On Hegel’s Claim that Self-Consciousness is ‘Desire Itself’

On Hegel’s Claim that  Self-Consciousness is ‘Desire Itself’0%

On Hegel’s Claim that  Self-Consciousness is ‘Desire Itself’ Publisher: www.alhassanain.org/english
Category: Western Philosophy

On Hegel’s Claim that  Self-Consciousness is ‘Desire Itself’

This book is corrected and edited by Al-Hassanain (p) Institue for Islamic Heritage and Thought

Publisher: www.alhassanain.org/english
Category: visits: 2247
Download: 795


search inside book
  • Start
  • Previous
  • 9 /
  • Next
  • End
  • Download HTML
  • Download Word
  • Download PDF
  • visits: 2247 / Download: 795
Size Size Size
On Hegel’s Claim that  Self-Consciousness is ‘Desire Itself’

On Hegel’s Claim that Self-Consciousness is ‘Desire Itself’

Publisher: www.alhassanain.org/english

This book is corrected and edited by Al-Hassanain (p) Institue for Islamic Heritage and Thought

Alhassanain (p) Network for Islamic Heritage and Thought

On Hegel’s Claim that

Self-Consciousness is ‘Desire Itself’

(‘Begierde überhaupt ’)

By Robert B. Pippin

University of Chicago


Table of Contents

I 3

II 4

III 13

IV 17

V 24

Notes 25


One of Hegel’s main concerns in the revolutionary book he wrote in Jena while only in his thirties, hisPhenomenology of Spirit , is a familiar modern philosophical concern: the attempt to understand the various competencies involved in distinctly human sapience and agency, and, especially the complex inter-relations among all such competencies. So there are in the book accounts of sensory receptivity, perception, judgment, generalization, inference, self-consciousness,nomic necessity, justification, as well as of intention, purpose, practical reason, linguistic community and sociality in general. Hegel’s account is unusual in that it is conducted via a procedure he invented, a “phenomenology,” or a “science of the experience of consciousness.”[1] This new procedure at the very minimum and somewhat crudely summarized involved imagining possible experiences restricted to one or some set of competencies, or in some specific relation, and then demonstrating by a series of essentiallyreductio ad absurdum arguments that such an imagined experience really could not be a possible or coherent experience, thus requiring some addition or alteration to the imagined picture, and so a new possibility to be entertained. Eventually such a testing of some model of experience became so detailed and rich that it amounted to an examination of the possibility and viability of a whole historical form of life, a historical experience.

So far, this should sound unusual but, aside from Hegel’s highly idiosyncratic innovations in philosophical German, comprehensible and “trackable ” in the text. But there is a point in the progression of topics where puzzlement can easily become complete bafflement. It occurs in the fourth chapter on “self-consciousness” when he suddenly says: “Self-consciousness is desire itself (Begierde überhaupt ).” I want to try to understand the meaning and philosophical motivation for this claim.

Since the topics of self-consciousness, together with another to which it is deeply linked, freedom, are far and away the most important topics in what we call German Idealism, I propose to begin with the introduction of the idea of the centrality of self-consciousness in human sapience by Immanuel Kant.


Kant held that what distinguishes an object in our experience from the mere subjective play of representations is rule-governed unity. His famous definition of an object is just “that in the concept of which a manifold is united.” (B137) This means that consciousness itself must be understood as a discriminating, unifying activity, essentially as judging, and not as the passive recorder of sensory impressions. His main interest in the argument of the deduction was to show first that the rules in question cannot be wholly empirical rules, all derived from experience, that there must be rules for such rules that cannot be derived, or pure concepts of the understanding, and secondly that these non-derived rules have genuine objective validity, are not subjective impositions on an independently received manifold, that the a priori prescribed “synthetic unity of consciousness” “…is not merely a condition that I myself require in knowing an object, but is a condition under which any intuition must stand in order to become an object for me.” (B138) Kant seems to realize that he gives the impression that for him consciousness is a two-step process; the reception of sensory data, and then the conceptualization of such data, but he works hard in the pursuit of the second desideratum to disabuse his readers of that impression.

Aside from some Kant scholars, there are not many philosophers who still believe that Kant proved in this argument that we possess synthetic a priori knowledge, although there is wide admiration for the power of Kant’s arguments about, at least, causality and substance. But there remains a great deal of interest in his basic picture of the nature of conscious mindedness. For the central component of his account,judgment, is not a mental event that merely happens, as if causally triggered into its synthetic activity by sensory stimuli. Judging is an activity undertaken, sustained and resolved by a subject and that means that it is normatively structured (the rules of judgment are rules about what ought to be judged, how our experience ought to be organized, not rules describing how we do judge) and, to come to the point of contact with Hegel that is the subject of the following, judging and so consciousness must be inherentlyreflective orapperceptive . (I cannot beundertaking an activity , trying to get it right in making up my mind, without in some sense knowing I am undertaking it.)So all consciousness is inherently, though rarely explicitly, self-conscious. But what could be meant by “inherently,” or “in some sense knowing I am undertaking it”? Inwhat sense am I in a relation to myself in any conscious relation to an object, especially if, to adoptSartrean language, it is “non-thetic ,” not a two place intentional relation?[2]

Hegel’s own most famous discussion of these issues is found in the first four chapters of his 1807Phenomenology of Spirit . The first three chapters of that book are grouped together under the heading “Consciousness” and the fourth chapter is called simply “Self-Consciousness.” (That fourth chapter has only one sub-section, called “The Truth of Self-Certainty” and that will be the focus of the following discussion. [3] ) Accordingly, especially given the extraordinarily sweeping claims Hegel makes about his indebtedness to the Kantian doctrine of apperception[4] , one would expect that these sections have something to do with the Kantian points noted above, and so with the issue of the self-conscious character of experience and the conditions for the possibility of experience so understood. But there has been a lot of understandable controversy about the relation between the first three chapters and the fourth. Since the fourth chapter discusses desire, life, a struggle to the death for recognition between opposed subjects, and a resulting Lord-Bondsman social structure, it has not been easy to see how the discussion of sense-certainty, perception and the understanding is beingcontinued . Some very influential commentators, likeKojève , pay almost no attention in to the first three chapters. They write as if we should isolate the chapter on Self-Consciousness as a free-standing philosophical anthropology, a theory of the inherently violent and class-riven nature of human sociality. (There are never simply human beings inKojève’s account. They are only Masters and Slaves.) Others argue that in Chapter Four, Hegel simply changes the subject to the problem of sociality. We can see why it might be natural for him to change the subject at this point, but it is a different subject. (Having introduced the necessary role of self-consciousness in consciousness, Hegel understandably changes the topic to focused questions like: whatis self-consciousness? What is a self? What is it to be a being for which things can be, to useBrandom’s language, who offers hiswon version of the change-of-subjectinterpretation. ) More recently, some commentators, like John McDowell andPirmin Stekeler-Weithofer , have argued that there is actually neither a new beginning nor a shift in topics in Chapter Four. In McDowell’s treatment (which I will concentrate on later) the problem remains just the one that emerged in the first three chapters: how to understand the right “equipoise” between independence and dependence in the relations between subjects and objects. What appear to be theorectic and social issues of Chapter Four are “figures” or analogies for what remains the problem of the mind’s passive dependence on objects and active independence of them in our experience of the world, in just the sense sketched above in the summary of Kant (i.e. neither subjective imposition, nor merely passive receptive dependence). So for McDowell, by “desire” Hegel does not mean to introduce the topic of desire as a necessary element in the understanding ofconsciousness itself (as the text would seem to imply). Rather, says McDowell, “ ‘Desireüberhaupt ’ functions as a figure for the general idea of negating otherness, by appropriating or consuming, incorporating into oneself what at first figures as merely other.”[5] And “life,” the next topic in the chapter, is said to exemplify the structure ofder Begriff ; let us say: the basic logical structure of all sense-making.[6] The struggle to the death for recognition is said to be an “allegory” and so forth. And McDowell asserts that Chapter Four does not yet introduce the issue of sociality at all, despite the famous phrase there about the new presence of an “I that is aWe and aWe that isan I .”

This interpretation has the very great virtue of preserving a connection with the first three chapters, but, I will argue, it is a forced interpretation, insensitive to theradicality of what Hegel actually proposes. I want to argue that Hegel means what he says when he says that self-consciousnessis “desireüberhaupt ” and means that to be relevant to the question of theapperceptive nature of consciousness itself.[7]

Here stated all at once is the thesis I would like to attribute to Hegel.(That is, in Chapter Four. The entire book is a meditation on self-consciousness, on the becoming self-consciousness ofGeist .) I think that Hegel’s position is that we misunderstand all dimensions of self-consciousness, fromapperceptive awareness, to simple, explicit reflection onmyself , to practical self-knowledge of my own so-called “identity,” by considering any form of it as in any way observational or inferential or immediate or any sort of two-place intentional relation. However we come to know anything about ourselves (or whatever it is we take for granted about ourselves in attending to the world), it is not by observing an object, nor by conceptualizing an inner intuition, nor by any immediate self-certainty. From the minimal sense of being aware of being determinately conscious at all (of judging), to complex avowals of who I am, of my own identity and deep commitments, Hegel, I want to say, treats self-consciousness as (i ) a practicalachievement of some sort. Such a relation must be understood as theresult of an attempt , never, as it certainly seems to be, as an immediate presence of the self to itself, and it often requires some sort of striving, even struggle. It, in all its forms, is some mode of mindedness that we must achieve, and that must mean: can fail to achieve and once having achieved can lose. It is nothing like turning the mind’s eye inward to inspect itself. It seemsvery hard to understand why anyone would think that my awareness, say, not just of the lecture I am giving, but whatever kind of awareness I have that I am in the process of giving a lecture should involve any such practical activity. It seems so effortless to be so self-aware; there is no felt desire or striving or struggle involved, and as a report of what seems to me to be the case, it even appears incorrigible. But Hegel wants to claim that as soon as we properly see the error of holding that the self in any self-awareness is immediately present to an inspecting mind, his own interpretation is just thereby implied. (If the self’s relation to itselfcannot be immediate or direct, the conclusion that it is some sort ofto-be-achieved follows for him straightforwardly.)[8] And (ii) he sees such an attempt and achievement as necessarily involving a relation to other people, as inherently social. Why, though, should other people be involved in the intimacy and privacy that characterize my relation to myself?[9]

The central passage where the putative “practical turn” in thePhG takes place is this one.

But this opposition between its appearance and its truth has only the truth for its essence, namely, the unity of self-consciousness with itself. This unity must become essential to self-consciousness, which is to say, self-consciousness isdesire itself. (¶167) (“Begierde überhaupt ,” which could also be translated as “desire in general,” or “desire, generally.” I am following here TerryPinkard’s translation.)

The passage presupposes a larger issue – the way Hegel has come to discuss the double nature of consciousness (consciousness of an object, a this-such, and the non-positional consciousness or implicit awareness of my taking it to be this-such)[10] and so the opposition, or, as he says, the “negativity” this introduces within consciousness, the fact that consciousness is not simply absorbed into (“identified with”) its contents, but “it is and is not” committed to what it thinks.[11] To understand this, we need the following passage from the Introduction.

However, consciousness is for itself its concept, and as a result it immediately goes beyond the restriction, and, since this restriction belongs to itself, it goes beyond itself too. (¶80)[12]

He is actually making two claims here. The first is the premise of his inference: that “consciousness is for itself its concept.” If we understand this properly, we will understand why he feels entitled to the inference, the “and as a result,” the claim that consciousness is immediately “beyond” any restriction it sets “for itself.” He means to say that normative standards and proprieties at play in human consciousness are “consciousness’s own,” arefollowed by a subject, are not psychological laws of thought. This is his version of the Kantian principle that persons are subject to no law or norm other than ones they have subjected themselves to. (This is what is packed into the “for itself” here.) This does not mean either in Kant or in Hegel that there are episodes of self-subjection or explicit acts of allegiance or anything as ridiculous as all that; just that norms governing what we think and do can be said to govern thought and action only in so far as subjects accept such constraints and sustain allegiance; they follow the rules, are not governed by them. How the allegiance gets instituted and how it can lose its gripare matters Hegel is very interested in, but it has nothing to do with individuals deciding about allegiances at moments of time. Or, to invoke Kant again,knowers and doers are not explicable as beings subject to laws of nature (although as also ordinary objects, theyare so subject), but by appeal to their representation of laws and self-subjection to them.

And he means this to apply in ordinary cases of perceptual knowledge too. If I want to know what color a tie is, I shouldn’t decide in my tie shop’s poor light, but take it outside. I do these things because I know what I ought to do in order to see properly; and “knowing how to see properly” is “consciousness being for itself its own concept.” I know what would count as good perceptual reasons for an empirical claim. This is all not to mention that the concepts involved in organizing our visual field are also norms prescribing how the visual field ought to be organized and so they do not function like fixed physiological dispositions. Finally, since the principles involved guide my behavior or conclusions only in so far as they are accepted and followed, they can prove themselves inadequate, and lose their grip. This is what Hegel means in the conclusion of his inference by saying that consciousness “immediately goes beyond this restriction.” It is always “beyond ” any norm in the sense that it is not, let us say, stuck with such a restriction as a matter of psychological fact; consciousness is always in a position to alter norms for correct perception, inferring, law-making or right action. Perception of course involves physiological processes that are species-identical across centuries and cultures, but perceptual knowledge also involves norms for attentiveness, discrimination, unification, exclusion and conceptual organization that do not function like physiological laws. And so (as Hegel says, “as a result’) we should be said to stand always by them and yet also “beyond them.” (This can all still seem to introduce far too much normative variability into a process,perception, that seems all much more a matter of physiological fact. But while Hegel certainly accepts that the physiological components of perception aredistinguishable from the norm-following or interpretive elements, he also insists that they areinseparable in perception itself. As in Heidegger’s phenomenology, there are not two stages to perception; as if a perception of a white rectangular solid which is then “interpreted as” a refrigerator. What wesee is a refrigerator.)

The second dimension of this claim from ¶80 concerns how such consciousness is “beyond itself” in another way. Besides the claim that consciousness, as he says, “negates” what it is presented with, does not merely take in but determines what is the case, the claim is also that ordinary, everyday consciousness isalways “going beyond itself,” neverwholly absorbed in what it is attending to, never simply or onlyin a perceptual state, but always resolving its own conceptual activity; and this in a way that means it can be said both to be self-affirming, issuing in judgments and imperatives, but also potentially “self-negating,” aware that what it resolves to be the case might not be the case. It somehow “stands above” what it also affirms, to use an image that Hegel sometimes invokes. It adds to the interpretive problems to cite his canonical formulation of this point, but it might help us see how important it is for his whole position and why he is using language terms like “negativity” for consciousness itself. (Such terminology is the keyexplicans for his eventual claim that self-conscious consciousness is desire.) This is from the “Phenomenology” section of the last version of hisEncyclopedia (The “Berlin Phenomenology” again).

The I is now this subjectivity, this infinite relation to itself, but therein, namely in this subjectivity, lies its negative relation to itself,diremption , differentiation, judgment.The I judges, and this constitutes it as consciousness; it repels itself from itself; this is a logical determination. (BPhG , 2, my emphasis)

The large question to which Hegel thinks we have been brought to by his account of consciousness in the first three chapters is: justwhat is it for a being to be not just a recorder of the world’s impact on one’s sense, but to befor itself in its engagements with objects? What is it in generalfor a being to be for itself , for “itself to be at issue for it in its relation with what is not it”? (This is the problem that arose with the “Kantian” revelation in theUnderstanding chapter of thePhG that, in trying to get to the real nature of the essence of appearances, “understanding experiences only itself,” which, he says, raises the problem: “the cognition ofwhat consciousness knows in knowing itself requires a still more complex movement.”(¶167,m.e .) ) This is the fundamental issue being explored in Chapter Four. That the basic structure of the Kantian account is preserved until this point is clear from:

With that first moment, self-consciousness exists asconsciousness , and the whole breadth of the sensuous world is preserved for it, but at the same time only as related to the second moment, the unity of self-consciousness with itself. (¶167)[13]

This passage and indeed all of ¶167 indicate that Hegel does have in mind a response to the problem of a self-conscious consciousness (of the whole breadth of the sensible world) developed in the first three chapters (whatis the relation to itself inherent in any possible relation to objects?), and that he insists on a common sense acknowledgement that whatever account we give of a self-determining self-consciousness, it is not awholly autonomous or independent self-relating; the “sensuous world” must be preserved.

But he then suddenly makes a much more controversial, pretty much unprepared for, and nota all recognizably Kantian, claim.

But this opposition between its appearance and its truth has only the truth for its essence, namely, the unity of self-consciousness with itself. This unity must become essential to self-consciousness, which is to say, self-consciousness isdesire itself. (¶167)

Hegel is talking about an “opposition” between appearance and truth here because he has, in his own words, just summarized the issue of consciousness’s “negative” relation to the world and itself this way.

Otherness thereby exists for itas a being , that is, as adistinguished moment , but, for it, it is also the unity of itself with this distinction as asecond distinguished moment. (¶167)

That is, consciousness may be said to affirm a judgment, but since it has thereby negated any putative immediate certainty, since it is also always “beyond itself,” its eventual “unity with itself,” its satisfaction that what it takes the be the case is the case and can be integrated with everything else it takes to be case and has been judged by the relevant norm, requires theachievement of a “unity with itself,” not any immediate certainty. (This is his echo of the Kantian point that the unity of apperception must be achieved; contents must be “brought” to the unity of apperception.)

But still, at this point, the gloss he gives on the claim that “self-consciousness is desire” is not much help. The gloss is, as if an appositive, “This [the unity of self consciousness with itself] “must become essential to self-consciousness, which is to say, etc.” The first hint of a practical turn emerges just here when Hegel implies that we need to understand self-consciousness asa unity to be achieved , that there is some “opposition” between self-consciousness and itself, a kind of self-estrangement, which, he seems to be suggesting, we are moved to overcome. The unity of self-consciousness withitself “ muß ihm wesentlich werden ,” must become essential to the experiencing subject, a practical turn of phrase that in effect almost unnoticed serves as the pivot around which the discussion turns suddenly practical. (As we shall see, it eventually does “become essential” as a result of a putative encounter with another and opposing self-conscious being. And it is clearly practical in the sense in which we might say to someone, “You’re wasting chances for advancement; your career mustbecome essential to you.”)

In the next paragraph he brings these themes together in the following way.

Self-consciousness, which is utterlyfor itself and which immediately marks its object with the character of the negative, that is, which is initiallydesire , will thus learn even more so from experience about this object’s self-sufficiency. (¶168)

Since the self-conscious aspect of ordinary empirical consciousness is much more like a self-determination, or one could say a resolve or a committingoneself ( what Fichte called a self-positing) than a simple self-observation or direct awareness, he begins again to discuss consciousness as a “negation” of the world’s independence and otherness. We are overcoming the indeterminacy, opacity, foreignness, potential confusion and disconnectedness of what we are presented with by resolving what belongs together with what, tracking objects through changes and so forth.[14] Hegel then makes another unexpected move when suggests that we consider the most uncomplicated and straightforward experience of just this striving ororectic for-itself-ness , what he calls life.

By way of this reflective turn into itself, the object has becomelife . What self-consciousness distinguishes from itselfas existing also has in it, insofar as it is posited as existing, not merely the modes of sense­-certainty and perception. It is being which is reflected into itself, and the object of immediate desire is somethingliving …( ¶168)

This is the most basic experience[15] of what it is to be at issue for oneself as one engages the world. Objects are not merely external existents, “not merely the modes of sense-certainty and perception ” (although they are also that) but now also, in order to move beyond the empty formality of “I am the I who is thinking these thoughts”) they are considered asobjects for the living subject , as threats to, means to, or indifferent to such life-sustaining. This brute or simplefor-itself quality of living consciousness (which form of self-relation we share with animals) will not remain the focus of Hegel’s interest for long, but, if it is becoming plausible that Hegel is indeed trying to extend the issue raised in the Consciousness section (and neither changing the subject, nor repeating the problem and desideratum in a figurative way) it already indicates what was just suggested: that he is moving quickly away from Kant’s transcendental-formal account of theapperceptive nature of consciousness.The I is “for itself” in consciousness for Kant only in the sense that the I (whoever of whatever it is) must be able to accompany all my representations. The world is experienced as categorically ordered because I in some sense order it (Ithink it) and that activity is not merely triggered into operation by the sense contents of experience. It is undertaken, but I do so only in the broad formal sense of temporally unifying the contents of consciousness, bringing everything under the unity of a formally conceivedapperceptive I. (Every content must be such that one continuous I can think it.) The “I”is just the unityeffected . The subject’s relation to objects is a self-relation only in this sense, and Hegel has introduced what seems like a different and at first arbitrary shift in topics to my sustaining my own life as the basic or first or most primary model of this self-relation, not merely sustaining the distinction between successions of representations and a representation of succession.

It is not arbitrary because Hegel has objected, and will continue to object throughout his career, to any view of the “I” in “I think” as such a formal indicator of the “the I or he or it” which thinks. In Hegel’s contrasting view, while we can make a general point about the necessity for unity in experience by abstracting from any determination of such a subject and go on to explore the conditions of such unity, we will not get very far in specifying such conditions without, let us say, more determination already in the notion of the subject of experience. This criticism is tied to what was by far the most widespread dissatisfaction with Kant’s firstCritique (which Hegel shared) and which remains today its greatest weakness: the arbitrariness of Kant’s Table of Categories, the fact that he has no way of deducing from “the ‘I think’ must be able to accompany all my representations”what the Imust think, what forms it must employ, in thinking its representations. The emptiness of Kant’s “I” is directly linked to theungroundedness and arbitrariness of his Table of Categories.[16]

However, understanding this charge would take us deep into Hegel’s criticisms of Kantian formality. What we need now is a clearer sense of what Hegel is proposing, not so much what he is rejecting. Let me first complete a brief summary of the themes in Chapter Four (once we begin reading it this way) and then turn again to McDowell’s objections to such a reading and to his alternative.

As we have seen, if a self-conscious consciousness, is to be understood as striving in some way then the most immediate embodiment of such a striving would be a self’s attention to itself as a living being.[17] That is how it is immediately for itself in relation to other objects. Living beings, like animals, do not live in the way non-living beings (like rocks or telephones) merely exist; they must strive to stay alive. Life must be led, sustained and this gap between my present life and what I must do to sustain it in the future is what is meant by calling consciousnessdesire as lack or gap, and so a negation of objects as impediments. If consciousness and desire can be linked as closely as Hegel wants to (that is, identified) then consciousness is not an isolatable registering and responding capacity of the living being that is conscious. And if this all can be established then we will at this step have moved far away from considering a self-conscious consciousness as a kind of spectator of the passing show and moved closer to considering it as an engaged, practical being, whose practical satisfaction of desire is essential to understanding the way the world originally makes sense to it, is intelligible at all. (Obviously this claim has some deep similarities with the way Heidegger insists thatDasein’s unique mode of being-in-the-world isSorge , or care and with Heidegger’s constant insistence that this has nothing to do with a subject projecting its pragmatic concerns onto a putatively neutral, directly apprehended content.)

At points Hegel tries to move away from very general and abstract pointsabout living beings and desire and to specify the distinctive character of desire that counts as “self-consciousness,” as was claimed in his identification. He wants, that is, to distinguish actions that are merely the natural expression of desire, and a corresponding form of self-consciousness that is a mere sentiment of self, from actions undertaken in order to satisfy a desire, the actions of a being that does not just embody its self-sentiment but can be said to act on such a self-conception. He wants to distinguish between natural or animal desire from human desire and so tries to distinguish a cycle of desires and satisfactions that continually arise and subside in animals from beingsforwhom their desires can be objects of attention, issues at stake,reasons to be acted on or not. He then identifies a further condition for this distinction that is perhaps the most famous claim in thePhenomenology .

It is this one.“ Self-consciousness attains its satisfaction only inanother self -consciousness.”(¶175). He specifies this in an equally famous passage from ¶178. “Self-consciousness existsin andfor itself because and by way ofits existing in and for itself foran other ; i.e., it exists only as recognized.”