Individuality, Community

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The final part of Paul Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature was to discuss our “aquiescence to necessity” (p. 341). At one point he says he is looking for a way to ground something like Nietzsche’s amor fati or “love of fate”. The idea would be to explain how to achieve reconciliation to what must be, but without falling into an overly passive stance. Here he notes that “Pure description raises more problems than it resolves or than it presents as resolved” (p. 347).

His attempts to describe various aspects of necessity — principally under the forms of character, the unconscious, and life, which he notes also involve other wills, history, and the whole course of nature — he finds to be irremediably tainted by the “spell of objectivity” (ibid). The problem seems to be that he honestly thinks empirical data — or psychoanalytic theories, in the case of the unconscious — give the best insight into the operations of “bodily necessity” (p. 343), but then his Marcellian concerns about objectification lead him to conclude that none of the work he surveys in this context is usable for achieving the kind of reconciliation he wanted.

He ends up hinting that this will be resolved in a future work that does not rely on a Husserlian “bracketing” of questions related to what Ricoeur calls Transcendence that he had announced would limit the scope of this work. Transcendence, he suggests, will be addressed in the new context of a “poetics” of the will, rather than the modified Husserlian phenomenology he was pursuing here. He seems to have believed that ultimate reconciliation of freedom and necessity could only be achieved through a spiritual relation to Transcendence. Without in any way diminishing the value of such a spiritual relation, I am more optimistic that there is a purely philosophical resolution of this issue, using Aristotelian and Brandomian resources. Meanwhile, having myself already used the term “poetic” to describe statements about spiritual beliefs, I look forward to seeing how he developed this notion of a “poetics”. (See also Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Ricoeur on Choice; Voluntary Action.)

Lévinas on the Other

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-95) was an important religiously oriented philosopher within the existential-phenomenological tradition. He translated Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to French. His most famous work Totality and Infinity (French edition 1961) — dedicated to Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl — argues at top level that philosophy has often been dominated by a drive for a vision of totality, and that we should abandon this in favor of the “infinity” of our experience of the Other, which for Lévinas leads from an ethical concern to a sort of eschatology. He puts ethics before ontology, which I like, but still takes a more metaphysical approach than Marcel, for instance.

I appreciate his stress on concern for others, but have trouble applying the notion of infinity in this context. I’m more comfortable talking about the essential incompleteness of our experience as finite beings. Lévinas is right that reaching for totality is overreaching, but I think Plato and Aristotle — and also Kant, and even especially Hegel (so different from the common stereotype) — already clearly recognized this. In my view, ordinary open-ended interpretation already implicitly poses a potentially infinite (i.e., indefinitely extensible, and therefore always incomplete) task that we cut short in order to act, but we never in experience encounter an actual or completed infinite. Ethical encounter with others highlights the incompleteness (i.e., non-totality, in Lévinas’ terms) of our understanding.

This incompleteness — and the thickness and “overflowing” character of meant realities or informal “being” that is its complement — already seems to me sufficient to support an ethical, hospitable relation to the other. I want to say that an overflowing beyond objectifying schemas is characteristic not just of absolute transcendence and infinity, but of ordinary being and ordinary meaning. Routinely in everyday life, there is meaningful intelligibility and there is overflow, in the very same context. Even in the most ordinary moments, with sufficient openness we can find poetic reverie and ethical awe that takes us outside of ourselves.

Lévinas speaks of the “absolutely other” as “truth” in the sense of a religious transcendence, to which ethics is the “royal road” (p. 29). Transcendence, Lévinas says, should not be confused with ecstasy or magical communion. He has in mind a more sober kind of religion. He cites Marcel and Martin Buber on the irreducibility of the relationship to the Other to objective knowledge, and associates the driving of practice by theory with a failure to recognize this primacy of the other. With Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I think we should recognize that theoretical reason actually depends on a practical reason that renounces Mastery; that theoretical reason is more of a tool, whereas practical reason is more of an agency; and that practical reason begins with recognition of the other.

I like when he speaks of a “generosity nourished by the Desired” (p. 34). He goes on to talk about a metaphysical Desire for the absolutely Other, “non-adequate to the idea” (ibid). Less metaphysically, I see forms overflowing their boundaries without thereby ceasing to be forms, and locate meaning in a foundationless but relatively stable difference in a relation of reciprocal co-grounding with moral commitment and practical judgment.

He talks about the reduction of the Other to the Same, and seems to think most philosophy does that. I have a more optimistic or charitable view that I think is also more historiographically valid. Aristotle and Hegel especially (contrary to common stereotypes) are very careful to avoid claiming overly strong Identity, so it is really not fair to say they reduce the Other to the Same.

Directly contrary to my view, he says that “The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification” (p. 69; emphasis in original). Disappointingly, he seems to prefer an authoritative teacher whom he calls an absolute Stranger. “The absolutely foreign alone can instruct us” (p. 73). It’s starting to sound like Kierkegaard here. I feel that hyperbolic expressions like this begin to denigrate ordinary life, and ultimately lead to a sort of absolute inflation. Lévinas’ Other is supposed to be a source of gentleness rather than arbitrariness, but to me what is gentle — much as it may exceed any objectification — cannot be absolutely foreign. I prefer to emphasize goodness rather than power, and I want to say that goodness speaks to us, so it cannot be absolutely foreign. (See also Immanence, Transcendence.)

Gabriel Marcel

Having discovered a major convergence between the work of Paul Ricoeur and what I have been doing here, I’m also looking into his mentor, the philosopher and playwrite Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). Marcel held famous Friday evening philosophical meetings that included Ricoeur, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean Wahl, Nicolas Berdyaev, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre. At one point, he accepted the description “Christian existentialist”, but later he repudiated the term “existentialist”, preferring the term “neo-Socratic”. He was close to Emmanuel Mounier, founder of the personalist movement and the journal Esprit.

To an unusual extent, Marcel centered his philosophy directly on concerns he found to arise in life. He was a significant contributor to the early 20th century quest for a renewal of values in the face of the newly emerging technologically based mass society. Marcel always said he did not intend to present a philosophical system, but rather a path of inquiry that would that would at the same time be a spiritual path.

He sought to develop an alternative to Cartesian views of subjectivity, which he considered to result in a depreciation of the broader concerns of life. He emphasized a distinction between “being” and “having”. For Marcel, our beliefs and the things we care about are not things we “have”, but rather should be considered as part of our being. He emphasized believing in rather than believing that.

Marcel spoke of “ontological exigence” as a need for what he called transcendence, and insisted that this transcendence must be experienceable, but that it is experienced as something entirely beyond our grasp. He distinguished between external “problems” that do not involve the questioner’s being, and instances of “the mysterious”, in which the question does involve the questioner’s own being. These uses of “being” strike me as mainly ethical in import.

He spoke of commitment in terms of a “creative fidelity” that creates a self, and essentially involves remaining open to the other. He stressed the importance of hope as a form of “active patience”. I relate this broadly to Brandom’s emphasis on trust.

Marcel’s strong concern with ethics does not seem to have explicitly emphasized ethical reason as such, but I have already noted that his student Ricoeur combined the ethical concerns of Marcel and Lévinas with a more classical approach grounded in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Marcel on Being.)

Immanence, Transcendence

Immanence and transcendence are both dubious theological concepts. Everything we care about and everything that inspires us belongs in the space of an interweaving that is neither properly immanent nor properly transcendent. Immanence implies an overly simple, immediate presence, and transcendence implies a reification and objectification. On the other hand, the traditional formula of asserting both at once — in spite of its self-contradictory appearance — can be charitably understood as a way of speaking about the real that is neither the one nor the other.