The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Truth of the Enlightenment and Terror

This will be the reading for Saturday, October 18th’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:00, and the location is in the sidebar.

As Enlightenment triumphs over faith, it finds itself split into two seemingly opposed moments, materialism and idealism/deism.  Materialism is an apparently positive position, replete with what Hegel calls presence, yet it does require a negation: it finds its in-itself, matter, by abstracting away all sense contents.  Matter as such is not seen, tasted, felt, etc.  Idealism, for its part, is apparently negative: the supreme being is the negative of self-consciousness.  When idealism appropriates the positive moment of materialism, the Enlightenment finds its truth in the world of utility.

From the perspective of utility, the world oscillates between being-for-self and being-for-another; everything uses and is used.  The useful thing, initially, is a mere object, but as utility’s function as a link between being-for-itself and being-for-another becomes ever more strongly recognized, the useful thing increasingly becomes subject: self-consciousness begins to recognize the world as will, to coin a phrase, and discovers a freedom with no limits: the absolute freedom of the French Revolution is born.

Absolute freedom is then split into Rousseau’s general will and the individual will of actual people.  The general will can never be actualized except by an individual, so the general will, on its own, can never accomplish anything positive.  It can only oscillate between the negativities of anarchy and the Terror, finally resulting in a return of alienated culture, but a culture that has discovered the possibility of a mediated freedom: morality, as embodied by German idealism.

The Truth of Enlightenment

In order to fashion a content other than the criticism of faith, Enlightenment reason (or pure insight) had to take itself as an object and posit differences within itself.  With this quest for content, “there has come into being the pure Thing, the absolute Being, that has no further determination whatever. . . .pure insight, qua absolute Notion, is a distinguishing of differences which are no longer differences, of abstractions or pure Notions which are no longer self-supporting, but are supported and distinguished only by the movement as a whole.” (§574)  As best as I can tell, Hegel is claiming that insight cannibalized its unity in order to produce two (apparently) competing concepts of absolute being, materialism and idealism/deism (terms which seem to be interchangeable, perhaps in the sense of a Kantian God).

This “distinguishing of what contains no difference” consists in the fact that the absolute concept makes itself into its object, and then posits itself as the essence over and against that movement of making itself its own object.  So reason takes itself as its own object, and then forgets that its concept of absolute being arose from that objectification.  Since it has forgotten this process, “absolute Being has value for it only in the form of a beyond standing over against it, while the consciousness making these distinctions and in this way having the in-itself outside of it, is held to be a finite consciousness.” (§574)

In other words, pure insight ultimately frames an object to fit itself – an absolute, or pure essence, without determinations. The pure essence has no difference in it; the way it gets a difference is that there are two different consciousnesses of the essence.  First, there is absolute Being which exists only beyond self-consciousness – but this makes it the negative of self-consciousness.  “As the negative of self-consciousness it is also related to it; it is an external being which, related to self-consciousness within which differences and determination fall, receives within it the differences of being tasted, seen, etc.; and the relationship is that of sense-certainty and perception.” (§576)  This is the second consciousness: once all determinations are removed, this first sort of absolute being is revealed as pure matter:  “In this connection, it is important to bear in mind that pure matter is what is left over when we abstract from seeing, feeling, tasting, etc., i.e. it is not what is seen, tasted, felt, etc.; what is seen, felt, tasted, is not matter, but color, a stone, a salt, etc.  Matter is rather a pure abstraction; and so what we are presented with here is the pure essence of thought, or pure thought itself as the Absolute, which contains no differences, is indeterminate and void of predicates.” (§577)

They are the same – the difference does not lie in what they are, but just in the starting point of the two sides.  For one, absolute being is immediate for consciousness, and outside of it, the negative.  “If it would reflect, firstly, that the simple immediacy of thought is nothing else but pure being, and secondly, that what is negative for consciousness is at the same time related to it, that in the negative judgment the ‘is‘ holds together as well as separates the terms, it would come to see that this beyond, characterized as something existing externally stands in a relation to consciousness and is thus the same as what is called pure matter: the missing moment of presence would be gained.” (§578)  Which is to say: If deism saw that its absolute beyond is the same as matter, its missing moment of presence would be filled.

On the other side, materialism starts from sensuous being and then abstracts away everything sensuous to get its pure in-itself, absolute matter.  Again, being has become simple, without predicates.  Like deism does not take the step from negative to positive, materialism does not take the step from positive to negative; it does not admit that this positivity is achieved solely through negation.

The universal common to both is a pure inward oscillation, pure self-thinking.  There’s no life to it.  The way an object finally appears to the Enlightenment is its utility: “Bad as Utility may look to faith or sentimentality, or even to the abstract thought that calls itself speculation, which clings to the in-itself, yet it is in Utility that pure insight achieves its realization and has itself for its object, an object which it now no longer repudiates and which, too, no longer has for it the value of the void or the beyond.” (§580)

Pure insight is the existent concept itself, or rather self-identical personality distinguishing itself within itself in such a way that each side is itself pure concept, so they aren’t really distinguished – that is, it is both for itself and in itself.  “Its being-in-itself is therefore not an enduring being, but in its difference immediately ceases to be something; such a being, however, that is immediately without support is not an intrinsic being, but is essentially for an other which is the power that absorbs it.  But this second moment which is opposed to the first, to the being-in-itself, equally vanishes immediately like the first; or, as a being which is only for an other, it is rather the vanishing itself, and there is posited the accomplished return into itself, being-for-self.” (§580)  That being-for-self is also for an other.

The nature of insight in the unfolding of its moments, or insight qua object, is expressed in the Useful.  “What is useful, is something with an enduring being in itself, or a Thing; this being-in-itself is at the same time only a pure moment; hence it is absolute for an other, but equally is for an ‘other’ merely what it is in itself; these opposed moments have returned into the indivisible unity of being-for-self.” (§580)  The Useful is not a negative essence; the moment of being-for-self is present in the Useful, but it does not dominate the other elements.

Hence, utility is the reconciliation of faith and reason.  Let’s briefly summarize the foregoing: the world of culture ends in consciousness of its vanity; self-consciousness retreats into either faith or insight.  Faith’s representations perish in the onslaught of pure insight, which oscillates between deism and materialism.  Self-consciousness wants more than deism or materialism provide, and finds its own reflection in Utility.  Utility unites the rational consciousness with its satisfactions.

Absolute Freedom and Terror

This self-consciousness finds its ultimate object in utility, but it is still partly an object, and therefore still an End to be obtained.  Utility is a predicate of the object, not yet a subject.  It is the same thing that has happened before: being-for-self is not yet the substance of the other moments, and if it was recognized to be thus, it would be seen that the Useful is nothing else but the self of self-consciousness and that self-consciousness is already in possession of it.  That withdrawal from the objectivity of the useful (and into subjectivity) has already happened in principle, and is the basis of the new shape of consciousness: absolute freedom.

What it actually is is an empty show of objectivity separating self-consciousness from possession.  “For, partly, all existence and validity of the specific members of the organization of the actual world and the world of faith have, in general, returned into this simple determination as into their ground and spiritual principle; partly, however, this simple determination no longer possesses anything of its own, it is rather pure metaphysic, pure Notion, or a pure knowing by self-consciousness.” (§583)  Which is to say: in the object qua useful, consciousness sees its being-for-self as essentially being-for-an-other.  It is a being-in-itself that is devoid of self, a passive self, or only a self for another self.

“The object, however, exists for consciousness in this abstract form of pure being-in-itself, for consciousness is pure insight whose distinctions are in the pure form of Notions.” (§583)  But that being-for-self into which the being for another returns, is not entirely distinct from the I, “for consciousness, qua pure insight, is not a single self which could be confronted by the object as equally having a self of its own, but is pure Notion, the gazing of the self into the self, the absolute seeing of itself doubled; the certainty of itself is the universal Subject, and its consciousness Notion is the essence of all actuality.”  (§583)

Once the Useful becomes no longer a matter of knowing an object, it recognizes itself as the movement of those abstract moments, the self of its self as well as the object, it becomes the universal.  When utility becomes the universal subject, it becomes absolute freedom.   For it, the world is its own will, and this is a general will.  This is not the empty thought of will which is just silent consent, or assent by a representative, but a real general will, the will of all individuals.  It is the self-conscious essence of each personality, undivided from the whole, and everything appears as done by the whole.

The idea of absolute freedom spreads quickly, without resistance, because consciousness alone is the element in which spiritual beings or powers have their substance.  The entire system maintained by divisions into social classes has collapsed, because the individual sees the object as having no other essence than self-consciousness itself.  What made the concept an existent was its division into subsistent classes, but when the object becomes a concept, negativity permeates everything.

The general will can only realize itself as the will of the whole.  “In this absolute freedom, therefore, all social groups or classes which are the spiritual spheres into which the whole is articulated are abolished; the individual consciousness that belonged to any such sphere, and will and fulfilled itself in it, has put aside its limitation; its purpose is the general purpose, its language universal law, its work the universal work.” (§585)  The object and the moment of difference were lost in utility; now, the difference is between the individual consciousness and the universal consciousness.

Once all the spheres (e.g. social classes, institutions, established social roles) are done away with, all that is left “is the immanent movement of universal self-consciousness as a reciprocity of self-consciousness in the form of universality and of personal consciousness: the universal will goes into itself and is a single, individual will to which universal law and work stand opposed.” (587)  But that individual will is also aware of itself as universal will; it’s object is a law given by that will and a work accomplished by it; in action, i.e., creating objectivity, it is doing nothing individual but carrying out the functions of the state.

There is no otherness, because any otherness would be the moment in which it divides into classes again; a return to culture. “This movement is thus the interaction of consciousness with itself in which it lets nothing break loose to become a free object standing over against it.  It follows from this that it cannot achieve anything positive, either universal works of language or of reality, either of laws and general institutions of conscious freedom, or of deeds and works of a freedom that wills them.  The work which conscious freedom might accomplish would consist in that freedom, qua universal substance, making itself into an object and into an enduring being.”  (§588)

“Universal freedom, which would have separated itself in this way into its constituent parts and by the very fact of doing so would have made itself into an existent Substance, would thereby be free from particular individuality, and would apportion the plurality of individuals to its various constituent parts.” (§588)  However, that would restrict the personality to being a branch of the whole – to its own “proper place”, yet the mere idea of “self-given” laws or “representation” cannot complete the work; where the self is merely represented, it is not actual.

“Just as individual self-consciousness does not find itself in this universal work of absolute freedom qua existent Substance, so little does it find itself in the deeds proper and individual ations of the will of this freedom.” (§589)  Before the universal can do anything, it has to “concentrate” itself into the One of individuality – but then all the other individuals are excluded from the deed and it is no longer a deed of actual universal self-consciousness; hence, “Universal freedom, therefore, can produce neither a positive work nor a deed; there is left for it only negative action; it is merely the fury of destruction.” (§589)

“But the supreme reality and the reality which stands in the greatest antithesis to universal freedom, or rather the sole object that will still exist for that freedom, is the freedom and individuality of actual self-consciousness itself.” (§590)  Universality which is not articulated into institutions, which attempts to remain an unbroken continuity, already creates a distinction within itself, just because it is a movement of consciousness.  It gets divided into cold universality and the self-willed atomism of self-consciousness.  “Now that it has completed the destruction of the actual organization of the world, and exists now just for itself, this [universal vs individual] is its sole object, an object that no longer has any content, possession, existence, or outer extension, but is merely this knowledge of itself. . .” (§590)

“The relation, then, of these two, since each exists indivisibly and absolutely for itself, and thus cannot dispose of a middle term which would link them together, is one of wholly unmediated pure negation, a negation, moreover, of the individual as a being existing in the universal.  The sole work and deed of universal freedom is therefore death, a death too which has no inner significance or willing, for what is negated is the empty point of the absolutely free self.  It is thus the coldest and meanest of all deaths, with no more significance than cutting off a head of cabbage or swallowing a mouthful of water.” (§590)

The government is the individuality of the universal will – it acts from a single viewpoint.  It excludes others and constitutes a specific will.  It cannot call itself anything but a faction.  “What is called government is merely the victorious faction, and in the very fact of its being a faction lies the direct necessity of its overthrow; and its being government makes it, conversely, into a faction, and so guilty.” (§591)  When the universal will maintains that what the government does is a crime against it, the government has nothing outwardly apparent by which the guilt of the will opposed to it could be apparent, “for what stands opposed to it as the actual universal will is only an unreal pure will, intention.” (§591)  Being suspected is the same as being guilty.

In its characteristic work, absolute freedom becomes objective to itself, and self-consciousness learns exactly what it is: “In-itself, it is just this abstract self-consciousness, which effaces all distinction and all continuance of distinction within it.  It is as such that it is objective to itself; the terror of death is the vision of this negative nature of itself.” (§592)  This is entirely different from the concept free self-consciousness had of itself – the concept was that the universal will was the positive essence of personality.  “Here, however, this self-consciousness which, as pure insight, completely separates its positive and its negative nature – completely separates the predicateless Absolute as pure Thought and pure Matter – is confronted with the absolute transition of one into the other as present reality.” (§592) – The universal will, as positive self-consciousness, pushes thought and matter until they change around into  their opposites, the end of thinking.

“Absolute freedom as pure self-identity of the universal will thus has within it negation; but this means that it contains difference in general, and this again it develops as an actual difference.  For pure negativity has in the self-identical universal will the element of subsistence, or the Substance in which its moments are realized. . .” (§593)  Finally, “These individuals who have felt the fear of death, of their absolute master, again submit to negation and distinctions, arrange themselves in the various spheres, and return to an apportioned and limited task, but thereby to their substantial reality.” (§593)  Spirit gets thrown back to its starting point of ethics and culture, which have been rejuvenated by the fear of the master.

Pinkard on The Terror: A Project of Self-Determination

In The Sociality of Reason, Pinkard characterizes the early modern problem (i.e. of culture) as one of groundlessness, which transformed into a project of self-grounding.  Modern life really began with the project of self-grounding taken as a project of absolute freedom: freedom unconstrained by nature or any merely social roles.  This is not the Greek form of ethical life, as there is no way “things are done.”  It isn’t legal citizenship, nor the nobility’s need for recognition.  It’s also not the Faustian account, since the agent has a minimal idea of the object of his freedom: freedom itself.

The problem for any project of freedom is that since every will is already a socialized will, it seems a will cannot ever be absolutely free: “Fully unconstrained willing can therefore only come about in a situation where the socialization of the individual by others is exactly that which the individuals wills (or would will) for himself.  A fully socialized will conceived as continuous with the groundless free will of every individual would be the ‘general will.’  ‘Absolute freedom’ can therefore only come about by willing according to such a ‘general will.’” (182)

The question became how the individual or personal will was related to the general or universal will.  The initial problem was one of alienation; by willing according to a general will, individuals appear alienated from all social institutions, because no institution could truly embody the general will.  To the extent that an individual cannot recognize themselves in an institution’s actions or commands, is the extent to which the individual will not see that institution as not being a part of the general will – only a representative of a group’s interests.

The King is a particular problem: the general will cannot be continuous with the will of any particular person.  No individual and no group could represent the whole; only the country as a whole could represent the sovereignty of the general will.  An institution only represents a particular group.  The general will is abstract, since it is the will of all but no one in particular.  This abstract general will has to be articulated into discrete social institutions; hence, a government must be formed – for example, the Jacobin government.

“In theory, the individual agent ought to be able to reconcile himself to any action taken by the government as ‘really’ being the product of his own will, but any institutionalization of ‘absolute freedom’ makes that impossible since there cannot be any criterion for what counts as genuinely willing from the standpoint of the general will – the individual agent can consult neither his given nature (for their is none) nor any set of inherited public criteria.” (185)  Any government can only appear as a victorious faction.

The logic of revolutionary terror begins with the statement that individuals are parts of the whole that is the general will.  A whole has to cut out the parts that threaten the whole, and those threats come from dissenters.  Some dissenters are only confused about the general will, and can be cured with re-education.  Others actively oppose it, and as such, will their own punishment.  The guillotine.

So the general will turns out to be something different than what it was originally taken to be.  By assuming the detached point of view of the general will, the individual was supposed to be able to will actions identical to their own will; but the institutionalization of the general will turns out to be the opposite.  It turns out to be a higher-order particular person; individuals are parts of the whole, rather than the independent citizens they took themselves to be.

The general will turns out to be something imposed, except in contingent cases.  In trying to understand their activities in terms of the general will, the individual turns out to be alienated from it, since the content of the general will is filled out by whatever faction is in control.  Hence, there is a creation of stable institutions, e.g. Napoleon.  This looks like a return to the old aristocratic ethos, but as France’s meritocratic army swept through Europe and Napoleon’s civil code came to be adopted, “modern life’s self-understanding as self-grounding began to assume concrete, institutional form.”  Napoleon showed that a meritocratic structure could work.  The historical role and glory that was once reserved for aristocrats was now available to anyone.  For all this, Hegel argues that the project of absolute freedom was really only completed, given its full conceptual form, by Kant: a rational, reflective morality.


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