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Home arrow Sociology arrow Hegel, Love and Forgiveness: Positive Recognition in German Idealism


Repressed Intersubjectivity and Monistic Ontology

My first aim in this section is to reconsider the historical dialogue between Hegelian and Kantian theoretical and practical philosophy from the perspective of tragic and ethical conflict. There has been a renewed focus in recent years on contrasting the Kantian ‘philosophy of the subject’ with an intersubjective Hegelian account of human knowledge and experience.29 Critics of Kant argue that Hegel, at least in his earlier Jena writings, provided a genuinely intersubjective account of human experience in a way that Kant never could. Kant’s philosophy sets up the autonomous subject against a background of equally autonomous and unconnected subjects or legislators. Experience, particularly shared moral experience, is never truly shared.

In this section, I will explore the difference between an account of public reality that relies on the presence of more than one person/potential ethical authority, and an account which assumes that human experience is intersubjective on more than just a practical level. This difference could be characterised as that between practical and ontological intersubjectivity. To explore whether this difference is truly a coherent and useful one, I will begin with some of Hegel’s own remarks about tragic conflict and compare them with an interpretation of an earlier stage of Hegelian consciousness, the master/slave dialectic.

For intersubjectivity, we might conclude, it is necessary that the Other - that person who gives and demands mutual recognition, and the person with whom creative bonds are forged - is relevantly similar to the self. Creon in Sophocles’ tragedy might have been a candidate for this, but the universal law and objective spirit are not. It seems important that, if the human world is to be created intersubjectively by mutually recognising subjects, it should be free of the sort of substantial content that the universal law appear to represent. In terms of creating the ethical world, Kant’s ethics seem to come closer to this ideal than Hegel’s in some respects in presenting a categorical imperative without substantial pre-existing ethical content. In Kant’s ethics, ethical agents are presented as rational and autonomous agents, without having to struggle for subjecthood (and acknowledge objecthood) in the way that Hegel’s beings on the way to self-consciousness must. For this reason, I will examine at this point the sense in which Kant’s ethics, and indeed his wider philosophy, might be regarded as intersubjective.

The most obvious way in which an account of moral philosophy (or indeed any philosophy) can be seen as intersubjective is if the living of an ethical life, by which I mean being an ethical agent at all rather than behaving in an ethically commendable manner, presupposes the existence of other ethical agents. Hegel’s ethics certainly seem to, as indeed it does not seem possible even to be selfconscious without the presence of another potential recogniser and recognisee. However, this is perhaps rather too quick. Whilst there have been many discussions of the concept of recognition, particularly in the English-speaking world, which have attempted to interpret recognition as an explicitly ethical principle, it is not completely clear whether the connection between self-consciousness (for which recognition is necessary, on some accounts) and ethics is quite so unquestionably clear. If an ethical agent is subject to some conflict which arises within the universal law in objective spirit, it is not clear whether that agent has to be fully self-conscious. However, the focus on ethics in Hegel’s work is on the ethical sphere, which is a collection of fully self-conscious ethical agents. Ethics in this sense clearly requires self-consciousness, and the whole concept of the sphere rests on there being more than one member. Whether or not someone could be an ethical or moral agent in some non-Hegelian sense outside of this ethical life is a further question. We might tentatively conclude, then, that the Hegelian account would not allow someone to be an ethical agent as the only person on a desert island.

Equally, the Kantian account of ethics seems quite straightforwardly to require or presuppose the presence of an Other. This is most clearly expressed in the demand that others should be treated as ends and not merely as means. Moreover, just as with the Hegelian demand for mutual recognition as a precondition for self-consciousness, the ethical life seems to rest upon the idea of relevant similarity. As a moral agent performing some act, and therefore a subject, it is morally necessary to treat the Other at the same time as a subject. With the means/end distinction, Kant is referring to the same kind of subjecthood and objecthood that I have used as a framework for the interpretation of Hegel. Whilst the categorical imperative in some of its formulations could be used by a person alone on a desert island (such as a decision about how to treat the wildlife or natural environment), it is quite difficult to see how any of these could produce ethically meaningful results, or how the use of the calculus would produce qualitatively different results than using, for example, the test on whether one could will a nonethical principle (if such a thing exists) to become a universal law.

The crucial difference, of course, is that where Kant’s ethics require the presence of others whom the ethical agent treats as an end or subject, Hegel’s account of self-consciousness and the ethical sphere require their co-operation in according mutual recognition. Moreover, Hegel’s account requires the Other to be the right kind of other, that is, a fully self-conscious in his particular sense, whereas the Kantian account is only one-way. Hegel’s account of the ethical sphere simply does not include any participators that are not self-conscious. One could, in the Hegelian picture, be thwarted in one’s attempts to participate in the ethical life purely by the refusal of others to recognise one and thereby let one in. It could be, and indeed has been suggested that this is a problem for the Hegelian account of self-conscious in general and the ethical life in particular, but it seems a fair claim that the players in the ethical sphere are in some practical way more tightly enmeshed in Hegel’s philosophy than in the philosophy of Kant.

The discussion of reason adds another dimension to the dialogue between Hegel and Kant about intersubjectivity. Reason in Kant is certainly intersubjective, as his comment in the Doctrine of Method that reason has no dictatorial authority demonstrates - reason, for Kant is constituted by the agreement of free individuals. For this reason, and many others, the view of the Kantian subject as radically autonomous is a misunderstanding. For Hegel, the picture is certainly yet more complex, not least because of the difficulty of ascertaining any kind of temporal order in his famous Doppelsatz (the rational is actual, and the actual is rational). Certainly, it would be difficult to argue that the rational is rational for Hegel because it has been designated as such by free, autonomous citizens.

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