[Editor's Note: Tom McDonald, guest podcaster on our Hegel episodes, has eagerly agreed to join us on the blog to share more of what he's picked up about Hegel. You can read more by Tom at zuhanden.com -ML]
It's hard to overestimate how important for Hegel is Kant's critical philosophy following the Enlightenment. Kant's elaboration of 'the critical turn' in modern philosophy establishes how the faculty of reason needs to become self-critical in order to justify itself. We could reasonably call this the project to establish a self-legitimizing, self-justifying philosophy for modern life, i.e., a philosophy which can ground all authority in itself.
Kant's goal was to establish the autonomy of reason in a liberal (i.e. individualistic) spirit, but the modern liberal principle of individual autonomy comes with hidden costs (in the fine print): One becomes an island of consciousness responding only to appearances or representations of the world and others but not to the world or others themselves. In order to affirm that I am autonomous, I must negate all otherness, radically put it in question, see it as merely my own representation.
Hegel recognizes subjectivism in modern philosophy since Descartes, developed in British empiricism and continental rationalism, and given its consummate formalization by Kant, as a great achievement in conceiving and realizing greater freedom in the world (in contrast to ancient and medieval philosophy). However, Hegel is equally concerned about the deeply skeptical attitude and therefore destructive potential of modern subjectivism toward 'things in themselves' and 'the external world'. It seems that modern freedom entails the radical doubt and negation (creative destruction) of these externals in order to realize itself.
Does this not provide a brilliant explanation for why our contemporary skepticism toward so many things is ironically both a source of frustration and pride for us?
The task Hegel sets himself then is to try to preserve the freedom (i.e. negativity) achieved in modern individualistic thinking while somehow also teaching modernity not to deny the ancient (and, one could argue, commonsense) understanding that it is the world itself -- not merely our subjective projections -- which prompts us to conceive what we take to be beautiful (in nature or in art), good (in personal conduct), or true (in knowledge or in science).
Thus we can fairly say that the Phenomenology of Spirit begins literally in the modern world (when Hegel self-consciously writes it) with the modern ideals of freedom and self-realization as the telos, the end, of the history of reason in the world. But the purpose of the book is to reconstruct this history-in-thought so as to teach us that in all the various configurations and stages, there is a dialectical or creatively destructive relationship between one desire to know the world as it really is in itself and a problematically opposing desire to realize the freedom in thinking itself. Typically, when you're attracted to (modern) politics or art and you're worried about freedom or expression you emphasize the latter; when you're attracted to science and you're worried about representation in knowledge you emphasize the former.
The Phenomenology then studies various configurations of thought (Sense-Certainty, Perception, Observing Reason, Acting Reason, etc.) and their dialectical outcomes which force the development of more adequate concepts of the world and itself. Keep in mind that for each configuration there are three aspects involved:
- experience(s); the empirical aspect;
- the notion/theory/ideas/norms/principles/concepts/criteria by which experience and the world are judged at any particular moment (e.g., in Sense-Certainty the criterion of knowledge is "is it sense-data?"); the rational aspect;
- the world itself/the absolute/reality.
The claim of this third aspect remains controversial. But it must be said that Hegel is not simply an "idealist" who exclusively recognizes a human-constructed reality of humanly instituted norms of thought (although he certainly does affirm modern ideals and norms). His philosophy also allows that independent features of nature play a role in (stated negatively) constraining or (stated positively) giving normative shape to self-grasping thought in human reception. Although controversial this view is more or less defended by important contemporary Hegel scholars and philosophers such as Robert Pippin, Terry Pinkard, Robert Brandom, John McDowell, and Kenneth Westphal.
I hope that this brief introduction is helpful, especially for understanding Hegel's distinction between nature and spirit. This distinction-in-continuity helps to resolve what is still an ongoing debate between Cartesian dualism and naturalistic monism about the world and the mind. Hegel sometimes calls spirit "identity-in-difference", meaning that reason establishes knowledge and freedom by way of a negative or transformative relation to others, to the world, to nature, i.e., by not being identical with them. But this non-identical independence isn't possible without others, the world, and nature being the (ultimately) real prompts to everything we can actually accomplish in action and in thought.
Richard Rorty was one of the great pragmatist, if not quite realist, interpreters of Hegel. In a 2005 review of Robert Pippin's The Persistence of Subjectivity: On the Kantian Aftermath,
Rorty describes the importance of Hegel's philosophical innovation:
Kant tried to make it impossible to think of knowledge as a matter of getting little replicas of the extra-mental into our minds [as a matter of mind mirroring the world]. That was the first step in breaking down the subject-object problematic which Kant had inherited from Descartes. On Pippin's account, Hegel took the next step by replacing the Cartesian distinction between thinking substance and extended substance with that between Spirit and Nature -- between behavior controlled by social norms and other behavior. Once that change was made, we were able to stop thinking of human freedom as a matter of making the atoms swerve. We could switch to thinking of it as a matter of making social norms explicit, thus putting ourselves in a position to resist [negate] them or change [transform] them. Hegel showed us how to think of increased self-consciousness as increased freedom.
You can read the rest of Rorty's excellent article at Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.