Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Ch. 3

This is the reading for June 24th’s meeting.  You can get the location and other details at our meetup.com page.

1. In chapters 1 and 2, Pippin argued that Hegel’s practical philosophy—which Hegel would have called a philosophy of spirit—is primarily a theory of freedom.  His idea of freedom is quite far from our usual notions of freedom, which tend to revolve around abstract questions of free will and political questions of what we ought to be free from or to do.  To some degree, Hegel combines these two sides of freedom when he says that a free act is not necessarily one freely caused by me, but rather an act which I can, on reflection, fully endorse.  Further, this sort of reflective endorsement is only possible when one understands one self and others in particular ways and stands in rule-governed institutional relations.

2. Pippin also introduced the claim that “spirit is a product of itself.”  Spirit is the industry-standard translation of the German word Geist, and for our purposes, we can basically define it as both the development and actual existence of a given historical period’s package set of fundamental concepts and practices.  

3. This claim that spirit is a product of itself is important for two reasons.  First, it both connects Hegel to, and differentiates him from, earlier German idealists like Kant and Fichte.  Second, it is one of the main points in his social, collective idea of freedom.  These two points are connected: for Kant and Fichte, cognitive and practical normativity (how we ought to think, what we ought to do) find their origins in the (either logically or practically necessary) cognitive acts of individuals, while for Hegel, both kinds of normativity are the result of collective, historical development.  

4. The claim that connects all three—and the main topic of this chapter— is the claim that we are not subject to any laws or principles which we did not legislate (in a binding, non-arbitrary way) for ourselves.  We can tease out two things this entails.  First, there is no external authority—of any sort—that dictates either our cognitive or practical/moral norms.  Second, we freely produce these norms.  For Kant, the “we” here refers to individuals responding to logical or practical necessity; for Hegel, the “we” is plural and historical.

5. As already stated, freedom involves reflective understandings of self and others.  The textbook view of Hegel says that he has a social role theory of right human conduct, though of course there is also a textbook response to this: it is in tension with the “product of itself” language.  Pippin explains the point: “It would seem that the justifiability and goodness of occupying any roles or being in any state at all must itself be defensible universally and objectively.  Only after such a defence can appeal to such a reason (“because I am a sister”) justify anything, be offered to someone who demands a justification” (66).  The textbook response to this is that Hegel closes the circle by saying these roles are the result of a rational historical process, though to most people, this looks extremely Panglossean.

6. Statements about the normative elements of social roles cannot presuppose the social roles; they have to conclude in affirming them (or rejecting them), and only these reasons can count as binding for a reflective individual who endorses them.

7. Pippin describes the point of reflective endorsement:

“If every sort of consideration can count as a justifiable practical reason only if it survives some sort of reflective endorsement test, and there are such tests, and some considerations do survive them, and we can accept or reject such proposals because they pass or fail, then we have claimed that reason can be practical in some way, that passing this reflective endorsement test is, at some basic, fundamental level, what most matters, is the crucial component in the basis of normativity, and that all of this backing can, in some complexly mediated way, motivate agents.” (67)

8. This account of reflective endorsement opens the door to a sort of pure practical reason, unconstrained by contingent material ends.  In contemporary terms, it would mean that there are desire-independent reasons to act.  Being in a particular social role is not a sufficient reason to do anything; we have to reflectively adopt the requirements of the role.

9. This brings us to two questions about the relation between Kant’s individual account and Hegel’s historical account of norms: (A) how are we bound to the results of reflective endorsement, and (B) how could this binding have motivational force for agents?

10. (A) For Hegel, our claims on each other—how we are bound to certain normative claims—arise out of already-existing ways of life, attachments, institutions, and dependencies.  Some of these attachments and dependencies are constitutive of an individual agent in a particular historical period, and any complete abstraction from them “amount to a philosophical fantasy world [and] bear no relation to the requirements of a concretely human life” (68).  Social commitments and attachments do not merely reflect beliefs about values; they are forms of life, or what Hegel calls shapes of spirit.  As far as Kant is concerned, these claims about attachments being constitutive for individuals ignores our ability to take a step back from them and decide in a purely rational way what is to be done.  As Christine Korsgaard phrases this Kantian position, “A good soldier obeys orders, but a good human being doesn’t massacre the innocent.”

11. For both Kant and Hegel, to understand each other as merely expressing socialization or habituation “is to fail to accord each other the appropriate respect, dignity, and worth as the kinds of creatures we are” (68).  We are entirely to this respect because the lives we lead are led by us: “Whatever social roles we inhabit or conventions we act out, we have somehow made them our own; they function as norms and ideals for us that we must actively and with some justification to ourselves and others actively sustain, and which, like any ideal, we can hold and yet fail to live up to” (68).  They are not fixed and determined—their most interesting aspect to Hegel is that they can change.  The worth of our lives is tied to their freedom, and this freedom has to be tied to a subjective acknowledgement of the objective rightness of our practices and institutions.

12. That acknowledgement is only genuine if it is tied to the actual practice of giving and asking for reasons; it cannot be the mere re-enactment of an inherited convention.  Hegel, like Aristotle, makes a distinction between “acting in accordance with virtue” and “acting from virtue.”

13. For Kant, we are only obligated to what we can rationally obligate ourselves to.  This is Kant’s solution to the dead-ends of divine command and natural law theories of morality: “If humans can be duty-bound, can be subject to a universal law, then we must be able to explain how this is consistent with another indispensable premise in Kant’s enterprise: that human beings are full subjects of their own lives, not subject to any normative authority they cannot, from their first-person perspective, reflectively endorse.” (69-70)  Kant thinks this is only possible if we are both legislators of, and subject to, the laws we obey.  Nothing can count as a reason for action unless I rationally count it as a reason to act, and in doing so, I give myself the law.

14. When we decide what to do on the basis of reasons, we are deciding what ought to be done, without any other authority.  But this does not quite explain what this self-authorship means.  Kant is not just claiming we can set aside empirical considerations and rely on pure reason; he is saying that practical reason determines that the law should be the limit of practical reason, and so submits to this law.  This has to be Kant’s position, since reason does not have a natural object like “the human good.”  If we do not take this as metaphorical in some way, Kant can even look like Nietzsche, in which self-mastery is also self-subjection.

15. One of the problems with Kant is that he can explain why someone can subject themselves to the law, but not why they are bound to do so.  Certainly we do not want to say that only those who have chosen to be duty-bound are duty-bound.  There is a tension between Kant’s emphasis on autonomy and his emphasis on unconditional obligation.

16. Kant is not saying, “I am only bound because I bound myself, so I hereby unbind myself.”  This would be like a person playing chess and moving their rook diagonally.  The problem with that is not that the player is contradicting his ideal object, “chess,” but that he is contradicting themselves, his agreement to play chess and all that entails; “He is in effect ‘cancelling himself out,’ nullifying his own agency in the pretense of agency” (74).

17. In Hegel’s account, once practices are instituted, self-legislated, people can “see” what to do without any process of value creation or self-obligation: “Once there is a practice there are reasons to do things that exist independently of any individual or group acknowledging that reason, reasons that participants are genuinely responsive to” (74).  For Hegel, the important thing is that these practices can change, and not in a way that suggests we were once getting it wrong and are now getting it right.  Normative authority’s “grip” can fail, and can lose its ability to provide grounds for enforcement or sanction, and this failure indicates that it was originally self-legislated.  In the case of breakdowns, we need to be able to make a distinction between contingent breakdowns (for example, cannibalism during a famine) and a breakdown in the logic of a normative authority.

18. It is not that there is a literal act of self-subjection.  Rather, we need to show that we have, from the start, already undertaken a basic obligation in whatever do and that this “already” does not cancel out the self-legislation demanded by self-authorship.  We could say: “we are not bound to reason because we bind ourselves to it, but that reason is constitutive of the binding legislation without which there are no norms, and so without which there is no way to lead a life” (76).

19. (B) Let’s move on to the question of motivation.  The basic answer is that the commitment to rational agency is itself the motivation.  Kant says two things which Hegel agrees with: “to be rational just is to be autonomous,” and “to be governed by reason and to govern yourself, are one and the same thing.”  There are no laws which we must see and adapt to; there are only laws we give ourselves, and in order to be agents, we must follow through on these laws.  We are capable of not following through, and thus of not being agents.

20. This point gets more complicated when we talk about moral commitments.  The main thing Pippin wants to say that the model of individual agents disengaging themselves from the world and acting on a practical precommitment to an unavoidable form of practical reason results in paradoxes.

21. This brings us back to the idea that something is only a reason for action if we make it our own.  In Christine Korsgaard’s account of Kant, this means that if someone is not being instrumentally rational, actively pursuing a goal, and doing so because they believe they ought to, then they are not self-governing.  When we will an end, we also will the means.  If we fail to engage in the means, we are revealing that we have not really willed the end.  This, however, leaves out the possibility that irrationality can be an explanation of such a failure, not merely hypocrisy or self-deception.  For example, if one has a deadly sickness and wishes to be cured, but is terrified of the necessary injection, he may irrationally reject the injection.

22. Korsgaard says that for Kant, for one to be an agent, one must seize control of their destiny.  If one does not, then they do not exist as an agent.  Pippin thinks that is mistaken.  If I am not an agent when not conforming to an instrumental principle, then what we have is not my failure of rationality.  It appears that something has happened to me and blocked the motivating power of reason: fear makes the sick person avoid the needle.  If we try to say that fear is an actual motivation—that I have made it my own—then it is not that we are failing to achieve an end, but that the end is changing.  As far as reason’s ability to motivate, it seems that the sick person’s fear has interfered with their reason.  Problems like these arise from the Kantian emphasis on individual voluntarism, which Hegel’s more social account of reflective endorsement is meant to avoid.

23. When Korsgaard’s Kant says our stake in reason issues from our sense of who we are—whether or not we are agents—she brings us close to Hegel’s account of identification with projects.   Practical identity, in general, is the set of conditions under which one considers their life worth living.  These identities are things like father, citizen, or friend, and we have a practical identity by committing to the norms implied by each role.

24. However, are there particular ways in which we must think of our identities?  Here, we are moving back to the idea of social roles already discussed.  For Kant, these social roles have to be reflectively endorsed by each individual—but for Hegel, these roles “are the prior conditions for any reflective content, and this not as a matter-of-fact limitation” (86).   

25. In Kant’s account, there is an ultimate moral identity that trumps all other roles.  We could say that being a human being can function as this inescapable identity, and that losing it means losing a recognizably human life.  Or, we might say that without authoring laws, we are not leading a life.  The value of reflective reasoning itself does not arise out of any contingent attachments or identities.   

26. This entails that all value depends on the value of humanity, and all particular identities matter because humanity requires them.  Still, this does not yet give us a necessary moral identity.  The argument here is trying to show that in order to preserve coherence in acting, you must value your own humanity, or your reflective capacity.  It is to respect the life-leading capacity.  Some try to say this begins with the individual respecting themselves, and that this logically entails we value everyone’s humanity, but their arguments really only show that we ought to acknowledge that other’s value their humanity, not that we ought to value it.

27. Pippin thinks it is not clear what exactly is at stake in the phrase “the value of our humanity.”   More importantly, we cannot derive from the deductive analysis of a rational agent any content for such a commitment.

28. Korsgaard gives the game away to Hegel in this two quotes: “[H]uman identity has been differently constituted in different social worlds.  Sin, dishonour, and moral wrongness all represent concepts of what one cannot do without being diminished or disfigured, without loss of identity, and therefore conceptions of what one must not do.” And, “The concept of moral wrongness as we now understand it belongs to the world we live in, the one brought about by the Enlightenment, where one’s identity is one’s relation to humanity itself.”

29. This pushes us in the direction of history.  Basically, we’re going to see that moral identities require a developmental account, not a deductive one, and self-legislation is a collective practice specific to a given stage of development.


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