Hegel’s account of the self, sketched in his Phenomenology of Spirit and systematically elaborated in the Encyclopaedia Philosophy of Spirit, is one of the most influential and insightful examinations of the concept in the history of modern philosophy. However, it seems to point in too many directions to allow consensus about its meaning. Much of what Hegel says about the self appears to conflict with many central assumptions of the mainstream interpretation that Hegel is a metaphysician who places the concept of “cosmic” spirit in the center of his system. This “cosmic” spirit is construed as some transcendent, supra-human entity or some kind of presence within the world of the absolute substance which submerges individual consciousness (Theunissen 1970, 59–62; Löwith 1991). Even those who insist on a non-metaphysical reading of Hegel, and who seek to appropriate his philosophy without exaggerating the universal dimensions of spirit, have trouble providing a satisfactory explanation of Hegel’s account of the self in all its complexity (Pippin 1989; Taylor 2000; Holgate 2005). Their interpretations attempt to accommodate Hegel’s narrative about the development of individual consciousness (Pippin 2011), and they usually discuss this development in purely epistemological terms (merely as a cognitive enterprise), without emphasizing social, historical, and cultural aspects of this process. What often escapes commentators’ attention is that the sociality of a human being bears much weight in Hegel’s discussion of the self, or the I, as Hegel prefers to call it. To be sure, some commentaries seek to highlight the social dimension of Hegel’s account of the individual subject, yet most of these attempts discuss the topic almost exclusively in terms of the principle of recognition, and most notably, in terms of the concept of mutual recognition that Hegel establishes in his Phenomenology (Williams 1997; Cobben 2009; Redding 2009; Kok 2013; Testa and Ruggiu 2016).1 These discussions rightly emphasize the distinctive feature of Hegel’s account of the self: that any individual self is a mutual, social, collective project, who arises only through interactions with other such individuals. Such social interactions are crucial not only because the encounter with another self-consciousness is a necessary condition of self-consciousness. As self-conscious beings, we advance claims about putatively objective states of affairs, and one’s authority to advance objective claims needs to be acknowledged (recognized) by another self-conscious being.
Hegel’s system of philosophy is perhaps one of his most enduring legacies. Many of his contemporaries, including Fichte and Schelling, attempted to arrange philosophical disciplines into a complex whole, demonstrating their interconnection and organic unity. Yet Hegel was able to accomplish this task in the most comprehensive and consistent way. The work that depicts Hegel’s entire mature system in its basic structure is the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences in Basic Outline. This is Hegel’s only published presentation of his fully developed system consisting of three main parts: Logic, Philosophy of Nature, and Philosophy of Spirit. Hegel began developing the contours of his comprehensive “system of philosophy” during his time in Nuremberg (1808–15) where he worked as the headmaster (principal) and philosophy teacher at a city Gymnasium (high school). Apparently, his teaching obligation motivated him to draft an outline of his philosophical system, composing it in the form of successively numbered sections (or paragraphs) (Enc. 1B&D viii). This (encyclopedic) form of presentation was not a novelty; it was rather customary at the time for German professors to write thematic encyclopedias to be used as didactic tools, and Hegel followed this tradition. He lectured on his entire philosophical system with the aid of the composed drafts of the Encyclopaedia twice – in 1811/12 and 1812/13 – while in Nuremberg (cf. GW 13:620ff.) and again – in 1816 – in his first semester as professor of philosophy at the University of Heidelberg.1 However, the printed (book) version of the Encyclopaedia appeared only in the summer of 1817. In its first edition, the Encyclopaedia contained 477 paragraphs and was composed as a complete course outline to serve as a basic text for students attending Hegel’s lectures.
Freedom is the core topic of modern philosophy. When it is viewed as a philosophical epoch, a new perspective arises concerning how humans conceive of themselves and their relationship to the world. Then human thought and action are no longer held to be determined by external factors (heteronomy) but are held to be self-determined (autonomy), and hence freed from external factors functioning as grounds for their determination. The philosophical paradigm for mastering this impetus of freedom is reason. With his “Copernican,” that is to say, his transcendental turn, Kant gave reason a form that suits the modern understanding of humans as self-determined agents. Reason transpires to be the source of all validity, and hence of any normativity of human thought and action. Objectivity, of whatever type, is from the start framed by the conditions of reason, or as it is also called in the discourse, of “subjectivity.”
Kant’s Critical theory of cognitive judgment in the Critique of Pure Reason is deeply functionalist: it identifies a host of integrated cognitive functions which must be exercised by any being which or who integrates sensory information over time through space using twelve basic forms of judgment. Most of these cognitive capacities and functioning Kant ascribes to the sub-personal transcendental power of imagination, “a blind but indispensable function of the soul” (Seele; CPR A78/B103); only apperceptive functions of cognitive judgment – explicit judgings and judgments – are effected by understanding and reason (cf. CPR A79/B105–6, B152, 162 n.). Kant’s transcendental idealism largely precludes investigating how our natural psychophysiology does or can enable our exercise of these a priori conditions necessary for experience and knowledge. For sound reasons, Hegel rejects Kant’s transcendental idealism, and thus poses the question, How can our natural psychophysiology enable our exercise of these a priori conditions necessary for our apperception, experience, and knowledge? This chapter examines Hegel’s developments of Kant’s cognitive psychology in his treatment of “Theoretical Spirit,” the first part of his “Psychology,” following upon his “Anthropology” and (encyclopedic) “Phenomenology of Spirit,” and followed by “Practical Spirit,” which concludes this first part of Hegel’s encyclopedic Philosophy of Spirit, “Subjective Spirit,” thus preparing his subsequent accounts of “objective” (social) and of “absolute” spirit.
The role played by Hegel’s Logic within those parts of his “Realphilosophie,” philosophy of nature and philosophy of spirit, is puzzling and controversial. In this essay, I argue against the idea that we should be able to understand his Logic as charting some entirely autonomous domain without any help from the areas of Realphilosophie that presuppose it. This mistake here I take to be a consequence of failing to heed Hegel’s demand that we understand the system of his Encyclopaedia as circular, moreover as containing “circles within circles” such that the circular structure is iterated into its parts, into the parts of those parts, and so on.
As natural, intuitive, and commonsense as it may be for the interpreter to refer to “the Absolute” in Hegel’s philosophy as a clearly identifiable concept and even as a substantive entity of some kind, a quick terminological survey of his works should already convince us of the contrary. Such a survey would allow us to easily ascertain that Hegel always employs the term “absolute” as a noun with the greatest restraint, and that when he does use it in such a way, he either accompanies the term by careful qualifications or employs it in a critical, even polemical function, generally aimed at specific contemporary or past occurrences (prominently, although not exclusively, Schelling and Spinoza). On the other hand, the dearth of the term as a noun – “the Absolute” – is counterbalanced by the wide-ranging employment of the adjective – “absolute” – which appears in every sphere of Hegel’s philosophical system. Herein the adjective (and the adverb) plays a crucial role, first and foremost, in specifying in a systematically distinctive way the validity of notions that are otherwise disconcertingly ubiquitous and ambiguous in Hegel’s philosophy – notions, that is, such as concept, idea, spirit, unity, and truth, to name just a few. On this terminological basis, following a persuasive suggestion by John Burbidge (who himself responds to an original hint by Eric Weil (Burbidge 1997, 33)), I have argued that contrary to what many interpreters seem to assume, there is simply no original, substantive “Absolute” in Hegel’s philosophy, but that the adjective “absolute” (along with the adverb) is instead a systematically crucial, topological predicate that indicates the “place” or position of a certain determination or concept (and its reality) within the overall structure of philosophical thinking. Moreover, this position is not a static point or marker within a given whole but is rather a dynamical stage in the process through which the whole of philosophy is first constituted in the form of a complete system. This is, to be sure, the first step in a broader discussion that leads to the further question of what warrants the designation of “absolute” for a certain moment within such a process. In other words, what is it that makes a certain moment at stake at a specific stage of the systematic constitution of the whole of Hegel’s philosophy an “absolute” moment? And, furthermore, is the “absoluteness” of all “absolute” structures and concepts the same?
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