The Phenomenology of Mind, by G. W. F. Hegel

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Reason as Lawgiver

Translator’s comments: The next step in the development of individuality is to bring out the universal conditions of its co-existence with other individualities. This it can do because it is complete in itself, and is essentially self-conscious reason. These conditions are many, because of the diversity of its own content and of the relations in which it stands; and are yet the conditions of individuality which is one and single. Hence their plurality never implies a separation; the conditions limit each other’s operation and their precise operation must be determined.

These, then, are the two stages in determining the general conditions or laws of co-existence of individuality: (1) the enunciation of different laws by and for rational individuality, (2) the relation of these laws inter se, and to the single principle from which they all proceed. Both stages owe their existence to the activity of reason. Reason promulgates laws, and criticizes, tests the validity of, the laws.

Hence the two following sections.

Reason as Lawgiver

SPIRITUAL essential reality is, in its bare existence, pure consciousness, and also this self-consciousness. The originally determinate nature of the individual has lost its positive significance of being inherently the element and purpose of his activity; it is merely a superseded moment, while the individual is a self in the sense of a universal self. Conversely the formal “real intent” gets its filling from active self-differentiating individuality; for the distinctions within individuality compose the content of that universal. The category is implicit (an sich) as the universal of pure consciousness; it is also explicit (für sich), for the self of consciousness is likewise its moment. It is absolute being, for that universality is the bare self-identity of being.

Thus what is object for consciousness has (now) the significance of being the true; it is and it holds good, in the sense of being and holding good by itself as an independent entity (an und für sich selbst). It is the “absolute fact”, which no longer suffers from the opposition of certainty and its truth, between universal and individual, between purpose and its reality, but whose existence is the reality and action of self-consciousness. This “fact” is therefore the ethical substance; and consciousness of it is ethical consciousness. Its object is likewise taken to be the truth, for it combines self-consciousness and being in a single unity. It stands for what is absolute, for self-consciousness cannot and will not again go beyond this object because it is there at home with itself: it cannot, for the object is all power, and all being: it will not, because the object is its self, or the will of this self. It is the real object inherently as object, for it contains and involves the distinction which consciousness implies. It divides itself into areas or spheres (Massen) which are the determinate laws of the absolute reality [viz. the ethical substance]. These spheres, however, do not obscure the notion, for the moments (being, bare consciousness and self) are kept contained within it — a unity which constitutes the inner nature of these spheres, and no longer lets these moments in this distinction fall apart from one another.

These laws or spheres (Massen) of the substance of ethical life are directly recognized and acknowledged. We cannot ask for their origin and justification, nor is there something else to search for as their warrant; for something other than this independent self-subsistent reality (an und für sich seyendes Wesen) could only be self-consciousness itself. But self-consciousness is nothing else than this reality, for itself is the self-existence of this reality, which is the truth just because it is as much the self of consciousness as its inherent nature (sein Ansich), or pure consciousness.

Since self-consciousness knows itself to be a moment of this substance, the moment of self-existence (of independence and self-determination), it expresses the existence of the law within itself in the form: “the healthy natural reason knows immediately what is right and good”. As healthy reason knows the law immediately, so the law is valid for it also immediately, and it says directly: “this is right and good”. The emphasis is on “this”: there are determinate specific laws; there is the “fact itself “ with a concrete filling and content.

What is thus given immediately must likewise be accepted and regarded as immediate. As in the case of the immediacy of sense-experience, so here we have also to consider the nature of the existence to which this immediate certainty in ethical experience gives expression — to analyse the constitution of the immediately existing areas (Massen) of ethical reality. Examples of some such laws will show what we want to know; and since we take them in the form of declarations of the healthy reason knowing them, we, have not, in this connexion, to introduce the moment which has to be made good in their case when looked at as immediate ethical laws.

“Every one ought to speak the truth.” In this duty, as expressed unconditionally, the condition will at once be granted, viz. if he knows the truth. The command will therefore now run: everyone should speak the truth, at all times according to his knowledge and conviction about it. The healthy reason, this very ethical consciousness which knows immediately what is right and good, will explain that this condition had all the while been so bound up with that universal maxim that it meant the command to be taken in that sense. It thereby admits, however, in point of fact, that in the very expression of the maxim it eo ipso really violated it. The healthy reason said: “each should speak the truth”; it intended, however: “he must speak the truth according to his knowledge and conviction”. That is to say, it spoke otherwise than it intended, and to speak otherwise than one intends means not speaking the truth. The improved untruth, or inaptitude now takes the form: “each must speak the truth according to his knowledge and conviction about it on each occasion”. Thereby, however, what was universally necessary and absolutely valid (and this the proposition wanted to express) has turned round into what is really a complete contingency. For speaking the truth is left to the chance whether I know it and can convince myself of it; and there is nothing more in the statement than that truth and falsehood are to be spoken, just as anyone happens to know, intend, and understand. This contingency in the content has universality merely in the propositional form of the expression; but as an ethical maxim the proposition promises a universal and necessary content, and thus contradicts itself by the content being contingent. Finally, if the maxim were to be improved by saying that the contingency of the knowledge and the conviction as to the truth should be dropped, and that the truth, too, ”ought“ to be known, then this would be a command which contradicts straightway what we started from. Healthy reason was at first assumed to have the immediate capacity of expressing the truth; now, however, we are saying that it “ought” to know the truth, i.e. that it does not immediately know how to express the truth. Looking at the content, this has dropped out in the demand that we “should” know the truth; for this demand refers to knowing in general —“we ought to know“. What is demanded is, therefore, strictly speaking, something independent of every specific content. But here the whole point of the statement concerned a definite content, a distinction involved in the substance of the ethical life. Yet this immediate determination of that substance is a content of such a kind as turned out really to be a complete contingency; and when we try to get the required universality and necessity by making the law refer to the knowledge [instead of to the content], then the content really disappears altogether.

Another celebrated command runs: “Love thy neighbour as thyself.” It is directed to an individual standing in relation to another individual, and asserts this law as a relation of a particular individual to a particular individual, i.e. a relation of sentiment or feeling (Empfindung). Active love — for an inactive love has no existence, and is therefore doubtless not intended here(1)— aims at removing evil from someone and bringing him good. To do this we have to distinguish what the evil is, what is the appropriate good to meet this evil, and what in general his well-being consists in; i.e. we have to love him intelligently. Unintelligent love will do him harm perhaps more than hatred. Intelligent, veritable (wesentlich) well-doing is, however, in its richest and most important form the intelligent universal action of the state — an action compared with which the action of a particular individual as such is something altogether so trifling that it is hardly worth talking about. The action of the state is in this connexion of such great weight and strength that if the action of the individual were to oppose it, and either sought to be straightway and deliberately (für sich) criminal, or out of love for another wanted to cheat the universal out of the right and claim which it has upon him, such action would be useless and would inevitably be annihilated. Hence all that well-doing, which lies in sentiment and feeling, can mean is an action wholly and solely particular, a help at need, which is as contingent as it is momentary. Chance determines not merely its occasion, but also whether it is a “work” at all, whether it is not at once dissipated again, and whether it does not itself really turn to evil. Thus this sort of action for the good of others, which is given out as necessary, is so constituted that it may just as likely not exist as exist; is such that if the occasion by chance arises, it may possibly be a “work”, may possibly be good, but just as likely may not. This law, therefore, has as little of a universal content as the first above considered, and fails to express anything substantial, something objectively real per se (an und für sich), which it should do if it is to be an absolute ethical law. In other words, such laws never get further than the “ought to be“, they have no actual reality; they are not laws, but merely commands.

It is, however, in point of fact, clear from the very nature of the case that we must renounce all claim to an absolute universal content. For every specific determination which the simple substance (and its very nature consists in being simple) might obtain is inadequate to its nature. The command itself in its simple absoluteness expresses immediate ethical existence; the distinction appearing in it is a specific determinate element, and thus a content standing under the absolute universality of this simple existence. Since, then, an absolute content must thus be renounced, formal universality is the only kind that is possible and suitable, and this means merely that it is not to contradict itself. For universality devoid of content is formal; and an absolute content amounts to a distinction which is no distinction, i.e. means absence of content.(2)

In default of all content there is thus nothing left with which to make a law but the bare form of universality, in fact, the mere tautology of consciousness, a tautology which stands over against the content, and consists in a knowledge, not of the content actually existing, the content proper, but of its ultimate essence only, a knowledge of its self-identity.

The ethical inner essence is consequently not itself ipso facto a content, but only a standard for deciding whether a content is capable of being a law or not, i.e. whether the content does not contradict itself. Reason as law-giver is reduced to being reason as criterion; instead of laying down laws reason now only tests what is laid down.

1. Cp. Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals: Sect. 1 Critique of Practical Reason: Analytic c. 3.

2. The above criticism applies to Kant’s “categorical imperative”.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38