The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Enlightenment’s Struggle With Superstition

This will be the reading for Saturday, September 27th’s meeting.

The world of culture was generated by the self-alienation of language, and once it became aware of this, a new form of skepticism appeared.  Culture was revealed to be vain, and only the individual’s own thoughts held any authority.  Tradition and authority were attacked on one side by the Enlightenment philosophers, and on the other side by various new versions of Christianity broadly springing from the Reformation, such as the Pietists in Germany and the Wesleyans in England. (Pinkard, 166)

These attacks on tradition and authority led to a recognizably modern conflict between Enlightenment reason and faith.  Hegel tracks the conflict across several moments, revealing the two sides to have more in common than they might wish to admit.  The three areas of conflict are the nature of God (Hegel uses the term absolute Being), the knowledge of God (or the mediation of self-consciousness), and the actions of worship and self-sacrifice.

Reason, as a form of negativity or skepticism, misunderstands faith, yet has a genuine edge on it.  Faith has two sides, and reason continually conflates the two.  The recognizable positive content of faith is drawn from the world – that is, images and representations of a world beyond.  These representations are finite, and reason is keen to point this out; so far as reason is concerned, faith worships stone idols and/or an anthropomorphic old man in the sky.  However, faith has another, more negative side, which attempts to go beyond these finite representations, and it is from this more negative side that Enlightenment reason will eventually draw its sole positive contents: a mix of empiricism, deism, and utilitarianism.

Reason vs Faith: In This Corner

The pure insight of the Enlightenment is a form of skepticism, and we have already seen many forms of skepticism.  The difference here is that this pure insight “knows the pure self of consciousness to be absolute”. (§541)  Insight is a self-reflective form of skepticism, unlike the previous, more knee-jerk versions.  In other words, it is a form of self-consciousness, a moment of Spirit.  It knows that human life is entirely rooted in self-consciousness.

On the other hand, post-Reformation Christianity is much the same.  It equally recognizes the importance of self-consciousness, something very much visible in the emphasis in the individual’s relation to God.

Since both are forms of self-consciousness, they are fundamentally the same.  Their conflict is not a real one, at bottom.  As Hyppolite says,  “In-itself, or for us, that conflict does not contrapose two terms which differ in essence.  Faith, its absolute object, and its worship do not constitute the other of reason.  Human reason itself is unconsciously represented in them.” (Hyppolite, 535)

For Feuerbach, man’s consciousness of God was his indirect consciousness of himself.  For Hegel, too, religion was not something to be merely negated – it was an expression of self-consciousness.  Feuerbach wanted to make religion too human, but Hegel would have thought this would have mired humanity in its finitude.  Hyppolite continues, “All the determinations of faith are unconscious determinations of thought.  When insight denounces these as illusions, it denounces itself.  When it defeats religion, faith returns in a new form, a perpetual beyond, reduced to an empty hope.” (Hyppolite, 436-437)

Faith and reason are the same consciousness, but are opposed in their form.  The essence for faith is an immediate form of knee-jerk thought, not intentional conceptualization, and so is the sheer opposite of self-consciousness, but for pure insight the essence is the self – they both appear as the negative of the other.  They appear as opposites, and so become implacable foes.

Initially, faith appears to have all the content; it has positive beliefs like God and morality.  But as pure insight opposes itself to faith, it will give itself a content.

The Enlightenment’s initial relation to faith

The Enlightenment “knows that faith is opposed to pure insight, opposed to Reason and truth.” (§542)  It sees faith to be a tissue of superstitions, prejudices and errors.  These are all organized into a false insight, common to the masses, which is immediate and naïve.  An immediate problem arises for reason: if reason is so universal, why are there so many superstitious people?  Hence, there must be in faith a moment of independence from naiveté – the false priesthood, deceiving the people.  It also works hand in hand with despotism, which stands above the bad insight of the people and the bad intentions of the priests and unites them in itself.  “From the stupidity and confusion of the people brought about by the trickery of priestcraft, despotism, which despises both, draws for itself the advantage of undisturbed domination and the fulfillment of its desires and caprices, but is itself at the same time this same dullness of insight, the same superstition and error.” (§542)

The Enlightenment does not attack the superstition of the masses, the deceitful priests and the opportunistic despots all equally.  The Enlightenment is concerned with the universal, therefore its relation to the other extreme is mostly concerned with what it has in common with it: individuality.  The priesthood and the despot are not the direct targets of its attacks.  Rather, it targets the concept of rational self-consciousness which does exist in the masses, but is not present qua concept.  The being-for-self of “that realm” (priest, despot, masses) “has it’s substance in the simple, naïve consciousness as such.” (§543)  Reason is concerned with the masses because the masses form the substance of the three moments.

Reason’s relation to faith has two sides.  On one hand: pure insight is the same as that naïve consciousness (given their mutual emphasis on self-consciousness).  On the other hand, naïve consciousness gives “complete liberty” to absolute Being in the simple element of its thought – absolute being remains implicit, and so this consciousness renounces its own being-for-self.  “In so far as, according to the first aspect, this faith is for pure insight in itself pure self-consciousness and has only to become this explicitly for itself, pure insight has, in this Notion of self-consciousness, the element in which, instead of false insight, it realizes itself.” (§544)  In other words, Enlightenment is ambivalent to naïve consciousness – it is prone to deception, but capable of insight.

So we have to see how pure insight behaves in its negative attitude toward its apparent other, faith.  Enlightenment reason declares that everything falls within its purview; and at this moment in history, it is “all essentiality.”  There is nothing outside of it; reason is universal.  hence, when it takes a negative attitude toward something like faith, its negative attitude must be toward itself When it attacks faith, it thinks it is attacking something other than itself, but “It only imagines this, for its essence as absolute negativity implies that it contains that otherness within itself.  The absolute Notion is the category; in that Notion, knowing and the object known are the same.” (§548)  When insight says something is an error, it can only condemn what it is itself.  Reason can grasp conceptually grasp everything that is rational, and since reason is capable of grasping faith, faith must have a kernel of rationality to it: “What is not rational has no truth, or, what is not grasped conceptually, is not.  When, therefore, Reason speaks of something other than itself, it speaks in fact only of itself; so doing, it does not go outside of itself.” (§548)

For all this, Hegel does side with the Enlightenment.  Reason’s struggle with faith is the story of reason’s actualization of itself.  Reason develops its own moments and takes them back into itself.  Initially, reason is entirely negative; all it does is ask “But how do you know?”  Because it does not recognize itself in faith, it sees all positive content as faith-based.

That’s the first appearance of faith to insight – it doesn’t recognize itself in it, so it says it is an error.  “In insight as such, consciousness apprehends an object in such a way that it becomes the essence of consciousness, or becomes an object which consciousness permeates, in which consciousness preserves itself, abides with itself, and remains present to itself, and since it is thus the movement of the object, brings it into existence.” (§549)  This is the standard Hegelian position that collapse the distinction between subject and object; consciousness is always consciousness of something, and a thing is only what it is when apprehended by consciousness.

However, that’s exactly what Enlightenment says faith does – that it creates God out of whole cloth.  That God is just human consciousness.  The very thing insight says is faith’s error is what insight itself does.  The concept of pure insight implies not only that consciousness recognizes itself in the object and that it is immediately present in it without leaving thought, but also that consciousness is aware of itself as producing the object – an explicit unity of self and object – and that is exactly what faith is about.

God is not the abstract essence that exists beyond the consciousness of the believer; rather, God is the spirit of the religious community.  “It is this Spirit, only be being produced by consciousness; or rather, it does not exist as the Spirit of the community without having been produced by consciousness.” (549) 

Reason claims faith is alien to consciousness: “On the other side, the Notion of pure insight is something other to itself than its own object; for it is just this negative determination that constitutes the object.”  But faith can say reason is missing the point when it talks about deceptions and delusions.  On one hand, reason says faith is alien – on the other hand, it says faith creates its own object.  Which is it?  “Thus what it asserts to be alien to consciousness, it directly declares to be the inmost nature of consciousness itself.” (550)  So how could there be deception here?  It’s not possible to deceive in this matter; one can screw up empirical facts, but this is a different issue, that of immediate certainty.

God, The Knowledge of God, and Worship

There are three specific things at stake in this conflict.  First, the nature of absolute Being, or God.  Second, there is the relation of knowing God, or the grounds of belief.  Finally, there is the relation of action to God, or worship and service.  Reason manages to totally misunderstand each of these moments.

First, God.  Unsurprisingly, reason has a negative attitude towards it: “This Being is pure thought, and pure thought posited within itself as an object or as essence; in the believing consciousness, this intrinsic being of thought acquires at the same time for consciousness that is for itself, the form – but only the empty form – of objectivity; it has the character of something present to consciousness.” (§552)  To reason, this appears to be the negative of consciousness.  This could either be the pure intrinsic being of thought, or a being of sense-certainty.  But since this is for a self, an actual self-consciousness, it is not an ordinary thing of sense-certainty.  It’s object is a religious representation.  Reason condemns the representation, because it takes it to be like an object of sense-certainty, like a block of wood or a stone idol.

Reason turns eternal life into something perishable and reduces it to sense-certainty, “a view point which is essentially trivial and definitely absent from faith in its worship, so that Enlightenment is completely in the wrong when it imputes this view to faith.” (§553)  Faith is not directed at an idol or an object of sense-certainty, which is to say, it’s not about an old man in the sky.

The second moment is the knowledge of God, or rather, the consciousness that knows its object.  For faith, God is immediately present, but it is just as much a mediated relation of certainty, and that mediation constitutes the ground of faith.  For reason, this is a “fortuitous knowledge of fortuitous events.” (§554)  But this ground of knowledge is the conscious universal – abstractly, it is God, but as self-consciousness, is knowledge of itself.  Reason characterizes this, again, as the negative of self-consciousness.  Because reason does not yet know itself as mediated, it thinks all mediations are “other”. 

Because insight does not recognize mediation, it thinks that faith bases itself not on mediated self-certainty, but instead historical narratives of actual events.  It “falsely charges religious belief with basing its certainty on some particular historical evidences which, considered as historical evidences, would certainly not guarantee the degree of certainty about their content which is given by newspaper accounts of any happening. . .” (§554)  Further, reason charges faith with thinking that these events are preserved in writing, and that everything depends on the correct interpretation of “dead words and letters.”  But faith doesn’t fasten its certainty to this – “this consciousness is the self-mediating ground of its knowledge”; “it is Spirit itself which bears witness to itself, both in the inwardness of the individual consciousness and through the universal presence in everyone of faith in it.” (§554)  If faith does depend on historical evidences, it has already been corrupted by the Enlightenment.

The third moment is “the relation to absolute Being of consciousness as action.” (§555) That is, worship. This action is the setting-aside of the individual’s natural being to become one with God.  Reason takes a negative attitude towards this, and thinks that worship is a pointless self-flagelation.  Reason thinks it is silly “when the believer gives himself the superior consciousness of not being in bondage to natural enjoyment and pleasure by actually denying himself natural enjoyment and pleasure, and demonstrating by his actions that his contempt for them is no lie but is genuine.” (§556)

Reason thinks that being above the world does not actually mean one has to act that way.  If you have food, than eat it.  One’s elevation ought to be inner; being sincere about it is silly.  “Pure insight thus denies itself both as pure insight – for it denies directly purposive action – and as pure intention – for it denies the intention of proving itself freed from the Ends of a separate individual existence.” (§556)

The Positive Content of Enlightenment

What about the positive content of reason, as opposed to its criticisms?  Its positive content is to attack error.  In its first moment, reason grasps “every determinateness”, all content, as something finite and human.  “Being for it becomes a vacuum to which no determination, no predicates, can be attributed.” (§557)  Insight puts everything in its proper place, including the absolute.

The second positive moment is singleness, a focus on particularity – hence, the return of sense-certainty.  But it is not the immediate, natural consciousness of sense-certainty when we first saw it; now it has become for-itself.  At first, sense-certainty was entangled in all sorts of confusions, but insight gives it shape.  Because it is based on the nothingness of every other shape of consciousness, sense-certainty is no longer “meaning” but absolute truth.  This is the engine of the rise of empiricism.

The third positive moment is the relation of the individual to absolute Being.  “Insight, qua pure insight of what is identical or unrestricted, also goes beyond what is not identical, viz. beyond finite reality, or beyond itself as mere otherness.” (§559)

Hyppolite points out that a relation between absolute essence and finite things can be conceived. All finite determinations can be positively connected to absolute essence, in which case they actually exist; or they can be negatively connected to essence, in which case their being is a vanishing being. Only for-some-other.  Those two modalities – i.e. connected to absolute existence and therefore really existing, or unconnected and therefore vanishing – can be applied to any finite reality.  This leads to the concept of utility, which is the essence of the theoretical and practical philosophy of the Enlightenment: “Things appear in themselves but they serve other uses.”

Both the positive and negative positions are equally necessary: everything is in-itself and for another; that is, everything is useful.  “Everything is at the mercy of everything else, now lets itself be used by others and is for them, and now, so to speak, stands again on its hind legs, is stand-offish toward the other, is for itself, and uses the other in its turn.” (§560)  The essence is that man is the thing which is conscious of this relation.

Everything exists for man’s pleasure.  But an excess of pleasure can also destroy man; “or rather his individuality has also its beyond within it, can go beyond itself and destroy itself.”  To counter this, Reason is a useful instrument for setting boundaries.  “Enjoyment on the part of the conscious, intrinsically universal being, must not itself be something determinate as regards variety and duration, but universal.” (§560)  Careful measures and proportions of pleasure.  The extent to which one serves one’s interests must be balanced by the extent to which they serve other’s interests.  One hand washes the other.

What this cashes out as: the relation to absolute Being is the most useful thing, and we get a kind of deism.

To faith, this mix of empiricism and deism is just as much an abomination as insight’s negative attitude.  That everything is exhausted in utility is detestable.  To faith, it looks like undiluted platitude, “because it consists of knowing nothing of absolute Being or, what amounts to the same thing, in knowing this quite flat truism about it, just that it is only absolute Being; and, on the other hand, in knowing only what is finite and, moreover, knowing it as truth, and thinking that this knowledge of the finite as true is the highest knowledge attainable.” (§562)

The basic conflict is that faith has the divine right of self-identity, and reason has the human right to be non-identical – it perverts and alters, it breaks down ideas and analyzes them.  This breaking down is an action belonging to the nature of self-consciousness, as opposed to simple essential being.  It changes and questions things.  Here, the link between reason and faith works in reason’s favour.  Consciousness is the negativity of the concept, a negativity which is active in its own right (we can’t stop thinking), and faith cannot deny this.  The contradiction of the various ways of seeing God, knowledge and worship is reason’s basic tool against faith.

In itself, the realization of insight is that reason, essentially the concept, is first for itself an other and repudiates itself – and then out of this otherness it comes to itself, or to its Notion.  Reason is only this activity – the movement of the Notion, which, arriving at its object, takes it to be an other, and so does not know the nature of the Notion, the undifferentiated which sunders itself.

If faith insists that the in-itself of God is entirely beyond the activity of consciousness, reason reminds it of consciousness’s own stakes in the matter.  “At first, Enlightenment affirms this moment of the Notion, that it is an act of consciousness; opposing faith, it maintains that the absolute Being of faith is a Being of the believer’s own consciousness qua a self, or that this absolute Being is a product of consciousness.  To faith, its absolute Being, while it is possessed of intrinsic being for the believer, is also at the same time not like an alien thing which is just found in him, no one knowing how and whence it came.  On the contrary, the faith of the believer consists just in his finding himself as this particular personal consciousness in the absolute Being, and his obedience and service consist in producing, through his own activity, that Being as his own absolute Being.” (§566)

But Enlightenment isolates  that moment of action and asserts that God is entirely a product of consciousness.  Hegel does seem to agree that the moment of action is just a making up of picture thoughts with no intrinsic being, and that’s how Enlightenment sees faith.  “But conversely, pure insight equally says the reverse.  In maintaining the moment of otherness which the Notion has within it, it pronounces [absolute] Being to be for faith something which in no way concerns consciousness, lies beyond it, is alien to it, and unknown.”  (566)  It goes the same for faith – it puts its trust in God, and gets certainty of itself, but on the other hand, faith says God is “unsearchable in all its ways and in its Being unattainable.”

Faith concedes another point to Enlightenment.  Enlightenment says the object of faith is just stone or wood, or finite and anthropomorphic.  “For since this consciousness is divided within itself, having a beyond of the real world and a world that is altogether this side of the world beyond, there is, as a matter of fact, also present in it this view of the thing of sense according to which it counts as a being that is in and for itself; but faith does not bring together these two thoughts of absolute Being, which is for it at one time pure essence and at another time an ordinary thing of sense.” (§567) 

Religion does contribute to this idea of the world beyond as populated with sensuous things, and Enlightenment seizes on this, reducing it to “unmoved finitude,” not even a moment in the spiritual movement of essential being, not nothing, but not something that is – something trivial.

It’s the same with the ground of knowledge.  Faith acknowledges itself as a contingent knowledge, as it has a contingent relation to contingent things, and pictures God in the form of common reality.  “Consequently, the believing consciousness, too, is a certainty which does not possess the truth within itself, and it confesses itself to be such an unessential consciousness, to be of this world and separated from the Spirit that is certain of itself and self-authenticated.” (§568)  But, in its immediate knowledge of God, it forgets this.  Enlightenment reminds it of this, and then Enlightenment thinks only of the contingency, “only of the mediation which takes place through an alien third term, not of the mediation in which the immediate is itself the third term through which it mediates itself with the other, viz. with its own self.” (§568)

Finally, action.  Reason thinks the rejection of enjoyment and possessions is wrong and pointless.  Faith also thinks the rejection is wrong; it acknowledges the reality of possessions.  Retention occurs along with sacrifice – for faith, the sacrifice is merely symbolic.  It is only a sacrifice in imagination.

As for sacrifice being pointless, Enlightenment thinks it is inept to through away one possession in order to show that one is free from all possessions, or to deny one enjoyment to prove one is free of all enjoyment.  “Faith itself apprehends the absolute action as a universal action; not only is the action of its absolute Being as its object a universal action for faith, but the individual consciousness, too, has to show that it is liberated entirely and generally from its sensual nature.  But throwing away a single possession, or renouncing a single enjoyment, is not this universal action; and since in the action is the purpose, which is a universal purpose, and the performance, which is a single performance, would be bound to present themselves to consciousness as essentially incompatible, that action shows itself to be one in which consciousness has no part, and thus this kind of action is seen to be really to naïve to be an action at all.” (§570)  Faith’s action is external and single, but the desire is inward and universal.  “Its pleasure disappears neither with the instrument nor by abstention from particular pleasures.”

But Enlightenment isolates the inward, as opposed to the reality, just like it held to the sensuousness of the thing as opposed to the inwardness of faith’s contemplation.  “It places the essential factor in the intention, in the thought, and thereby saves itself the trouble of actually accomplishing the liberation from natural aims.” (§571)

So Enlightenment has an edge over faith because the believer shares the moments Enlightenment has declared as valid.  “Examining the effect of this authority more closely, its behaviour toward faith seems to render asunder the beautiful unity of trust and immediate certainty, to pollute its spiritual consciousness with mean thoughts of sensuous reality, to destroy the soul which is composed and secure in its submission, by the vanity of the Understanding and of self-will and self-fulfillment.”  (§572)  The result of the Enlightenment is to do away with the thoughtless, i.e. non-conceptual, separation which is present in faith.  “The believing consciousness weighs and measures by a twofold standard; it has two sorts of eyes, two sorts of ears, speaks with two voices, has duplicated all ideas without comparing the twofold meanings.  In other words, faith lives in two sorts of non-notional perceptions, the one the perceptions of the slumbering consciousness which lives purely in non-notional thoughts, the other those of the waking consciousness which lives solely in the world of sense; and in each of them it has its own separate housekeeping.” (§572)  In other words, the Enlightenment shows that heavenly world is filled with ideas that belong to the world of sense, and points out this finitude which faith cannot deny.

As a result, faith loses its content.  “It has been expelled from its kingdom; or, this kingdom has been ransacked, since the waking consciousness has monopolized every distinction and expansion of it and has vindicated earth’s ownership of every portion of it and given them back to earth.” (§573)

Faith ends up faced with a void and becomes a sheer yearning.  “Faith has, in fact, become the same as Enlightenment, viz. the consciousness of the relation of what is in itself infinite to an Absolute without predicates, an Absolute unknown and unknowable; but there is this difference, the latter is a satisfied Enlightenment, but faith is an unsatisfied Enlightenment.” (§573)  But the question is, can Enlightenment remain satisfied?  Enlightenment bears the blemish of unsatisfied yearning: its God is empty, its actions point to an empty beyond, and things are reduced to their usefulness.  “Enlightenment will rid itself of this blemish; a closer examination of the positive result which is its truth will show that in that result the blemish is in principle already removed.” (§573)

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