Die Frage könnte eigentlich so gestellt werden: Wie hängt, was uns wichtig ist, von dem ab, was physisch möglich ist?(Ludwig Wittgenstein)
“Observing Reason” is one of the longest sections of the Phenomenology of Spirit. It is, for instance, twice as long as the much-noted part dedicated to self-consciousness. Yet it is one of the least commented, interpreted, and productively appropriated passages of this seminal work. There are two clusters of reasons that can explain this relative disregard: First, in the section on “Observing Reason” Hegel deals with scientific theories and accounts in the philosophy of nature of his times. These are, at least at first sight, remote from both the actual overarching topic of the Phenomenology and from the model of a socially and historically oriented theory of the mental that is attractive from today's perspective. The problems Hegel deals with here not only lie outside the interests of most interpreters of the Phenomenology. They refer to questions and theories that are unfamiliar to us. It would seem that in this section Hegel's general philosophical program in the Phenomenology can find only sparse anchorage in the subject matter being investigated. Interpreters interested in the systematic sustainability of the entire work tend to look to other parts of the book for arguments in favor of Hegel's attempt to prove the necessity of the sequence of all our epistemic projects on the route to Absolute Knowing.
The Phenomenology of Spirit has just turned two hundred years old. The first book that Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel published has lost none of the inspirational force that it had not only in Hegel's lifetime but, above all, in the decades after his death. The Russian émigré author Alexander Herzen, writing about the intellectual scene in France in the 1840s, reports the following:
Proudhon often went there to listen to Reichel's Beethoven and Bakunin's Hegel: the philosophical discussions lasted longer than the symphonies. They reminded me of the famous all-night vigils of Bakunin and Khomyakov at Chaadayev's and at Madame Yelagin's, where Hegel was also discussed. In 1847 Karl Vogt, who also lived in the Rue de Bourgogne, and often visited Reichel and Bakunin, was bored one evening with listening to the endless discussions of the Phenomenology, and went home to bed. Next morning he went round for Reichel, for they were to go to the Jardin des Plantes together; he was surprised to hear conversation in Bakunin's study at that early hour. He opened the door – Proudhon and Bakunin were sitting in the same places before the burnt-out embers in the fireplace, and were with a few last words just finishing the dispute that had begun the day before.
The power of the Phenomenology to stimulate new thought and provoke philosophical innovation continues unbroken today. It has enjoyed the widest and most intense reception of all Hegel's work.
The volume of literature devoted to Hegel might lead one to suspect that the central concepts, theses, and insights of his philosophy have been exhaustively explicated. It is therefore surprising that there remain significant gaps in the scholarship, gaps in areas not only of historical interest, or on questions internal to the system, but rather concerning fundamental concepts of Hegel's philosophy itself. Just such a gap seems to me to exist with the concept of action. Although action is explicitly introduced in a prominent place in Hegel's system – namely, in the Morality chapter of the Elements of the Philosophy of Right – there are hardly any contributions to the scholarship that investigate Hegel's action-theoretic premises and the insights underlying his concept of action. This is surprising for at least three reasons. First, the text of the Philosophy of Right shows that Hegel does not use his concept of action simply in the everyday sense; his aim is to unpack the concept philosophically. Second, action-theoretic problems have been thoroughly examined in the last forty years of analytic philosophy. Much progress has been made in the field that can help to explicate Hegel's thought. Further, this omission in the scholarship is amazing because Hegel's social philosophy, ethics, and critique of morality have always stood at the center of interest in his thought. But it is highly improbable that these parts of Hegel's philosophy are independent of his concept of action.
In the preceding sections, I examined Hegel's thesis that actions are the “expression of the will as subjective or moral” (R §113). The goal of Chapter 1 was to understand the justification that Hegel provides for his thesis, and to test its soundness. As a reminder, I repeat Hegel's formulation of his justification:
Action contains the following determinations: (α) it must be known by me in its externality as mine; (β) its essential relation to the concept is one of obligation; and (γ) it has an essential relation to the will of others.
The Meaning of the Three Determinations
The interpretation I have given so far had the goal of making Hegel's claims comprehensible. The thesis underlying this study holds that the Morality chapter of the Philosophy of Right can be understood as Hegel's analysis of intentional action, an analysis that at the same time provides an explication of acting consciousness.
In connection with this thesis, I argued that the “subjective will” should be understood as the conceptual unfolding of the moments of the free decision that accompanies each intentional action. I also linked the demand contained in the acting consciousness – that an intentionally produced event is the realization of the subjective end – with Hegel's depiction of the objectification of the subjective end.
The First Determination. I explicated the distinctiveness that Hegel attributes to this objectification within the standpoint of the subjective will as the individual's perspective on his own act.
In §113 of the Philosophy of Right, Hegel introduces the concept of “action”: He specifies action as “The expression of the will as subjective or moral” (R §113). He continues, “Only with the expression of the moral will do we come to action” (ibid. – Hegel's emphases). The first statement declares each expression of the subjective moral will to be an action; the statement provides a sufficient condition for an event's being an action. The second statement claims that only the expression of the subjective moral will is action. There is no action that is not the expression of the subjective or moral will. This second statement thus names a necessary condition for an event's being an action. It is clear from these two statements, taken together, that Hegel claims “expression of the moral or subjective will” to be the necessary and sufficient condition for an event belonging to the determination “action.”
Hegel justifies this introduction of the concept of “action” by claiming that the action contains
The [previously] expounded determinations: (α) it must be known by me in its externality as mine; (β) its essential relation to the concept is one of obligation [Sollen]; and (γ) it has an essential relation to the will of others.
This justification, which I will interpret in the course of this book, refers back to the conceptual development of the subjective will that Hegel “expounded” in §§104–112.
In his analysis of the formal character of the subjective will, Hegel employed the concept “content,” and connected it with “end.” Determining a content as an end derives from the fact that the content of the subjective will remains indifferent to whether the form is subjective or objective; the content is “The simple identity of the will with itself in this opposition” (R §109). In the context of the subjective will, Hegel understands by “end” the following (the emphases are Hegel's):
End is α) content in me as subjectively determined – representation – β) determined to be objective – and to remain the same.
What can be inferred from this marginal note is that an end is a content that “as subjectively determined” is also determined “to be objective” – and as mediated in this realization through the activity of the will – “to remain the same.” Obviously this description relies on determinations that Hegel gives to the concept “content.” It is therefore necessary to investigate Hegel's use of this term and the special meaning of this concept “within the moral point of view” (R §110). The use of the concept “representation” indicates that with “content,” a cognitive component will be at issue.
Content vs. Need. In the marginal notes to §§108 and 109, Hegel makes the following remark: “Here content first comes to the fore as such.” In these notes, Hegel also makes the statement (Hegel's emphasis):
Formal determinations of content. Subjective will has a content – earlier mere need – not a question of whether it was right, – but now content exists as content of the will, and therefore essentially.
The Transition from Right to Morality
“Crime and avenging justice represent the shape of the will's development when it has proceeded to the distinction between the universal will which has being in itself, and the individual will which has being for itself in opposition to the universal” (R §104). In Hegel's view, the universal being-in-itself will is the system of the determinations of Right that constitute Abstract Right. These determinations are based on the principle of “personality,” which itself is the expression of the universal moment of the will qua concept. Hegel describes this universal moment with the formula “I = I,” which expresses the thinking self-relation. The subject-object difference is overcome in this self-relationship, because – as Hegel interprets the formula I = I – the copula expresses an identity of the subject with the object. This formula also expresses a thinking will's consciousness of freedom; such a will is free from all determination and can direct itself to all possible objects. The “realizations” of this object-relationship (at the level of the in-itself) are taking-possession and the property relationship. In addition, for Hegel the formula I = I also indicates that this self-relationship is completely universal. Each thinking will stands in this relationship to itself – that is, in a relationship containing nothing of its individuality, of its particular will.
In this concluding chapter, I will pursue two questions. First (in Section 5.1), I look at the statements in which Hegel addresses the content of actions. My underlying thesis is that Hegel's connection of “intention” and “welfare” is plausible even if one is not ready to go along with the speculative transition from form to content. As I discussed in the last chapter, Hegel provides, with his analysis of “intention,” the action-theoretic basis that enables him to unfold the freedom of action that is normally called instrumental or means-end rationality. I take as my starting point the claim that this freedom belongs to the concept of attributable action. Since the issue at hand is Hegel's theory of action, in this first section I only interpret those concepts that Hegel deems necessary to the concept of action. I will therefore not discuss the fact that with these concepts Hegel also depicts and grounds a certain conception of ethics – namely, the doctrine of happiness.
The second question I will discuss in this chapter is the connection of rational action and the moral attitude. I have already argued (in Chapter 3) that in the Morality chapter, Hegel not only unfolds his concept of action, but also develops his interpretation of moral philosophy. The question remains open as to whether Hegel asserts an analytic connection between the concept of morality and his concept of action.
Actions as Events: The Causal Relation
Hegel begins the first section of the Morality chapter, which bears the title “Purpose and Responsibility,” with the introduction of a new concept: the deed. The title of that section already makes clear that Hegel is arguing in the context of political and juridical concepts. The concept “deed” is therefore primarily treated in the secondary literature as it functions within this context, or else the concept is perceived as not at all important terminologically. Against this tendency, I will attempt to interpret Hegel's introduction of the concept “deed” from the standpoint of action-theoretic questions. In what follows, I pursue the interpretive hypothesis that “deed” is meant to capture the event-character of actions, their spatio-temporal individuality.
The sections “Purpose and Responsibility” and “Intention and Welfare” present the interpreter of Hegel's Philosophy of Right with great difficulties. A number of the problems in understanding the text are due to Hegel's decision to develop fundamental action-theoretic problematics through the use of juridical concepts and within the context of political philosophy. I will not further pursue this aspect, since the distinction of “person” and “subject” that I have already analyzed is not relevant for the differentiation currently in question. I will also set aside the mode of description of an “act” designated with the concept “legality,” since the distinction between legality and Morality is simply a special case of the general distinction of “deed” and “action” as two modes of description of events.
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