NoJackets You’re gonna love itâthe guitar does this “Wheeee!” thing while the drums go all “Chukka chukka booda booda.” OK, here it comes. Shhhh! No wait, that’s not it. Almost there, just
5by5 - Back to Work #23: Failure is ALWAYS an Option
The last moment of reason is reason as a tester of laws, and as I’ve said before, what’s being talked about here is Kant’s notion of the categorical imperative. The categorical imperative says that the minimum necessary condition for any maxim of action to be permissible is that it be 1 can be willed equally, in the same way, in the same respect, by all. It’s the principle of universality or universalization. And since that notion of universality looks like its saying nothing more than "like cases should be treated alike," and since we may say that to say that like cases should be treated differently" seems sheer arbitrariness, then it looks as if Kant is asking after a minimal notion of consistency. He’s asking, What is consistency in action. And he’s saying consistency in action must mean something like treating like cases alike, or treating like cases alike means in practical terms that people in like circumstances be capable of willing the same actions. Just capable. They could. Not that they do, or will, or ought to. But that they could. That’s the question being asked. Anything that fails that will show that the action is not a consistent one, that is, you’re not being consistent with yourself, nor in allowing a relationship to others.
This is again rationalistic in a minimal way that seems hard for us to deny. Namely what we’re asking about any particular action is we are assuming that when we will an action, our wills are legislative. We’re not merely doing something, but we’re as it were instituting a norm of action. The reason I say that isn’t something we should want to deny is that unless we have that view, that the meaning of individual action is that it’s legislative, then I think that the notion of individuality disappears. I’m saying that the notion of self-determination requires that we think of each action as being legislative. Which is why the real solipsistic relativist is incoherent. Because they’re so worried about individualism that they can’t see that what it is to be an individual is to be lawmaking. Otherwise the notion that there is an individual as opposed to being lost in the collective loses coherence. That notion that individual acts are legislative is one, in fact, that Hegel does not deny. He’s not Nietzschean either, he doesn’t deny it.
So what is his objection to Kant given that the way I’ve described it, what Kant is saying seems so weak that it seems impossible to deny its validity?
Hegel’s answer seems to me a drop more subtle than it is usually portrayed as being. Hegel is not claiming-and I want to be absolutely clear about this-that individual actions should not be consistent in a Kantian way. But if he’s not denying that, what is he denying? What he’s denying is that the moral law, the categorical imperative, is the overriding and criterial notion for moral rightness. And the argument goes something like this. The example he gives is one of returning property you borrowed. Something like that. And this is one of the types of examples that Kant makes much ado about. And it’s very simple to see why this works out neatly for Kantian purposes. Namely, Kant says "Well look. Say I promise falsely that I will return your records. That I have no intention of doing so. Could that be moral?" Kant says "Well, let’s look at it. If we imagine that everybody who borrowed things refused to return them, then people would stop lending them and the institution would break down. Ergo, I can’t consistently will that thought. And therefore I’m committed to the idea that people’s property ought to be returned to them." Hegel says that it’s an illusion that it’s the categorical imperative that is determining the goodness of returning property. It’s an illusion because that we should return borrowed goods derives from an anterior commitment to private property, that people have rightful possession. But the categorical imperative will not tell us whether we ought to have a system of private property or not. So if we now alter the case a little bit and ask "What about the person who’s starving to death, is it OK for them to steal? Is it ok for the workers who are locked out to take over the boss’s factory?" then the categorical imperative falls silent. It falls silent when the debate is between two particular forms of life: one in which there wouldn’t be private property and one in which there would be private property. But of the goodness or badness of those forms of life, it can tell us nothing. But we are most legislative as individuals, that is we enter into our strongest moral self-consciousness, in willing the structures of the forms of life we inhabit. That is, that’ s when I am truly legislative. Not in my individual action, but when I agree with everyone else that we’re going to have a democratic society, or we’re going to have a racist society, you know, or a materialist society. In all those fundamental choices is when I’m truly legislative. It’s the moment when I’m truly legislative that determines the fundamental structures of the fundamental institutions of the society that the categorical imperative between all the kinds of possibilities we may choose says nothing. But that it says nothing is not a matter of indifference for Hegel because in making the categorical imperative absolutely authoritative for us, the categorical imperative necessarily puts out of play our dependence on the very fundamental arrangements and our allegiance to them as the constitutive ethical questions that we face. But if our will receives its maxims from arrangements of that kind and is only truly legislative in willing such arrangements, then the categorical imperative procedure must deprive us of our fundamental moral identity and the moral constitution of our will. So it actively alienates us from our ethical substance. And it does so by pretending that our moral core is elsewhere, it pretends that our moral core is in the categorical imperative and not in the collective acts of willing a particular form of life. So we may put it this way: the moral law is indifferent to the substantial ends of the will. How individuals realize themselves in and through engaging themselves in particular forms of social activity where part of the purpose of engaging those forms of social activity is to affirm, to give credence to, those forms of activity themselves. That is, there’s a relationship between our particular acts and the kinds of institutions we embody in them. So in engaging in familial acts, we put ourselves in relation to the institution of the family. And those of us who have problems with family ergo have to forego…right? So acts have a double register: we both are pursuing particular ends that are committed and opened up by various institutional practices, but in so doing, we are putting ourselves in relation to those institutions themselves and affirming or denying them in various ways. The Kantian procedure brackets the latter. It’s only from the latter that we have an ethical identity. So it is the contention that the categorical imperative is supremely authoritative for us, and not the requirement for consistency itself, to which Hegel objects. That’s what Hegel means when he says that Kant is a formalist and that Kant has no content. That’s what it amounts to. It amounts to a, not direct, but indirect challenge because it says that something that is secondary is being made primary. It’s not an absolute denial of the Kantian position, it’s a denial of its absoluteness. Because of course once I do accept, say, private property, and I will a form of life in which that’s the case, then stealing is wrong. And it would be inconsistent both to want and uphold both a form of life in which we had private property, and to espouse the goodness of stealing. But that’s not because I’m an abstract moral agent, but because I’ve determined historically-but groundlessly-that as far as I can make out, the best form of life possible is one in which there is private property. I don’t actually think that’s true. I think private property’s confused, but that’s the kind of thought that’s required. And for that there are no ultimate criteria. Which is to say what? It’s to say that the content which the moral law espouses comes from elsewhere. The content, the force (that’s always the big question: what’s the real force of the moral law, why does it really compel?)-and I’ve said that the force doesn’t derive from logicality-the compulsion, in the sense of feeling that rightness and being willing to go along with it, comes from my anterior commitment to a particular form of life. So the content comes from something we have willed. And what gives force to particular maxims and their universality is something we have willed. But that’s what Hegel means by Spirit. So the truth of the moral law is that it gets all its content from collective forms of life. Hence the ground of Reason is Spirit. If you can live with that word.
As a matter of information, the best abstract description of the notion of Spirit occurs in the middle of the chapter on reason, paragraphs sec.347-sec.359. In broad terms, Hegel tells us that everything we’ve been looking at up to now is an abstraction from Spirit, where Spirit has, as I suggested, the three dimensions, that is, one which is a mutual determination between we and I. That is to say, in order to have an individual identity, you must equally have a social identity. That all individuation is a process of socialization, and that therefore every individual identity is simply a mode, or form, or way of inhabiting a particular form of social life.
Secondly, Spirit is history, as Hegel says (sec.441) These shapes, however, are distinguished from the previous ones by the fact that they are real Spirits, actualities in the strict meaning of the word, and instead of being shapes merely of consciousness, are shapes of a world.
So, roughly, all being is being-in-the-world, and to be in the world is to be in some world, and to be in some world is to be in a world that is distinct from other worlds, both spatially and temporally. Although for Hegel, spatial distance is not very significant. Which is to say that every fundamental element of which we ever become conscious is something that has been historically shaped and formed. That there are, as it were, whatever potentialities we may have for speaking a language, or being socialized or whatever, the fundamental structures themselves all emerge and are articulated in historically and socially specific ways.
Finally, although we haven’t got there yet, Spirit is knowledge of itself in its history.
And that’s what makes this chapter different from every other chapter. Every other chapter has been asking the question about what are the conditions of possibility, you might say, for self-possession. We went through the forms of consciousness, self-consciousness, reason, and discovered that the unity of thought and being is, which is the claim of reason, is only realized as its actuality in Spirit. That reason gets its reality and content from Spirit. So what’s most real-and if I could use the old philosophical word-what is Substance of the world is Spirit. So what we are now coming to see, starting from where we have been, is that subject is substance, where substance is understood in terms of Spirit. Hence:
(sec.439) Spirit, being the substance and the universal, self-identical, and abiding essence, is the unmoved solid ground and starting-point for the action of all, and it is their purpose and goal, the in-itself of every self-consciousness expressed in thought.
It’s very important, when we hear and read these descriptions of Spirit, he’s using all the classical predicates applied to God: Spirit is the unmoved mover; it is the unmoved solid ground. Notice the purpose and goal. We are Spirit, and Spirit is our purpose and goal. A very Aristotelian formulation. Don’t worry about cashing these out at the moment. I’ll come back to these at the very end of the text. He’s just giving us a brief glimpse of a fundamental idealist claim. You notice now what Hegel seems to mean by idealism is simply that what is substance, which at the beginning of the text was the ultimate matter of fact, the thing-in-itself, has now become Spirit. So the relationship between subject and object has become subject’s inhabitation of a Spiritual life, as the truth of what it is to be a human being. That our ground is Spirit.
(sec.439) As substance, Spirit is unshaken righteous self-identity; but as being-for-self, it is a fragmented being, self-sacrificing and benevolent, in which each accomplishes his own work, rends asunder the universal being, and takes from it his own share.
That is, the claim is, and this is the sort of thing that Derrida and the like are worried about, there’s no authentic rational outside to Spirit. We as yet have no reason to buy any of this stuff about benevolent self-sacrificing. But again, the point of these claims, especially at this point in time, is to be provocative. The absolute substance of the world is Spirit, and Spirit is going to be self-sacrificing and benevolent just like Jesus? And so on, and so forth, I mean, come on. He’s trying to get his readers really worked up.
(sec.440) Spirit is thus self-supporting, absolute, real being. All previous shapes of consciousness are abstract forms of it.
That was my fundamental claim here: that nothing has any reality independent of it. All these things have been abstractions based on, as we saw at the beginning of reason, on forgetting.
(sec.440) They result from Spirit analysing itself, distinguishing its moments, and dwelling for a while with each. This isolating of those moments presupposes Spirit itself and subsists therein. In other words, the isolation exists only in Spirit, which is a concrete existence.
And then he’ll say things in those paragraphs I mentioned earlier, like "Spirit manifests itself in the laws and customs of a nation." Because those are the fundamental shared linguistic and discursive practices that constitute any particular social formation as being this very social formation. Each has its own particularity. Now, having said all that, one might ask the reasonable question: Why doesn’t Hegel just get on with it and tell us all about Spirit? We just discovered the truth, it’s Spirit. You all look as bored as sin…all this work for this? Well, there’s a problem, and you’re right to feel there’s a problem, namely this claim about Spirit is something that has no phenomenological reality. This is something that we as observers, in looking at Kantianism in a certain way, can, as it were, critically theorize. But the question is this: How could we come to experience the truth of our subjectivity, the truth of my subjectivity as a Spiritual one? Hence the third version, the third feature of Spirit, that Spirit is a knowledge of itself in its history means that you’re right to feel neutral because all you’ve been offered is an abstraction, shot from a pistol. You might as well be doing sociological theory. You know, we’ve been going through modes of sociological individualism, now we’ll go through forms of sociological holism. So this chapter, the chapter on Spirit, must provide us, as it were, for the first time, with a real history which is the history of how we who claim to have an insight into the truth could have that insight. That is, we must provide a history of Spirit which will be a history of those moments within Western history through which and by means of which we as a culture are enabled to come to an insight about our own theoretical self-consciousness. Which is to say that we must now provide a genealogy of ourselves, and the condition of possibility of the insight which we have as idealists presumably accepted by our reading of the text up to here. So the question is now going to be: Who are we? Because everything’s been an abstraction from that. And reason is that abstraction because it thinks that you can ask the question about the fundamental ground for the possibility of experience in abstraction form the historical reality of your position. But if it turns out that Spirit is the ground that can’t itself be said ahistorically and neutrally, and if you’re doing the same, then it must be said in a mode in which asking about the possibility of that saying is the same as asking the question about who you are. And to ask the question about who you are is to ask the question of the history that formed and made you possible. Because that is who you are. (4-0:52:14) So the chapter on Spirit is going to track these modes that are going to allow an insight into Spirit, and that’s going to be my first claim. My first claim at the end is going to be that it’s only that moment, the experience of the insight that we are Spirit, that is going to be foundational, that makes Spiritual insight and insight into the nature of Spirit the same thing. That’s a puzzling way of making…what I want to claim is: ethical insight and metaphysical insight are the same. That there’s no such thing, I mean, if Hegel has been objecting all along to pure theory, and to pure metaphysics, and to reason as observer, and to the idea of the world as an object, then his philosophy cannot return to a form of mere spectatorial theorizing. But if that’s the case, then the insights of his philosophy must themselves be experientially-in his sense of the word, Erfahrung-grounded. That is, there must be some historical experience that we go through, which is an experience that we have as individuals, into our social and historical predicament that yields an actual metaphysical insight. So I’m going to say that the idea of philosophical insight and the idea of having an ethical experience have to be united, or (else) we have dissolved the very terms of reference that we’ve been generating up till now. So we have to have a history, and that history is going to start where all such histories start, with ancient Greece, especially if you’re German. And he says:
So we’re going to start with a form of Spirit that is indeed Spiritual, that is a form in which individuals-and we’re going to call this ethical life, Sittlichkeit-a form of life in which people do take what is concrete for them to be their form of life. And do so immediately and directly. And we’re going to see how that immediate and direct understanding of oneself as constituted by the ethical laws that constitute the community will eventually fracture. Because, the because is the interesting question. But something’s crazy about that immediacy. (gap) He’s thinking very fast. Probably faster than usual. Than is possible. Is at least what the project is intelligible from here?
I’m not sure I follow how…the problem with Spirit is that it has to be…it’s not phenomenological, or it’s not phenomenal, and it has to be. How does the fusion of an ethical experience, how does the fusion to philosophical insight become Spirit?
My claim is simply this: that the transition from reason to Spirit is one that is made on the basis of a philosophical thesis. Namely the thesis that the content which drives the moral law is itself Spiritual. So that last critique, the critique of Kant is actually not made phenomenologically. It’s made behind the back of moral consciousness. Those of us seen, already having as it were…now we’re set up to regard abstract Kantian rationality as an abstraction, and in a way we’re just looking for how it is abstract in a way we’ve seen other forms to be abstractions from the social content. But it’s not a phenomenological collapse we actually find. What we find is a theoretical criticism. And people have said they find this one of the weakest moments in the text, that critique of Kant’s moral law. Well, it is a weak one: it’s perfectly gestural, he does the same thing much better in a thousand different places, since he’s been making the same criticism since he was about twenty-two years old. And all his buddies have been making the same criticism. It really is very gestural. The critique of formalism. But that means it doesn’t happen for natural consciousness; it happens for us, the "we" who have been reading the text. And I’ve said that the structure of the book is always phenomenological demonstrations for a particular readership, the rhetorical question of the idealist reader. But if that’s right, then I’m saying this movement has been accomplished theoretically, but not phenomenologically. But if it hasn’t been phenomenologically accomplished, then it doesn’t refer to any possible experience anyone’s ever had. In which case it doesn’t refer, it doesn’t go through, what is claimed to be necessary for Hegel, namely that there be an experiential path by which insight is achieved into substance. And I’m claiming the chapter on Spirit will give us that experiential path. Now I’m simply claiming that the notion of experience that we’re going to, and this is just a claim now, that the actual experience, which will be experience that allows me to say, you know, to recognize myself in otherness, which means to say I’m a member of Spirit, which is a philosophical insight, because I’m going to say is a consequence, is a component of a kind of a very concrete kind of ethical experience. So I’m saying philosophical insight into the philosophical claim that Spirit is substance ultimately is going to be derived from going through an ethical experience of some kind. And then I’m going to have to be able to say, now I’ve already hinted at the thought, that this looks like it must be necessary for Hegel to say. Because if Spirit is the ground-there’s nothing outside Spirit-and Spirit is various forms of life, and all forms of life are nothing but customs and practices, and customs and practices are forms of mutual recognition. That’s what they are. I’ll say more about that as we go on. But if all of that’s the case, then very unsurprisingly, insight into Spirit must be made in a mode logically compatible with it, that is Spiritually, not theoretically in the abstract sense we’ve been criticizing all along. Now I’ve said it all again. Did that help?
I mean, as I said, the actual way I’m going to try to do the trick, as it were, that is, ethical insight, philosophical insight, just depends on a specific reading of the end of the chapter on Spirit. So I haven’t done that yet. But I’m just going to try to, as it were, I want to, it seems to me even from where we are it makes sense to say that that’s what we should expect to happen. Maybe I’m saying too much.
LIZ GOODSTEIN: Why is it that the ethical insight and philosophical insight, in order to be the same, need to have a specifically historical articulation? It seems to me, for instance, this description that you just made, with the forms of life is amenable to a kind of Wittgensteinian reading that then abstracts from history in the strong sense that Hegel wants to.
LIZ GOODSTEIN: So I think that you’re making a stronger claim about the connection between metaphysical insight and philosophical insight.
Yeah, I mean, one way of posing the issue a moment is to say Well, what we’ve got (up to here is, you might say, a certain kind of Wittgensteinianism, although not one that Wittgenstein himself would approve of. You might say a certain philosophical appropriation of Wittgenstein whose deepest urges were very anti-philosophical. Now, the question may then be posed as to why it is we can’t stop with that insight. What makes that insight itself abstract? And somebody who didn’t, and here’s a typical kind of complaint against Wittgenstein: people have said Wittgenstein’s antipathy towards philosophy doesn’t realize that philosophy too is a language game, participates in forms of life, and therefore philosophical argumentation is just as legitimate as any other form of argumentation. So why is Hegel making this big deal against a purely theoretical insight into the notion of Spirit? Well, the answer has to be because of what Spirit is. And if the claim is that Spirit is not just the fact of human sociality, or the fact that I am a social being and I only get my individuality by being socialized into language and a set of practices, blah blah blah blah, how tedious. All that ‘s true, but the point is that that must make, that’ s not only a fact externally, it’s a certain kind of claim upon me. It actually opens up the possibilities of my fundamental relationship to myself. Because that’s the question we’ve been asking. So unless I can come to an understanding of the meaning of sociality as something that emerges in the drive to come to an understanding of the experience of myself as agent in the world. That is, unless I can understand the claim of sociality, where I’m leaving the notion of claim as neutral between the ethical and the epistemic, then I’ve misunderstood what that claim is. That a claim of a certain kind is being lodged. Not a mere discovery of another fact of the matter. That would be realism again. So what you have, you might say, at this juncture, is a kind of realism of Spirit which is therefore logically incompatible with the fact that we’re talking about Spirit. And hence the provocation, as I said, of the descriptions of Spirit. It’s not accidental that he uses religious language, because he wants to make the claims of Spirit to have all the weight of religious claims, but of course to be wholly immanent. At no point in the Phenomenology is it ever even remotely plausible to think that Hegel has any theistic beliefs. The way, as we’ve seen, the religious comes up, at every point we’ve looked at so far, makes unequivocal what the metaphysics and ontology of his position are. That there’s ever been a debate is one of the greatest mysteries of Hegel scholarship, I think. Although some of his later works allow the debate to happen. Maybe. I find the lectures on the Philosophy of Religion blatantly atheistic, but I’m starting obviously looking askance. Does that help answer your question? Is that a better version of the thought? Or didn’t I quite make it?
LIZ GOODSTEIN: No, no, I think it helped. So it’s this thing when you said the realism of Spirit is the problem then that’s Reason.
Yes. That, in a sense, we’re still looking at Spirit from an un-Spiritual standpoint. And what we need is a Spiritual understanding of Spirit rather than saying Oh yeah, we’ve got some ultimate fact of the matter: there is Spirit, there is History, there is Something Else. All of which is compatible with sociology, for example, claiming it’s the first of all sciences, and then you generate the sociology of knowledge as the sociology of sociology, and you make that claim, right? I mean that is a certain form of sociologism. All of which I’m suggesting is pressed aside by the very fact that Hegel refuses to stop at this juncture, that all we have is an abstraction.
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