The Phenomenology of Spirit: B. Reason, The Actualization of Self-Consciousness Through its Own Activity

This will be the reading for Saturday, April 26.  As usual, directions are here.

Let’s begin with an attempt to contextualize this chapter.  The Phenomenology began with discussions of the consciousness of sense-certainty and perception, which were attempts at direct, ahistorical knowledge of the world.  This gave way to the self-consciousness which realized itself to be for an other, and through its religious tutelage, discovered the possibility of being governed by reason.  Thus arose reason, which began with a repetition-with-a-twist of direct knowledge, scientific observation.  Like the consciousness of sense-certainty before it, reason in the form of scientific observation now recognizes that it has its truth in the other, i.e. it is mediated and historical (Hegel explicitly says that the active actualization of self-consciousness is to observing reason as self-consciousness was to consciousness, but I’d like to live this point aside for now).

Self-consciousness seeks to actualize its own ends, to make them universal.  This chapter is about three different versions of those ends, with three different attending relations to the universal.  First, the undisciplined consciousness of pleasure which uses others for its own ends, and ends up with a completely empty universal.  Second, the undisciplined law of the heart, which finds an oppressive universal.  Finally, self-consciousness passes into a more disciplined form of virtue, which, in its conflict with the seemingly cynical way of the world, discovers that spending all one’s time on a moral high horse is not all it’s cracked up to be.

The Actualization of Self-Consciousness Through its Own Activity

Initially, Reason repeated sense-certainty, perception and understanding.  Now it will repeat the process of self-consciousness.  It recognizes itself as universal Reason, an individual which has its truth in the other.  The earlier forms appeared independent, but their substance is reason; “[they] have existence and reality only as grounded in that Becoming [of reason] and possess their truth only insofar as they are and remain in it.”  (348)

Since we already have a post master/slave self-consciousness, recognized and acknowledged, with an outer existence, we see the realm of ethical life, the spiritual unity of independent existences.  Universal self-consciousness is united with its independent other practically speaking in custom.  A single individual consciousness is only an individual consciousness in the abstract universality of custom.  Put another way, reason is the universal fluid substance in which I find my unity with the other.  We sacrifice particularity to the universal substance, which makes it our work.

The individual’s activities refer to their merely immediately universality; but it exists because of the sustaining medium, the might of the nation.  The individual’s work takes place in a context; when I work to satisfy my needs, I also work to satisfy yours.  “There is nothing here which would not be reciprocal; nothing in relation to which the independence of the individual would not, in the dissolution of its being-for-self in the negation of itself, gives itself its positive significance of being for itself.”  (351)  The customs and laws of the nation bring together one’s for-another and being-for-self.  The laws say what a person is and does and we see ourselves particularized in them, and others too.  We know others in the same way.  “I perceive in all of them the fact that they know themselves to be only these independent beings, just as I am. . . I regard them as myself and myself as them.”  (351)

Therefore, in a free nation, the individual’s universality and particularity are present to him; hence it is wise to live “in accordance with the custom’s of one’s nation.”  (352)  There is, however, a catch: either self-consciousness immediately withdraws from this, or it does not attain it.  Hence, all this nice sounding stuff about being at home in one’s nation requires some dialectical grease to make it work.

Reason may withdraw because this ethical substance is an immediate given, mere being – which makes it ripe for easy criticism.  The individual sees himself as the essence (i.e., the key point in all this), and laws are merely nice ideas.  This “withdrawn individuality” is the consciousness of hedonistic pleasure.

Alternatively, the happy state of being the ethical substance has yet to be achieved.  This practical consciousness wants to “duplicate” itself in the world, to produce itself as an individual in harmony with the world.  Self-consciousness thinks the unity is already there, implicitly – but it wants to make it explicit through its own agency, or it thinks it equally produces and finds it.  That unity is happiness, so self-consciousness sets off to find it, and it uses the law of its own oh-so-high-minded heart as a roadmap.  In other words, this form of consciousness sees people as implicitly good; they just need to be given a chance.

For the phenomenological observer, the truth of rational self-consciousness is the ethical substance, but for this current stage of self-consciousness, it is seen as the beginning of its ethical experience of the world.  Self consciousness presses forward towards ethics and virtue.  Virtue says personal impulses are to be superceded – but the problem is that ethics becomes just a predicate, something tacked on through personal effort.  Virtue is one sided, only being-for-self.  It is  a setting aside of personal ends, but in a way that can’t be integrated with a wider ethical substance.  Virtue finally learns that “self-consciousness is. . . in reality in the form of an individuality that directly expresses itself, an individuality which no longer encounters resistance from an actual world opposed to it, and whose aim and object are only this expressing of itself.”  (359)  In the end, Spirit learns that the actions of the individual are part and parcel of the good; the truth of rational self-consciousness is the ethical substance.

Pleasure and necessity

Here, self-consciousness is its own object; it is only concerned with itself, not the actual world.  It is aware of itself in the other, but thinks the other is already itself.  It leaves behind law and custom, and seeks only its own individuality.  If you’re wondering what Hegel thinks of this, he helpfully quotes Goethe’s Faust:

 It despises intellect and science

The supreme gifts of man

It has given itself to the devil

And must perish

Terry Pinkard explains the significance of the Faust story.  Faust was a man of learning and science who became bored with austere reason; he made a deal with Mephisto to entire a world of pleasure.  Faust meets and begins to use a young married woman for his own sexual pleasure, and under his influence, she eventually murders her husband.  She is placed on trial and executed.  Faust appeals to Mephisto to make it right, but of course Mephisto won’t. Faust experiences the nasty unintended consequences of his actions as a kind of necessity.

Hegel expands on the emptiness of this hedonism:

 “It plunges therefore into life and indulges to the full the pure individuality in which it appears.  It does not so much make its own happiness as straightaway take it and enjoy it.  The shadowy existence of science, laws and principles, which alone stand between it and its own reality, vanishes like a lifeless mist which cannot compare with the certainty of its own reality. It takes hold of life much as a ripe fruit is plucked, which readily offers itself to the hand that takes it.”  (361)

What does this have to do with desire?  Desire destroys the object, but this self-consciousness only wants to eat the other’s independence, because the other is, in principle, itself.  Desire and object subsist inside animate existence, and the enjoyment of desire usually puts an end to that.  But here, the two are held together by the category, or thought, and the object is preserved.  There is no real separation; this is pleasure.  The other is only a moment, so this self-consciousness also reduces itself to a moment, a universal.  As Findlay puts it, pleasure does not transform existence, only its surface.  It focuses on another individual and uses it.  Shades of the master?

The object of pleasure is just a bunch of empty relations without content.  “It is what is called necessity; for necessity, fate, and the like, is just that about which we cannot say what it does, what its specific laws and positive content are, because it is the absolute pure Notion of itself viewed as [mere, my note] being, a relation that is simple and empty, but also irresistible and imperturbable, whose work is merely the nothingness of individuality.”  (363)  The self-consciousness of pleasure ends in a dead actuality.  Again, Findlay is helpful for clarifying.  Pleasure taken in another purely for self-gratification is self-destroying.  The rational categories of personhood are bypassed, so there is nothing to save one from a blind necessity of ever new objects.  This necessity is the necessity of mere individuality.

That dead individuality is indistinguishable from universality; let’s say this is consciousness realizing it is special, just like everyone else.  it is the move from community-less being-for-self into its opposite, abstract being-in-itself.  Individuality disappears.  But since it is the unity of opposites, the change is still part of its goal and essence.  Consciousness comes to think that this necessity is the necessity of the crushed individual; it thinks it has lost itself to universality, but this loss is its essence: “this reflection of consciousness into itself, the knowledge that necessity is itself, is a new form of consciousness.”  (366)  The perceived of individuality is a gain in terms of the consciousness of universality and necessity.

b. The law of the heart and the frenzy of self-conceit

Since consciousness now considers itself to be necessity, it also comes to believe that it has the law immediately within it.  The law is present in the being-for-self of consciousness; the law of the heart.  It is richer than the previous form because it openly takes itself to be universal.

Since the law of the heart has yet to be realized in the world, it confronts the other as the opposite of what is to be realized, the contradiction of the heart.  “This reality is, therefore, on the one hand a law by which the particular individuality is oppressed, a violent ordering of the world which contradicts the law of the heart, and, on the other hand, a humanity suffering under that ordering, a humanity that does not follow the law of the heart, but is subjected to an alien necessity.”  (369)

The “real world” which appears against this consciousness is “nothing else but the foregoing discordant relationship of individuality and its truth, the relationship of a cruel necessity but which the former is oppressed.”  (369)  We readers see the former moment [hedonism or the world?] as the necessary origin, but this consciousness sees itself as already being for its own self.  Findlay interprets this passage as saying that this consciousness sees the oppressive world as already given; we, the readers, know it is the shadow cast by the law of the heart.

So this individual sets out to get rid of the necessity which contradicts the heart.  It no longer wants to party – it has the “earnestness of a high purpose which seeks its pleasure in displaying the excellence of its own nature, and in promoting the welfare of mankind.  It it realizes is itself the law, and its pleasure is at the same time the universal pleasure of all hearts.”  (370)  Pleasure coincides with the law.  It thinks pleasure and necessity are immediately unified – no mediating agency, that is, no unity brought about by discipline.  “The realization of its immediate undisciplined nature passes for a display of its excellence and as productive of the welfare of humanity.”  (370)

But the external law continues to be separated from the heart.  Humanity bound by law either suffers under it, or at least ceases to take enjoyment from following it, but can’t really muster up a genuine transgression.  Because divine and human laws are separated from the heart, they can be ignored in favor of the heart.

In carrying out the law of its heart, this law becomes universal.  The heart becomes the law it was supposed to get rid of; it stops being a law of the heart.  It becomes a universal power for which a particular heart is irrelevant.  The individual, in choosing laws for himself [Hegel’s pronoun], finds the law is no longer his own.  It becomes alien and hostile.

His act is supposed to posit himself as the universal, but this universality runs away from him – he purges himself of his particularity.  The person who wants to see himself in the universal can’t, but at the same time belongs to it because it made it.  The act ends up contradicting the universal ordinance, because it was supposed to be his heart, not a universal – and he has at the same time recognized that universality, because the act recognizes the world.  Again, Findlay is helpful: to the extent that the heart’s law becomes an actual law is the extent to which the heart-ruled person cannot find satisfaction in it; it becomes something alien which must be rebelled against.

The individual’s own action shows how the universal will turn against him.  His act is supposed to be universal, but the content is individual – and that individuality wants to preserve itself in opposition to the universal.  It is not that any particular law is in question; rather it is that the supposed unity of one’s individuality and the law is in fact an expression of one’s being-for-self, or pleasure.  It is supposed to be universal, but is in fact only particular.  So others do not see in this law their law, but the law of another, and so they all turn against one another.

Since consciousness only sees universality as immediate, and that necessity is the necessity of the heart, it doesn’t see that entrusting its individuality to this universality kills the individuality.  Instead of acquiring being of its own, it ends up alienating itself.  The law of the heart becomes a law it cannot recognize itself in: “The heart-throb for the welfare of humanity therefore passes into the ravings of an insane self-conceit, into the fury of consciousness to preserve itself from destruction; and it does this by expelling from itself the perversion which it is itself, and by striving to look on it and express it as something else.  It therefore speaks of the universal order as a perversion of the law of the heart and of its happiness,” at the hands of priests and despots.  (377)  Consciousness says misery is the result of bad individuals, opposed to its own pure intentions.  The law is supposed to be universal, but it sees it as not valid.  Everyone sets up their own contradictory laws.  This universal law is only a universal struggle of all against all.  “Public order” is precisely this struggle of competing interests.  It is “the way of the world,” which portrays itself as universal, but is only the “essenceless play of establishing and nullifying individuality.”

So the universal law has two sides – consciousness which sees everything as mere opinion, and consciousness which knows individuality to be a source of perversion.  Individuality must be sacrificed, hence, virtue.

c. Virtue and the way of the world

First, reason took itself to be pure individuality, and found only an empty universality.  In the second, the two were mixed with the heart dominating.  In the relation between virtue and the way of the world, law and individuality both move to and away from each other.  For virtuous consciousness, law must nullify individuality.  The way of the world thinks individuality needs to be disciplined by the good and the true, but must maintain a personal consciousness.

Virtuous, true discipline requires a total sacrifice of the entire personality to prove particularities are not insisted upon.  The way of the world is sacrificed as a simple moment, because it subordinates the good and the true to itself.  The way of the world is, for virtue, not an order perverted by individuality.  Public order is also to be sacrificed, since it is a consciousness of individuality, and individuality is to be nullified, but that negation gives the public order its own existence  [I think he’s basically saying that this sort of critique treats social substance as something that exists in its own right, emphasizing the “substance” over the “social”].

The universal is supposed to be saved from individual perversion by virtue.  Virtue wants to save the universal from itself, to make manifest its essence.  But the essence is entirely implicit, so virtue can only have faith in it.  But virtue doesn’t get a chance to enjoy the fruits of this faith.  Virtue’s activity as an individuality is the activity of its conflict with the way of the world, but its real aim is to conquer the way of the world.  This bringing into existence of the good is the cessation of the consciousness of individuality.

The universality in which virtue has faith is not actual, but only abstract – it only exists in relation to the way of the world.  Virtue seeks to protect or actualize the universal good against the way of the world, but the universal is directly realized by the conflict itself – and the realization that it is “for an other.”  Virtue wants to fight the way of the world, but in the conflict, keeps coming across “the universal, not merely an abstract universal, but as a universal animated by individuality and existing for an other, in other words, the actual good.”  (386)  Virtue can’t help but see the good in the way of the world.

From the perspective of the way of the world, its essence is not an implicit universal, “but individuality; its power, therefore, is the negative principle for which nothing is established or absolutely sacred, but which can risk and endure the loss of anything and everything.”  (389)  (Shades of the slave?)  Virtue is hampered, the way of the world is not.  It can accept or set aside principles.

Virtue loses to the way of the world because its distinctions are purely nominal.  It way to bring the good into being is by sacrificing individuality, but individuality is part of reality.  The good was supposed to be implicit, but the in-itself is reality itself.  The in-itself looks like an abstraction, something only for consciousness, but that makes it real – to be real is to be for an other, or being:

 “The way of the world was supposed to be the perversion of the good because it had individuality for its principle; only, individuality is the principle of the real world; for it is precisely individuality that is consciousness, whereby what exists in itself exists equally for an other; it does pervert the unchangeable, but it perverts it in fact from the nothing of abstraction into the real of being.” (389)

The way of the world triumphs over abstract essenceless virtue.  Virtue talks a big game, but has no content.  This is in contrast to the ancient world (presumably the Greeks), for whom virtue did not rely on anything implicit and so actually had meaning.

The way of the world turns out to be not as bad as it looked; its reality is the reality of the universal.  Individuality does not need to be sacrificed, because individuality is the actualizing of the good.  The perversion of the good becomes the conversion of the good; “the movement of individuality is the reality of the individual.”  (391)

Finally, the way of the world disappears as well; “the individuality of the way of the world may well imagine that it acts only for itself or in its own interests.  It is better than it thinks, for its action is at the same time an implicitly universal act.”  (392)  Acting for itself, it gives actuality to the implicit.  The activity of individuality is its own End.  The in-itself is the process of individuality.


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