Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Ch. 4

This will be our reading for July 22.  You can find the details at our Meetup page.

1. The previous chapter argued that freedom is fundamentally the capacity to “give oneself the law,” to legislate norms and bind ourselves to them.  This self-legislation is not the ratification of passing desires or opinions, some sort of pure subjectivism, but a strange combination of self-creation and self-limitation.  These self-created norms create and sustain social roles and reasons which we can use to justify or criticize behaviour.  We looked at two different models of self-legislation: Kant’s deductive model, which begins with the generic, ahistorical individual, and Hegel’s historical/developmental model, which begins with actually-existing groups.

2. For both Kant and Hegel, a key motivating factor in ethical behaviour is respect for the life-leading capacity of humans, which eventually cashes out in the claim that all value depends on recognizing the value of humanity as an ultimate moral identity.  As Korsgaard says, “A good soldier obeys orders, but a good human being does not massacre the innocent.”  Pippin thinks the Kantian framework cannot establish this value of humanity, but the Hegelian one can.

3. This self-legislation is not only about practical norms, but cognitive norms as well; all of this is attached to a much larger account of rationality in general.  Chapter 4 is about Hegel’s account of concept-formation, and is relevant here because it helps respond to a common criticism of Hegel: that he is an anti-individualist authoritarian.

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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.  

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JS Mill – On Liberty, Ch. 1-2

This is the reading for our June 17th meeting.  You can find all the details at our Meetup.com page.

Chapter 1 – Introduction

This essay is not about the freedom of the will, but civil liberty—the nature and limits of the power which society can wield over the individual.  In the past, liberty meant protection against government tyranny.  Since the power og government could be used against anyone, citizens had to be in a perpetual state of defence against this power.  This limitation could be carried out in two ways.  First, a set of immunities, called liberties.  Second, constitutional checks.  Constitutional checks eventually became the main defence of liberty.

Eventually, societies decided that government should not be an independent, antagonistic power; rather, government power should be a delegated power and representative of the people.  Once this sort of democracy appeared, people began to think that too much importance had been attached to the limitation of power, since the idea that the people could oppress themselves appeared to be so odd.  As Mill puts it, “The nation did not need to be protected against its own will.  There was no fear of its tyrannizing over itself.” (89)  His response to this is to say that phrases like “the power of the people over themselves” does not actually describe what goes on in democratic republics.  For example, the “people” who exercise the power are not the same people over whom it is exercised, and the “will of the people” means nothing more than the will of a numerical majority.

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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 Meetup.com 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.

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Meillassoux: Divine Inexistence

This is the reading for Saturday, May 27th.  You can get all the details at our meetup.com page.

Imagine rolling dice and coming up with six.  Some might say this outcome was determined, and others might insist it was pure chance, and still others might say it was a mix of the two.  What they would agree on is that the faces of the dice had the appropriate numbers which could have produced a six—and importantly, this means that chance requires a set of pre-existing possibilities to work on.  We can think of any situation this way, as the actualization of pre-existing possibilities, governed by laws, chance, or a mix of the two.

Quentin Meillassoux’s work is dedicated to working out a single core idea: that the absolute truth of all existence is contingency.  Every single thing can exist, not exist, or exist differently.  What this means for our dice is that the ratio of chance and determinism governing their tumbling can be sidestepped entirely: Meillassoux’s thesis is the the faces of the dice can change, and can change for no reason, and importantly, it means this process does not answer to any possible account of probability.  Entirely new sets of possibilities can appear in the world, possibilities that had absolutely no antecedent.  He quite literally believes anything is possible.

His term for the appearance of new possibilities, or new dice, is the advent ex nihilo of a new world because they emerge from nothing and for no reason.  He says there have been three new worlds: the emergence of matter, the emergence of life, and the emergence of thought.  Life appeared in the context of matter, and thought appeared in the context of life.  Divine Inexistence is about the possibility of a fourth advent ex nihilo in the context of thought: the world of justice, a world of resurrected humans.  The goal is the final vanquishing of the division between being and value, otherwise known as the famous is/ought distinction.

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Suggested Readings

June 10 – Mill – On Liberty

The classic 19th century defence of free speech.

June 24 – Berlin – Two Concepts of Liberty

Isaiah Berlin’s distinction between negative and positive freedoms: freedom from and freedom to.

July 8 – Strawson – Freedom and Resentment

An incredibly influential theory about compatibilism and moral responsibility.

August 12 – Arendt – What is Freedom?

Hannah Arendt argues that freedom is primarily about action in the public square.

August 26 – Rothbard – For a New Liberty

The right-libertarian manifesto.

Sept 2 – Friedman – Freedom and Capitalism

Milton Friedman argues that free markets and free political systems go hand in hand.

Sept 16 – Graeber – Possibilities (Maybe)

An anarchist anthropologist discusses capitalism, slavery, and democracy.

Sept 30 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Robert Pippin argues that Hegel’s idea of freedom is a historical compatibilism.

Oct 14 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Oct 28 – Pippin – Hegel’s Practical Philosophy

Nov 11 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

A left-libertarian account of material freedom.  This was influential for one of our previous readings, Inventing the Future.

Nov 25 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

Dec 9 – Parijs – Real Freedom for All

Jameson – An American Utopia

This is the reading for our March 18th meeting.  Visit us at meetup.com for the location and details.

There have been very few utopian ideas over the last few decades; most of our cultural production goes toward imagining dystopias.  Some of the reasons for this are internal to leftist thought.  In the 1950s, when leftists thought about power, they imagined pre-agricultural societies without power.  This eventually morphed into a thinking of power’s origin.  Factors such as the work of Foucault and the “revelations” of the gulags, turned thought about power into a near paranoia concerning collective action and practical politics.  This is the context that Jameson is writing An American Utopia in, and it straddles the line between a political program and a utopian vision; this summary leans heavily on the utopian side.

Jameson thinks that utopian visions contribute to discursive struggle, “the process whereby slogans, concepts, stereotypes, and accepted wisdoms did battle among each other for. . . hegemony.”  It is the attempt to delegitimate the slogans of the other side, as Thatcher and Reagan managed to do with nationalization.  The strongest evidence that Thatcher and Reagan won is that so few people today can imagine an alternative to the market. Liberal parties are good for keeping repressed ideas in circulation, by “talking socialism.” Words that we need to discursively struggle over are words like austerity, which has a whole neoliberal framework behind it, or debt, which functioned as an empty signified for Occupy Wall Street.  We need to rehabilitate ideas of collectivity and even bureaucracy against “big government”.  

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