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.

Self-Consciousness vs Identity

In the development being pursued here, reason, self-consciousness, agency, and responsibility all end up being trans-individual and social things. My emotions are basically mine, but my thoughts, commitments, and actions and their consequences involve more than just me. At the same time, though, as I put it once before, these things that involve more than just me actually say more about who “I” am than my inner state says about “me”. Who we are as ethical beings involves much more than personal identity and what is strictly ours. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Apperception, Identity; Expansive Agency; The Ambiguity of “Self”; Essentially Self-Conscious?; Ego.)

The Ambiguity of “Self”

To put it mildly, “self” is said in many ways. To begin with, is it used as a noun, as an adjective, or as an adverb? As a noun, it may refer to an empirical “me”. As an adjective, it may name an abstract, pure reflexivity. It may also be used to adverbially describe something that has recursive structure that depends on details. I’ve always thought adverbs were the part of speech closest to reality.

The contrast between “self” in something like Hegelian self-consciousness and the “self” figuring in my recent Ego post could not be more extreme. Hegel’s use is definitely adverbial; as I have said several times, self-consciousness is anything but direct consciousness of a (noun) “self”. It has more to do with ethical awareness of limitations, and awareness of others. (See also Self, Infinity; Individuation.)

Essentially Self-Conscious?

The idea of an essentially self-conscious entity sounds like an oxymoron. Once we even begin to understand what Hegel meant by self-consciousness — that it is anything but automatic immediate “consciousness” of a “self”, but rather the hard-won awareness of real-world limitations, nuances, complications, and ambiguities — there could hardly be anything more absurd than the idea that an entity could just have such awareness essentially.

Luckily, there is another, completely different interpretation, highlighted by Brandom, that does not involve any super powers. An “essentially self-conscious entity” is actually just an entity whose essence depends on the higher-order shape of her commitments, including whatever awareness of limitations, nuances, and what-not that the entity does or does not have.