Home Sociology Hegel, Love and Forgiveness: Positive Recognition in German Idealism
Monistic Ontology, Tragedy and Theology
How can a monistic ontology best make a case for itself in the face of the repression thesis, and similar objections raised by Levinas and others? Recall?ing arguments made in this chapter and elsewhere, there are the following three major objections:
1. (Theunissen, Habermas et al) - a monistic ontology such as that ofHegel
means there can be insufficient distance between the subjects to make genuine intersubjectivity possible.
2. (Levinas) - a monistic ontology in fact introduces too much distance
between the subjects, introducing an unwarranted rupture between the ethical and the ontological by prioritising the ontological.
3. A monistic ontology can only exist if supported by a range of theological
theses that are unwarranted. At its heart must be a mysterious divine unity we have no reason to believe exists.
There are more potential objections, but most fall into one of these three categories, broadly speaking. 1 and 2 are diametrically opposed, but 3 might be held in connection with 1 (or, less obviously, in connection with 2). It is interesting to note that the first two are motivated by concerns from practical philosophy and the third with concerns from theoretical philosophy. As I have dealt in some detail with the first two objections, I will now discuss the third in the context of tragic conflict, which, as I argue in Chapter Five, has a particular relevance for forgiveness.37
One practical objection to the view that Hegel argues for an intersubjective reality is the presence in the Phenomenology of the discussion of tragic conflict and the human and divine laws. Whilst the master/slave dialectic describes an attempt to struggle for recognition and thereby in some sense approach intersubjectivity, the discussion of tragic conflict in the ‘Spirit’ section of the same work in which the master/slave dialectic appears to describe a situation in which the possibility of intersubjectivity is denied from the beginning as structurally impossible. It is particularly relevant to the concerns of this chapter because it is, at least on my interpretation, an example of the monological nature of Hegel’s philosophy preventing intersubjectivity.38 It is the interplay of the human and the divine laws which makes it impossible for Antigone to act as an intersubjective agent or a moral agent. I also discuss a reply that might be made to such an argument, which focuses on the difference between the Attic Greek and Christian worlds. As part of the examination of this reply, I examine briefly the role played by Hegel’s theology in his account of intersubjectivity. This involves referring to Horstmann’s discussion of Hegel’s monistic ontology.
For Hegel, tragic conflict occurs when there is a clash of two justified ethical authorities. His discussion of tragedy in the Phenomenology in paragraphs 46975 focuses on Sophocles’ Antigone.3 The eponymous heroine is in a position where she must decide whether to follow the divine law and bury her brother, or the human law represented by her uncle King Creon which prohibits this action. Hegel expresses this conflict as applied to the subject in terms of individuality. The essential law, Hegel claims, is the unity of both the divine and the human laws, and both aspects are present in human action whether or not the actor is consciously aware of the claims of each authority. Guilt is present in a conscious form in the case of explicit awareness, and an unconscious form in the case of what he terms ‘implicit’ awareness.40 When, in the case of implicit awareness, the actor acts, he must acknowledge the actuality of the opposite act, for the whole of what is ethically right is actual. This has serious consequences for his individuality and the reality of his self:
Thereby, however, the agent surrenders his character and the reality of his self, and
has utterly collapsed. His being lies in belonging to his ethical law, as his substance; in
acknowledging the opposite law, however, he has ceased to find his substance in this law;
and instead of reality this has become an unreality, a mere scntiment, a frame of mind’.41
The conflict, in many ways, is really no conflict at all. The tragedy is that it is impossible for an ethical actor in these pagan times to actualise both elements of what is in fact one universal law. In the context of Hegel’s earlier discussion of the master/slave dialectic, the ethical actor has ceased to become a subject, the source of self-consciousness, an autonomous rational agent, but is an object subject to the combination of the law and contingent circumstances.
The possibility of being an ethical agent able to actualise both the human and the divine laws in such a situation depends, for Hegel, on the movement out of pagan times. More specifically, the possibility of Aufhebung/sublation of this divide, the essential reality of the identity-in-difference of human and divine laws, depends on the revelation of God in Christ.42 This brings us to the concept of mediation by something outside of the ethical actors, which could be conceived as a potential practical problem for any account of intersubjectivity in Hegel which argues for positive, wide-ranging applications of the concepts of self-consciousness, recognition and intersubjectivity.
Hegel’s discussion of tragedy in this part of the Phenomenology has many interesting points of comparison with the discussion of self-consciousness in the master/slave dialectic of paragraphs 178-96. The master/slave dialectic is also a conflict, a fight not between two aspects of a universal ethical law but a struggle for self-consciousness and subjecthood that can only be achieved through recognition. The master enslaves the slave, treating him only as an object but thereby perversely robbing himself of the opportunity for mutual recognition - only a self-conscious subject can recognise another self-conscious subject. The slave is robbed of the opportunity to be recognised by the master’s refusal to recognise him. Again, there is the argument that both aspects of the person’s being (here this refers to objecthood and subjecthood) are actual, but both the master and the slave fail to acknowledge one aspect of their being (respectively, object and subject). At the point of the master/slave dialectic, however, we cannot speak of guilt or of tragedy, as full self-consciousness has not been reached. In tragedian terms, the master/slave dialectic is a dumb-show, as neither character has developed the voice they need to participate in the ethical life.
It seems that once the struggle for self-consciousness and mutual recognition has been won, whether or not this takes place at a stage of individual human psychological moral development, it is still possible to be robbed of one’s status as a fully autonomous agent and a subject in this context simply by virtue of contingent ethical circumstances. The only way that Antigone could have retained her position as a subject would be for her to have fulfilled or actualised both the human and the divine laws, which in the practical circumstances in which she found herself would have been impossible.
Since Antigone is literally destroyed, the next question which suggests itself is whether the kind of conflict we find in Sophocles’ drama is also present in everyday life, and therefore whether the ethical consequences might ever trouble us, particularly those who would reject the existence of a divine law. Could the tragic conflict also be said to be present when a more quotidian clash of responsibilities occurs, such as a long-held promise that conflicts with some crucial last-minute responsibility? It seems clear that the Hegelian picture of the ethical life would not allow for any kind of categorical imperative, let alone a complicated moral calculus to decide whether or not one would will the action to become universal law. The universal law, for Hegel, exists already and there are likely to be circumstances in which we cannot actualise all of it. How serious is, then, the transformation of the ethical subject into an object, as we would say today, a victim of circumstances? It does not seem to inhibit rational autonomy in a practical, Kantian sense, and yet it would seem impossible to be an autonomous object. Is intersubjectivity destroyed? The ‘subject’ here that is enslaving the ethical actor is the universal law of objective spirit, not an egomaniac master.
The pagan world, then, seems to lack the kinds of structures that would make possible true intersubjectivity, or at least would seem to lead to certain circumstances beyond the control of the individual subject that prevent her from acting as an intersubjective ethical agent. To what extent is this a devastating criticism of Hegel’s account? Looked at from one angle, it is no criticism at all. Hegel is not trying to write a prescriptive ethics, and it might very well be the case that not everyone is capable of being a self-conscious agent capable of intersubjective cognition and action. It is a valid question, however, to ask to what extent his account of an intersubjective world, if that is indeed what he provides, reflects our own experience of the world.
Hegel’s conception of the role of God, specifically the role of the Christian triune God, in Spirit and therefore intersubjectivity, is essential to any thorough discussion of the significance of the Antigone, and therefore of Hegel’s view of tragedy in general. Antigone’s failure to act as a true intersubjective agent is in the context of the Attic Greek, pre-Christian world. It is therefore important to examine how this differs from the world of the late 2nd (and early 3rd) millennium ad. The question of the relationship between Hegel and Christianity is a rich and wide-ranging one, which unfortunately can receive only the briefest of discussions here. It is specifically with the role of the Christian God as regards intersubjectivity with which I will be concerned here.
To begin this discussion, it is necessary to return to the basic distinction Hegel makes between three types of spirit - subjective, objective and absolute. As Paul Redding points out, ‘the study of subjective spirit might be seen as roughly equivalent to what we now think of as ‘philosophy of mind’.43 In many ways, this is where intersubjectivity resides - the idea of the self-conscious subject inhabiting a world of rule-governed interactions. This, as Redding states, is where an individual can find recognition. This is where the conditions of selfconsciousness can be met. ‘Objective spirit’ then, is where spirit is objectified in these particular realms. In other words, objective spirit is the subject of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Subjective spirit, of course, pre-supposes objective spirit. The unification of subjective and objective spirit takes place in ‘absolute spirit’. Redding sees absolute spirit as the ‘objectification’ of the products of the cultural practices of art, religion and philosophy, that is, spheres of culture.44 This objectification, he claims, gives the products a certain autonomy from the concrete cultures from which they originate. One might think that the opposite is true - that any kind of objectification would root the products of the cultural sphere in the concrete culture - but Redding sees the difference between absolute and subjective spirit as underlining precisely their movement out of a finite, historically-located society. The attempt is to integrate normativity with a naturalistic position, and to hold fast to the idealist commitment to the rationality of norms as they apply to the individual. Redding is of the opinion that Hegel’s success is limited in this respect, although not negligible.
The ultimate conflict, then, is once more between a naturalistic account and one which can be described as ‘metaphysical’ or ‘transcendental’ - one which the norms of human experience are grounded in concrete, everyday reality or in which they are grounded in some monological, non-naturalistic account, perhaps a supernatural one. It is at this point that Hegel’s account of Christianity becomes once more particularly important. The incarnation of God in the person of Christ has, as Redding sees it, a parallel in philosophy. Christ coming down to earth brought God into the world. In an analogous manner:
Hegel brings the norms of thought itself into the world where they are objectified in the social life of human communities as a series of finite ‘shapes’ of consciousness and self-consciousness, all destined, like individuals, to appear in the world, have a short existence, and then die off the be replaced by something different.45
God, then appears as finite by coming down to earth. The finite, concrete and particular in objective and subjective spirit pass into the infinite universal in absolute spirit, and the coming of Jesus demonstrates the opposite. Rather than the fact that God is or can be affected by finitude undermining the idea of absolute spirit, it undermines the sceptic or relativist who takes the fact of the finitude of norms in objective or subjective spirit as a license to claim that ‘everything is allowed’, as Jacobi would put it. The particular connection between the finite and the infinite, objective and subjective spirit on the one hand and absolute spirit on the other, pulls the rug from under the sceptic.
At this point, we can make a tentative connection with the universal and divine laws. In the Attic Greek, pre-Christian world, there was no conception of God as finite in the way accepted by today’s monotheistic religions. The relationship between the finite and the infinite therefore had an entirely different character for the inhabitants of that world. The concept of absolute spirit therefore applies in an entirely different way. In the pagan world, as Jagentowicz-Mills writes, ‘conflict is always ‘resolved’ on one side or another, but the two laws are inextricably bound up with each other such that the fulfilment of one calls forth the other’s revenge.’46 The two laws, divine and human, have their source in subjective and objective spirit respectively. It is only in absolute spirit that they can be aufgehoben.
For my analysis of self-consciousness and recognition, developed fully in Chapter Four, this has the following consequences. Antigone cannot be a truly self-conscious intersubjective agent because she can only ever be an object as regards whichever law she is transgressing, which in this case is the human law with its root in objective spirit. We could also make the a similar claim about Creon, who is a subject with regards to this human law when he makes the pronouncement that anyone found burying the body of Polynices will be sentenced to death. Later in the play, after the point of anagnorisis, he is an object with regard to the law, but this time it is the divine law.47 There is no possibility for either of the characters to be both a subject and an object with regard to this law. Only the unity of the divine and human laws in absolute spirit can offer this possibility of ambiguity between objecthood and subjecthood. There is no possibility of recognition between Antigone and her uncle, no possibility of genuine intersubjective action with each individual treating themselves and the other as subjects and objects simultaneously.
In practical terms, it remains to explain this analysis with regard to history as well as our modern world. Whilst we can conclude from Hegel’s analysis of Greek tragedy that absolute spirit is crucial to the possibility of intersubjectivity, it remains to be seen what practical consequences for his account this will have. Does the possibility of intersubjective action rely on all relevant parties’ acceptance of the triune nature of God, or at least some interpretation of the person of Christ as having a human as well as a divine nature ? This does not seem to be the case, as an awareness and acceptance of absolute spirit is presumably not required simply in order to abide by a law that is objectified in it. More central is the following question - is the possibility of law in absolute spirit something that relies on the (prospectively) intersubjective action taking place after the historical point at which God sent his son, and himself in human form, to the earth? This would equally seem problematic, as it is surely the case that absolute spirit existed before this historical time. There would also be a theological question about the triune nature of God and change throughout time.
Relevant to these considerations is the fact of Hegel’s advocation of religious pluralism and strong stance against religious fundamentalism.48 If it were the case that true intersubjectivity could only be realised within one specific religious community, such statements as the following would be more than a little puzzling:
Those who ‘seek the Lord’ and assure themselves, in their uneducated opinion, that they possess everything immediately instead of undertaking the work of raising their subjectivity to the cognition of truth and knowledge of objective right and duty, can produce nothing but folly, outrage and the destruction of all ethical relations.49
The only way to begin to answer these questions is through an examination of Hegel’s theology and his views on Christian philosophy specifically. As Christopher Irwin points out, there has been a strong tendency to see Hegel as a secularist in the mould of Marx or Feuerbach.50 Such a view might amount to a view of God that is anthropomorphic in a particular sense, seeing God as a creation of man or, at the very least, a canvas for projection of real or imagined human qualities. At its least atheistic end, such a position would embrace the view (Irwin interprets it as an Enlightenment view) of God as subject to the limits of human thought. Irwin correctly rejects this view of Hegel as a ‘prophet of secular humanism, whereby the human subsumes the divine.51
At the same time, of course, there is the opposing view which sees the divine as swallowing up the human in a kind of monological divine conception that could be seen as pantheism. Hegel’s statements about God as the ultimate origin and end of philosophy could be seen as evidence for such a view. Irwin sees Hegel as steering a path between these two courses in the form of a dialectical reading. If this view is convincing, it will have important consequences for any view of intersubjectivity in Hegel’s work.
One of the most important questions to be answered concerns the precise relationship of God and human beings. Whilst Hegel does argue for religious pluralism, he also thinks that the Christian religion uniquely allows this philosophy to reach the truth of its content in conceptual form. There is therefore a particular relationship in the case of Christianity between that faith and philosophy in terms of shared concepts and mutual conceptual enlightenment. The price of this, as Irwin points out, is that heresy is risked if doubt is thrown on the idea that God might exist outside of this field of philosophical discourse.
The term ‘pantheism’ is of course a fairly loaded one, in theology as well as the philosophy of religion. In this short section, I will examine whether a monological divine conception as explored by Irwin can be described as a pantheistic one, and, if not, what the crucial differences are between this and a monological divine conception that might be said to apply to the work of Hegel. In this way, I hope to clarify precisely what a monological divine conception might mean for Hegel and for us.
Pantheism is defined by Eric Steinhart in the following way: ‘A pantheist claims that (1) all existing things are unified; and (2) the maximally-inclusive unity is divine’. He points to recent work by MacIntyre, Levine and Oppy as examples of scholars who accept this definition. Levine describes pantheism as ‘the belief in one God, a God identical to the all-inclusive unity, but [the pantheist] does not believe God is a person or anything like a person.’52 In this way, the two end of the human/divine spectrum identified by Irwin are preserved.
Much of the discussion about whether a certain conception is pantheism will hinge on what is meant by ‘unity’. Levine says that some unities from the history of philosophy are in fact merely ‘formal’ unities, giving, amongst others, the example of Spirit in Hegel and the One in Plotinus as examples of those unities which are not formal in this sense.53 A formal unity, for Steinhart, is something like a heap of sand, as opposed to the non-formal unity that might be represented by an organism or mind. He seems to agree with Levine that the kind of monism represented by Hegel and the neo-Platonists is indeed non-formal unity, as opposed to a part- whole or class-member unity which could be described as ‘formal’. The kind of views of unity held by Hegel or Plotinus are seen by him as ‘relics of seventeenth- and nineteenth-century monisms and idealisms.’54 He says that no-one could seriously argue that reality is an organism or something like mind, and therefore he argues for the opposite view, which he claims is scientifically more coherent.
However, Steinhart is wrong to reduce the various options as concern unity in this sense. The kind of unity which is present in Hegel’s system is not the same kind of unity as would be found in a part-whole or member-class sense, certainly not in the way that might be represented by a heap of sand. This would not be a monological kind of unity, or really any unity at all. When the main part of the discussion concerns intersubjectivity, the example of sand is particularly pertinent. We might imagine the individual human subjects as grains of sand in this system. For intersubjectivity in the sense that Hegel demands, humans would have to be more unified than such grains of sand. In this sense, it is incorrect to refer to Spirit as ‘formal’ unity.
Considering the world as a heap of sand certainly disarms the charge of pantheism, but at too great a cost to someone who wants to argue for a genuine conception of intersubjectivity in the work of Hegel. To argue that this particular monological account is not pantheistic, it is the ‘divine’ part of ‘monological divine conception’ that needs to be examined rather than the particular kind of unity involved in the ‘monological’ aspect. Whilst arguing for a non-pantheistic account of the monological divine conception initially seems more difficult in, for example, Hegel’s Philosophy of Religionwhere, as J.A. Leighton succinctly puts it, ‘God appears as spirit, and nature is his self-externalization’,55it is less difficult in the Logic, where the existence of categories can determine (bestimmen) the bare assertion of the unity as God. 56 In the Phenomenology, it is less difficult again. Using Pippin and Hartmann’s conception of what they call Hegel’s ‘metaphysics’, it becomes possible to give the ‘divine’ a meaning that will not lead to pantheism. 57What Hegel’s monism consists in, for exponents of this ‘nonmetaphysical’ view, is not a quasi-divine intelligence or mysterious supernatural entity, but self-grounding reason which man is a part of just as much as God. To explain the basis of this conception, one must go even further back than the fin de siecle time of J.A. Leighton’s Hegel scholarship, to Meister Eckhardt, whom Hegel quotes with great approval in the Philosophy of Religion-.
The eye with which God sees me is the eye with which I see Him; His eye and my eye are one. In righteousness I am weighed in God, and He in me. If God did not exist, nor would I; if I did not exist, nor would He. 58
Given this analysis of the nature of God and his role in the world, it is impossible to talk about the human being subsumed into the divine, for Spirit is, as J.A. Leighton asserts, the meeting point of God and man.59 Both are equally essential to Spirit, and to self-grounding reason. For this reason, Hegel’s monological divine conception cannot be interpreted as a pantheistic account any more than it could be as a pananthropic one, and the divine does not subsume the human any more than the human subsumes the divine.
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