The Phenomenology of Spirit: B. Reason, C. Individuality – a. The Spiritual Animal Kingdom and Deceit

This will be the reading for Saturday, May 17’s meeting.

Since self-consciousness learned that the way of the world, in which everyone seeks their own interest, is not as bad as it thought, it now knows it is the interfusion of universal human capabilities and individuality.  That is, individuals use those universal capabilities to assert their individuality among others; in acting, they become real boys for the first time.

This chapter is about the ins and outs of being an individual for the sake of being an individual.  Actions make one an individual, and acting has three moments: the circumstances of the action, the means, and the End.  From our observer’s perspective, each of the three presupposes the other, but the individual lets them fall apart, and so one of them can stand in for the other two.  Any one of the three can be the matter-in-hand, or the point; so for example, if one fails to achieve their End, they can still feel themselves to be individualized by their mere intention or initial circumstances.  This is a consciousness that merely wants to signal its individuality to others by paying attention to whatever issue is at hand, but when others discover that it is a mere signalling, they feel deceived – and of course they are aggrieved by this deception because they, too, only wanted to signal their individuality.  Basically, this is individuality as all bark and no bite.

Self-consciousness only moves out of this quagmire when the unity of the three moments is reasserted.  When the three moments are unified, one must actually work to carry out their Ends, and so individuality becomes actually universal, instead of only abstractly.

Meet the new negativity, same as the old negativity

This section introduces one startling change.  Up to this point, consciousness has been negative, a perpetual attempt to overcome some part of the world to realize an End (e.g., the initial battle which produced masters and slaves, or the bleeding heart’s attempt to change the world).  In the interfusion of universality and individuality, self-consciousness also realizes that End and intrinsic being are the same as being-for-another and reality: it no longer longer needs to eat some part of the world, only work within it.

The point is now action as a pure expression of individuality.  “The element in which individuality sets forth its shape has the significance solely of putting on the shape of individuality; it is the daylight in which consciousness wants to display itself.” (§396)  Action just wants to display itself.  Yet, importantly, this individuality is an abstract universal lacking content, just the empty thought of a category.  In keeping with the method introduced in the introduction, the question is: how does this form of consciousness appear to itself?

As with every other form of consciousness, it begins by seeing itself as a given, posited as simple being.  Negativity, which is movement, is taken as determinateness, or a “definite range of being.”  Therefore: “individuality appears on the scene as an original determinate nature: original, for it is implicit; originally determinate, for the negative moment is present in the in-itself and this latter is thus a quality.”  (§398)  Negativity, instead of being ceaselessly destabilizing, is now seen as a positive quality of all individuals, part of their original nature, or their range of abilities and possibilities.  The original nature is just the element in which consciousness freely exists, like a fish in water.  In that context it can do anything.

That original nature appears to individuality to be its End – being an individual for the sake of being an individual.  It doesn’t want to go beyond that original nature – but that nature, negativity, is only determinate as being.  Alas, action is nothing but negativity, which dissolves all determinateness.  Individuality for the sake of it inevitably becomes undone.

The three moments: circumstances, means, End

Initially, the original nature appears as passive material, that is, a gift or talent. It is a given material which action shapes.  “That is to say, action simply translates an initially implicit being into a being that is made explicit; the being-in-itself of the reality opposed to consciousness is reduced to a mere empty show.” (§401)  That content is only explicit for consciousness when consciousness has made it reality – but the distinction between content which is explicit for consciousness and a reality outside it is nullified.

“Consciousness must act merely in order that what is in itself may become explicit for it; in other words, action is simply the coming-to-be of Spirit as consciousness.”  (§401)  What consciousness is in-itself, it learns through action; a man does not know what he is until he acts.  There is an obvious paradox here.  You can’t know your End until you’ve carried it out, but as a conscious individual, you can’t act without your own End in view.  The individual gets caught in a circle, where each moment presupposes the other.  One can not find a beginning, because he only learns his original nature/End from the act, while in order to act, he must have that End in sight. Therefore, one must just immediately begin, without regard to beginning, means or End, because his intrinsic nature is that knot: circumstances, means, End, all together.

Hegel goes on to analyze each moment in detail.  The beginning is the circumstances of the action, and the interest which answers “whether he should act, and what should be done in a given case.”  (§401)  This beginning is the original nature.  The means are one’s talents, which turn out to be the original nature considered as a set of inner means, the ability to transition from an intention to an achieved reality.  The gap between beginning and end is removed by action, which is the unity of inner and outer.  But the antithesis is illusory; “It therefore rids itself of that character and posits itself – this unity of being and action – equally as an outer, as an individuality that has itself become a reality, i.e. an individuality which is posited for individuality as [objectively] existent.  In this way, the entire action does not go outside itself, either as circumstances or as End, or means, or as a work done.” (§401)

The work is a specific thing by a specific individual; the negativity of work is in the particular object, but the individual consciousness is determined as negativity in general, or universal, so works can be compared in a quantitative way, as exhibiting a greater force of will or a richer nature.  These quantitative differences are unessential, however.  “Good” and “bad,” on the other hand, are meant to be absolute, but this is not important:

“Whether something is held to be good or bad, it is in either case an action and an activity in which an individuality exhibits and expresses itself, and for that reason it is all good; and it would, strictly speaking, be impossible to say what ‘badness’ was supposed to be.  What would be called a bad work is the individual life of a specific nature, which therein gives itself reality.  It would only be put down as a bad work by a comparing reflection, which, however, is an idle affair, since it goes beyond the essential nature of the work, which is to be a self-expression of the individuality, and in it looks for and demands something else, no one knows what.” (§403)

Each work is self-related.  The only thing they can be really compared to is the original nature, which is the in-itself.  But that only exists as it is expressed in work – the two coincide; “Therefore, feelings of exaltation, or lamentation, or repentance are altogether out of place.  For all that sort of thing stems from a mind which imagines a content and an in-itself which are different from the original nature of the individual and the actual carrying out of it in the real world.” (§404) Whatever the individual does, he is that.  “He can have only the consciousness of the simple transference of himself from the night of possibility into the daylight of the present, from the abstract in-itself into the significance of actual being. . .” (§404)  The individual finds only his unity with himself, and so “can experience only joy in himself.” (§404)


That’s what consciousness thinks of itself – “an absolute interfusion of individuality and being.”  Does it match up with experience or its own concept?  Let’s see.  (I’m grasping in these next few paragraphs)

So: through work, consciousness becomes explicit and open to all as universal.  Consciousness is universal, but any given work is a particular work.  The relation between the two is a fraught one; we shall see that the work is inevitably alienated from consciousness.

The work takes into itself “the whole nature of the individuality.”  The work gets put out into the world, and the original nature along with it.  It gets stuck dealing with others.  In theory, all the moments – circumstances, means, End – are equal, and the original nature is a vanishing universality – but the original nature comes to light in this dissolution.  “More precisely, the form which this dissolution takes is that, in this specific character, the individual, qua this particular individual, has become aware of himself as actual; but the specific character is not only the content of the reality, but equally its form; in other words, the reality simply as such is just this quality of being opposed to self-consciousness.”  (§405)  It ends up as an alien given, just another object in the world, rather than my product.  It becomes for others, and ends up devoured by them.  As Findlay says, the product makes explicit what was implicit in the man’s nature, and makes it explicit for everyone.  In the product, circumstances/means/End dissolve and become alien.

Basically, consciousness gets alienated from its product – i.e., it becomes aware of the split between being and doing.  For earlier shapes of consciousness, that split was the occasion for action – but here, it is the result.  But since consciousness acted like it was implicitly real, the result is also the foundation.  Action presupposed the original nature as the in-itself, and the content of that nature was to produce for the sake of producing.  With that, individuality becomes contradictory.  The previously unified moments of circumstance/means/End become unravelled.  Purpose and original nature split – it is accidental if the work actually expresses anything.  Failure or success is contingent.

Consciousness sees the split between willing and achieving; between original nature and reality; but the unity of the action persists.  The experience of the contingency of the action is also contingent – even if the action fails, or never even really begins, we can take some satisfaction from it.  The action’s necessity is that it is related to reality – it actually needs to engage with the world, or at least seem toThat seems to contradict the split between willing and achieving; if I can be satisfied by a failure, then what is the point of seeing a split between willing and achieving in the first place?

The contingency of satisfaction is what Hegel refers to as the vanishing work. The work vanishes because its success or failure is basically irrelevant, at least so far as consciousness’s myopia is concerned.  But that vanishing itself vanishes:  “What is preserved is not the vanishing; the vanishing is itself actual and bound up with the work and vanishes with it; the negative itself perishes along with the positive whose nature it is.” (§408)  The contingency is contingent; it is for-consciousness, not for-itself.  The negativity of the work doesn’t only affect the work or consciousness, but also reality –  succeed or fail, consciousness has done something.

In the contingency of the action, individuality experiences its concept – [its finitude, its facticity? So say my notes, now I’m not so sure].  The contingency is a vanishing moment – “reality therefore has for consciousness only the value of being as such, whose universality is one with action.  This unity is the true work; it is the very heart of the matter which completely holds its own and is experienced as that which endures, independently of the results of an individual action, the result of contingent circumstances, means and reality.” (§409)  The “matter-in-hand” is what holds together all the moments, though for now, this holding-together is only effective in principle.

The heart of the matter is the unity of the moments (circumstance, means, End).  It is action in general, but also the purpose of the individual.  And just as much, the action is a transition from determinateness (it makes the person “real”) into indeterminateness (alienation from the action).  That transition is what makes it explicitly present for consciousness.  So the heart of the matter is the way the moments lose their individual significance and become universal.  That is, the action remains the person’s own, but is also a “free object.”  [I take this to be a halfway point between alienation and resolution)

The matter-in-hand is the interfusion between individuality and objectivity – or rather, the way that interfusion becomes objective.  It’s how self-consciousness comes into possession of its true concept.  But right now, it is just a given, immediate consciousness, not yet developed into “real substance.”  

The matter-in-hand has all these moments, but is indifferent to them as specific moments, so is free and independent, and so this abstract matter in hand has the value of independent being. The matter-in-hand looks like a unified object because consciousness takes it to be a given.  In the introduction to this reading, I said that the individual actualizes themselves through work, but then becomes alienated from the work by virtue of the fact that it lets the moments of work fall apart; we’ve now reached the halfway point where the work is re-unified, but remains abstract.

Deceit and the matter-in-hand

Consciousness is honest (or of good-will) when it when it accepts the universality of the action, the way the action is addressed to all, the way its action becomes alienated from itself.  Satisfaction can be found in any of the moments individually – so we can be satisfied by a failed action.

Even if consciousness doesn’t convert its purpose into reality, it at least willed it, and can solace in the fact that something was done.  “Since the universal itself contains subsumed under it the negative moment or the vanishing, the fact that the work annihilates itself, this too is its doing.  It has incited the others to do this, and in the vanishing of its reality still finds satisfaction, just like naughty boys who enjoy themselves when they get their ears boxed because they are the cause of it being done.”  (§413)  Or even if it does nothing, the resolve itself is enough to satisfy it – because it couldn’t do anything; “it asserts that the reality would be nothing else but what it was possible for it to do.”  (§413).  He also takes credit for a political party he liked, even if he did nothing (All of §413 is delightful).

It can enjoy all these things because it holds the moments apart; the matter in hand is its affair, not its action.  One meaning after another becomes the predicate, each one forgotten in its turn.  “The consolation for the failure of the purpose which at least was willed, or at least simply done, was well as the satisfaction of having given others something to do, makes simple doing, or thoroughly bad work, the essence of the whole affair; for that work is to be called bad which is no work at all.  Finally, in the lucky event of finding the reality already in being, this ‘being’ becomes without any effort the ‘matter in hand’ itself.” (§414)

However, consciousness can’t really let the moments fall apart that way, because they are absolutely interrelated.  That the work is both his action and action in general cannot be broken apart.  When one says their concern is only the matter in hand, that is, when they are only signalling, it is an abstract concern.  It must be both one’s own concern and a concern in general.

The matter in hand and its moments are not only the contents of action, they must also be forms of consciousness.  As content, each one vanishes in its turn; at one point, it is the circumstances that matter, at another point, the difficulty of the means is an excuse for failure.  In order to vanish, they must be forms, and so aspects of consciousness itself.  The matter in hand is the reflection of consciousness into itself, but in being established in consciousness, they are not for themselves but for another.  But for now, the moments alternate with one another: “Since in this alternation consciousness keeps, in its reflection, one moment for itself and as essential, while another is externally present in it, or is for others, there thus enters a play of individualities with one another in which each and all find themselves both deceiving and deceived.” (§416)

“An individuality sets about carrying out something; by so doing it seems to have made something its own affair; it acts, and in acting becomes involved with others and seems to itself to be having to do with reality.  The others therefore take its action for a sign of interest in the ‘matter in hand’ as such, and its purpose to be the carrying-out of the matter per se, regardless whether this is dong by the first individuality or by them.” (§417)  

If the work has already been done, or if others offer help, they discover consciousness has already become concerned with a different moment, and they feel deceived.  It turns out that this consciousness is only concerned with its own action and interests, not that of others, who can do as they like.  But again it turns out consciousness does not really even care about this as its own affair – it is just an affair in general.  It interferes in the action of others, or at least passes judgement on it – and if it approves of the work, it merely intends to signal its own generosity in not interfering with it.  In showing an interest, it is merely enjoying itself.

“Those, however, who think or pretend to think that they have been deceived by this interference, wanted really themselves to practise the same kind of deceit.  They pretend that their action and efforts are something for themselves alone in which they have only themselves and their own essential nature in mind.  However, in doing something, they directly contradict by their deed their pretence of wanting to exclude the glare of publicity and participation by all and sundry.  Actualization is, on the contrary, a display of what is one’s own in the element of universality whereby it becomes, and should become, the affair of everyone.” (§417)

It is a deception of oneself and others to claim one is only interested in the matter at hand alone.  The nature of the matter in hand cannot be opposed to individual action – rather it is the action of the individual and of all individuals; none of these moments are subject, but all are dissolved in a  universal matter in hand; “Consciousness learns that no one of these moments is subject, but rather gets dissolved in the universal ‘matter in hand’; the moments of the individuality which this unthinking consciousness regarded as subject, one after the other, coalesce into simple individuality, which, as this particular individuality, is no less immediately universal.  Thus the ‘matter in hand’ no longer has the character of a predicate, and loses the characteristic of lifeless abstract universality.” (§418)  Rather it is substance permeated by individuality.  The moments as content – purpose, action, reality – are just as much moments as form – being-for-self and being-for-others.  The category is the entire content. 

With the moments of action reunified, individuality and being-with-others becomes coherent.


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