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.

Phenomenology of Will

I’m starting to look at Paul Ricoeur’s large early work Freedom and Nature (French ed. 1950). This was to be the first of three volumes on a philosophy of will, of which he only completed two. It turns out to be full of rich detail on the vexing question of the way transcendental and empirical aspects of subjectivity are interrelated.

In this work, Ricoeur combines a Marcelian emphasis on embodiment with a broadly Husserlian phenomenological method. The investigation is to address “Cogito’s complete experience, including even its most diffuse affective margins” (p. 8; emphasis in original). I would shy away from the Cartesian sound of saying “Cogito” at all, but the really important part here is the qualifiers Ricoeur adds. Even in Descartes, cogito has a broad usage that sometimes seems to include perception and feeling, and not just thought in the narrower sense.

Ricoeur here seems to accept something like the Stoic hegemonikon (etymologically related to “hegemony”), which was ancestral to later notions of “will” as a unified faculty or power. I prefer Aristotle’s approach, which accounts for the phenomena — including choice — without the need for such an hypothesis. In the later tradition, it is often ambiguous whether will is really supposed to be a separate power like the Stoics seem to have thought, or simply a name for the cooperation of reason and desire in governing action, as Aristotle probably would have said. (See also Kantian Will.) Here Ricoeur’s use of phenomenological method is a big help in minimizing the impact of this sort of issue.

“To say ‘I will’ means first ‘I decide’, secondly ‘I move my body’, thirdly ‘I consent'” (p. 6). This sort of concrete delineation is very helpful. These are all kinds of things that actually happen and that we can describe or interpret as phenomena, independent of any assumed theory of the will.

Ricoeur had already said he would use something like Husserl’s method of phenomenological and eidetic reduction, “putting in brackets” questions of existence or of the objectivity of appearances in order to focus on what Ricoeur here calls “elaborating the idea or meaning” (pp. 3-4). Eidos was the word Plato and Aristotle used for form. Husserl adopted it for the second of three stages of “reduction”.

Briefly put, Husserl’s first, “phenomenological” reduction emphasizes a suspension of existence claims about the content under examination. The second, “eidetic” one emphasizes a positive examination of the ranges of variation of pure “essences” of mental objects, still not assumed to have any particular metaphysical or objective status. Ricoeur’s gloss “idea or meaning” (emphasis added) already anticipates a shift of emphasis in the direction of hermeneutics. He says he will not use Husserl’s third, “transcendental” reduction, which was supposed to arrive at a “pure” consciousness unaffected by empirical psychology. Ricoeur explicitly notes that “we cannot pretend that we are unaware of the fact that the involuntary is often better known empirically, in its form, albeit degraded, of a natural event” (p. 11).

A main top-level thesis of this work of Ricoeur’s is that the voluntary and the involuntary are reciprocally interdependent, and we cannot really understand either one without the other. Not only is the voluntary partly shaped by the involuntary, but also we only fully understand the involuntary through its impacts on the voluntary. (For more on the same book, see Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Willing, Unwilling; Rethinking Responsibility.)


One of the underappreciated aspects of Aristotle’s thought is his pluralism. A thing will typically have multiple causes. Important words are “said in many ways”. We should be careful not to make claims that are too strong.

There has been a tendency to read Aristotle as a systematizer — which he is, but only up to a point — that has interfered with recognition of the principled and not just incidental nature of Aristotelian pluralism. Aristotle’s pluralism is part of a deep and admirable commitment to what in a modern context would be called antireductionism. This is just part of his extraordinary, methodologically sophisticated intellectual honesty, which is stronger than his desire to systematize.

Historically, Aristotle’s immediate successors were the Stoics, who did aim at extremely strong systematicity, and claimed to have achieved it. Philosophy after that, including what was called Aristotelian philosophy, largely proceeded on the Stoic model. Strong systematic claims became de rigeur. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Univocity; Mean; Aristotelian Dialectic; Free Will and Determinism.)

Stoicism, Skepticism

Brandom makes interesting connections between Hegel’s rather idiosyncratic discussion of Stoicism and Skepticism in the Phenomenology and the preceding discussion of Mastery. Stoicism and Skepticism for Hegel each in a different way reflect aspects of Mastery’s attitude that wants to claim total independence.

Hegel’s criticism of Stoicism in this context is rather different from my previously expressed issues with its foundationalism, claims of a completed system, and what the ancients called its dogmatism. My remarks probably apply more to the system of Zeno and Chrysippus, whereas Hegel’s apply more to the narrower ethical concerns of someone like Epictetus.

Zeno and Chrysippus are known only from references in other authors; none of their original works survive. Surviving references to early Stoic teaching often tend to be somewhat anonymous and generic. The details of the system are quite fascinating and worthy of study in their own right (see the collected fragments in Long and Sedley, The Hellenistic Philosophers; also Sambursky, Stoic Physics; Mates, Stoic Logic; and Nussbaum, Therapies of Desire).

Ancient Skepticism is also quite worthy of study in its own right. In addition to fragments, a number of works by the late author Sextus Empiricus survive. Ancient skeptics were mainly skeptical about theoretical developments. (The more extreme skepticism many modern authors have worried about in the third person seems to be a post-Cartesian development.)

Brandom says Hegel’s Stoics and Skeptics both refuse the experience of error that is crucial to the elicitation of conceptual content. On his reading, Hegel’s Stoic in, say, refusing to recognize physical pain, is both just being stubborn and refusing to address what turn out to be incompatible commitments, effectively denying the reality of the object in order to maintain the independence of consciousness at all cost. The Skeptic is just refusing to make any commitments at all, which is another attempt to maintain the independence of consciousness at all cost. Hegel’s point is that this attitude of wanting to maintain the total independence of consciousness from anything other is unsustainable.


Representation was not invented by Descartes, as Brandom tends to suggest. Concepts of representation had wide currency in the middle ages. The word used was literally repraesentatio. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary, which traces its philosophical use to the Latin translations of Avicenna.

John Duns Scotus (1266 -1308) wanted to rewrite Aristotle by insisting that there is a single meaning for “being” that underlies all the different meanings Aristotle had distinguished. The underlying minimal definition of being he proposed was precisely representability. Olivier Boulnois documents how Scotus believed he had invented a unified ontology that Aristotle thought was impossible, and did so on the basis of a doctrine of being as pure representability. Scotus thus appears as an arch-representationalist. Whatever else one may say about it, his notion of representation is clearly not the same as resemblance. Every medieval university had a Scotist on the faculty.

If memory serves, Aquinas had a doctrine of the possibility of perfect representation. Since it is perfect, this cannot be reducible to mere resemblance. Perfect representation is effectively equivalent to a kind of immediacy.

Some contemporary scholars also translate Greek Stoic phantasma as “representation”, based on the functional role it plays in the Stoic system. The Stoic theory in question dealt with sense perception, and was part physiological and part epistemological. It purported to provide a foundation for immediate certain knowledge of represented objects from their mental representations in perception. This sounds like representation before inference, and also like another variant of putatively perfect representation, which therefore would again not be reducible to resemblance, and would again be effectively equivalent to immediacy.

Freedom and Free Will

Plato and Aristotle got along perfectly well with what many people think was no concept of a separate “will” at all. Aristotle nonetheless developed a nuanced account of deliberation and choice, which should have made it plain for all time that no extravagant assumptions are necessary to provide a basis for morality. All that is required for ethical development is that there be things within our power, not that we can somehow magically escape from all determination.

Curiously, the notion of a “freedom of indifference” emerged in Stoicism, generally thought to be a haven of determinism. The Stoic sage is claimed to be completely indifferent and unaffected by passions, therefore completely free. Some monotheistic theologians later applied an even stronger version of this to God. God in this view is absolutely free to do absolutely any arbitrary thing. Some even claimed that because man is in the image of God, man too is supernaturally exempt from any constraint on the will. Descartes claimed that the physical world was wholly determined, but that the human soul is by the grace of God wholly free. (See also Arbitrariness, Inflation.)

Others thought we are free when we are guided by reason. This view takes different shapes, from that of Aquinas to that of Spinoza.

Kant introduced another kind of freedom, based on taking responsibility. Where I decide to take responsibility, I am free in that sense, with no need for a supernatural power. I can take responsibility for things that are by no means fully within my control. Kant unfortunately confuses the matter by talking about freedom as a novel form of causality, while denying that this makes any gap in Newtonian physical causality. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Freedom Through Deliberation?; Beauty, Deautomatization; Phenomenology of Will.)

Hegel too reproduced some voluntarist-sounding rhetoric, but his version of freedom is a combination of both the reason and responsibility views with absence of slavery or oppression. (See also Independence, Freedom.)

Confusion continued into the 20th century notably with Sartre, who claimed that man is free even in prison, and attacked so-called structuralism for allegedly undermining said freedom.

Freedom as reason, freedom as responsibility, freedom as absence of slavery and oppression are all things we should want. As for the rest, see the Appendix to Book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics (though unfortunately Spinoza is unfair to Aristotle in treating all teleology as supernatural in origin). (See also Subject; God and the Soul; Influence.)

Brandom explicitly mentions theological voluntarism as associated with what he calls the “subordination-obedience model” of normativity.