Tag Archives: Subject

Why Self-Consciousness Needs Two

Why Are Two Consciousnesses Necessary For Self-Consciousness?

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.”


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 is 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 consciousness from the point of another consciousness while in the standpoint of my own 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 of their actual or possible capacity  of being aware of our being aware of them.

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 consciousness recognizes consciousness at one and the same time as 1) consciousness 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.

PhoS: The Master and Slave [Prt. 1]

Following from the development of life and self-consciousness, we now are at Hegel’s most well known and famous philosophical passage, the Master/Slave dialectic of self-consciousness. Like prior sections, this is going to be a long one. There is much here that deals with some very dense phenomeno-logical developments.

One thing to comment here is that there is a vast misinterpretation of this section by most readers. Many take the account given in this section to be Hegel’s positive account of how we become self-conscious, however, this is not the case. The logic of self-consciousness,  found in the Philosophy of Spirit, is something different than the account of the master/slave. This is by and large an account of how the coming to be of recognition and self-consciousness appears to a self-consciousnesses.

The Conclusion of Life and
The Appearance of Spirit

At the end of the prior section Hegel tells us that the concept of Spirit in its most basic form is properly at hand in the concept of self-consciousness as the divided existence of mind in unitary form. Self-consciousness is an “I that is a we, and a we that is an I”. Not only that, but we have also stumbled on the first formulation of the substance as subject: The object of self-consciousness is another subject to whom itself it is an object. 

From here on the forms of consciousness are all expositions and unfoldings of Spirit’s inner development of its self-knowledge as knowledge of self-consciousnesses in relation to themselves and the world. These shall all be subject forms that are embedded in inter-subjective relations and norms. They are all cultural, social, and historical insofar as they build upon a legacy of thought and activity carried and transmitted by communities of individuals. Insofar as this holds, even the ‘objective’ knowledge claims of so-called reason in the objective mode of world observation—such as in empirical science—shall be shown to be grounded in Spirit’s conception of itself.


The Logic of Recognition

Self-consciousness only exists in being recognized. It exists in and for itself only for an other. As a realization of the concept of Infinity, i.e. as an empirically determinate form of it, self-consciousness must be taken in its opposed meanings of a self-differentiated unity in which the differences are real and independent, yet dependent and the same. By this it is meant that if self-consciousness is posited as the united universal, it must be thought as the divided plurality of self-consciousnesses, and if posited as plurality of self-consciousnesses, it must be thought as the immanently necessary universal unity of this plurality.

Recognition is a movement, that is, it is an activity and not simply a state of mere being—it is a process. Empirically, consciousness does not simply just recognize another consciousness, there is a process to the coming about of this recognition. Consciousness must be forced to recognize the other as one like itself and become self-conscious, and only a self-consciousness like itself may inflict upon it the experience of an independent other which denies the negation imposed by another.

As the concept of it shows, the essence or source of self-consciousness is outside it in another self-consciousness. This, however, is at first not seen as another, but as itself. As self-consciousness faces another self-consciousness as its essence, it must sublate the otherness to be certain it is the essence, but in doing so it thus only sublates itself, for the other was its essence.

The sublation is double-edged in multiple senses.

1) Self-consciousness is outside itself; the other is itself

2) The sublation of another is only a sublation of itself

3) The sublation of its other gets the essence of self-consciousness back into itself, yet this return is a letting go, for it requires that the other indeed be recognized as the essence of self-consciousness, a free self-consciousness itself. This is to say, since the other is the essence in which self-consciousness exists for itself, self-consciousness thus sublates itself into the other, and thus the other is free as well. One cannot be self-conscious without recognizing the other as a self-consciousness and giving it its due as well.

The prior exposition is from one standpoint of one self-consciousness, but the other is self-consciousness as well, thus it also carries on this activity of recognition. Thus, the activity of one is the activity of the other for they are both independent self-sufficient beings that carry out the same activity in relating to the other for themselves. The other is also itself in-itself, thus it does not exist merely as an object that is initially and foremost for the desire of the first. The first self-consciousness cannot penetrate into the other self-consciousness and make it do anything unless the other does in-itself what another does to it.

[Comment:] This is to say this much: In my consciousness nothing can enter that I do not allow to be there for myself. No amount of physical coercion nor enticement can make any consciousness recognize anything or anyone within itself. You may make me say things and do things out of forced capitulation in the face of negative consequences, but never can you make me believe, respect, or recognize anything I refuse to. In my consciousness I have a being which seems immune to the penetration of any kind of other by any means external to my will, thus I have the power to deny all power over me—even my life itself.

In seeing the other do as one does, and recognizing the other to be as one is, one does what one demands of the other, i.e. by demanding recognition one has already recognized the other as the kind like one’s self. We only recognize insofar as we are recognized. I demand you to submit to me, and you do the same. I wager my life as proof of my absolute independence, and you do the same. I struggle, and you do likewise. Recognition as a movement is only possible with two self-consciousnesses, it would be pointless, useless, and meaningless for one consciousness to do such alone. To demand an entity incapable of recognition to recognize us is an empty act. The activity of recognition is double-edged in the sense that it is as much directed towards the other as it is to oneself. To demand recognition from you presupposes recognizing you.

—The analogy to the play of forces—

Hegel comments that this recalls the disintegration of Genuine Force into Force and Expression as the play of forces; each was nothing but the transition into its opposite and the endless circular movement shifting to the other. Expression was the becoming of Force, and Force the becoming of Expression. Self-consciousness finds its essence only in another consciousness, in its circular movement in the activity of recognition which shifts from self to other and back to self.

Self-consciousness as consciousness is outside itself for it faces another consciousness as its object. As self-consciousness however, its being is this very external relation which allows for self-reflection, hence the externality is internal to it, in it, and for it—as such it is outside of itself in-and-for-itself. The other immediately is and is not another consciousness, for it exists only in the relation of two self-consciousnesses. Each side of the difference requires the other to exist-for-itself as an independent entity which nonetheless is only being-for-itself insofar as the other is in relation to it. Self-consciousness thus finds itself self-mediated in its two existent extremes.

Each is the middle term to the other, through which each mediates itself with itself and integrates itself with itself. Each is, in its own eyes and in that of the other, an essence immediately existing for itself which at the same time exists for itself in that way only by way of this mediation. They recognize themselves as mutually recognizing each other.” (§184)

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.

Phenomenology of Spirit: Substance as Subject

In the Phenomenology‘s “Preface” Hegel makes some quick, dense, and seemingly unintelligible equations of certain terms. In §22, 37, and 54  of the Miller translation Hegel makes a boggling rundown of conceptual equivalences that to the uninitiated must appear as utterly unintelligible.

Hegel basically ends up making this astonishing chain of equivalencies:

Reason=purpose= self-movement =Subject=Negativity=Being-for-self = Self=Immediacy=Becoming=Concept= Actuality=Substance=Being-in-itself

In §22, Hegel says Reason is purposive activity, and that purpose is what is both unmoved and is self-moving, and this is Subjectivity. Not only that, but this power of self-movement is negativity, and this negativity is the self.  This actually isn’t that unintelligible if one merely slows down.

That Reason is purpose is not a crazy idea; indeed, when you ask for the reason for something, you are usually asking for the purpose for which it is. Purpose being self-moving is also not strange, for purpose in a sense seems to be self-realizing in that something purposive begins with its purpose in potential and ends with its purpose actualized. That Hegel calls this self-movement Subjectivity, however, is definitely something that won’t find much traction in the section; we are told of it, and Hegel swiftly races onward. It isn’t an absurd notion, however, when we think of it in a very broad sense; our subjectivity as we understand it in regular life is fundamentally tied to our own self-movement as free agents to do whatever it is that we want to do; hence, that self-movement is in some basic sense Subjectivity is understandable. That self-movement is negativity is definitely strange if one is not thinking of negation and instead thinks of negativity in the sense of negative and positive, but with negation in mind it’s quite clear why this equivalence is made: that which moves itself must somehow be negating its state of being to change it. Negativity as the self-movement of purpose as a whole, Hegel tells us, is just what the self is. “The self is the sameness and simplicity that relates itself to itself.” Because purpose relates itself both as its beginning and end, and negativity likewise negates whatever it produces and in that sense also relates to itself, this equivalence is formally intelligible even if we have little clue what Hegel really means in these concepts.

In §37, Hegel brings all of what he states in §22 to continue the chain of conceptual connections.

He elaborates an addition to negativity; it is now the distinction between the I and the Substance it investigates. In this section, Hegel elaborates on the meaning of Substance as Subject. The negativity which separates  the I and Substance is the very power that is the I and the animating soul of Substance—this negativity constitutive of substance, though Hegel does not mention it, is at its most basic determinateness, the being of something by not being another something. Substance is “in disparity with itself,” shows negativity active within it, and negativity is constitutive of Substance’s very being; this is how Hegel cashes out the original enigmatic claim. Substance is Subject because it has negativity, i.e. it has the very same self-moving power as the I.

When it has shown this completely, Spirit has made its existence identical with its essence ; it has itself for its object just as it is, and the abstract element of immediacy, and of the separation of knowing and truth, is overcome. Being is then absolutely mediated ; it is a substantial content which is just as immediately the property of the ‘I’, it is self-like or the Notion.

To skip a bit ahead in the Phenomenology, Spirit in the end shall find nothing but itself in its objects of investigation. The reason is already clear in one sense, first because Spirit too is negativity and the I; secondly—and this shall be shown in the next section—because Spirit is thought and its knowledge of objects is their very Notion; and lastly, because as Hegel intends to show beyond the Phenomenology in his actual philosophy, the entire system of knowledge is one absolute system united and moved by negativity.

Lastly, in §54 Hegel brings forth for a moment the concepts of identity and thought.

The subsistence or substance of anything that exists is its self-identity ; for a failure of self-identity would be its dissolution. Self-identity, however, is pure abstraction ; but this is thinking.

Self-identity is the locus of being that keeps substance together. Self-identity is also pure abstraction in a literal sense: it rips substance away from any connections and determinations, and as Hegel has already told us earlier in the Preface, abstraction is thought. Being, he goes on, is thought. This is meant literally and not in any metaphorical way. Being really is thought for it is a concept of abstraction, yet it is a “thought” that certainly applies to existent beings despite its poverty of meaning. Here Hegel makes a claim that this is the solution to the problem of how Being and thought are one, a claim I’m not sure he keeps quite in this sense in his later system.

Now, since the subsistence of an existent thing is a self-identity or pure abstraction, it is the abstraction of itself from itself, or it is itself its lack of self-identity and its dissolution—its own inwardness and withdrawal into itself—its own becoming.

Here Hegel pulls a fast one on the reader, alluding to something he develops in the future Science of Logic, with becoming. Becoming is vanishing, and since self-identity in abstraction is its own dissolution, its own vanishing, the power of negativity appears freely from it. Substance’s self-identity is its own negativity, its own subjectivity. Substance, having Become, then attains to its own self-determination in accord with its own free self-movement and development via its negativity, a power which allows it to go beyond itself and link to what is different yet freely inherent to it. Thus, Substance constantly dissolves its boundaries—goes beyond itself—only to return to itself freely. This movement broadly maps the path of Spirit which goes beyond itself only to find itself.

Some of the equivalencies aside, it goes to show that Hegel really had something interesting to say in all these seemingly bizarre terms and phrases, however, he was unable to explain them due to the constraints of a Preface, and well… one should wonder what he was thinking when he decided it was a good idea to just throw them out considering the ignorance his readers suffer through no fault of their own on this part.