Robert Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy 1: Ch. 1-2

This is will be our reading for June 10th.  You can find all the details on our page.

Chapter 1: Introduction

There are several questions any account of freedom needs to be able to answer, with three being the most obvious.  First, what is freedom, or what would it mean to act freely?  Second, is it possible to act freely? Third, how important is leading a free life?

These days, these sorts of questions are folded into an area of research called “practical philosophy,” which has two questions of its own.  First, are there events that we can demand justifications for, or are all events caused in the same uniform way?  Is there a real distinction between a human act and a rock rolling downhill?  Second, if the answer to the first question is yes, then we need to ask what counts as a good justification.

Hegel’s theory of freedom, as a theory of both action and value, is his answer to all of these questions.  The standard description of Hegel’s theory says it has two elements.  First, to be free is to have a reflective and deliberate relation to one’s actions, and second, that this is only possible when one is in a certain (institutional and rule-governed) relation to others.

The standard account also says that Hegel is opposed to “methodological individualism.”  This sort of individualism basically claims that norms, institutions, and practices are dependent upon the beliefs and actions of individuals.  In contrast, Hegel would argue that individual mindedness is actually dependent upon these sorts of complex social relations.  Pippin wants to say that Hegel actually makes an even stronger claim: that this reversal of individualism is necessary to explain the conditions of agency itself.

Hegel is led to the primacy of sociality because he adds an important element to more common accounts of action:

Put most simply, for the action to count as mine, it must make  certain kind of sense to the agent, and that means it must fit intelligibly within a whole complex of practices and institutions within which doing this now could have a coherent meaning.  In Hegel’s account, I can bring about something, and know what it is I am doing, and can have reflectively endorsed the action as, all things considered, what I ought to be doing, and can be doing it voluntarily, uncoerced—parading up and down in front of a reviewing stand, say—yet the action could be part of a practice that has either gone dead in a certain way, or requires from the agent further commitments incompatible with others necessary within some form of life. (5)

All the standard conditions for an “act” might obtain, but one might still not be able to fully own it as something meaningful.  The conditions of meaningfulness cannot be created by the individual through reflection, decision, or knowing more facts.

What any theory of freedom like Hegel’s needs is a demonstration of the real possibility of actually identifying with one’s actions and social roles, which is the condition of expressing my actions as my own.  Hegel thinks that someone might have uniquely, causally brought about some event, but that the person can still experience the action as something “strange, alien, only a partial ‘expression’ of who one is” (6).

Second, in order for these relations between individual mindedness and common like-mindedness to be constitutive of freedom, they have to be rational, or intelligible.  Hegel thinks that in the modern world, there are a variety of commitments which are essential for a free life.  Pippin quotes an example of this from Hegel’s Lectures on Fine Art:

In a state which is really articulated rationally all the laws and organizations are nothing but a realization of freedom in its essential characteristics.  When this is the case, the individual’s reason finds in these institutions, only the actuality of his own essence, and if he obeys these laws, he coincides, not with something alien to himself, but simply with what is his own.  Freedom of choice, of course, is often equally called ‘freedom’; but freedom of choice is only non-rational freedom, choice and self-determination issuing not from the rationality of the will but from fortuitous impulses and their dependence on sense and the external world.

Hegel says these sorts of deeds can be both “subjectively” and “objectively” rational.  This means we cannot separate the moral-psychological, individual aspects of freedom (freedom of the will) from the social relations of independence and dependence (the freedom to act), and he assesses both sides in terms of their rationality.  This is not rationality in terms of what an impartial judge would say, but a more pragmatic account.  It is an interchange of justifications among persons whose actions affect what others would otherwise be able to do.

Three aspects of Hegel’s account have generated a lot of controversy, but we will only look at two of them.  First, the historical dimension is incredibly ambitious.  Hegel’s account of the moral value of a deed is attached to a grand narrative of history which ends in freedom.  With that grand narrative, he is trying to square the claim that universal freedom is a key good with the fact that this same freedom was a relatively recent invention in the philosophical tradition.  He’s trying to talk about why the question of justice became so intertwined with the question of freedom, and what that means for the previous centuries in which there was no such intertwining.

The second controversial element is his deep suspicion of the most obvious ontology of freedom, an individualistic one of rational, self-moving subjects.  In contrast, Hegel thinks thinking like an individual is actually a collective, historical achievement.

  1. Nature and Mindedness: Hegel’s Compatibilism

One of the classic issues surrounding free will is the mind/body problem, which has two classic accounts.  First, there is the claim that there is an ontological distinction between the mind and the body—they are fundamentally different things.  This sort of dualism is usually associated with strong claims about free will.  Second, others claim that there is no such distinction, that what we call mind is just another part of the body and so subject to natural processes.  This position is usually associated with either determinism or compatibilism.  Compatibilism is the claim that a natural account of the human can still allow us to believe in all the important aspects of freedom, such as moral responsibility.  Pippin argues that while Hegel’s account is recognizable as a form of compatibilism, the specifics of the account are unique.

When we ask what freedom is, we are trying to explain the conditions under which my actions can be experienced by me as reflecting my agency.  The most obvious candidate for such a condition, that an event would not have taken place if not for me, is not a sufficient one.  The big problem is linking an action to myself so that it really seems to be mine.  Hegel’s account of freedom is not voluntarist, but one that involves one’s self-understanding and understanding of others, as well as the realization of this understanding in appropriate social structures.

Freedom does not depend on an individual’s causal power, the power to use one’s will to initiate action.  It does not involve any causality at all.  This claim  is partly related to his idea of mechanical causes, in which the content of causes “continue” into their effects, but the main point is that an external cause does not simply act on a purposeful being and produce an effect because any such result depends on the way the proximate cause is “taken in” and “transformed” by the being—how the cause is understood, in other words. When he does speak of the determinism issue, he says that if freedom is supposed to be the ability to do as one pleases, or to have acted otherwise than one did, then freedom is a delusion.

The situations we make choices in are content-saturated, and the content of possible choices is already fixed; when we choose A but insist we could have chosen B, this does not satisfy the non-estrangement condition.  I might fire Smith or Jones, or not fire them, but none of the surrounding possibilities or consequences were up to me.  Hegel thinks that the content of such choices is arbitrary.

It is not that we are free only when we can also choose the context and content of a choice.  Freedom has to involve mutually-recognizing relations to one’s self and to others.  Instead of “transcending” or “negating” the content of I am inclined to do, I find a way to identify myself with a determinate content among my options, and then relate that content to a wider context.

One of Hegel’s key terms is Geist, which is typically translated (almost arbitrarily) as spirit, which Pippin takes to be a norm-governed individual and collective mindedness.

Hegel takes Jesus’s famous “the truth makes us free” and adds “freedom however makes spirit true.”  For Hegel, truth is the full actualization of something as what it is.  The truth that sets spirit free is not a discovery, but “in coming to act as fully what it is, a being constrained and guided by self-imposed norms” (40).  Since I do not need to think of myself as an uncaused cause in order to qualify as free, there is no need to establish a sort of causality independent of the laws of nature.

Hegel’s anti-dualism is not a monism (which would amount to saying that mind and body, or nature and culture, are just two sides of the same coin), but rather the thesis that spirit is not a thing at all.  It is not an object primarily describable by listing its traits.  Hegel follows Kant in saying that subjectivity, or the “soul,” is not a thing but the “I,” “the pure identity of self-consciousness with itself.”  Jargon aside, what this means is that a subject has to be able to relate to moral, ethical, and political norms in such away that they do not feel imposed, but are mine some how.  They have to be “the subject’s own reason.”  It is an achieved situation in which my reasons can be accepted by others as reasons.

When it comes to the importance of freedom, Hegel’s answer is simple: it is absolutely important.  It is the norm by which he judges all historical and political situations.  While most compatibilist and naturalist positions are tied to libertarian politics and notions of negative freedom, Hegel’s theory of freedom is social and claims that one cannot realize the practical conditions of freedom alone.  This is not just about dissatisfaction with the politics of atomistic individualism, but a general view of what counts as a free action at all.

As for nature, Hegel does take natural explanations to be an irreducible component in any explanation of the world, and these explanations are autonomous in their own realms.  Further, all human thinking and practices “presuppose” nature.  Their relation is strange, however, since it is not a matter of different properties—Hegel says spirit is the truth of nature.  Pippin takes this to mean that the truth of nature is not itself a manifestation of nature, some natural thing like sun spots.  At a certain level of complexity and organization, organisms become preoccupied with themselves and understand themselves in ways that are not entirely explicable within the bounds of natural explanations.  Pippin says,  “Natural beings begin to understand themselves in ways not explicable as self-sentiment or mere self-monitoring because the form of their reflexive self-relation is an aspect of what is to be represented, not a separable, quasi-observational position and they come to be able to hold each other to account on bases other than natural need” (46).

Following from this, the separate existence of the soul is rejected.  For Hegel, immateriality is the problem of nature’s realization of its truth: “Nature’s ‘own’ immateriality refers then to the sorts of activities natural organisms are capable of but which are not satisfyingly explained by reference to their natural properties” (47).

The claim that nature has “vanished” in this truth and that spirit has come to the idea which has attained its being-for-itself has to do with the inappropriateness of natural accounts of spirit.  Nothing in nature can be something that takes itself to be something.

Hegel takes one of the premises of rationalism for granted: to be is to be intelligible.  This is not just about giving a satisfying explanation.  Rather, the main point is about what counts as a satisfying explanation.  While what needs to be explained and the explanation might be linked, and the former might set the terms for the latter, the naturalist does not just get to assume this.  We need is an account of what counts as a satisfactory explanation, and so why the possible neurological explanations are not false but incomplete.

In Kantian terms, knowledge of the finite inevitably produces questions about the conditions for such knowledge, and the search for these conditions leads us to investigate the nature of our own normative requirements, “legislated” for ourselves. Hegel clearly thinks he can give an account of any account-giving, the determinate ways in which thought can be said to have content, and why our accounts have to divide into nature and normativity (or culture).

Why does spirit have to be divided from nature at all?  When Hegel describes the transition, he says some sentient creatures do not “merely embody their natures,” like a rock; “Some come to be in some sort of mediated and self-directed relation to their immediately felt or experienced dispositions, sensations and inclinations” (Pippin 2008, 50).  When Hegel talks about a being which has “attained its being-for-self,” he is talking about some natural being’s ability to be aware of themselves in a self-determining way, to “take itself” in a certain way.  This self-relation has an irreducible first-person character, and beings with this relation require a different sort of account than those without it.

This “taking up” is the initial overcoming of the immediacy of nature, but it remains the frame from which Hegel describes the higher manifestations of spirituality like thought and sociality.  There is nothing non-natural about this overcoming of nature; it is a natural being’s self-relation.

This overcoming of nature, or denial of immediacy, is negativity.  There are many examples.  These creatures do not experience threatening stimuli; they experience a threat.  To experience a threat is not just the “state one is in;” it already indicates an “achievement in a comportment towards the world” that is missed if treated as a mere psychological state.  Importantly, these self-regarding states are not beliefs or intentions which then cause other states.  These states are manifestations of spirit, not causes of anything else: “spirit is essentially only what it knows of itself.”

Hegel treats forms of human mindedness as achievements.  They are forms that can be reached or not reached.  Hegel says that spirit’s unique capacity, freedom, “does not occur as an immediate characteristic of spirit, but is something to be brought about through its own activity.” (Pippin’s emphasis) Spirit’s independence from nature should be thought in terms of history, not substance, and practically, not ontologically:  

“Modernity has reached some sort of ‘higher standpoint’ than the Greeks, people have become freer, more ‘agents’ than they were, because of the achievement of some greater independence from nature, not because of any clearer knowledge about such putative matter-of-metaphysical-fact independence, as if it were a case of substance independence.” (Pippin 2008 55)

When Hegel says we are “freer” than the Greeks, he does not just mean we are politically freer, as if we were better actualizing a capacity they also had.  He means our capacity for freedom has been enlarged.

A long list of standard issues never arise for Hegel: intentional states, mental objects (and their possible reducibility), and spontaneous causation in action.  For these, he substitutes discussions of sensation, nourishment, sexuality, and death, all presented in terms of a “negative relation” to nature. For example, when he speaks of “overcoming death as a natural event,” he is talking about human death and all its attendant rituals, as opposed to animal death. The “naturalness” of death is overcome, without any concern with immortality.  This is also a good example of how spirit creates a kind of distinctness from the body, a difference which has nothing to do with substance or metaphysics.  Spirit cannot be explained by an “external reflection” on its substantial nature.  The achievement of self-understanding determines whether or not we are spiritual beings, and so whether or not we can realize what it means to be spiritual, or free.

Spirit’s negation of nature covers both of our cognitive relations to nature.  First, there is the negation of the mere immediacy of our sensible contact with the world so it can be cognitively relevant, and second, our practical relations such as eating, institution building, and religious rituals.

Hegel criticizes previous empirical and philosophical psychologies because they try to say what spirit is and what it does, assuming a ready-made object.  Hegel’s contrasting view is that spirit “posits for itself the expression of what it is,” and that these expressions are “moments of itself bringing itself forth to itself, of its agreement with itself whereby it first becomes actual spirit.”  So: spirit is only what it takes itself to be.

If we look at this from an anthropologist’s point of view, the question would be, “what goes wrong when the nature-culture distinction is understood as falling within a comprehensive account of nature?” The basic idea is that spirit becomes spirit through the efforts of some organisms over time to create a “space of reasons.” Such a space does not appear for us just because we are the sort of beings we are.  Wilfred Sellars puts the issue well: the core idea of a person is not to classify or explain, but to rehearse an intention.

There is no missing ontology here.  Hegel’s argument is that we miss the whole issue if we hunt for an ontological answer to the question of why it is appropriate to think of a person as having acted for reasons. Spirit is a kind of norm, a collective institution in which we hold each other to a responsiveness to and directedness by reason and so realize spirit as freedom.

This is not about practical necessity as it is for Kant, but of expressing who we are.  In order to properly explain the claim “spirit is a product of itself,” we need a detour through Kant and the self-authorship of the law.  That is the next chapter.


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