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

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Reason as Testing Laws

A DIFFERENCE within the bare and simple ethical substance is for it an accident, which, in the case of determinate commands, as we saw, appeared as contingency in the knowledge of the circumstances and contingency in action. The comparison of that simple existence with the determinateness which was inadequate to its nature took place in us; and the simple substance was then seen to be formal universality or pure consciousness which holds itself free from and in opposition to the content, and is a knowledge of that content as something determinate. The universality in this way remains the same as what the objectified intent was. But in consciousness this universality is something different; it is no longer the genus, inert and void of thought, but is related to the particular and valid as its force and truth.

This consciousness at first seems the same process of testing which formerly we carried on, and its action seems unable to be anything else than has already taken place — a comparison of the universal with the determinate particular which would yield as formerly their mutual incongruity. But the relation of content to universal is different here, since this universal has got another significance. It is formal universality, of which the specific consent is capable; for in that universality the content is considered merely in relation to itself. When we were applying the test, the universal solid substance stood over against that specificity, which proved to be a contingent element of the consciousness into which the substance entered. Here one term of the comparison has vanished; the universal is no longer the existing substance with a value all its own, is no longer substantive right per se, but simple knowledge or form, which compares a content merely with itself, and looks at it to see if it is a tautology. Laws are no longer given, but examined and tested; and for that consciousness which applies the test the laws are already given. It picks up their content as simply there, without going into the consideration (as was done before) of the particularity and contingency attaching to its reality; instead of this it takes its stand by the command as command, and takes up an attitude towards this command just as direct and simple as [the fact of] its being a standard and criterion for criticizing it.

For that reason, however, this process of testing does not get very far. Just because the standard is a tautology and indifferent to the content, it accepts one content just as readily as the opposite. Suppose the question is:— ought it to be a law without qualification (an und für sich) that there should be property? Without qualification, and not because of utility for other ends:— the essential ethical truth consists just in the fact that the law should be merely a self-consistent whole (sich selbst gleiche), and through being identical with itself have its ground in its own essential nature, and not be something conditioned. Property per se does not contradict itself. It is a specifically determinate isolated element, or merely self-identical (sich selbst gleich). Absence of property, absence of ownership of things, or again, community of goods, contradicts itself just as little. That something belong to nobody at all, or to the first best man who puts himself in possession, or, again, to all together, and to each according to his need or in equal portions — that is a simple characteristic, a formal thought, like its opposite, property.

If indeed no one is master of a thing and it is looked at as a necessary object for human requirement, then it is necessary that it should become the possession of some particular individual; and the contradiction would rather lie in making a law out of the freedom of the thing. By the thing being without an owner is meant, however, not absolute freedom from ownership, but that it shall come into someone’s possession according to the need of the individual, and, moreover, not in order to be kept but directly to be used. But to make provision for need in such an entirely haphazard manner is contradictory to the nature of the conscious being, with whom alone we have here to do. For such a being has to think of his need in a universal way, to look to his existence in its entirety, and procure himself a permanent lasting good. This being so, the idea that a thing is to become by chance the possession of the first self-conscious individual (Leben) who happens to need it, is inconsistent with itself.

In a communistic society, where provision would be made in a way which is universal and permanent, either each comes to have as much as he requires-in which case there is a contradiction between this inequality and the essential nature — of consciousness, whose principle is the equality of individuals-or, acting on this last principle, there is an equal division of goods, and in this case the share each gets has no relation to his needs, and yet this is solely what “share”, i.e. fair share, really means.

But if when taken in this way absence of property seems contradictory, this is only because it has not been left in the form of a simple determinate characteristic. The same result is found in the case of property if this is resolved into separate moments. The particular thing which is my property has by being so the value of something universal, established, and permanent. This, how. ever, contradicts its nature, which consists in its being used and passing away. At the same time its value lies in being mine, which all others acknowledge and keep themselves away from. But just in my being acknowledged lies rather my equality, my identify, with every one — the opposite of exclusion.

Again, what I possess is a thing, i.e. an existence, which is there for others in general, quite universally and without any condition that it is for me alone. That I possess it contradicts the general nature of its thinghood. Property therefore contradicts itself on all hands just as much as absence of property; each has within it both these opposite and self-contradictory moments, universality and particularity.

But each of these determinate characteristics, presented simply as property or absence of property without further developing its implications, is as simple as the other, i.e. is not self-contradictory. The standard of law which reason has within itself therefore fits every case in the same way, and is in point of fact no standard at all. It would, too, turn out rather strange, if tautology, the principle of contradiction, which is allowed to be merely a formal criterion for knowledge of theoretical truth, i.e. something which is quite indifferent to truth and untruth alike, were to be more than this for knowledge of practical truth.

In both the above moments of what fills up the previous emptiness of spiritual reality (geistigen Wesen) the attempt to establish immediate determinate characteristics within the substance of the ethical life, and then to know whether these determinations are laws, has cancelled itself. The outcome, then, seems to be that neither determinate laws nor a knowledge of these can be obtained. But the substance in question is the consciousness of itself as absolute essentiality (Wesenheit), a consciousness therefore which can give up neither the difference falling within that substance, nor the knowledge of this difference. That giving laws and testing laws have turned out futile indicates that both, taken individually and in isolation, are merely unstable moments of the ethical consciousness; and the process in which they appear has the formal significance, that the substance of ethical life thereby expresses itself as consciousness.

So far as both these moments are more precise determinations of the consciousness of the real intent (Sache selbst) they can be looked on as forms of that honesty of nature (Ehrlichkeit) which now, as always with its formal moments, is much occupied with a content which “ought to be” good and right, and with testing definite fixed truth of this sort, and supposes itself to possess in healthy reason and intelligent insight the force and validity of ethical commands.

Without this honesty of nature, however, laws do not have validity as essential realities of consciousness, and the process of testing likewise does not hold good as an activity inside consciousness. Rather, these moments, when they appear directly as a reality each by itself, express in the one case an invalid establishment and mere de facto existence of actual laws, and in the other an equally invalid detachment from them. The law as determinate has an accidental content: this means here that it is a law made by a particular individual conscious of an arbitrary content. To legislate immediately in that way is thus tyrannical insolence and wickedness, which makes caprice into a law, and morality into obedience to such caprice — obedience to laws which are merely laws and not at the same time commands. So, too, the second process, testing the laws, so far as it is taken by itself, means moving the immovable, and the insolence of knowledge, which treats absolute laws in a spirit of intellectual detachment, and takes them for a caprice that is alien and external to it.

In both forms these moments are negative in relation to the ethical substance, to the real spiritual nature. In other words, the substance does not find in them its reality: but instead consciousness contains the substance still in the form of its own immediacy; and the substance is, as yet, only a process of willing and knowing on the part of this individual, or the ought” of an unreal command and a knowledge of formal universality. But since these modes were cancelled, consciousness has passed back into the universal and those oppositions have vanished. The spiritual reality is actual substance precisely through these modes not holding good individually, but merely as cancelled and transcended; and the unity where they are merely moments is the self of consciousness which is henceforth established within the spiritual reality, and makes that spirit concrete, actual, and self-conscious.

Spiritual reality (das geistige Wesen) is thus, in the first place, for self-consciousness in the shape of a law implicitly existing. The universality present in the process of testing, which was of a formal kind and not inherently existent, is transcended. The law is, too, an eternal law, which does not have its ground in the will of a given individual, but has a being all its own (an und für sich), the pure and absolute will of all which takes the form of immediate existence. This will is, again, not a command which merely ought to be; it is and has validity; it is the universal ego of the category, ego which is immediately reality, and the world is only this reality. Since, however, this existing law is absolutely valid, the obedience given by self-consciousness is not service rendered to a master, whose orders are mere caprice and in which it does not recognize its own nature. On the contrary, the laws are thoughts of its own absolute consciousness, thoughts which are its own immediate possession. Moreover, it does not believe in them, for belief, while it no doubt sees the essential nature, still gazes at an alien essence — not its own. The ethical self-consciousness is directly at one with the essential reality, in virtue of the universality of its own self. Belief, on the other hand, begins with an individual consciousness; it is a process in which this consciousness is always approaching this unity, without ever being able to find itself at home with its essential nature. The above consciousness, on the other hand, has transcended itself as individual, this mediating process is completed, and only because of this, is it immediate self-consciousness of ethical substance.

The distinction, then, of self-consciousness from the essential nature (Wesen) is completely transparent. Because of this the distinctions found within that nature itself are not accidental characteristics. On the contrary, because of the unity of the essence with self-consciousness (from which alone discordance, incongruity, might have come), they are articulated groups (Massen) of the unity permeated by its own life, unsundered spirits transparent to themselves, stainless forms and shapes of heaven, that preserve amidst their differences the untarnished innocence and concord of their essential nature.

Self-consciousness, again, stands likewise in a simple and clear relation to those different laws. They are, and nothing more — this is what constitutes the consciousness of its relation to them. Thus, Antigone takes them for the unwritten and unerring laws of the god —

“Not now, indeed, nor yesterday, but for aye

It lives, and no man knows what time it came.”(1)

They are. If I ask for their origin, and confine them to the point whence they arose, that puts me beyond them, for it is I who am now the universal, while they are the conditioned and limited. If they are to get the sanction of my insight, I have already shaken their immovable nature, their inherent constancy, and regard them as something which is perhaps true, but possibly may also be not true, so far as I am concerned. True ethical sentiment consists just in holding fast and unshaken by what is right, and abstaining altogether from what would move or shake it or derive it. Suppose a deposit has been made over to me on trust, it is the property of another, and I recognize it because it is so, and remain immovable in this relation towards it. But if I keep the deposit for myself, then, according to the principle I use in testing laws — tautology — I undoubtedly do not commit a contradiction; for in that case I do not regard it any longer as the property of another. To keep anything which I do not look on as the property, of some one else is perfectly consistent. Changing the point of view is not contradiction; for what we have to do with is not the point of view, but the object and content, which is not to contradict itself. Just as I can — as I do, when I give something away in a present — alter the view that something is mine into the view that it is the property of another, without being thereby guilty of a contradiction, so too I can proceed the other way about. It is not, then, because I find something not contradicting itself that it is right; but it is right because it is the right. That something is the property of another, this lies at the basis of what I do. I have not to “reason why”, nor to seek out or hit upon thoughts of all kinds, connexions, aspects; I have to think neither of giving laws nor of testing them. By all such thought-processes on my part I should stultify that relation, since in point of fact I could, if I liked, make the opposite suit my indeterminate tautological knowledge just as well, and make that the law. But whether this or the opposite determination is the right, that is settled just as it stands (an und für sich). I might, for my own part, have made the law whichever I wanted, and neither of them just as well, and am, by my beginning to test them, thereby already on an immoral track. That the right is there for me just as it stands — this places me within the substance of ethical reality: and in this way that substance is the essence of self-consciousness. But self-consciousness, again is its actualization and its existence, its self, and its will.


1. Sophocles, Antigone,

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hegel/phenomenology_of_mind/part21.html

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