discursivity” (p. 42).

For Hegel, there is no determinateness without a prior activity of determination. That activity is a discursive articulation of otherness in its concreteness by means of language.

Hegel’s Science of Logic is divided into what he calls an “objective” logic, consisting in a “logic of being” and a “logic of essence”, and a “subjective” logic, consisting entirely in a “logic of the concept”.

“The logic of being seems clearly to correspond to the Kantian categories of quality and quantity, what Kant called the mathematical and constitutive categories, and the logic of essence certainly seems to correspond to the categories of relation and modality, or the dynamic and regulative categories. The logic of the Concept makes use of the same syllogistic central to Kant’s conception of the role of such an inferential structure in the activity of reason” (p. 43).

Incidentally, I find it intriguing and highly plausible that Hegelian essence would express relation and modality. As much of an improvement as this is over the early modern notion of essence as a putatively self-contained content, it still does not yet address the fluidity of what would have been essence in development over time.

Pippin notes that in an 1812 letter, Hegel also said the objective logic roughly corresponds to the “ontology” he saw articulated in Aristotle’s logical works. I would add that Hegel’s “logic of the concept” moves beyond the “objective” logic in somewhat the same way that the discussion of “substance” in Aristotle’s Metaphysics moves beyond that in the Categories.

Pippin says “there is no question that Hegel both wholeheartedly agreed with Kant’s critique of substantive metaphysics, and realized that that critique applied only to modern metaphysics and left several possibilities open” (p. 44). He quotes Hegel saying “What Kant generally has in mind here is the state of metaphysics of his time…; he neither paid attention to, nor examined, the genuinely speculative ideas of older philosophers on the concept of spirit” (ibid).

He begins to clarify what Hegel more specifically means by logic.

“[F]or both Kant and Hegel, the unit of significance for any logic is not the proposition or any static formal structure but acts of reasoning and assertion” (ibid).

“Hegel’s logic does not primarily concern relations among, operations upon, propositions, and is instead oriented from a logic of terms. So we don’t see a syntax specified by axioms, a proof theory, and a semantics” (ibid).

In mainstream 20th century logic, the older term logic was regarded as a mere historical relic. But since the late 20th century, type theory has provided a formulation of term logic in higher-order mathematics that subsumes not only first-order but also higher-order predicate logic, so even in strictly mathematical terms, term logic is once again highly relevant.

“But as becomes clearer in the logic of the Concept, conceptual content is not provided by analysis of atomistically conceived concepts. Concepts are understood, as they were in Kant, as ‘predicates of possible judgments’, and the roles they play in possible judgments in various contexts, involving other concepts, and the roles they can and cannot play in such judgments (including the inferential relations among the judgments) are necessary to specify such concepts. This is why Hegel metaphorically speaks of concepts as alive, in movement, and why the logic’s ‘motion’ is the key to the specification of any concept…. Concepts are rules for judgmental unification, and judgmental unifications are always apperceptive” (p. 45).

“So the structure of concepts in use is the structure of the apperceptive ‘I’ (ibid; see also Ideas Are Not Inert).

“The concept of the Concept, the apperceptive understanding of the implications of this apperceptive structure, is what Hegel calls ‘the Absolute'” (ibid).

He compares Hegel’s view of concepts to that of the contemporary philosopher John McDowell in Mind and World.

“[I]n McDowell’s view we can certainly distinguish thinking from what is thought (the world is not a thought-thing; thinking is a discursive activity; the world is not a discursive activity) and still insist that the world ‘is made up of the sort of things one can think. (That discursive activity is, in its unity, the unity of anything that can be known would be expressed on the ‘object side’ by claiming that a determinate object is articulable as a single unity.) Or, for example, the profound-sounding (even Heideggerian) claim that there is no ontological gap between thought and world just comes down to the fact that ‘one can think, for instance, that spring has begun, and that very same thing, that spring has begun, can be the case’. What I think when I know (think truly) that something is the case is simply what is the case. It is thus a truism of sorts that, with the issue posed in a Kantian way, ‘the forms of thought are the forms of things…. The distinction between ‘conditions on the possibility of knowledge of things’ and ‘conditions on the possibility of things themselves’, which some use to characterize Kantian idealism, should be rejected ‘on the ground that the relevant conditions are inseparably both conditions on the thought and conditions on objects, not primarily either the one or the other'” (p. 47).

Frege said a fact is a true thought. The early Wittgenstein identified the world with what is the case. Aristotle said there is no difference between thought in the strong sense (nous or “intellect”) and that of which it thinks. Pippin quotes Hegel’s implicit invocation of Aristotle on this point:

“The older metaphysics had in this respect a higher concept of thinking than now passes for accepted opinion. For it presupposed as its principle that only what is known of things and in things by thought is really true [wahrhaft Wahre] in them, that is, what is known in them not in their immediacy but as first elevated to the form of thinking, as things of thought. This metaphysics held that thinking and the determination of thinking are not something alien to the subject matters, but rather are their essence, or that the things and the thinking of them agree in and for themselves (also our language expresses a kinship between them); that thinking in its immanent determinations, and the true nature of things, are one and the same content” (p. 48; see also Form and Things).

Pippin points out that Hegel does not simply identify facts with propositions. Rather, in the spirit of Kant’s unities of apperception, he is concerned with “thought’s agreeing with itself” (p. 51). “The force of a judgment is judgment’s own force; it is not a natural force or the result of the accumulation of empirical data” (p. 52). In a footnote Pippin adds that “‘I did it because I thought I ought to’ could be appealed to to make the same point” (ibid).

“A wolf is not simply, in itself, what it is to be a wolf but to some degree or other a better or worse exemplification of such a concept ‘for itself’. The object is not just ‘as it is’; it is ‘for’ (here, in the sense of ‘for the sake of’) its concept and hereby itself…. This is all in keeping with Hegel’s general tendency to gloss his use of for-itself with Aristotle’s notion of an actualized potential” (pp. 54-55).

“To say that an object is ‘for its form’ is just to say that there is an intelligible dynamic in its development. (As in Aristotle, the particular kind of unity by which any thing or process or activity is what it distinctively is is the unity by virtue of which it is intelligible.)…. This intelligible dynamic is its concept and is not something that exists separate from or supervening on some physical attributes and efficient causation. It just is the intelligible way a development develops; there is nothing ‘over and above’ the development” (p. 55).

Pippin quotes Hegel’s Encyclopedia logic where Hegel specifically recalls Aristotle’s criticism of Plato for neglecting the actuality of forms.

“Self” and “other” are inseparably related in the Logic, as they are in the discussion of self-consciousness in the Phenomenology. In the Logic, “‘for itself’ and ‘for an other’ will be reciprocally dependent notions” (p. 56).

For Hegel, a being “is what it is and not anything else (it is ‘in itself’), but only by virtue of the properties that can intelligibly distinguish it from its contraries (can determine what it is ‘for itself’)…. Accordingly, everything… turns on the sweeping claim that ‘truth [the truth of being, the determination of what things truly are] is self-consciousness [the forms of self-conscious judgment]…. This does not claim it exists only as conceived, or that the conceiving on which its determinacy depends should be understood as subjective mental episodes” (pp. 56-57).

“Thought can determine its objects, but not by appeal to the light of reason, not ‘immediately’…. Much more will have to be said about this, but it will be very important to Hegel that to consider things in their intelligibility is also and at the same time to consider them in terms of the only beings for whom beings can be intelligible, rational beings” (p. 57).

Pippin says that Hegel rejects Kant’s “distinction between things considered in their possible intelligibility and things considered simply as they are in themselves” (p. 58). He again notes that Hegel is neither simply identifying things with thoughts nor identifying thought’s self-determination with anything like the Absolute’s knowledge of itself.

“[T]he initial, simple point at issue now is that anything’s being at all would be mere indeterminate and indistinguishable being were it not conceptually determinate, articulable — in the simplest sense, an instance of a concept” (p. 59).

“And this raises Hegel’s main question in the Logic: how to account for conceptual content…. The answer to that question will depend on two very difficult elements in Hegel’s project: … that the form of the concept is the form of the self, and that, accordingly, truth is self-consciousness; and the claim that the way to understand this content is to understand these concepts as ‘self-negating’, but in a way that promises a positive result” (ibid).

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).

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).

Hegel on Skepticism

The next shape of self-consciousness after “Stoicism” in Hegel’s Phenomenology is “Skepticism”. H. S. Harris in his commentary thinks some of Hegel’s remarks apply specifically to Carneades, perhaps the best known “Academic” Skeptic, who shocked the Romans by arguing for opposite theses on alternating days, as an exercise on Platonic dialectic. Carneades also wrote a work arguing in detail against the great early Stoic Chryssipus. Although I like to stress the less textually obvious role of Aristotelian dialectic in Hegel’s work, Hegel’s explicit remarks emphasize a kind of Platonic dialectic with Skeptical inflections (see Three Logical Moments).

For Hegel, neither pure Understanding — which excels in clarity, utility, and systematic development but tends toward dogmatism — nor a skeptically inclined Dialectic, whose movement undoes everything that is apparently solid — is adequate to characterize what he wants to call Thought. Thought ought to involve a sort of Aristotelian mean that combines the insights of both.

Hegel writes, “Skepticism is the realization of that of which Stoicism is merely the notion, and is the actual experience of what freedom of thought is…. [I]ndependent existence or permanent determinateness has, in contrast to that reflexion, dropped as a matter of fact out of the infinitude of thought” (Baillie trans., p. 246). “Skeptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self…. [This] consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this melée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved…. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an entirely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder” (pp. 248-249).

Harris comments, “[T]he Stoics had to be taught by the Sceptics that no Vorstellung [representation] (not even that of the great cosmic cycle) could comprehend Erscheinung [appearance]” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 393). “[Skepticism] knows that ‘language is truer’… than the simple assumption that truth is the name of an extralinguistic Sache [thing or content]” (ibid).

“The Sceptic ideal is to be untroubled in the face of the sensory flux. Sceptical reason tells us not to worry about what we cannot help” (ibid). But “Far from behaving like one who is undisturbed, [Carneades] enjoys being an active disturber; and on the practical side his life has to be controlled by the felt motive actually present at a given moment” (p. 394). “Achieving ‘suspension of judgment’, by setting whatever contingent arguments one can discern in the whirl against those that someone else offers, is a cheat. The Sceptic lives in the world, and allows himself to be guided by senses which he says we ought not to trust” (ibid).

“Every effort the Stoic makes to realize his freedom is tantamount to a serf’s fantasy that he really owns the land” (p. 395). “The Sceptic is a laughing sage because he has the Stoic to laugh at. We laugh at both of them” (ibid).

“[The Skeptic] has not recognized that the [self] he identifies with is only a formal ideal by which the concretely actual self can measure itself. Nobody is that ideal self. No finite consciousness can be that self (by definition). There is no Lord walking the earth: not the one that the serf fears; not the Stoic who thinks he is free; and not the Sceptic who knows what thinking is, and what it is not” (p. 396).

Freedom of Self-Consciousness?

“[Stoicism] is a freedom which can come on the scene as a general form of the world’s spirit only in a time of universal fear and bondage, a time, too, when mental cultivation is universal, and has elevated culture to the level of thought” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 245).

Why is it that the Phenomenology talks about Stoicism and Skepticism but not about Plato and Aristotle, whom Hegel regarded as “humanity’s greatest teachers”? The Phenomenology is a quite different undertaking from Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy, where he made the latter remark. Although it partly follows a development in time, it is mainly concerned with a backward-looking perspective on stages leading to the formation of a new shape of spirit Hegel optimistically sees emerging.

Spirit for Hegel belongs to all of us, not just great philosophers. He is aiming to talk about social development, particularly of his own culture. Modern Europe grew up from the ashes of the Roman empire, already far removed from the world of the Greek city-states. The Roman empire was indeed a “time of universal fear and bondage”. In relation to the emperor, everyone else was like a serf.

Stoicism was actually the first Western philosophy to have widespread social influence. Hegel implicitly connects the Stoic emphasis on reason and reasonableness with the development of Understanding he discussed earlier. Stoicism historically propounded a theory of complete determination in the world, alternating between physicalistic accounts and appeals to the will and reason of a supreme deity.

Hegel’s treatment of Stoicism here is very brief, very abstract, and expressed in something closer to the language of Fichte than to that of the Stoics themselves. “Stoicism” is said to realize a kind of Freedom, but it is only an “abstract” freedom of Understanding in relation to its representations, not affecting life. The Stoic sage aimed to achieve a kind of indifference to pain and adversity through detachment from worldly concerns and identification with the completeness of God’s plan. Unlike Hegel’s serf, the Stoic is supposed to have no fear of death.

“The freedom of self-consciousness [here] is indifferent toward natural existence…. [T]his lacks the concrete filling of life. It is, therefore, merely the notion of freedom, not living freedom itself” (ibid). Hegel is not wrong to associate this indifference with an abstract kind of freedom.

The figure of “Stoicism” stands for a perspective that is like that of the serf in its relation to life and the world, but like that of the lord in the separate interiority of its own thought. Hegel regards this split perspective as a kind of alienation.

Here he also suggests a notion of Thought as concerned with pure distinction that is basically unrelated to historical Stoicism.

Harris in his commentary writes, “For the [Stoic] Sage organic life is a servitude, towards which she should be indifferent. If that indifference is threatened, if the freedom of thought is physically denied to her, she can herself deny nature and die freely. She is the lord’s consciousness in the serf’s situation” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 385). “When she is asked for the criterion of truth and virtue she can produce nothing but analytically true statements: ‘The True is the Divine Reason’, ‘Virtue is living according to Reason’, ‘Happiness is living in accordance with Nature’. So the Stoic wisdom never makes us any wiser, but we do get bored” (p. 387).

Nonetheless “Something begins with Stoicism that comes to its climax in the Phenomenology. The Stoic logos, the spark of divine Reason recognizable in each of us, is an individuality which must both display itself as living in its action (Handeln) and grasp (fassen) the world as a system of thought…. Only the advent of the Gospel will provide the requisite account in thought itself for the ‘expansion’ (Ausbreitung) of individuality as alive in action, and comprehensive of the living world as a system in its thinking” (ibid).

To comprehend the living world as a “system” (i.e., to interpret the actual world as a coherent but unfinished whole) is vastly different from simply asserting or propounding a world-view that is “systematic” in some abstract sense.

I would emphasize that Aristotle already closely approached Hegel’s ideal of a living unity here, and greatly influenced his formulation of it. The difference is that Stoicism, Christianity, and Hegel all put more emphasis on what might be called our abstract equality before God. Aristotle too recognized that all “rational animals” have the same abstract potential for reason and ethical being, but his ethics put great emphasis on distinguishing different degrees of actualization, or what we practically succeed in doing with our potential and our values. Hegel combines an Aristotelian emphasis on concrete actualization as a criterion in value judgments with Kant’s stronger universalization of Aristotelian friendship-like respect for other rational beings, which has a historically Christian source.

Self, Recognition, Work

“Self-consciousness exists in itself and for itself, in that, and by the fact that it exists for another self-consciousness; that is to say, it is only by being acknowledged or ‘recognized'” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 229).  Thus Hegel begins the “Self-Consciousness” division, which in the final version of his outline occupies the remainder of the book.

Looking forward, Harris comments “‘Recognition’ is the Concept of Spirit as such.  We are going to observe the motion of this Concept which is a ‘multi-sided and multi-significant complexity'” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 344). 

Its ethical destiny is to become mutual recognition, but it begins as a deformed self-will.  “We must realize that we are concerned with the pure self-will that has been communally designated as ‘original sin’, and that will typically designate itself as absolute virtue or duty (because it cannot have any other social justification)” (p. 353).

“When I recognize what I want to be in someone else, then I have ‘come out of myself’.  The attraction (which is all that was attended to in the desiring posture) reveals itself first to be ‘self-repulsion’.  The self that I presently am, I do not want.  I have lost myself.  Empirically I could be in despair.  Those who recognize their ideal self in another sometimes are in despair.  But logically the other side of the truth is more dangerous.  As the object of my desire, what I see out there is not another independent self, but only a passive essence waiting for me to take possession of it.  Actually, however, my relationship with that other self is more complicated.  The self I want to emulate is not simply an object.  She has to make herself into an object for my sake.  If I am to know how to achieve what I want, she must help me, she must negate herself willingly and be at my disposal.  But she may not see herself as the self that I see; or she may not want to be that.  Above all, she may not want to help me to become that self” (p. 345).

Hegel famously discusses a life-and-death struggle that leads to servitude.  The experience of servitude, however, will turn out to contain a vital key to further development.  Labor provides a concrete model not only for the “constructive” role of the mind in interpreting things and the various practical constraints on doing this well, but also for the acquisition of skills, and for work on oneself.

In Harris’ words, “Serfdom reduces the free human agent to a thing.  The serf himself is property for the free self-consciousness of his lord….  In place of the one thing and its many properties we have the one free self and his many serfs.”

“But there is a much more significant inversion of Perception here.  Perception ‘takes the truth from things’ as they are given.  But the human thing makes the truth of things, by controlling their properties.  Serfdom is a new relation of the perceiving mind to its truth….  The lord turns the serf into a thing; but then in his labor the serf turns himself into a made thing.  He trains himself into the shape of the practical Understanding” (p. 366).

“The [being-for-self] of the serf is different from that of the lord, because it is incorporated in his body — a laboring instrument which has ‘independent being’ for him.  The being-for-self of the lord is just his commanding voice” (ibid). 

“Through the laboring activity pure being-for-self comes to be a subsisting thing” (p. 367).

“Hegel’s reason for holding that the fear of death is essential to the right comprehension of the cycle at its finite climax is now fairly easy to graph, even if we do not find it convincing.  Without the daily piecemeal discipline of obedience, the serf would never come to regard everything he touches as belonging to the lord and hence requiring to be treated with absolute respect….  If the sheep were his own, then his private interest, which Hegel calls ‘a vain sense of one’s own’, would have to be dominant.  The discipline of service creates ultimately the recognition that the object has its own good, its own sense” (p. 369).

“And even if the Hellenic (or more precisely the Platonic) conviction abides with us — the conviction that spontaneous ‘desire’ can be developed into ever higher degrees of ‘love’, and that love not fear is the true road to practical objectivity — still we cannot deny that the ‘fear of the Lord’ (both the earthly and the heavenly Judge) has in fact been crucial to the evolution of our presently more fraternal (but how feebly effective) value-consciousness” (p. 370).

I think it’s also worth noting implications of this second beginning.  Hegel’s approach is clearly developmental and in that sense “historical”, but it clearly does not follow a linear path that could correspond to a single progression in time.  We just completed an arc from simple sensation to mathematical physics, and now we are beginning a new ethical arc, starting from the quasi-mythical origin of lordship and servitude.

On the other hand, I think Hegel actually thinks real human consciousness is always already self-consciousness, and actually considers the separate treatment of mere “consciousness” to be artificial.  The ethical part of the book covers his main intent; the whole previous arc was a kind of preamble.

Toward Self-Consciousness

The Force and Understanding chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology concludes with two sections I find particularly difficult.

In the first, the supersensible in comparison with the world of appearances is treated as a sort of “inverted world” where negation and universality rather than concrete form play the main role in intelligibility as law. The subsequent return to the world of appearances that explains it as law-governed and takes us back to positive things again is then described as a “second inversion”.

According to Harris in his commentary, Hegel wants to establish that the formal necessity of mathematics is insufficient to account for the rationality of experience. The Understanding wants to explain everything in terms of force, including the Understanding itself. All the movement of explanation is in the Understanding. Hegel argues that the explanation of necessity in the world turns out to presuppose free activity in the Understanding. The fixing of distinctions Hegel meanwhile associates with sensuous representation as distinct from the supersensible.

In the second, what Hegel wants to call a kind of infinity emerges from Understanding’s looking at the world of appearances as a law-governed but constantly moving and restless whole that is unconditioned by anything other than itself.

Harris notes that this infinity is a result. Because infinity or the absolute is a result rather than a starting point, Hegel is able to say that the old neoplatonic problem of how the Many emerge from the One does not arise for him. Harris says Hegel is here making an Aristotelian response to Plotinus.

“Our approach to this problem has shown that Unity and Multiplicity are logically internal to one another, that the real Infinite must embrace the finite because the Infinite is precisely the raising of finitude to Infinity. This is how we can express the significance of the ‘second inversion’ in the speculative-theological terminology of finite and Infinite” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 303).

Because the Understanding wants to explain everything and everything includes itself, its own momentum pushes it toward self-consciousness. At this stage, what Hegel will call the Concept with a capital “C” — which will become the new continuum, folded upon itself, between subject and object, that displaces the substantiality of both in their separate forms — has yet to emerge. Hegel says that for the Understanding, what plays the role of the Concept is the Understanding itself.

Harris says “The human desire to know — to understand the situation we are in — is the most primitive way in which the Absolute is with us from the start…. The world of which the true Infinite really is the ‘soul’ is the world of our quest for the absolute truth. Our quest itself is the ‘spirit’ — the self-consciousness — of that living soul…. The understanding intelligence is the self-consciousness of the unconditioned universal that it contemplates.”

“The Understanding remains naive in its self-enjoyment; it keeps positive and negative, attraction and repulsion, all separate from one another, and from itself. It knows nothing of the ‘second inversion’. But the comprehension of the necessary relation a priori of the opposite moments of all its concepts is what the Understanding is, because it moves continually from the organized appearance to its concepts, and back again” (pp. 303-304).

“The theoretical Understanding has the whole world before it as an object. In the ‘second inversion’ it becomes aware of itself as the positing activity for the whole cycle that moves from perception (the ‘play of forces’) to the natural order as ‘Law’. But now that ‘free self’ (the ‘distinguishing of the undistinguished’) actually distinguishes itself and asserts its independence, without having any consciousness of the cycle from which it has logically emerged. It will discover by experience what the Fichtean philosophical Ego cannot help knowing from the first: ‘that this distinct [self] is not distinct’. It will make this discovery many times, in different ‘shapes’, before it returns finally to the practical comprehension of its identity with the ‘Infinite'” (pp. 305-306; brackets and italics in original).

“The truth for us… is that the universal concept of Force (or Necessity) has become the universal concept of Life (or the ‘true Infinite’ as living Freedom). But if we look at what has happened from the point of view of Understanding itself, two worlds have come into being. There is the world of Necessity which the Understanding wants to construct, but can never be sure that it has successfully duplicated; and the world of its own intellectual activity. In this second world it experiences itself as a free motion. It does not know that these two worlds are moments of one Concept, which is equally the objective world and itself as intelligence. But it does know, necessarily, that it is alive and free in the world of necessity that appears to it. It still has to discover that it is identically what appears. But it knows that it is what is appeared to” (p. 307).

“[F]rom the conscious certainty that the Understanding has of its eternal truth, we have thus come back to the certainty of the peasant-wife that this farmyard and these cows are hers. We know now, why she would not come with us on our theoretical odyssey. She was the self at home in its world; and that meant that she already knew something that we were ignoring. Truth, we thought, is an absolute object. It cannot belong to anyone. Frau Bauer, on the other hand, realized that in order to know anything one must be alive” (p. 318). (Later, it will also turn out that we were right that truth cannot belong to anyone.)

“As the implications of my identification with another self-consciousness which exemplifies what I want to be are unpacked, we shall discover that the supposedly ‘supersensible’ world is the real present world that we live in; or that ‘the spirit’ is the real substantiality of our sense-experience” (p. 335).

The Dreaded Humanist Debate

In 1960s France, there was a huge controversy among philosophers and others over so-called “humanism”. Rhetoric was excessive and overheated on both sides of the debate, promoting unhealthy and shallow polarization, but the topics dealt with were of great importance.

To begin to understand the various positions on this, it is necessary to realize that connotations of the word “humanism” in this context were quite different from what is usual in English. The third meaning listed in Google’s dictionary result, attributed to “some contemporary writers”, does at least have the virtue of expressing a position in philosophical anthropology, which is what was at issue in the French debate (in contrast both to Renaissance literary humanism and to explicitly nonreligious approaches to values).

Europe has an old tradition of self-identified Christian humanism. After the publication of Marx’s 1844 Manuscripts in the 1930s, non-Stalinist Marxists began talking about a Marxist humanism. In France after World War II, even the Stalinists wanted to claim the title of humanist. In his famous 1945 lecture “Existentialism is a Humanism”, the notoriously anti-religious and individualistic writer Jean-Paul Sartre surprised some people by placing his existentialism under a common “humanist” banner with Christians and Stalinists. What they all wanted to assert under the name of humanism was a particular view of what it is to be a human, emphasizing the centrality of free will and consciousness, and identifying humanness with being a Subject.

In the 1960s, these views were sharply criticized by people loosely associated with so-called “structuralism”, including Foucault, Althusser, and Lacan. The “structuralist” views denied strong claims of a unitary Subject of knowledge and action; rejected any unconditional free will; and took a deflationary approach to consciousness. Sartre and others launched vehement counter-attacks, and the debate degenerated into little better than name-calling on both sides.

In my youth, I was exposed first to views from the “humanist” side, and accepted them. Then I became aware of the “structuralist” alternative, and for a while became its zealous partisan.

In the Odyssey, Odysseus had to navigate between the twin hazards of Scylla and Charybdis. Since the millenium, I have emphasized a sort of middle way between “humanism” and “structuralism” — inspired especially by Aristotle and Brandom, and now with added support from Ricoeur.

Now I want to say, there is no Subject with a capital “S”, but I am highly interested in the details of subjectivity. There is no unconditional free will (and I even doubt the existence of a separate faculty of “will” distinct from reason and desire), but I am highly interested in voluntary action as discussed, e.g., by Aristotle and Ricoeur. I prefer to sharply distinguish apparently immediate “consciousness” from other-oriented, mediate, reflexive “self-consciousness”, putting most of the philosophical weight on the latter.

Ricoeur on Foucault

I still vividly recall the moment over 40 years ago when the sharp questioning of unities of all kinds in the preface and first chapter of Michel Foucault’s 1969 work The Archaeology of Knowledge very suddenly awoke me from erstwhile slumber in neoplatonic dreams about the One. Today I would say Foucault like many others was terribly wrong in his reading of Hegel, but I still look on that text as a sort of manifesto of historical method. As Aristotle too might remind us, distinctions are essential to intelligibility and understanding.

Just this year, the work of Paul Ricoeur has become very significant to me. Ricoeur expressed admiration for Foucault’s late work The Care of the Self, but in both volume 3 of Time and Narrative and his late work Memory, History, Forgetting, he criticized The Archaeology of Knowledge rather severely.

Ricoeur did not object to Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuities in (the field Foucault did not want to call) the history of ideas, but rather to Foucault’s closely related polemic against the subordination of such discontinuities to an encompassing continuity of historical “consciousness”, and to his further association of the idea of an encompassing continuity of consciousness with the would-be mastery of meaning by a putatively purely constitutive Subject. Ricoeur as much as Foucault objected to such notions of Mastery, but he still wanted to articulate a kind of narrative continuity of what he still wanted to call consciousness.

Ricoeur scholar Johann Michel in his book Ricoeur and the Post-Structuralists agrees that “the subject” for Ricoeur is far from purely constitutive, and “in reality, is not a subject in the substantialist sense” (p. 107). Rather, it is mediate, and only understandable via a long detour through cultural objectifications. As Ricoeur says, consciousness is “affected by the efficacity of history” (Time and Narrative vol. 3, p. 217). “We are only the agents of history insofar as we also suffer it” (ibid, p. 216). Ricoeur’s suffering-as-well-as-acting “subject” gives very different meaning to this highly ambiguous term from the kind of voluntaristic agency attributed to the Cogito by Descartes, and Ricoeur’s “consciousness” is very far from the notion of immediate “consciousness” classically formulated by Locke. I prefer to avoid confusion by using different vocabulary, but agree that the notions Ricoeur wanted to defend are quite different from those Foucault wanted to criticize.

This leaves the question of the relative priority of continuity and discontinuity. Foucault in his Archaeology phase advocated a method grounded in the conceptual priority of discontinuities of meaning, while Ricoeur wanted to give discontinuity an important subordinate role in an approach dedicated to recovering a continuity of consciousness. In my own current Aristotelian phase, I want to emphasize a view that is reconciling like Ricoeur’s, but still puts the accent on discontinuity like Foucault’s. My historiographical notes both tell stories and offer explanations somewhat in the way that Ricoeur advocated, and emphasize the differences and discontinuities favored by Foucault.

Ricoeur also seems to have been troubled by Foucault’s disinterest in what Ricoeur calls the “first-order entities” (p. 218) of history — actual communities, nations, civilizations, etc. (I would note that he is not using “first order” in the logical sense, which is a purely syntactic criterion; he just wants to suggest that these kinds of things are more methodologically primitive for historical inquiry.) I actually think apprehension of something like form comes before apprehension of any substantialized “things”, so my sympathy is more with Foucault on this point. Undoubtedly Ricoeur would say these have a narrative identity rather than a substantial one, which seems fine in itself, but I think any narrative identity must be a tentative result and not a methodological primitive.

Ultimately, I think Ricoeur was motivated by an ethical desire to put people first — a concern Foucault did not make clear he actually shared until The Care of the Self. Ricoeur would also agree, though, that historiography is not simply reducible to ethics, but has largely independent concerns of its own. He seems to have wanted to say that the history of ideas is fundamentally a history of people. I’m a pluralist, so I have no objection to this sort of account as one alternative, but I think people’s commitments tell us who they are more than who holds a commitment tells us about the commitment. I also think higher-order things come before first-order things, and that people are better thought of as singular higher-order trajectories of ways of being throughout a life than as first-order entities. Ricoeur, I believe, was reaching for something like this with his notion of narrative (as opposed to substantial) identity, which I would rather call something other than identity.