Saturday, November 12, 2011

Life and Desire in Self-Consciousness of the Phenomenology of Spirit

by Ryan Haecker

The first three sections of G.W.F. Hegel’s the Phenomenology of Spirit fall under the heading A. Consciousness, while the fourth section begins with the heading B. Self-Consciousness. In the phenomenological dialectic of Consciousness, the protagonist of the narrative had sought to achieve certain knowledge of the object of consciousness. This protagonist had investigated an object of knowledge which was supposed to exist independently and be other than itself. In the section on Self-Consciousness, Hegel begins with the intention to transition from the narrative of Consciousness to a new stage in which the phenomenological protagonist can achieve his knowledge of the object of self-consciousness through embodied actions upon the cosmos. Hegel writes in the beginning of Self-Consciousness that the “notion” (a concept which is incompletely developed) has been shown to “vanish” in the phenomenological dialectic of Consciousness.

In the previous modes of certainty what is true for consciousness is something other than itself. But the notion of this truth vanishes in the experience of it. (*PoS par. 166) Hegel believes himself to have shown in the preceding chapters that those objects previously known to Consciousness had been merely “moments” of consciousness whose untruth has been revealed. In Self-Consciousness he continues to investigate the truth of self-consciousness in an embodied social realm.

Hegel can say, in proposing the topic he is to explain and justify, that the “being” of sense-certainty, the “universality” of perception, and the “empty inner being of the understanding” are now no longer “essences” but are to be understood as “moments of self-conciousness” (Pippin 1989 p. 145)

But now there has arisen what did not emerge in these previous relationships [ofConsciousness], viz a certainty which is identical with its truth; for the certainty is to itself its own object and consciousness is to itself the truth. (PoS par. 166)

Henceforth the protagonist of the phenomenological dialectic of Self-Consciousness will investigate both the subject and the object, or the notion and the object, as these are beheld by self-consciousness.

If we call Notion what the object is in itself, but call object what it is qua object or for an other, then it is clear that being-in-itself and being-for-an-other are one and the same. (PoS par. 166)

[Self-consciousness] is characterized by a reflection not on the structure of the things about which we are conscious, but on the structure of our conscious attending and takings themselves. (Pinkard 1994 p.146)

Consciousness has now become a reflective self-consciousness which knows that both the self and the other are simultaneously beheld for and within itself. Hegel claims that this model of self-consciousness has preserved all of those epistemological faculties which had characterized the preceding dialectical movements, and has thereby come to resemble the native powers of the human mind.

With self-consciousness, then, we have therefore entered the native realm of truth. If we consider this new shape of knowing, the knowing itself, in relation to that which preceded, viz. the knowing other, then we see that though this other has indeed vanished, its moments have at the same time no less been preserved, and the loss consists in this, that here they are present as they are in themselves. (PoS par. 167)

The truth which self-consciousness begins to investigate is not an independent object but an apprehension of the unity of itself, the self-conscious subject, with the object of its investigation. However apprehension of the object, and the truth for self-consciousness, has yet to be realized because the cosmos has not yet been investigated. Nor has the truth of this object, the cosmos, become known to the subject. This curiosity of the subject to know and act upon its object is described by Hegel as the Desire of self-consciousness.

The truth, viz. the unity of self-consciousness with itself; this unity must become essential to self-consciousness, i.e. self-consciousness is Desire in general… In this sphere, self-consciousness exhibits itself as the movement in which this antithesis is removed and the identity of itself with itself becomes explicit for it. (PoS par. 167)

Self-consciousness now desires to overcome the epistemic division between the subject and the object of knowledge. Self-Consciousness aspires to unite its object within itself through knowledge and action. Although the subject acts upon the material within the field of perception, the unity of the subject with its object is intelligibly apprehended as an ideal relation of subject and object within self-consciousness.

Hegel is also engaged in an idealist reformulation of the notions of the practical, desire, life, and purposiveness and it is that transformation that, we shall see, helps explain the kind of dissatisfaction with the immediacy of desire that leads to the reintroduction of explicitly philosophical and theoretical considerations. (Pippin 1989 p.149)

As with the previous models of consciousness, self-consciousness applies a uniform epistemological method to its investigation of the object of the intelligible cosmos. The epistemological method in Self-Consciousness is a conceptual apprehension of the teleological relation of parts of the whole within a succession of living organisms.

Hegel seems initially here to be suggesting the beginning of his infamous spirit monism, the suppression of all apparent differences in a single organic, living whole. Hegel may be introducing here his own version of the romantic program we have discussed before, the Greek notion of a living, incarnated (but now self-conscious) Nature that he had so recently shared with Holderin and Schelling... As Poggeler succinctly puts it, at this point the Notion under consideration appears to be “everything that is basically is self-consciousness” [Poggeler 1973c, 248] (Pippin 1989 p.144)

The first object of self-consciousness investigation is nothing less than the entire cosmos as a living organism, or the essence of Life as a universal organism. To be "reflected into itself", or self-negating, is to distinguish parts are within the totality of the whole organism, or to organically live and grow.

…the object has become life. What self-consciousness distinguishes from itself as having being, also has in it, in so far as it is posited as being, not merely the character of sense-certainty and perception, but it is being that is reflected into itself, and the object of immediate desire is a living thing. (PoS par. 168)

In his characterization of Life Hegel adopts the Aristotelian notion of a teleological organism. He would later describe in the Encyclopedia Logic(¶ 204A) that Immanuel Kant had in the Critique of Teleological Judgement had effected a "resuscitation" of Aristotle's insights (Kreines, the Logic of Life 2008).

[Hegel is] trying to indicate by these notions a characterization of such a subjectivity borrowed loosely from Aristotle. A living being has its “principle of motion” within itself. Its purposiveness, its “leading” of its life, is not acquired but internal. (Pippin 1989 p.150)

Hegel defines the essence of Life as (i) a movement through which an organism differentiates parts from the whole within itself. This essential process of differentiation is the creation of organs as parts within the whole of the organism. Hegel describes this process as infinite because, rather than having been set in motion by the "external purposiveness" of an alien causal-agent, Life appears to be self-caused through the "inner purposiveness" of the organism itself (Kreines, the Logic of Life 2008). He believes Life to be uniquely the self-cause of its motions in time and self-organization of its parts in space.

Essence is infinity as the supersession of all distinctions, the pure movement of axial rotation, its self-repose being an absolutely restless infinity; independence itself, in which the differences of the movement are resolved, the simple essence of Time which, in this equality with itself, has the stable shape of Space. (PoS par. 169)

When Hegel wants to stress the empirical independence of such an autonomously self-determining categoriality, he invokes the notion of “infinity”, thought purely determining itself or even “revolving on its own axis.” (Pippin 1989 p.150)

A teleological organism contains within itself (ii) the essential power of Life’s “inner purposiveness” to grow, from germ to adult, towards the complete actualization of its mature and final end. Hegel describes growth in the same terms as (i) the self-differentiation of the parts of an organism because growth requires an organism to continually reproduce its parts within itself. Hegel describes growth as the infinite “dividedness’, “negation”, "supersession" or "sublation” of the organism in-itself.

It is this very flux as a self-identical independence which is itself an enduring existence, in which therefore, they are present as distinct members and parts existing on their own account. Being no longer has the significance of abstract being, nor has their pure essentiality the significance of abstract universality; on the contrary; their being is precisely that simple fluid substance of pure movement within itself… This substance, however, is infinite, and hence the shape in its very subsistence is a dividedness within itself, or the supersession of its being-for-itself. (PoS par. 169-170)

In a continuation of essential Life processes of (i) the self-differentiation of parts and (ii) growth, Hegel describes the emergence of independent organisms from the organic totality of the cosmos as the “separating-out” of an independent other from the “universal fluid medium”.

The independent members are for themselves… This independence of the shape appears as something determinate, for an other, for the shape is divided within itself; and the supersession of this dividedness accordingly takes place through an other... Life in the universal fluid medium, a passive separating-out of shapes becomes, just by so doing, a movement of those shapes or becomes Life as a process. The simple universal fluid medium is the in-itself, and the difference of the shapes is the other. (PoS par. 170-171)

[Footnote 13] The immediate sentiment of self thus introduced by life as a “shape of Spirit” allows Hegel to begin to discuss a number of elements crucial for his full theory of subjectivity. Life also involves a kind of “separation” of the subject from itself; it not only lives but must continue to pursue or lead its life; it is in a relation of independence and dependence with respect to its “other.” And it is not simply a living individual, but lives out the life of the species; its life reproduces in its general structure the life of the species, and even literally reproduces that “universal life.” (Pippin 1989 p.289)

To complete this speculative cosmogenesis of life Hegel describes an ontological inversion, similar to the inversion of perception and understanding described in Chapter 3, in which the greater complexity of the newly independent organisms allows them to devour, sublate and incorporate into themselves the passive medium of the organic cosmos from which they had emerged.

The simple universal fluid medium is the in-itself, and the difference of the shapes is the other. But this fluid medium itself becomes the other through this difference; for now it is for the difference which exists in and for itself, and consequently is the ceaseless movement by which this passive medium is consumed: Life as a living thing. (PoS par. 171)

The consumption of the passive medium of the cosmos by independent organisms is a practical satisfaction of Desire. Yet Hegel does not merely intend to refer to a Desire for material consumption. On the contrary, he intends Desire to be understood as (iii) a general relation of the subject towards its object in which the living subject seeks to possess, comprehend and assimilate the object into itself.

In Hegel’s language, such a subject, or living being, is simply and immediately “for itself” in its relation to objects. This means that it senses itself only in desiring, and that its other, objects of all kind, are object is simply to be negated, overcome, controlled, mastered. (Pippin 1989 p.150)

This relation of Desire, in which the subject masters and sublates its object, is the basis for the predation of Life in the natural world. The most superbly adapted organisms prey upon victims, which are then superseded and united within the more adapted organisms. Life is essentially characterized by (i) the potential for adaptive self-differentiation, (ii) an Aristotelian teleology of growth, and (iii) the predatory relation of the Desire of the subject towards its object. This adaptive, purposive organic process of continual sublation persists until the emergence of an organism with the power of continual sublation within itself- or a reflective self-consciousness which negates the object of its subjective consciousness.

On account of the independence of the object, therefore, it can achieve satisfaction only when the object itself effects the negation within itself; and it must carry out this negation of itself in itself, for it is in itself the negative, and must be for the other what it is. Since the object is in its own self negation, and it being so is at the same time independent, it is consciousness… this universal independent nature in which negation is present as absolute negation, is the genus as such, or the genus as self-consciousness. Self-consciousness achieves its satisfaction only in another self-consciousness. (PoS par. 175)

The self-conscious being which has emerged possesses both an organic body and a conscious mind. The nature of Self-consciousness is absolute negation because self-consciousness has as its essential power the potential for infinite self-negation, or the unceasing sublation of its object. Self-consciousness’s sublation of its object destroys the independence of this object as a thing-in-itself. In coming to know and control the thing-in-itself, the subject unites this object within itself so that the object no longer exists for itself, but only in and for self-consciousness. The Desire of self-consciousness is the aspiration for practical and intellectual mastery over its other through the sublation, apprehension, and domination of the entire organic cosmos within itself.

…self-consciousness is thus certain of itself only by superseding this other that presents itself to self-consciousness as an independent life; self-consciousness is Desire. Certain of the nothingness of this other, it explicitly affirms that this nothingness is for it the truth of the other; it destroys the independent object and thereby gives itself the certainty of itself as a true certainty, a certainty which has become explicit for self-consciousness itself in an objective manner. (PoS par. 174)

We must understand the active pursuit of life, the overcoming of external objects as obstacles to life, or the use of them as means, and so their negation as independent. (Pippin 1989 p.151)

Yet when self-consciousness encounters another self-conscious being with comparable rational and practical autonomy, the particularity of its self-consciousness becomes known explicitly to the self-conscious subject through the apprehension of the property of self-consciousness in its object. The appearance of the doppelgänger self-consciousness makes the subject explicitly aware of its own existence as a particular self-consciousness in relation to the other self-conscious being.

A self-consciousness exists for a self-consciousness. Only so is it in fact self-consciousness; for only in this way does the unity of itself in its otherness become explicit for it… the object of Desire, however, is only independent, for it is the universal indestructible substance, the fluid self-identical essence. A self-consciousness, in being an object, is just as much ‘I’ as ‘object’. With this, we already have before us the Notion of Spirit. (PoS par. 177)

The awareness of another self-consciousness is the beginning of the Notion of Spirit because through this awareness each self-consciousness becomes aware of the possibility of some knowledge for another self-consciousness which withheld from itself. The suspicion of some knowledge which is exclusively known to the other self-consciousness results in the subject’s Desire to sublate this exclusive knowledge through the sublation of the other self-consciousness. As each self-consciousness recognizes the other as the object of its Desire, each attempts to sublate the other within itself. This conflict precipitates the duel of self-consciousnesses in the famous Master-Slave dialectic ofLordship and Bondsman.

In the preceding chapters Hegel believed himself to have illustrated the impossibility of achieving direct knowledge of the world, or the truth of the object, through any possible epistemological method. In Self-Consciousness he will accordingly redirect the attention of the subject towards pragmatic action upon an object of knowledge within a social community of other self-conscious beings.

Hegel is [in the chapter on Self-Conciousness] carrying over the antirealist dimensions of the first three chapters into an explicit, full-blown anti-realism, pragmatism. Hegel appears to be saying that the problem of objectivity, of what we are willing to count as an objective claim in the first place, is the problem of the satisfaction of desire, that the “truth” is wholly relativized to pragmatic end. (Pippin 1989 p.148)

The duel of consciousnesses in Lordship and Bondage is the basic epistemological and practical relation of self-consciousness to another self-conscious being. What had inConsciousness been the private epistemological inquiry of its own object becomes in Self-Consciousness the organized social practice of a community to collectively inquire into their understanding of the cosmos.

[in self-consciousness] the pursuit of knowledge will, as a result of this chapter’s claims, be reconceived as participation in a social practice or institution, a rule governed, collective, teleological activity. (Pippin 1989 p.147)


[This essay was written for Prof. Ian Proop's Seminar on G.W.F. Hegel's the Phenomenology of Spirit]

*PoS = the Phenomenology of Spirit


José Angel García Landa said...

Perhaps one problem not adequately solved by Hegel's approach is a more radical understanding of otherness. From his perspective, otherness is something the Spirit encounters in itself, and the encounter results in a sublation which takes it to the next phenomenological phase. But in lived experience, the spirit never fully experiences the otherness in itself; rather, it is lived as a process of confrontation with other experiences. A phase of consciousness leaves behind the previous forms, yet it is arguable whether they are truly assimilated and overcome, since they belong to the experience of an other who can never transcend them.

Ryan said...

Yes, I certainly agree that the 'lived experience' of otherness is neither sublated nor overcome, either at this stage, nor in the fullness of Hegel's philosophical system. This is, however, the result of the impossibility of any finite being fully sublating, and thereby eliminating, lived experience more generally in the absoluteness of the Idea. For any such sublation would, ipso facto, reduce all experience to an idea; reduce existence to essence etc. If I understand correctly, this existentialist critique of the philosophy of Hegel; the construction of the Absolute Idea; is the Schellingian critique of Hegel's philosophy as a negative philosophy that systematically ignores, so as to reduce, all experience to the concept, all existence to essence. While I agree with your criticism; that otherness is neither wholly sublated nor wholly overcome either in this stage or the completion of the Hegelian dialectic; I don't hold this to be a mark against Hegel, but rather an unassailable limit of all thought for finite beings.

José Angel García Landa said...

"Finite beings"—which Hegel hardly seems to be at times! I may be critical of Hegel's outlook, but certainly reading the Phenomenology of Spirit is quite an experience, as he raises the level of philosophical reflection to heights undreamt of. Thanks for your helpful answer and for sharing your insightful reading of Hegel.