Hegel’s claim that self-consciousness requires two (self-)consciousnesses is something I don’t think anyone should find convincing at the face of it, for I myself do not find it convincing without elaboration. Part of the issue that I think highly confuses the understanding of the section is that Hegel brings up the “I am I” of the not-yet-self-conscious consciousness. Bringing this in ends up being confusing, for in the common understanding the “I am I” is considered a basic form of self-consciousness. But what does the ‘I am I’ say that makes us think this?
In §176 Hegel gives the following recap of self-consciousness:
A— The pure I without distinctions is its first immediate object.
B— This immediacy, however, is absolutely mediated, for it exist only in the act of sublating the independent object (life) before it, thus the I exists only as desire. The satisfaction of desire is the very reflection of self-consciousness into itself, that is, it is the certainty which has become the truth.”
C— The truth of the certainty gained in the sublation of the other (life), is only a reinforcement of the truth that consciousness is a doubled reflection as self-consciousness. “There is an object for consciousness which in itself posits its otherness, that is, which posits the distinction as a nullity and is therein a self-sufficient object.”
Why “I am I” Is Not Self-Conciousness
Am I not self-conscious when I reflect on myself and claim “I am I”? It seems utterly ludicrous to say one is not self-conscious in such a situation, so what gives? Well, what does ‘I am I’ say in its mere claim? This claim by consciousness is merely the law of tautological self-identity which merely separates the I from all else as other to it—it is not yet a self-reflecting claim or awareness. The ‘I’ here is also not yet a universal kind differentiated between one particular instance and another, it is a pure immediate contentless individuality. This is to say, this claim is purely one without difference in that ‘I am I’ does not imply ‘I am not you’ or someone else.
When we make this claim it is very different to the claim of Hegel’s self-consciousness on its own. In our claim we implicitly carry universal notions of self and other. As language bearers and developed cultural beings we have language, culture, and a divided consciousness. We carry an internal other within us from which we reflect: our conscience and our internalized imagination of how others view us. A consciousness with no such power of language, conceptual thought, cultural history, nor social existence has no concept of self for all it has is its own experienced pure empty individuality. ‘I am I’ as opposed to… what? You? There is no ‘you’ at such a point, for such a consciousness has no recognition of anything that is like itself. There is no community of ‘I’s, only the existence of I alone. All that I means and is at such a point is the power of negation of all before it. The I is nothing but pure desire, the consciousness which is at home with itself as desiring life and its endless task to negate all by consumption and nullification.
This I acts towards a world that faces it as other, but in the consumption of desire it attempts to prove to itself that nothing is truly other, that it is truth and essence alone, for there is nothing that withstands its negation. To it otherness is but an appearance whose truth is the I. The issue with “I am I” is not just its poverty as a claim, for it is a meaningless tautology, but also an ontological one. The ontology of self-consciousness is not simply a tautological declaration of self-relation, nor is the experience of self-consciousness simply such a declaration. To be capable of self-consciousness is not the capacity to simply recognize myself as an individuality, but to recognize consciousness in general, that is, to recognize other consciousnesses and their likeness and difference to mine. What does ‘I am I’ mean when I have no concept of other ‘I’s against which I differentiate? Nothing.
The problem with mistaking the claim of ‘I am I’ as a proof of self-consciousness lies in that for us it carries too many assumptions from our already deeply socially embedded self-awareness and the resulting internally self-reflective consciousness. To be genuinely self-conscious is to see my self-consciousness from the point of another self-consciousness while in the standpoint of my own self-consciousness. When we say we are very self-conscious about ourselves in any manner, Hegel means something deeply similar by his concept of self-consciousness. We mean by this that we are aware of how others are aware of us, and that we are aware they are capable of being self-aware just as we are.
Self-consciousness is easy to mistake as consciousness which has consciousness as its object; thus, we would think that it would be conceived in terms of a doubled consciousness and not a doubled self-consciousness. Why must we conceive of it this way? The reason is quite simple: in having a consciousness which can have its kind as its object—this being self-consciousness—we must also have the object reflect this self-consciousness as well. If a consciousness which is self-conscious is possible, it can only first come to know itself by encountering ‘itself’ as another of its kind, that is, self-consciousness is only an object to itself when it has self-consciousness for its object in an other. When consciousness holds consciousness as its object, such as with the average non-human animals, it knows it is the object of another, but if this other consciousness is not capable of self-consciousness it is not aware that its object is consciousness, nor that it is the object of the first consciousness. In this scenario the self-consciousness has a consciousness as its object, but self-consciousness does not have one of its own kind as its object; thus, self-consciousness is not yet self-conscious.
Recall that consciousness is a cognition directed towards an outer other as object. Its awareness is always pointed outward and never is reflected back inwards. A self-consciousness can exist as a mere consciousness insofar as it does not have another self-consciousness to cause the cognitive awareness to reflect back inwards. Alone, two self-consciousnesses are mere consciousness, but when they encounter each other they have the capacity to recognize each other as self-consciousnesses. Like a light beam projected outwards from an infinitely deep and dark abyssal mirror, consciousness’s awareness reaches outward and grasps the other in its gaze. When two encounter, however, each is primed to detect and recognize the gaze, the emitted light beam, of the other impinging on it. Immediately self-consciousness recognizes consciousness at one and the same moment as 1) as its object of awareness 2) itself as the object of the other’s awareness 3) as being recognized as consciousness by the other.
The formula of self-consciousness is thus this: I am aware of you being aware of me being aware of you. Through you, I have been forced into becoming aware of myself as consciousness which is the object of consciousness, i.e. self-awareness has been achieved for both through a mediation of each other. In other words, self-consciousness is a reflective cognition between two genuine others in which the other is recognized as other yet as of the same kind. Self-consciousness is this closed circuit of recognition between two.