A strange moment in Hegel

In the middle section of the Phenomenology of Spirit‘s chapter on “Reason,” entitled “The Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness Through Its Own Actuality,” Hegel makes a strange methodological choice. On our journey toward Spirit, Hegel claims, we can take one of two approaches — either study individual reasoning subjects who exist before Spirit emerges and therefore must found it, or else study individuals who have become alienated from some particular form of Spirit. Both, he claims, will amount to the same thing, and “since in our times that form of these moments is more familiar in which they appear after consciousness has lost its ethical life and, in the search for it, repeats those forms [i.e., the forms that precede Spirit], they may be represented more in terms of that sort” (par. 357). What follows is a study of three characters — Faust, Schiller’s Karl Moor, and Don Quixote — whom Hegel believes to embody this modern trend.

There is much that is questionable here. First, we get no demonstration that the pre-Spirit and post-Spirit individualities are the same — he just kind of asserts it. Second, this approach seems to contradict his phenomenological method, because suddenly we’ve skipped to a point where Spirit already exists. Hyppolite suggests that Hegel is aiming for more topical relevance, as in his discussion of physiognomy and phrenology, but it’s not like someone flipping through the Phenomenology in the bookstore would be able to identify the discussion of Don Quixote as such.

The best reason I’ve been able to come up with for Hegel’s approach here is that working through the pre-Spirit forms would inevitably become a boring re-hash of social contract theory. And though I haven’t fully fleshed this out by any means, it occurs to me that if this is what the pre-Spirit treatment would have looked like, then perhaps we can do some of the work ourselves to figure out why Hegel’s post-Spirit sequence would be broadly similar to the pre-Spirit — perhaps we’d go through a sequence of Hobbes (self-interest submits to necessity), Rousseau (spontaneous goodness succumbs to corrupt power structures), and Adam Smith (moral sentiment gives way to rational self-interest, which turns out not to be as selfish as it thought).

17 Responses to “A strange moment in Hegel”

  1. Michael Says:

    What’s boring about social contract theory? Hobbes, for one, is far more interesting than your necessarily schematic gloss suggests, if only because of his provocative notion of “self-interest” (in which reason serves the passions) and the way “necessity” turns out to serve it by impeding it. Rousseau turns contractualism into tragic drama. The fun never stops with this stuff!

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I like the texts themselves, too. It’s “boring” because it’s such a commonplace of political theory. And I daresay Hegel would have treated it pretty schematically in this 25-page section.

  3. Emily Says:

    The pre-Spirit and post-Spirit individualities are the same because individual reasoning subjects don’t exist before Spirit emerges and found it, but instead are themselves grounded in Spirit.

  4. landzek Says:

    Your problem here is based in the assumption that what Hegel experienced, and attempted to account for, is convey able to all people who might be so interested. And this is rooted in a faith that all humans are of a common sort, a common potential. What we are finding now, realizing, is that the experience of Hegel is not common, and as such shows that there are at least two ‘types’ of humans: one that sees Hegel expressing what is obvious , and one that sees Hegel s words as an enigma to crack, and so perpetually offers ‘new’ variations of what he is getting at. Badiou touches upon this ‘latest’ view by his truth procedures , and Latour attempts an opening with his existential modes.

  5. monrooney Says:

    Perhaps this is a realization that ‘post-Spirit’ is no more than the necessity to differentiate oneself from what came before, ostensibly transcending in doing so the fear that one is only ever reproducing the commonplace. It’s a manifestation of ‘anxiety of influence’ or mimetic rivalry.

  6. Adam Kotsko Says:

    landzek, I don’t understand the relevance of your first comment to this question in specific. It’s a narrow question of how to interpret a particular passage. No claims are made about Hegel’s universal applicability or not.

  7. Daniel Says:

    “There is much that is questionable here. First, we get no demonstration that the pre-Spirit and post-Spirit individualities are the same — he just kind of asserts it. Second, this approach seems to contradict his phenomenological method, because suddenly we’ve skipped to a point where Spirit already exists.”

    On the first: I think the justification for this claim comes later, once spirit proper has come into view. Once it’s clear that spirit has always been what “the science of the experience of consciousness” has been looking at, even when this “science” didn’t explicitly articulate that this was its subject-matter, we can see that the only way for there to be a distance between “individual reasoning subjects” and “spirit” is for spirit to have alienated itself from itself in its self-conception. So it doesn’t actually hurt the argument to look at literary figures, and they provide examples that are easier to get a grip on than other examples Hegel might have pulled out of the air. (Emily’s comment gets this right.) I don’t think Hegel was aiming for “topical relevance” in the sense of trying to pull in readers for the book, as your bookstore remark suggests, but rather was just trying to make this part of the argument a little easier to get a grip on. (I think that’s what all of the historical examples up through “Spirit” are doing, too: they’re illustrative, not doing load-bearing argumentative work.)

    On the second: I think this is a sign that “Hegel’s phenomenological method” isn’t actually what it might appear to be. If a description of “Hegel’s method” conflicts with the content which Hegel is supposed to have produced through this method, then we can either claim that Hegel got his own content wrong, or that we’ve misunderstood what “Hegel’s method” was supposed to be. The way I read PhG is that so long as we, Hegel’s philosophical companions, can come to see why a shape of consciousness is problematic as presented, that’s all Hegel needs to do to warrant moving on to another shape of consciousness. So there’s not a need for a strongly unified “method” in the book; different advances can work themselves out in different ways.

  8. Adam Kotsko Says:

    If I’m right that something like social contract theory would be his most plausible “pre-Spirit” option, he still could have captured that “it was Spirit the whole time!” vibe — because one of the most common critiques of social contract theory is that it only makes sense if you presuppose there’s some kind of social bond or law from the outset.

  9. Emily Says:

    Since Hegel is representing alienated consciousness through literary figures, wouldn’t the pre-Spirit option also be representational? Isn’t social contract theory something that can only arise after the immediacy of ethical life has been lost?

  10. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Yes, that was kind of what I was trying to say in my previous comment. The denizens of the “state of nature” are equally representational/”literary” figures.

  11. Emily Says:

    What makes them representational? Social contract theory is self-contradictory, but so is every shape of consciousness encountered in the Phenomenology. Are they all representational in the same way that the literary figures Hegel uses in this instance are?

  12. Adam Kotsko Says:

    I guess I just don’t understand what you’re getting at. Where did I object to them being representational?

  13. Daniel Says:

    “If I’m right that something like social contract theory would be his most plausible “pre-Spirit” option, he still could have captured that “it was Spirit the whole time!” vibe — because one of the most common critiques of social contract theory is that it only makes sense if you presuppose there’s some kind of social bond or law from the outset.”

    That sounds plausible to me. Though this way Hegel got to write about Goethe’s and Schiller’s works; getting Goethe and Schiller to appreciate some of what he was up to (or at least be happy he was talking about them) isn’t worth nothing. There’s no ulterior motive to writing about Hobbes and Rousseau. (Quixote is also more fun to write about than Smith.)

    It’s a good point that in general Hegel could have chosen different examples, or even rearranged some parts of his works without detriment; the sense in which the “System of Science” is “necessary” is often over-hyped. Hegel did edit and revise his work, after all; he wrote philosophy more or less like anyone else wrote philosophy. (The PhG doesn’t get revisited much because Hegel considers it juvenilia later; but the Greater Logic, which is a work of “strictly necessary science” if anything in Hegel is, had some serious revisions done throughout Hegel’s life, and he was working on more when he died. Whatever Hegel’s “method” amounts to, it has to be compatible with him sometimes rewriting chapters, or thinking he can skip some parts when lecturing on the material.)

  14. Emily Says:

    Are those revisions serious alterations substantially changing the system, or are they merely clarifying what’s already there? Hegel may have called the PoS a “peculiar early work” or something like that, but it remained an integral part of his overall project and he never renounced it.

  15. Daniel Says:

    “Are those revisions serious alterations substantially changing the system, or are they merely clarifying what’s already there? Hegel may have called the PoS a “peculiar early work” or something like that, but it remained an integral part of his overall project and he never renounced it.”

    He substantially changes what he has to say about chemistry, and about the logical categories connected with it. Burbridge’s “Real Process” has the details, if you’re interested. In the lecture courses, there are very substantial revisions on topics like the status of Judaism in the “Philosophy of Religion”; Hegel clearly grew to appreciate Judaism more over the years, and his understanding of the relationship between “Greek” philosophy and Judaism gets visibly rethought. Though I don’t think that in general there’s a clean line to be drawn between “substantial change” and “mere clarification”; which changes count as which sort depends on what we’re interested in at the moment, when looking at a philosopher’s development.

    I don’t think the PhG, as a book, is “integral” to the finished “System of Science” as outlined in the Encyclopedia volumes; what Hegel thinks he needs from it, he reiterates in the short “Philosophy of Spirit” section that shares a title with his early book. By the time he’s writing the second edition of the Encyclopedia (which is the first vaguely readable version — the first is so telegraphic that it could barely function as a rough outline for use by students of his lecture-courses), he’s replaced the idea of the PhG as “the first part of the system” with the long “Positions of Thought with Respect to Objectivity” discussions in the “Encyclopedia Logic”. See §25 of EL, where Hegel notes that PhG was “described, *when it was published*, as the first part of the system”, contrasting it with “The examination which will be undertaken here”, i.e., §26-78 immediately following, the “Positions of Thought” sections.

    It’s true that Hegel never “renounces” PhG, but he did decline to revise it when his publisher asked about it (which he doesn’t decline in the case of his mature published works), and §25 of EL has him complaining that in the PhG “the presentation is more complicated, and what belongs to the concrete parts of the System already falls partly within that introduction”. By the time of the second edition of the Encyclopedia, he thinks he’s found a way to introduce the System that’s not as complicated as PhG, and which lets him leave the concrete parts where they belong: in the later parts of the System.

  16. Emily Says:

    He may have found a different way to introduce the System, but nothing can replace the Phenomenology in actually justifying its starting point. Without it, the entire System would be based on a mere assertion and would lack necessity.

  17. Daniel Says:

    No, that’s the work the “Positions of Thought” are doing in the mature System. That’s why Hegel continued to teach Logic, but didn’t teach the PhG: it was not necessary once he’d written the new EL material. It belongs to an earlier plan at systematic organization.

    If the PhG was supposed to still be necessary as to begin the System, then why did Hegel repeat the first several sections of it in the “Philosophy of Spirit”? Did his readers really need to begin with the dialectic of Self-Certainty, then repeat it after reading 300+§s of the Encyclopedia?


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