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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The Phenomenology of Spirit: The Ethical Order Part 2

Hegel has imagined for us a stable ethical order, in which everyone knows their place and acts accordingly.  In this picture, stability has been founded on the twin powers of the family’s access to the unconscious divine law and the state’s access to conscious human law.  We have already begun to see this lovely world fall apart; the divine and human law have conflicting commands, and that conflict plays out as a tragedy for the actually existing individual.  This pathos of the individual will continue to ruin the apparent unity of the ethical order, and eventually reveals itself to be an individualism founded purely upon property ownership.  The unity breaks down into a multiplicity of atomistic individuals, a breakdown arrested only by war and tyranny.

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The Phenomenology of Spirit, The Ethical Order Part 1

“Reason” ended with a grasping attempt to maintain reason’s initial faith in the unity of self and world. This chapter is, at first glance, an analysis of one particular attempt to build an ethical world in which there is no alienation, a world in which everyone has their place and knows exactly how to act.  The ancient Greeks have often been thought of as having a fully harmonious ethical order, and given the European tradition’s repeated attempts to revive that apparent Greek harmony, it is the model Hegel aims at through a largely implied reading of Antigone.  However, in this presentation, I want to leave open the possibility that this is a critique of any possible ethical order.

To summarize: for reasons that will be outlined below, an ethical order must straddle the line between two categories of ethical “powers”: explicit human laws, consciously built by the community, and the more implicit, natural, “divine” law.  The place in human life where the human and divine laws meet is the family, because of its inherent connection to natural matters of sexuality, birth, and death on one hand, and the role it plays in socializing an individual to join the community on the other. There is a specific point at which the family connects the human and divine laws; it is not the relation between husband and wife, because that is dominated by human desire.  Neither is it the relation between parents and children, because that is characterized by the movement of children away from the parents and into the community.  The true straddling line is the relation between brother and sister, which is free of desire, and is a free relation of both sides: the brother’s relation to the public realm and the sister’s relation to the natural household.

Yet, unsurprisingly, the line between nature and culture does not hold; everyone has duties to both the divine law and human law, and any given ethical action will always violate one or the other.  A supposedly harmonious ethical order leaves everyone guilty all the time.

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