In 1781 Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, delivered the bad news that the human mind can (even worse, must) pose important, unavoidable philosophical questions that it cannot possibly answer. These were distinct, perennial philosophical questions, answerable, if at all, by pure reason alone, independent of any appeal to experience. (Kant thought the most important ones concerned freedom, the existence of God, and the immortality of the soul, but the scope of his critique also extended to issues like the nature of the mind, the human good, the purpose of nature, or any attempt to know “things in themselves.”) While, according to Kant, we could at least settle once and for all just what those limits to knowledge were and why we were not able to cross such a boundary, that seemed small consolation. Metaphysics, the “queen of the sciences,” had understood itself as capable of knowing how things must be or could not be and so had prided itself on the certainty of its claims and on a rigor in its method rivaled only by mathematics. So it was not for nothing that Kant became known as the allzerstörende, the “all-destroying.” The skeptical sentiment expressed in Kant’s critical work was not of course isolated in Königsberg. The latter half of the eighteenth century can be viewed as a collective debate about the nature and even future of rationalist philosophy, or philosophy as it had come to be understood since Plato (especially as the impact and advances of Newtonian physics were more and more felt), and about the right way to state the principles underlying an ever more popular empiricism.
Hegel's idea is that freedom does not involve being the center of causal agency, nor in merely being free from external constraints in satisfying what we happen to want, nor in conforming to or realizing the essence of human being as a distinct species, nor in being the vehicle for the self-realization of Cosmic spirit. This raises the stakes for him in coming up with a clear positive answer to the question because he certainly also thinks that everything of value in human life depends on actualizing freedom adequately. He thinks this because he believes that any value that gives my life meaning, secures a guiding commitment that can be sustained over time, makes possible genuinely “leading a life,” presupposes a Rousseauian point that Hegel fully accepts: that nothing can be a genuine value for me unless it can be a value to me; in his terms, unless I can recognize myself in what is proposed as a good for me, and that means: unless I am free. And he accepts a Kantian point that such identification or non-alienation requires a certain sort of responsiveness to reason; what sort being the central question. Being able to “stand behind” a deed with justificatory reasons is how I can claim the deed as my own or “own up to it.”
The problem of freedom in modern philosophy has three basic components: (i) what is freedom, or what would it be to act freely? (ii) Is it possible so to act? (iii) And how important is leading a free life? As the last question indicates, the issues concern both a philosophical question and a human aspiration. And the questions are also obviously linked; one can aspire to a sort of freedom that is a philosophical fantasy, not possible; a true theory of freedom might reveal that the importance attributed to a free life in Western modernity is misplaced.
An affirmative answer to the third question, such that freedom is the most important dimension of a worthy life, provokes two others besides the obvious one (why should it be so important, when compared, say, to piety or security?): what sort of political order and social system best realizes such a capacity, or both allows and makes more likely that individuals can act as free subjects? And there is the historical question mentioned in chapter 1 – what is the unique importance of freedom in the modern Western epoch in philosophy?
Hegel's “philosophy of objective spirit” comprises his answer to the former question. He gave the most ambitious and speculative answer in the history of philosophy to the second. And he proposed unprecedented and highly controversial answers to the three main questions.
I suggest with Hegel that what we want to be able to explain when we ask “what is freedom?” are the conditions that must be fulfilled such that my various deeds and projects could be, and could be experienced by me as being, my deeds and projects, as happening at all in some way that reflects and expresses my agency.
The claim I propose to defend in this chapter is that Hegel's “theory of recognition” is intended as an answer to a specific question in his systematic philosophy. That question is the question of the nature and the very possibility of freedom.
This will be controversial for several reasons. For one thing, it has come to seem natural to treat recognitive attitudes of various kinds as desirable or good because of some overall (perhaps even scientifically supported) concept of psychic health, and to understand the failure to achieve such psychological flourishing as a social harm with some claim on our political institutions. If we think of recognition as Axel Honneth portrays it (in ways clearly inspired by Hegel), as relations of love, respect, and esteem, then we are on the way to treating misrecognition, the absence of such social goods, as a social harm, one that ought to be corrected in some way. Treating Hegel's theory as about a key element in the realization of human freedom would be in line with this approach only if being-loved, being-respected and being-esteemed were necessary constituents of a free life, and I don't think that that is so, or that Hegel thought it was so. The issue for him is not in any conventional sense a psychological one, even primarily a matter of psychological harm.
The discussion in chapter 3 introduced Hegel's distinctive claim that philosophy must concern itself with the “actuality” of the concepts with which it deals, a differentiation something like Rawls' distinction between a concept and a conceptualization. Hegel introduces with such a notion a distinction between an idealized or utopian (and thereby practically distorting and possibly naïve) notion of a free life, and what appears to be an insistence on a realistic account of what a free life, or a life of one's own, could be for the organic, striving, socially organized, mortal historical beings we are. There are well-known objections to this dimension of Hegel's thought. Although he regularly characterizes his practical philosophy (indeed, his philosophy as a whole) as a philosophy of freedom, and although Hegel frequently makes crystal clear that he considers himself a resolute defender of modernity, his practical philosophy has nevertheless been shadowed by two disturbing accusations of illiberal, even reactionary elements, and they both have to do with this actuality condition. The first is the charge of anti-individualism, as if Hegel was insufficiently attentive to the modern claims of individual natural right and indeed supposedly believed that individuals themselves were best understood within a metaphysical theory of actuality, that they were according to such a theory mere properties, or as contingent, secondary, ultimately unimportant manifestations of what is truly “actual,” which is a supra-individual ethical substance (as if individuals were not fully real or actual).
“die Philosophie ist etwas Einsames.”
“Right is concerned with freedom,” Hegel notes in the Remark to §215 of his The Philosophy of Right, and freedom is “the worthiest and most sacred possession of man.” The question at issue has been in what Hegel thinks such freedom consists, and especially what acting in acknowledgment of its status as this “highest” value amounts to. The short answer to the first question is: freedom is a form (a distinct Hegelian, social form) of rational agency. The short answer to the second is that the full realization of such a dimension of human life requires active participation in certain modern institutions, a life in modern “Sittlichkeit.” As we have been seeing throughout, these two answers are interwoven and finally inseparable.
On the issue of freedom itself, the interpretation has been that while Hegel regards the expression of free agency – actions – as things done by agents intentionally, on intentions (or, said negatively, that we cannot demarcate the distinct events that are actions without taking account of the agent's own take on what is to happen and why), and while the formulation and execution of intentions is a matter of bringing practical reason, our deliberative capacity, to bear on what ought to happen, no account of this intra-psychic subjectivity can be complete or satisfactory without a proper appreciation of the nature of the dependence of this subjective side of the matter on the social world wherein such subjective takes are formulated and acted on, as well as contested, accepted, or rejected.
The topic we have arrived at is Hegel's “social theory of agency,” and that topic, given how the problem of agency is usually understood, raises the immediate question of why anyone would think that sociality would have anything at all to do with the problem of agency. So it might be a good idea to back up a bit and get a running start at the problem.
As we have seen several times, that problem is understood in a number of ways; most generally – what distinguishes naturally occurring events from actions (if anything)? (Sometimes the question is: what, if anything, distinguishes responsible human doings from what animals do?) The most prominent approach has it that actions are things done intentionally by individuals, purposely, for a purpose. This is sometimes said to mean: acting from or on or because of an intention, although, as we shall see, this nominalization can be misleading. Or, of the many possible descriptions of some occurrence, it is an action if there is a true description under which it is intentional. This is often taken to mean simply that if you ask a person why he is doing something he can express this intention to explain himself, most often in the form of a reason. He does not (except in extraordinary circumstances) describe why he is acting in the way he might describe what caused his lungs to deteriorate; instead he reveals something about his own relation to his psychological inclinations and aversions; his “evaluative” relation to them, as it is sometimes put.
RECOGNITIONAL DEPENDENCE:THE POLITICAL CLAIM
Hegel's theory of recognition amounts to an unusual social theory of subjectivity (an account of what it is to be an independent and dependent “I”) and therewith a social theory of freedom (an account of the form of social relations said to be necessary for an “I” to be the subject of deeds, an agent). I have been arguing that the full scope and ambition of Hegel's theory needs to be taken account of before its significance for a concrete social and political theory can be appreciated. I want in this chapter and in chapter 9 to make a start at least at spelling out those more concrete issues. I want to do so by means of a contrast, one that comes up very frequently in discussions of freedom in Hegel.
Most modern liberal versions of the state depend on a philosophically ambitious theory about the nature of human individuality and the normatively relevant implications of such individuality. It is often assumed that contrasting theories about the putative ultimacy of intersubjective relations and the derivative or secondary status of individuality are potentially if not actually illiberal, and Hegel's putative organic theory of the state is often cited as an example. A major arena for such disputes has been the claim by such neo-Hegelians as Charles Taylor and Axel Honneth that the key liberal notion of the free and rational individual depends for its possibility and rational sufficiency and empirical sustainability on a social condition of great political relevance: mutual recognition.
In Hegel's Encyclopedia system, what contemporary philosophers would call practical philosophy is called the “philosophy of spirit [Geist].” By “practical philosophy” most philosophers nowadays would mean an account of the distinct sorts of events for which we may appropriately demand reasons or justifications from subjects whom we take to be responsible for such events occurring. As it is sometimes put, to focus appropriately on that issue we also need to ask for a broad delimitation of the practical normative domain (whatever is done for reasons, purposively, where reference to such reasons is essential in understanding what was done), and so are asking about the possibility that there are these distinct sorts of events, actions, things done for reasons. That there may be no such distinction, that there might be just natural objects and their properties and ontologically uniform natural events, has been a major issue in modern practical philosophy for some time now. We often ask as well, sometimes as an independent question in practical philosophy, sometimes as tightly interwoven with an answer to the first, for an assessment of what rightly should count as such reasons or justifications, as distinct from what subjects might as a matter of fact themselves count as such reasons. In accounts that tie acting well to the exercise of practical reason, these discussions obviously include claims we take to be of the highest importance – ethical and moral sorts of reasons, questions of right or justice, etc.
I have suggested that Hegel's unusual phrases about spirit – that it is a “product of itself” – can be traced back through Fichte's notion of self-positing and ultimately to Kant's notion of self-legislation, and that by doing so he does not mean to suggest that values like personhood or some specific conception of freedom and its value are mere “posits,” constructed in response to merely contingent circumstances, the way we might propose a new dance or art form or clothing style. What spirit legislates for itself are laws, not cultural preferences and so the binding and non-arbitrary nature of such self-legislating must find a place in any account. On the assumption that Hegel considers spirit itself as an achieved normative status, proceeding in this direction is in effect to see Hegel's core theory as a theory of cognitive and practical normativity, and to claim that he is indebted to Kant's argument about the nature of such normativity: that we are subject to no law or principle of action that we do not “legislate for ourselves.” A great deal depends on how this meta-law is understood and how Hegel appropriated and significantly reformulated it. Although this is not an invitation to the absolutizing of culture or “constructivism,” Hegel is also signaling that he is not adopting a model of natural development, like organic growth and maturation, to account for historical change (spirit is a product of itself).
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