A Left of the Thing-in-Itself

This is not a reading for any upcoming meeting; we discussed it a year ago and I did not get around to posting it until now.

The editor’s introduction to The Science of Logic draws a line from Kant through Fichte to Hegel.  The guiding issue is the constraint placed on mental activity; does it arise from the thing-in-itself, or from the freedom of the cogito?  Fichte pushed Kant in the direction of an absolute freedom, but did so at the cause of grounding that freedom in a fundamental mystery.  Hegel’s project, as this editor has it, was to make that freedom non-mysterious and fully conceptualized.  I have also tacked on a political side note.

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Absolute Knowing

This will be the reading for January 17th.  Directions are in the sidebar.

In the Introduction, Hegel described the basic problem of the book, the relation between the subject and the object.  Recall the quandary he set up: if (something like) reason is the tool we use to understand the world, then the tool mediates between us and the world.  How are we to know the world as it is in itself?  If we abstract away the tool, then either we lose the appearances (i.e. the for-us), or the tool was never needed in the first place.  Either option seems to leave us blind.

The Phenomenology of Spirit is the long story of how the subject and object can be reconciled, or in other words, how we can have genuine knowledge of the object in-itself, apart from our partial, mediated perspective.  One part of the key has been that different forms of consciousness have concerned themselves with different objects: one form of consciousness was concerned with the immediate empirical world, another with the natural sciences, another with the workings of culture.  Each time, there has been a different subjective view on a different object.

Another part of the key is that each form of consciousness initially prefers to see its object in an immediate way; it concerns itself with the way the thing appears.  This is always carried out in a contradictory way; not a contradiction between subject and object, as if the subject were simply confused, but a contradiction in the way that the subject relates to the object.  For example, the ethical form of consciousness saw its world as a harmonious relation between the family and the state, but at the same time required the two elements to be in conflict with one another.  That contradiction is what forces the acceptance of a mediated perspective on the object; consciousness has to accept that the initial harmony and the conflict are both of its own doing, a result of its perspective on the object.

Taken together, we can catch a glimpse of what absolute knowing is.  Absolute knowing has a new object and a new relation to the object.  The object is the mediated relation between the subject and the object itself, and the new relation is the self-conscious awareness of this mediated relationship.  So in short: absolute knowing is knowing that the relation between the subject and the object is mediated, and knowing that one knows this.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: Religion

At the end of the chapter on the moral worldview, we saw a final conflict reminiscent of the original conflict that inaugurated self-consciousness; two self-consciousness each convinced they held the moral high ground, a conflict that could only be reconciled via acts of forgiveness.  As we shall see, this community of forgiveness is necessarily a religious one, and it marks the final transition to absolute spirit.

Religion has two aspects: cultic rituals and faith.  The rituals are the actual practices, while faith is the “theory” underlying these acts.  Hegel argues that religion is essentially about an attempted reconciliation between the particular and the universal; to see how this works, we will be retracing our steps through the entirety of the Phenomenology.

The conflict between the particular and the universal has taken several forms.  It was born in the initial master/slave conflict, but first took recognizable form in the ethical world, in which the universal was expressed in the dread of the underworld.  Antigone forced the appearance of something like individual conscience into this world, and the universal was transformed into reasonable culture.  Culture soon found that the new form of individuality was entirely unruly, and gave way to modern conscience, which eventually necessitated acts of forgiveness.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Moral Worldview

Chapter 5, entitled “Spirit”, has passed through two moments.  First, we found that the harmony of the ethical world was unsustainable due to the unstable relation between family and state.  Second, we saw that  culture inevitably produces alienated individuals, an alienation that is quickly recognized as freedom.  The initial attempt to directly realize freedom, the French Revolution, ended in chaos and terror.

The moral worldview is a second attempt to realize freedom, while avoiding anarchy.  It must balance freedom and duty.  Hegel tackles the moral worldview in its Kantian form, which he characterizes as an interplay between two sides of consciousness: the rational self, which recognizes duty, and the natural self, which is driven by various particular, contingent concerns.

In that interplay between the rational and natural selves, Hegel finds “a whole nest of contradictions.”  The rational self seeks after duty, while the natural self seeks happiness.  The basic contradiction is this: because both are moments of the self, they are both equally present and cannot be separated.  However, the moral, rational self is just as much the essential moment, while the natural self is inessential.  Put another way, duty and happiness are equal, but duty is more equal.

This basic contradiction produces a series of other contradictions.  Kant does recognize this, and introduces the postulates of freedom, immortality and God in order to resolve them.  Hegel criticizes the postulates as a series of insincere dissemblances; basically, the moral worldview constantly shuttles back and forth between universal and particular, duty and happiness, rationality and natural impulses, in an attempt to place the contradictions at an infinite distance.

Self-consciousness becomes tired of this endless displacement, and seeks to establish personal conscience as the ultimate authority.  It tries to create a purely moral world, yet discovers that it cannot banish the lower impulses.  Hegel’s own solution to the relation between pure duty and the impure impulse to happiness is forgiveness: moral self-consciousness recognizes that one cannot keep their hands clean, and the natural self-consciousness recognizes its complicity in evil.  They learn to forgive one another, and true spirit – the I that is we and the we that is I – is actualized in the world.

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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.

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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.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit: Culture and Pure Insight

This will be the reading for September 13th’s meeting. We will be meeting later than usual, at 5:00. Let’s try and arrive by 4:30 so we can start on time, as we are beginning late and this is a longer essay than usual.

Previously, we saw how the inherent tension between family and community led to the development of the (Roman) legal order, in which a person’s traits and culture were inessential – only their empty legal status mattered. We are about to see how the individual gains content: through culture, or in what amounts to the same thing, alienation.

The individual, through self-cultivation, leaves behind their original nature, thus alienating themselves. It is this alienation that creates both individuality and culture. To be an individual, one requires recognition from others, and this recognition comes in the form of language; in a world of aristocrats, there must be a highest aristocrat who can provide recognition for all, so an absolute monarch is raised. The state gains actuality when supported by the speech acts of individuals – specifically, the nobility, whose “flattery” creates the absolute monarch.

The problem is that the state’s power comes from language, and a particular empty form of it: flattery. The aristocrats surround the throne and continually tell the king who he is. This form of speech is quickly found out as vain, and all culture is quickly recognized as vanity. It is this recognition of vanity that gives the sphere of faith, or pure insight, its actuality: when the world falls into vanity, only the pure “I” is left, the ‘I’ of pure insight.

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