Comment: The Unity of Self, Concept, and the World

Bernstein, in the first lecture part on the “Introduction” chapter in the Phenomenology, has this very interesting bit to about this quote from Hegel near the end:

The Concept, when it has developed into a concrete existence that is itself free, is nothing other than the I, or pure self-consciousness, but the I is first this pure self-related unity.”

Hegel, Science of Logic

[Bernstein:] “This sentence basically means the following: What he is claiming here is that the driving idea is that nothing can be of significance in my mind unless I can put it into functional conversation with everything else in my mind (call that the Holism requirement), hence the fundamental structures and principles of mind that Kant calls Categories and Hegel calls the Concept are functions of unity. So the unity of the Self and the unity of the Concept are the same, but since the work of unifying is the condition for anything being recognizable by the Human mind at all, then the unity of the subject is responsible for the unity of the world, or rather the world comes to appear as a world at all only if it can appear as in accord with the functions providing for the unity and freedom of subjectivity.

This is the principle of idealism (the unity of self = unity of concept = unity of the world). The principle of idealism simply states that we can have a world at all, and to represent the world to ourselves, only through conceptual unification where establishing such conceptual unification simultaneously yields the unity of the Self with itself. The world necessarily appears as my world. In generating the unity of itself with itself the Self is determining itself, it is acting in a free way, not following from without.

For Plato there is a unity to the world, but it is not the unity in my mind. First it’s the unity of the Ideas that maybe I can internalize to order my mind to get in accordance with, but for Hegel it’s the freedom of self-determining subjectivity itself that generates categorial unity and in so doing it is unifying itself with the world. Making the world determinate presupposes the self-determining act of Reason (that’s the principle of Idealism restated and the entire structure of the Logic).  This is all about ‘The space of Reason is the space of freedom”, and therefore just seems to be an objective Idealist claim. This is all about the mind securing itself, and in securing itself it secures the world, and that turns out to be not reductive or idealist.”


The Unity of The Self and World

I would like to make a derivative comment on this by using the conceptual keys given to us by Hegel in the Phenomenology’s “Preface” itself on the very closely linked relation of Substance as Subject. From what I know so far, I think Bernstein here jumps the gun far too quickly to anthropomorphize the “self” being referred to in the quote. He assumes that one is well acquainted with Hegel’s meanings, otherwise what he says here can be very misinterpretative of Hegel. That is not to say, however, that I think anything he stated here is wrong, I find these thoughts very interesting examples of how Hegel’s conceptual structures scale through ontological levels.

The I is, yes, the human subject’s I, but Hegel also makes it clear that in a much broader sense the I is, as he states, “first this pure self-related unity.” Regarding concrete existence, in the Logic Hegel has a semi-famous (to Hegelians) line, “The Idea is, first of all, life.” That is to say, the objective form, the independent existence of the Concept as such—the concrete Universal—is life, and in the Philosophy of Nature‘s end, with the arising of life, consciousness arises simultaneously. Life is always already conscious life. This is to say, as a unified self-differentiated whole with parts, a living being has a unified locus of being, a self-identity in its determined organization as an extended body; it is a self in this manner. It is conscious in its living activity, it metabolizes its environment because it is driven by desire manifest in the unignorable impetus of feeling which dominates its existence.

Concept and self are functions of unity. Bernstein’s point that nothing can be of significance to us which cannot enter into the web of other things in our minds is a significant one. Things which have no universal character, which are pure individualities, enter into no relations to anything other than themselves—they have no internal reason to be connected at all. A self is already a unity—a universal—in which individuals are connected within the subject even if they themselves refuse this connection in themselves. The self not only unites seemingly external individuals, but also unites itself with itself. In the mind, when we lack concepts with which to subsume individualities, they are but flickers of experience which are meaningless series in consciousness. The self in such a scenario experiences its world as an unending flux of myriad expressions—to this self nothing in the world appears to it as enduring or essential except itself as the enduring locus of united experience.

A global flash of light in the middle of the night in a dark forest is conceptually meaningless and forgotten insofar as we find no relation in it to anything else, not even to our self. However, the moment a concept arises to grasp and hold fast to the individual, things become meaningful and enduring beyond the abstract self. In the concept of my “self” I already grasp at certain individual instances and unite them in my self to form a core concept, even if arbitrary, that nonetheless becomes meaningful to me and endures in me. In it I unite the experience of something I call my body, my memory, my feelings, and my dreams. In the experience of the random flash I may grasp it in no concept; thus it comes and disappears as yet another moment of flux. However, were I to grasp the individual experience in a concept, say an omen, then the flash gains significance and enters into my self, partaking in my cultural worldview.

When Bernstein says that the world cannot appear as a world without allowing for freedom and subjectivity this is not a statement about the world depending on our self unity, but rather on the very structure of self-related unity as such. This unity is not just the unity of the conscious living self, but also the unity of all things that exist; be they atoms, rocks, or stars. The universe is only possible because self-unity as such is possible. Concepts are also unities like self-relation, often thought of as purely mentally subjective, however, since Concepts have the structure of self-related unity, they allow for the intelligibility of real existing external self-related unities.

The Unity of Self and World

Bernstein’s formulation of the “principle of idealism” is interesting. The unity of self and unity of concept are visible in what Hegel says, but concerning the perception of a world there is a lot more to say in order to make explicit the connection which makes his claim convincing. When Bernstein says that we can only have a world at all when we can establish conceptual unification that simultaneously establishes the self, this is a claim that seems to boldly claim what now is called correlationism by some philosophers, i.e. that the world as it is cannot be what it is beyond what it is for us.

This claim, I think, makes more sense if we take it from the perspective of implicit meaning, and furthermore, by clarifying the subject as not necessarily being a conscious one.—”The world necessarily appears as my world.”—That is to say, the very appearing of a world already implies a self to which such world appears. Insofar as a world appears, it appears to someone, and as a consciousness contemplating this the world thus necessarily appears to me. However, is Bernstein making a more general point here about the concept of a world itself? Does the concept of world make sense when one considers a world without subjects to who it is represented? Of course it does, but I don’t think Bernstein is making a point about the world as such being dependent on our self.

To imply that a world is not a world without subjects to appear to is not something easily accepted. I cannot defend Bernstein’s phrasing, for I think it much too strongly implies something that seems wrong considering experience and concept, but I don’t think Bernstein is being a subjective idealist here—it’s also not implied by what Hegel says. I would like to offer a rephrasing to what I think makes it into a far more acceptable claim.

Recalling the earlier point about the self as a self-related unity, the self to which a world appears is not a consciousness which deals with representations, but rather, a self with connection to other things—as such, the concept of appearance is not proper here. Instead of representation as a relation, relation itself is what has to be considered. To have a world is to have an absolute totality as differentiated unity. The world does not arise without things related in a web of relations, but to what and how are these relations relating? To a “self”, the world self, a unified self-differentiated unity that holds fast to itself in self-relatedness. The world does not merely depend on an abstract unity of itself with itself, but on the unity of that which constitutes it as a myriad of selves that in their self-relating relate to others in myriad ways.

The issue of self and world seems, however, a mostly superficial point to what Hegel seems to be aiming at. While it is a relatable point of entry to the issue—it’s a catchy claim that hooks you—it does more to confuse. Bernstein’s talk of representation, self, and world tinges his account in this excerpted part of his lecture with subjective idealist flavor, betraying Hegel’s own dense intentions. As Bernstein closes the thought, comparing Plato’s ideas and their unity in relation to our own self-unity, the tinge of subjectivism is strong. To reiterate, the unity of self/subject Hegel is concerned with is something far more basic and universal than our human subjectivity. The world is not unified because my mind is unified; it is unified because it has a self-unity itself—it has subjectivity, i.e. active self-related unity.

What is Bernstein getting at in all of this? If it is obvious that the world is unified and existing for itself without our mind’s unification, what is at stake in what he is saying? The issue, I think, is intelligibility. His closing statement that the securing of the unity of the mind shall be the securing of the unity of the world is indeed in line with Hegel’s project: to decisively grasp the system of the mind as conceptual thought—to show that reason can ground itself and attain absolute knowledge of itself. If thought can grasp its own unity as intelligible to itself, it guarantees itself as the absolute against which all else is relative. As self-grounding, reason does not show itself to be determined by anything other than itself, thus it is free in that it is self-determined.

Hegel’s Form of Science

Following from my first post about dialectics as immanent critique, the most bare form of Hegel’s method, the second of my posts on this shall now concern one aspect of the general method. “But wait, A.W., didn’t you say that there isn’t a formulaic method to follow?” Why, yes I did, and that remains true. However,  you should not be surprised that something interesting comes up when looking back in retrospect: that though there was no method you could have assumed in the workings of the likes of the Science of Logic, there is indeed a general developmental form which appears retroactively. This form does not supplant the actual work of science, but serves as a formal pointer to certain characteristics which any science must have. What is it?

The Structure of Science

You may have come upon the formula of {Abstract->Negative->Concrete} as the supposed formula Hegel gives for his method in the Encyclopædia Logic. As I mentioned in my prior post on the introduction to dialectics, this formula is not really a formula for the immanently critical method itself; however, this formulation does actually tell us something important. It tells us of the structure of science (as Hegel conceives it). If we wish to generate any science at all, including one of an empirical phenomenon, what we first are to do is to take account of all of our concepts which have any necessary role to play in our science, within which we must find the simple abstract immediate concept which has for its content the generative contradiction which entails all the other concepts as its developments. After the beginning is discovered we can begin the immanent method of dialectical movement, bringing in the other concepts into consideration as they begin to fit moments of development. Science develops itself from the abstract to the concrete, fashioning itself as the organic and self-developing Universal.

History, Experience, And The
A Posteriori A Priori

This brings to mind something else of interest, that is, that sciences do not get generated a priori until we have already a posteriori generated or discovered the concepts which come together to form a science. This is an interesting link which is made by Hegel between two forms of knowledge sometimes considered incompatible; one of pure reason, the other of experience. Hegel here gives not just room, but a place of  powerful importance to empirical science in the process of Spirit’s knowledge generation. The mode of thinking of Understanding employed by the empirical scientist is uniquely fit for the work of discovery of necessary pieces of science despite the lack of the explicit knowledge of what a true science is or how it is to be developed. Once the general concepts of the system of a science are at hand after the empirical arising of their structures and discovery thereof—haphazard as such discoveries may be—we are capable of using the method of science to consider the concepts or categories in their pure logical (rational) form as they immanently relate to each other regardless of how they empirically appear.

All of Hegel’s sciences show themselves to be a posteriori a priori. The Phenomenology recounts forms of consciousness Spirit has already carried out, and a priori develops the forms of consciousness after the fact that Spirit has already undergone them all in its history, Absolute Knowing being a final recollection which looks upon the process and sees what has gone on. All forms of consciousness were first discovered in experience. The Science of Logic a priori develops the pure categories of thought after the fact that Spirit had already had the experience of a history of metaphysical speculation where each category had been at some point discovered, used, and exhausted in some way. Another interesting case of such science is Marx’s theory of Capital—only in the aftermath of classical political economy did the categories of economics as such finally come to be at hand for Marx the (Hegelian) scientist to study, arrange, and develop into a science.

PhoS: Is There Justification of Method?

The method of the Phenomenology’s development is mysterious to the uninitiated, but even when you understand the movement of the method you cannot help but wonder: why this method with this content and in this manner? The lack of justification or explanation of the method in the Phenomenology itself is an interesting and good critique leveled at Hegel by some (see the interesting draft of “The Greatest Mistake: A Case for the Failure of Hegel’s Idealism” by Peter Wolfendale for one such critique).

Now, the development is logical in Hegel’s peculiar sense, i.e. we have an immanently logical development ordered by a progression from immediate abstraction to mediated concreteness expanding into a system of concepts which take up the entirety of concepts before them, in this case a mix between phenomenal forms of consciousness and purely logical categories discovered and developed through phenomenal forms. Hegel does not give us a justification or explanation as to why he can proceed with the inquiry of the Phenomenology in its immanently dialectical manner. Indeed, Hegel does not bring up the question of method until the end of the Science of Logic.

The original title of the Phenomenology of Spirit was Science of The Experience of Consciousness, i.e. the work was clearly already intended to have the form of science despite supposedly being the journey of consciousness to discover science through ‘natural consciousness’—the unscientific form of thoughtIt is peculiar indeed that Hegel should be so bold as to give us the power of his science implicitly without yet having justified ground to do so. Without Hegel’s implicit logical method we would have no capacity to choose between forms of consciousness in any ordering which would allow for such a progression as Hegel gives us, but at the outset of the Phenomenology Hegel has no way to justify this method, indeed, he himself had not yet completely explicated it as he would in the Science of Logic. 

This issue seems, to me, to be a more specific form of the general issue of Hegel’s claim that his work is presuppositionless. This is usually considered to mean logical presuppositionless, but such a lack of presupposition does not deny much of any other presupposition. When Hegel wrote the Phenomenology, we can be certain that he’s presupposing his own final insight, or some form thereof—as a matter of fact, he tells us this much in the Preface and Introduction. If we did not presuppose that the Absolute was with us already, and knowledge was possible, why would we bother? He wouldn’t have written the Phenomenology if all he thought to be doing was to reiterate ancient skepticism on a more general ground, and then he just happened to find a form of consciousness that achieves Absolute Knowing while going through a random order of claims one could be immanently skeptical about. He presupposes, as Bernstein aptly tells us, that one is part of the tradition of philosophy that has accepted that Kantianism made pre-critical dogmatism impossible to return to.  He presupposes his standpoint ending in the present he is in as a historical trajectory, and he presupposes his language and way of thinking.

Because of all of these presuppositions allowed in the work, Hegel can never really convince everyone that the Phenomenology really accomplishes what it claims. Partly because, let’s face it, most people seem to not realize what the method which is driving the movement even is, and partly because even understanding the basic immanent logic one is left with the question of why this logic? How he could do such a thing within the Phenomenology is a big question. Could he have done so at all, or did he really have to wait until the end of the Logic to finally justify or explicate his method? If the Phenomenology is supposed to justify the conclusion of the basic concept of science, and the concept of science is fully fleshed out only afterward, yet the  Phenomenology already is in the form of science, where in the theory is the justification for science itself really made?

One could, perhaps, consider that it might be impossible to deduce science from any other method but itself, and that science is merely stumbled upon in the process of history, after which it retroactively justifies itself. It seems like this is what some may have already said; take for example Zizek, who never tires of reminding us of retroactive necessity. Another position to take is what I think Hegel’s own may be: science has always been present as it is the true form of cognition, unrecognized, but nonetheless present as the engine which forces all forms of knowing which stand against it to fall apart. Science is, then, the only standpoint that can explain or judge just why natural consciousness’s forms cannot sustain themselves as knowledge, and indeed, why their failures through history have come to lead to the explicit final appearance of science out of all their failures.

Does this satisfy? Wolfendale says no, and I’m just pondering it now.