New book! “Objektiver und absoluter Geist nach Hegel” (May 2018)

In the spring of 2018, the series Critical Studies in German Idealism (Brill Academic Publishers) has published a new volume, which I edited together with my colleague Thomas Oehl.

The volume is titled:

Objektiver und absoluter Geist nach Hegel: Kunst, Religion und Philosophie innerhalb und außerhalb von Gesellschaft und Geschichte

In Objektiver und absoluter Geist nach Hegel. Kunst, Religion und Philosophie innerhalb und außerhalb von Gesellschaft und Geschichte, Thomas Oehl and Arthur Kok offer an extensive selection of papers exploring the wide spectrum of Hegel’s philosophy of spirit from the viewpoint of the distinction between objective and absolute spirit.

Challenging Hegelianism’s current tendency to reduce absolute spirit to objective spirit, the editors have invited a large number of highly-esteemed Hegel scholars to reflect about the domains of absolute spirit (art, religion and philosophy) and their relation to society and history, thereby addressing the universal issue about whether there are cultural phenomena which transcend society and history anew from a Hegelian perspective.

With contributions from:

  • Adolphi, Rainer
  • Appel, Kurt
  • Arndt, Andreas
  • Bertram, Georg W.
  • Buchwalter, Andrew
  • Cobben, Paul
  • Cruysberghs, Paul
  • Dangel, Tobias
  • van Erp, Herman
  • Fulda, Hans Friedrich
  • Gobsch, Wolfram
  • Horstmann, Rolf-Peter
  • Hösle, Vittorio
  • Iannelli, Francesca
  • Iselt, Carolyn
  • Jamme, Christoph
  • Kern, Andrea
  • Knappik, Franz
  • Kok, Arthur
  • Kubo, Yoichi
  • Magrí, Elisa
  • Martin, Christian
  • Menegoni, Francesca
  • Meyer, Thomas
  • Mooren, Nadine / Quante, Michael / Rojek, Tim (co-authored contribution)
  • Nuzzo, Angelica
  • Oehl, Thomas
  • Rödl, Sebastian
  • Rózsa, Erzsébet
  • Sans, Georg
  • Siani, Alberto
  • Stekeler-Weithofer, Pirmin
  • Tóth, Olivér István
  • Weckwerth, Christine
  • Wenz, Gunther
  • Zöller, Günter

Hegel’s reconstruction of Christianity as the historical appearance of Kant’s autonomous subject (Dec 2017)

Lecture for the conference Hegel’s Relevance, 6-8 Dec 2017 @ Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam


It almost goes without saying that Kant’s concept of the autonomous subject has captured everything that is great about the Enlightenment with such intellectual profoundness as well as political and social engagement that it is absolutely without precedent or comparison. Nevertheless, Kant’s philosophy did leave us with a dualism between theoretical and practical philosophy, a gap between boundary-setting purpose of transcendental philosophy, and his practical philosophy which purpose it exactly is to go beyond these boundaries of theoretical reason, opening up a domain of pure practical reason – the domain where the autonomous subject resides. I regard the project of the Phenomenology of Spirit as Hegel’s attempt to identify the precise nature of Kant’s dualism between theoretical and practical reason, as well as to overcome it. It is critical of Kant but first and foremost in the sense that it completes the philosophical project that Kant initiated. In general, I hold the view that Hegel’s analysis and reception of Kant is far more subtle than Hegel is often given credit for, even (or especially) in cases where Hegel’s absolute monism is presented as superior to Kantian dualism. Drawing such oppositions are quite bold and do not do justice to the fact that Hegel gives a highly differentiated account of Kant’s philosophy at several place in his philosophical oeuvre.  However, precisely the topic that I am going to present today – autonomy in relation to Christianity – urges me to point out what I think constitutes a genuine systematic difference between Kant and Hegel: their concept of religion. I argue that the way in which Hegel handles the concept of religion in the Phenomenology (in other works as well, but I will not discuss them here today) is decisively distinct from Kant’s handling of religion in his late works. From Hegel’s discussion with Kant in the Morality chapter of the Phenomenology, it becomes clear, I argue, that he rejects Kant’s concept of religion, and that he develops a quite different conception. For time reasons, I limit myself to a very concise presentation of Kant and Hegel’s Kant-criticism, so that I can spend most of my time on Hegel’s actual reconstruction of Christianity in relation to Kant’s concept of the autonomous subject.

The main argument of Kant’s practical philosophy is that we cannot determine whether our actions are morally good or not. We have no objective knowledge about what drives our actions, hence our conception of what is morally good – that Kant does not deny we have – can never confirmed by reality. Instead of unmasking the objective validity of the morally good, as many philosophers after Kant have done, Kant argues quite brilliantly in the Critique of Practical Reason that one actually has to do the exact opposite: the undisputed validity of the morally good limits all other validity claims. Both our senses and our understanding, being equally incapable of grasping the morally good, are merely finite capacities and hence not allowed to disqualify the morally good. In his “On the deduction of pure practical reason”, Kant makes very clear that if the understanding is given the choice between rejecting the existence of free will or eliminating itself as a criterion for determining the validity of this existence, the only reasonable choice to make is to eliminate itself. This separation between the understanding and reason is highly valued by Hegel for two reasons. Firstly, because the fundamental insight that freedom cannot be conditioned by any other thing, but is itself the condition of everything else; and secondly, because this freedom cannot exist as an immediate and graspable reality, because an immediate reality leaves no room for the difference that is required for individual moral freedom. In Kant, the autonomous subject becomes the rightful arbiter of the world, the decider about good and evil – without question a necessary condition for modern subjectivity and freedom, also for Hegel. Nevertheless, making freedom something ungraspable disconnects it from the real world. As an external arbiter, the autonomous subject remains opposed to the real world, which appears here as the sphere of action. The moral subject can judge and must judge, but it cannot alter reality to ensure that the morally good is indeed realized. The unity of being morally worthy of happiness and actual happiness cannot be guaranteed by the subject. Hence their correspondence is projected outside of the autonomous subject in a divine being, an intelligible creator or author of the world. Though it is a necessary reflection for any reasonable being that it must assert the existence of such entity for accepting its physical existence as being possible worthy of happiness, there is no knowledge and no certainty whether such supreme being in fact exists. It is a matter of faith and belongs to the domain of hope. In his concept of religion, Kant draws the consequences of this position. I argue that we must understand his famous expression that “morality inevitably leads to religion” as that religion introduces a concept of world that is in itself directed at making moral action possible. God becomes the moral lawgiver, the subject-transcending external guarantee for the realization of freedom. Still, the religious world remains conditioned by the as if, it is a necessary imagination in the service of practical reason rather than a means to broaden the scope of knowledge.

When Hegel examines Kant’s position in the Morality chapter from the Phenomenology, his main object of criticism is that this conception of God as moral lawgiver is ambiguous, and in the end contradictory. In fact, I argue that the entire morality chapter can be summarized in one single sentence: Kant’s concept of religion is not yet a concept of what religion is in itself. The transition from morality to religion, which Hegel thinks is necessary as well, is not completed by Kant. Kant remains stuck in an opposition between religion and morality, so that cannot think the true unity of religion and morality. My first argument to support this is exegetical. Hegel writes: “For in the Notion of the moral self-consciousness the two aspects, pure duty and actuality, are explicitly joined in a single unity, and consequently the one, like the other, is expressly without a being of its own, but is only a moment, or is superseded.” (p. 371) This sentence, in which Hegel analyses the postulate of God in relation to the moral worldview, is a surprisingly affirmative evaluation of the moral consciousness in the sense that the pure duty and actuality, say, the ideal and the real, are indeed unified in the moral concept of God as moments of the same unity. Nonetheless, a few lines later it becomes clear what the fundamental shortcoming of this position is: “For the moral consciousness itself, however, its moral view of the world does not mean that consciousness develops therein its own Notion, and makes its this object. It is not conscious of this antithesis either as regards the form or the content; it does not relate and compare the sides of this antithesis with one another, but, in its development, rolls onward, without being the Notion which holds the moments together.” (p. 372) In my view, this is the key to understanding Hegel’s very subtle critique of Kant: on the one hand, the moral standpoint is de facto the absolute position, because it does justice to the unity of the real and the ideal as well as the difference between them (this is what Hegel actually says); on the other hand, however, the moral viewpoint is not conscious about what it is, it has no object of itself – in that sense it is not an absolute position, because the absolute position requires self-consciousness about what it is. In other words, the moral consciousness fails because it is not able to conceive of what it is in itself, an absolute position. Consequently, the contradiction of morality is that has no object that adequately expresses what it is in itself, and the transition into the next shape of consciousness logically entails the introduction of an object that indeed vindicates the truth of morality, i.e. Hegel’s concept of religion.

My second argument is more systematic. The point of departure of the morality chapter is the individual consciousness that knows itself to be the holder of an absolute certainty, viz. that it is free to the extent that it realizes its moral duty. Whereas the content of the moral duty is the Self of the moral consciousness, the relation of consciousness to its duty is a pure self-relation. The question is whether the individual consciousness can realize this pure self-relation. The answer is no, because as an individual consciousness it relates to an external nature from which the pure self-relation exists independently. This however contradicts the supposed absoluteness of the content of the moral duty. Through the course of the morality chapter, Hegel constructs several attempts of the individual consciousness to relate to external reality in order to overcome this problem, and each time, the externality of reality keeps the individual consciousness from succeeding. At first, it seems as if the individual consciousness can overcome the externality of nature by becoming conscience. As conscience, individual consciousness views nature and its manifoldness as irrelevant for the determination of concrete moral action. It is [quote] “the moral genius which knows the inner voice of what it immediately knows to be a divine voice.” (p. 397) However, this absolute self-certainty of individual consciousness is in fact kept in place by a community. It is conviction, a speech-act rather than the substantial truth it claims to be, and the language that is needed to express this conviction is an intersubjectively shared one. As such, there is a relation to others, not external nature but other people. This relation of an intersubjectivity shared conviction that morality is realized in their actions is what Hegel calls the beautiful souls. It is a purely formal recognition that pretends to exist as if reality does not matter, but the certainty that reality is irrelevant can only be upheld be actively keeping reality at distance. [Quote] “… to preserve the purity of its heart, it flees from contact with the actual world.” (p. 400) This position is then opposed by another moral consciousness, that of hard heart, that unmask this purity as hypocrisy: the proclaimed purity of the beautiful is merely posited, and it is action, which is never pure. This opposition between the beautiful soul and the hard heart fixes itself into an absolute opposition that reveals the general deficit of individual consciousness, viz. that it is subjective, either with regard to its self-positing or with regard to its characterization of what action is. The breaking of the hard heart means that when the individual consciousness recognizes itself as an universal consciousness, the opposition between the subjective determination of action on the one hand, and the subjective characterization of action as something necessarily something impure on the other, is sublated. This means, however, that the individual consciousness has no existence in itself altogether. The “word of reconciliation” that Hegel introduces at the end of the morality chapter is not an individual subjective consciousness but “the objectively existent Spirit”. (p. 408)

This objectively existent spirit is, so to say, the hidden presupposition of the moral consciousness. It means that individual consciousness only exists in the context of a community and that this community is not the result of a collective self-positing of individual consciousnesses. Instead, the community is an object for consciousness as something that is always already given to it all the time. The recognition of the absolute spirit as something that is not just the content of the moral law, but as something that actually objectively exists, is what calls religious consciousness. Religion is the appearance of the absolute. In comparison to Kant, religious consciousness is not presented by Hegel as the imaginative production of a moral subject, but necessarily a real community that commits itself to an objectivity of which it believes that it is actual presence of the absolute. Even though Hegel of course has no intention of attributing real knowledge to religious consciousness, his point is that the production of religious imagination cannot be a subjective activity, but is always the activity of a communal spirit – of a people. From the beginning, he makes clear that religion is the self-consciousness of the community, i.e. the divine object of worship reflects – in a less or more developed fashion – what the community is in itself. The relevance of the religion chapter is that it has to become explicit for consciousness itself that the object of worship is in fact produced by the community. In religion, the community recognizes its Self-being in the form of otherness.

These considerations set the stage for reconstructing Christianity as the appearance of the autonomous subject. In the third shape of religious consciousness, revealed religion, the appearance of the absolute spirit is no longer opposed to what the spirit is in itself. The nature of the appearance is neither a natural or sensibly given thing, as is the case in the natural religion, or a manufactured work of art, as it is in the religion of art. For both these forms of religious consciousness the problem is that the Self exists outside of the appearances that function as a representation of the absolute substance – as long as the Self remains external to the absolute substance, there remains a contradiction the substance and its appearance. In the revealed religion, this contradiction is resolved because the substance now appears as a Self, viz. as an absolute being that is both human and divine. Here, the meaning of revealed religion as the religion that conceives of truth as something that is revealed to us, acquires a very specific meaning. Although the basic idea of something being revealed constitutes, at first sight, a rather formal criterion, more about the way we look at things that about what these things are in themselves, Hegel clearly has in mind not the thing that is being revealed but the thing that reveals itself, and this thing cannot be just any random entity. Precisely the activity of revealing has to be understood of as an activity of the Self that results in the appearance of the Self without the Self becoming something other than itself. The thing that appears as the thing that it is in itself, necessarily is a thing that has the shape of a Self. As such, only a thing that is both human and divine can count as a proper object for revealed religion. Consequently, the only possible object of the consciousness of revealed religion is the God-man.

Hegel stages the historical appearance of the religion of the God-man, Christianity, as a consequence from the decline of the Roman empire. In my view, the decline of the Roman empire signifies the definitive loss of tradition that began in the Greek world of the Polis. In the developmental structure of the chapters in the PhdG on spirit, the Roman empire forms the transitional phase from the ethical world of the Polis to the self-alienated spirit or the realm of culture. The self-alienated spirit is opposed to the ethical spirit in the sense that the consciousness of ethical spirit recognizes the actual society in which it lives as an adequate realization of freedom. The societal structure at this stage consists in the horizontal recognition of the citizens, which means that they recognize themselves and each other as being free and equal. This mutual recognition is consciously upheld by all citizens acting in correspondence to the human law. Their conscious relation between their actions and the human law, between form and content so to say, has the shape of the stoic self-consciousness: the concepts of reality immediately express what reality is in itself, form and content are unseparated, the content of the human law determines the acting Self, and freedom is only conceivable by serving the human law. From the beginning, this conception of freedom – perhaps comparable to what we would call positive freedom today – is full of tension. As the stoic self-consciousness ascribes absolute meaning to contingent concepts, the ethical spirit conceives of a historical society, such as the Greek Polis, as something absolute.

However, from an external perspective, the laws of the Polis are absolute insofar as they express the recognition between free and equal citizens, but insofar as they are specific historical laws, there are not absolute. This is best explained in terms of lord and bondsman. The citizen of Polis that realizes his freedom by serving the law, can be compared to the bondsman that serves the lord. For the bondsman, the lord symbolizes its freedom, yet the true freedom lies not in being served but in the act of serving. The ability to serve an external law is conditioned by the inner freedom to restrain inclinations. If the freedom expressed in ethical spirit is this inner freedom, it can never be fully grasped by any historical law. In other words, the freedom that is realized in the ethical spirit is, at the same time, external to ethical spirit. However,  from within the consciousness of ethical spirit, it cannot be accepted that there exists externality for the Polis. As a result, the externality that nonetheless belongs intrinsically to the world of the Polis presents itself as an absolute contestation of the human law. We know that what looks like the manifestation of an external power coming from outside of the human realm must in fact be the power of the Self, but this is not for the consciousness of ethical spirit. Moreover, how an external power and the power of the Self can be the same is not for us either. It is a contradiction that must be resolved.

The first and foremost requirement for consciousness to be able to make the development that is necessary to acquire insight in the absolute Self is that consciousness must recognize that there exists a power external to its reality. Therefore, the stoic consciousness must make a transition into a different shape, viz. the unhappy consciousness. The unhappy consciousness is the consciousness that recognizes that the essence of reality is separated from the objectively given world. The essence of reality is a supersensible entity, ungraspable and not in correspondence with our concepts and determinations of reality. The transition from the stoic consciousness into the unhappy consciousness is mediated by the position of skepticism. Skepticism is the act of absolute negation, i.e. the possibility to claim the exact opposite of any possible truth claim. It is opposed to the stoic consciousness in this sense, because it rejects stoicism’s correspondence between concepts and their objects. It nevertheless shares with the stoic consciousness that it does not give up the certainty of the Self. On the contrary, the skeptic consciousness regards itself as the absolute arbiter of truth. This self-positing of the Self as an absolute Self is indeed the hidden presupposition of the stoic consciousness (who is unaware of the fact that the correspondence that he thinks he discovers between his concepts and reality are as a matter of fact imposed by him), but taken by its own merits the skeptic consciousness is not a valid position either. The skeptic consciousness is an idle consciousness, because he thinks he can decide about the truth. This conviction is grounded in the pure self-certainty and still fends off externality or otherness as a constitutive moment of selfhood. The transition into the unhappy consciousness is only completed when consciousness gives up this self-certainty and acknowledges that the Self of the consciousness is not in any way contained within consciousness. For the unhappy consciousness, the external power is no longer an abstract force but the true Self, in and through which everything else exists. This realization tears up consciousness in the deepest and most radical way imaginable, its Self becomes literary disassociated from the reality of consciousness, the latter is reduced to mere appearance, and consciousness experiences an absolute loss, a loss of the Self, its identity with itself is taken away from him and displaced in the unreachable realm of otherness of the Beyond. In my view, the consciousness’ disassociation from the reality of consciousness and the displacement of the Self in a supersensible realm are two distinct moments of the unhappy consciousness. The displacement of the Self suggests an absolute disconnection between consciousness and the Self, but by disassociating and reducing its reality to mere appearance it nonetheless holds on to this Self. The loss of Self that results in a purely ideological consciousness that is deprived of any attachment to its self-being, would be impossible for Hegel, or at least it has no place in his dialectics.

Not only does Hegel indeed make notable mentions of the unhappy consciousness in the subchapter on revealed religion, also his understanding of historical Christianity in the Realm of Culture as having the form of self-alienation indicates that Hegel sees the unhappy consciousness as the adequate shape to apply to Christian religion. The Roman empire on the other hand is connected to the stoic consciousness. At first sight, this seems questionable. After all, the Roman empire is connected to the state of law, and the state of law is the result of the decline of the Polis in the sense that the ethical world was unable to hold form and content together: the mutual recognition between the free and equal citizens had the shape of historical laws, i.e. laws that belong to a specific tradition. In the state of law, this contradiction is resolved because the laws of society are no longer understood as laws of a specific tradition but as universal laws. Here, the free and equal citizens are not conceived of as natural individuals but as legal persons. The legal person is a formal Self that ‘sets free’ any content. This separation between form and content is characteristic of the state of law, exemplified by the Roman empire. However, the premise of this separation is that the content of the law is irrelevant because its universality and absolute validity is uphold by its form. The indifference towards the content of the law originates from the conviction that there is an correspondence between reality and the Self. Only a Self that is not alienated can be indifferent towards the content of the laws of society. What the Self is not conscious about is that this correspondence does not exist independently from the content of the law. In truth, the correspondence is mediated by a social nature that is historical as well. This absence of historical consciousness about the social conditions of the correspondence between the Self and reality make the Roman empire is my main argument why we have to regard the Roman empire as a historical realization of the stoic consciousness.

The Self of the Roman empire and the substance of the state of law is the Roman emperor, or as Hegel calls it, the Lord of the World. From our perspective, the Lord of the World is the highest shape of the stoic consciousness, the last attempt to uphold the certainty that freedom can be fully realized in a specific historical society. But whereas this certainty is based on the denial or (unconscious) repression of the historicity itself, it is inevitable that these contingencies will manifest themselves at some moment in history, and when they do, they necessarily appear as a destructive force, because they are external to the stoic consciousness. This is a proper example of the logic of history as Hegel sees it. No society can claim to be an absolute and universal realization of freedom: every real society is finite. Moreover, this insight is not given, but it must be learned through a historical process. First, the finiteness of a specific society must be experienced; second, the truth of this experience must be internalized by society. So for the Roman empire, at first, it seems as if the decline of society is caused by external powers, by the barbarian tribes that brought down ancient Rome. The eternal rest and immobility of the state of law is opposed by a just as incessant restless power struggle. The unity of these two elements – the unrest of the power struggle versus the rest of the state of law – seems inconceivable at first. However, what must be learned is that they are one – they are two moments of the same absolute essence. What must be learned, in the end, is that what appears to be a blind and external force, seemingly targeted against the Self, is in fact the inner power of the Self. So the downfall of the Lord of World prepares the rise of the religion of the God-man in the sense that the downfall signifies the rebellion of reality itself against the Self, causing it to displace itself in another world, but at the same time, this rebellion is an act of the Self. In this entire movement of becoming other than itself, the Self remains identical to its Self. Its alienation is self-alienation.

When Hegel stages “the birthplace of spirit” in the context of the decline of the Roman empire, the logic behind it is that what presents itself as a historically contingent chain of events that cause the Roman world to collapse, is, from another perspective, the self-realization of spirit. In the chapter on revealed religion, this other perspective is observed under the viewpoint of the representing consciousness, i.e. the perspective is tied to a specific object – in this case, an object (or better: an objectivity) that represents the absolute as the self-realization of spirit, the God-man. From a comprehensive philosophical standpoint, it is already clear that at this stage of the phenomenological development of consciousness we understand that the self-realization of spirit is that substance is subject. The God-man thus is the appearance of substance as subject, and the particular individual Self that is identified as the God-man, viz. Jesus Christ, is at the same time a general Self. Firstly, therefore, the God-man is both distinct and not distinct from those who identify him as the God-man. Secondly, the God-man represents the self-realization of spirit, but as a particular individual it has a sensible existence, i.e. he initially appears as the immediate unity of the human and the divine, and hence not as movement. Nonetheless, thirdly, the appearance of the God-man establishes the presence of the divine in this world that overcomes the suffering of the unhappy consciousness by bringing the otherworldly Self back to the real world – the appearance of the God-man is the self-realization of spirit also in the sense that the otherworldly divine reveals itself by becoming a truly sensible and touchable reality, a real human being, that reconciles the two worlds that tear up the alienated Self. I argue that these tensions indicate that we still have to understand the revealed religion as a shape of the unhappy conscious, but that through the revealed religion we can acknowledge in what sense the Self has not disappeared for the Self that has gone through the experience of absolute self-loss. The unhappy conscious is still accompanied with an image of the Self, viz. the image of the God-man, who is not of this world but nevertheless came to this world. So there is an image of reconciliation but there is no actual reconciliation. The immediate presence of the God-man is problematic in the end, because the religious consciousness, for whom Christ is the God-man, may be able to see, feel or even touch the self-realization of spirit, in the end it remains external to it.

So having an image of the self-realization of spirit as the reconciliation the absolute Self and the real Self does not mean that this reconciliation is real yet. Instead, the religious consciousness that has an image of the God-man is separated from this reconciliation because it does not yet recognize that consciousness itself is the place of reconciliation. However, insofar as consciousness has an image of reconciliation, the only thing that still has to happen is that consciousness must understand is that actual reconciliation takes place through its own activity, not the activity of another being outside of consciousness. For this reason, I propose to read the chapter on revealed religion as the emancipation of religious consciousness into the philosophical consciousness that recognizes absolute spirit as it is in itself. On the one hand, religious consciousness cannot be an endpoint, because it stands outside of the absolute that is cognizes, which is a flat contradiction; but on the other hand, specifically in the case of revealed religion, the image is emancipatory, because it is not an imaginary projection but a genuine mirror: it reflects the Self of consciousness as it is in itself – consciousness sees itself in speculo. In this way, the narrative of the God-man – including his death and resurrection – contains a hidden truth. Hegel emphasizes that there is nothing natural expressed in these terms, only a purely spiritual matter, viz. the self-realization of spirit. To express the truth of the God-man requires, therefore, a purely spiritual language that is adequate to the content that needs to be expressed, i.e. the self-realization of spirit. This is the language of the concept. The emancipation of consciousness from religion to philosophy is one that begins with the immediacy and slowly uncovers the structure of mediation. The immediate presence of the God-man gradually makes place for the Trinitarian structure of the father, the son and the Holy Spirit, increasingly immaterializing and spiritualizing the self-realization of spirit. Through this development the God-man becomes more and more concrete, because it becomes more and more what it is in itself, viz. spirit.[1]

In the death of Christ is becomes evident that relation of recognition is not guaranteed by the God-man but only by the community that remembers him. Their language now becomes the reality in which the self-realization of spirit is expressed, as the story of the life of Christ. As language, the immediacy of the actual existence of the God-man is broken, and its truth – to be mediation – can come to light. However, the language in which the truth of spirit is expressed, is still very much a natural language. Rather than exposing the conceptual relations in terms of their necessity, it constructs stories of contingent occurrences. Here, Hegel analyses that the structure of mediation first appears in the story of the fall of man, or the fall into sin. The immediacy of nature is broken, but the mediation appears as the problem of evil. Hegel emphasizes that although Adam and Eve broke the law of God by choice, the presence of the snake indicates that evil already existed in the Garden of Eden; therefore, evil is not external to the divine world. The Christian belief that appears here is not focused on returning to the Garden of Eden, but instead focuses on the coming of the messiah, the God-man that will save mankind from sin. This salvation history clearly has the structure of mediation and Christian mythology even projects this mediation back into the divine world by imaging Christ as taking the place of the fallen angel Lucifer, as Hegel points out. Quote: “This self-consciousness is natural spirit; the self has to withdraw from this natural existence and retreat into itself, which could mean, to become evil. But this side is already in itself evil; its withdrawal into itself consists, therefore, in convincing itself that natural existence is evil.” (p. 474) On the other hand, however, the mediation that is now called evil is still kept outside of the essence of the divine. The distinction between good and evil appears as the distinction between the community, between mankind that has fallen into sin, and the God-man, the Savior who conquers and overthrows evil. This shape has the form of the unhappy consciousness because the Self of the community is projected outside of the community in a pure Self. Still, the structure of projecting itself out of itself is the mediation and negativity is the mediation that the community executes by itself, i.e. it is self-expression and self-negation. The truth of the pure Self represented as the Savior is this self-negation, which becomes for itself in the death of Christ, now understood as the death, which redeems mankind from sin. It seems to me that Hegel’s argument is that the mediation, which was first projected in mankind fallen into sin, becomes the truth of what the God-man is in itself. The religious consciousness becomes aware that the mediation or negativity constitutes a moment of the essence of the absolute.

It is through the dualism of good and evil that religious consciousness emancipates itself. Hegel analyses that this dualism ends up in contradiction, because they cannot exists independently from another – without the good there is no evil and vice versa – but they are also absolutely different. The reason why there is no way of reconciling them, Hegel argues, is because good and evil are presented as two fixed elements rather than moments of one and the same movement. The dualism is created by the consciousness’ clinging to the copula, the [quote] “lifeless ‘is’”. (p. 473) The reconciliation of good and evil thus implies to abandon their opposition altogether by getting rid of the inadequate terminology of being and not-being. At this very precise instance, Hegel claims, the transition from religious representation consciousness into philosophical conceptual consciousness really begins. Quote: “… and since this unity is the universality of self-consciousness, self-consciousness has ceased to think in pictures.” (p. 473) Here, it may seem as if Hegel jumps to conclusions by simply flipping an argument ex negativo into something positive, viz. a whole new conceptuality. Firstly, as I said, it is only the beginning. We are still very much in the realm of religious consciousness. What happens is that consciousness begins to express itself conceptually. Secondly, what Hegel thus calls conceptuality is by now explicitly distinct from the conceptuality that clings to the forms of being and not-being. Thirdly, what Hegel means by this different conceptuality has already been presented in the rest of the Phenomenology – we are reading the penultimate chapter here. Particularly in the chapter on self-consciousness, we have seen that what Hegel considers to be the real existing concept, is the concept of recognition presented as the unity of life and self-consciousness. The concept is the self-movement of this spiritual species; a species that finds, as opposed to natural species like horses and bees, its unity in being a people, having a second nature, living under an unnatural self-imposed law. Therefore, Hegel is in fact justified to posit what he posits at this point, viz. that the required reconciliation and hence the existence of the concept, is already realized in the actual religious community. Quote: “Spirit is thus posited in the third element, in universal self-consciousness; it is its community.” (p. 473)

Here, religious consciousness begins to apprehend what it really is, viz. objectively existent spirit. Moreover, the consciousness of revealed religion grasps the spiritual meaning of this substance, or in other words, it understands that the community itself is spiritual. The negativity, which was first identified as the evil of nature opposing the self-consciousness, is now understood as the proper essence of spirit. The mediation that was kept outside the God-man in its initial appearance as a sensible being, is now understood as its truth. The death of the God-man acquires a spiritual meaning, which Hegel describes as the transfiguration of death. Quote: “Death loses this natural meaning in spiritual self-consciousness, i.e. it comes to be its just stated Notion; death becomes transfigured from its immediate meaning, viz. the non-being of this particular individual, into the universality of the Spirit who dwells in His community, dies in it every day, and is daily resurrected.” (p. 475) The internalization of the negativity evoked by death, and its consequent recognition as belonging to the inner structure of spirit, becomes pivotal in understanding objectively existent spirit, or the community, as the presupposition of the moral individual consciousness. We have to admit in retrospect that the point of departure of the moral individual was already a spiritual individual, not a natural one, because only an individual that is not ruled by instinct or natural inclinations is able to realize a moral content. Such an individual has already negated nature all the time. Hence, the community that underlies such an individual must itself have the structure of spirit, i.e., it must be a nature that encompasses its negativity in itself, it must be self-negation. I argue, in conclusion, that the spiritual meaning of death entails exactly this. Here, the religious consciousness becomes reconciled with its object, when the communal praxis of religious consciousness itself becomes the object of religious consciousness. Still, the religious consciousness does yet recognize this object as its self-activity, but it devotes it as the doing of another power. Quote: “It does not grasp the fact that this depth of the pure Self is the power by which the abstract divine Being is drawn down from its abstraction and raised to a Self by the power of this pure devotion.” (p. 478) However, precisely through the act of devotion, it is clear to us that the object is brought in its place by religious consciousness. A conclusion that is further elaborated in the chapter on absolute knowing. Therefore, in conclusion, the answer whether Hegel’s reconstruction of Christianity is in fact a thesis about the appearance of the autonomous subject: On the one hand ‘yes’, because it is the moral Self that appears in the God-man; on the other hand ‘no’, because as an image of the Self it is not equal to what this Self in itself is. My most important conclusion, however, is that this image of the Self in Christianity is not a positive realization of an otherwise transcendent being, but in fact depicts the structure of self-negation allowing consciousness to become aware of negativity as a moment in the spiritual movement that is its existence, i.e. to become self-consciousness.


[1] We can ask ourselves though, what can be more concrete than an actual human individual? I would answer that indeed nothing is more concrete than a human individual, but that the essence of a concrete human individual is that it stands in a relation of recognition. In the case of the recognition of the God-man, the relation of recognition lies on the side the religious consciousness, which is – at that point – considered unessential by the religious consciousness. By doing so, it precisely represses what is concrete about recognizing the God-man.

The contradiction of empirical reality: transcendental idealism and recognition (Mar 2017)

Lecture for Humboldt-Kolleg – Metaphysics of Freedom? Kant’s Concept of Cosmological Freedom, 29-31 March 2017, Amsterdam


In his Lectures on the history of philosophy, when discussing Kant’s third antinomy, Hegel reproaches Kant for having “a tenderness for the things” (eine Zärtlichkeit für die Dinge). In this contribution, I will try to explain what Hegel means by this criticism, and why it makes sense.

Hegel values very much about Kant’s doctrine of the antinomies that it exposes the fundamental contradictions of reason. He calls this “the interesting side” of the antinomies. What is ‘interesting’ about them is that we cannot conceive of transcendental freedom right away. The thesis that every causal chain of events presupposes a cause that is itself not caused contains the contradiction that an absolute spontaneity cannot take place “according to rules” (nach Regeln), and hence cannot be understood in terms of causality. The antithesis, which rejects absolute spontaneity, makes this explicit, but it results in contradiction too: it is undeniable that every causal chain posits an origin. The complete problem of the third antinomy thus is that we are forced to accept the assumption of transcendental freedom, but by doing so we postulate a contradiction.

Kant argues that his transcendental idealism can resolve this contradiction. We shall see that Hegel does not accept Kant’s solution. I argue, however, that Hegel’s refutation of transcendental idealism does not mean that he does not take seriously the distinction between appearances and the Thing-in-itself. I am going to do this by assessing Hegel’s concept of recognition in the self-consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit.


Transcendental idealism

Kant develops his central thesis about transcendental idealism in the transcendental esthetics. He says about sensible intuition that it is both empirical and pure. Intuition in general is the immediate relation of a subject to an object. It is pure insofar as the immediate relation implies a connection with the object, and it is a priori insofar as the relation is innate to the subject. In other words, intuition in general articulates a relatedness of the subject to the things-in-themselves. Furthermore, intuition can be defined as either intellectual or sensible. The sensible intuition implies that the object is not given a priori by intuition, but it exists independently from it. It is an otherness for the subject of intuition.

Kant never doubts that the immediate relatedness of the subject to the things-in-themselves might not be real, like for example solipsism does. His dualism should not be confused with Descartes’ dualism of mind and body. On the contrary, we can regard Kant’s claim that sensible intuition is nonetheless a pure intuition a priori exactly as a confirmation that the mind forms an integrated whole with the body. For Kant, the transcendental character of the human mind has everything to do with the subject’s embodiment. For example, Kant derives his specification of the transcendental use of logic as distinct from its general use also from a distinction that follows from sensible nature of the human mind, viz. the distinction that objects are given either empirically or pure.

Essentially, Kant argues against empiricism that sensible intuition cannot provide any qualitative determination, unlike what Hume’s concept of impression suggests. Unity cannot be observed. Instead, Kant develops the twofold meaning of the sensible intuition, being both empirical and pure, as a distinction between form and content. Here, the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter is, what its origin is concerned, attributed entirely to sensible intuition. According to Kant, sensibility means that the form of intuition is such that the materiality of the objects does not coincide with how these objects are given empirically. The materiality of that, which is given empirically, is its transcendental origin, without which the empirical could not be conceived of as something in which the subject transgresses itself. The transcendental meaning of what is given empirically, is the transgression of the subject: its openness to otherness, which Kant conceives of as the distinction between the empirical content and transcendental matter.

Consequently, color, taste, sound, etc. are empirical determinations that do not tell us anything about the transcendental matter. The empirical quality of judgments does not provide a starting point for judgments about the reality-in-itself. So how about quantity? Kant argues that quantity in sensible intuition is the result of the structuring of intuitions in space and time: the thus created manifold is what Kant calls ‘pure manifold’. His idea behind calling this manifold pure is that regarding quantitative judgments we cannot find any empirical origin. Because defining quantity is a matter of counting objects, it is a matter of observation, and hence it requires intuition. However, there is nothing empirical about such a verification by the senses. A number has no positive empirical quality, but it is an abstract quantum.

For Kant, this abstract quantum constitutes the genuine gateway to the transcendental matter of sensible intuition. The spacetime structuring of the object, resulting in the abstract quantum, adequately expresses that the transcendental meaning of the given object is that it is otherness for the subject. Only then sensible intuition truly serves its role as a condition for the possibility of knowledge, viz. as the capacity of the subject “to go beyond the concept”. The otherness for the subject is an absolute otherness, to which the subject nevertheless relates. In this way, the structuring in space and time is exclusively the activity of a sensible subject but, as a merely reactive activity, it is, at the same time, a positive relation to something that is absolutely different from its own subjectivity.

We can only determine what this absolute otherness is in itself in distinction with any aspect of our relation to it. The otherness must be comprehended as otherness. However, obviously, any judgment about reality-in-itself that is not mediated by the specific nature of our relation to reality, lacks grounding. Kant wants to resolve this problem by containing the pure negation between the things as they appear and the things as they are in themselves as one single negation: the absolute nothingness of space and time in the light of what the things are in themselves. This is what Kant calls transcendental idealism.

Here, the great value of transcendental philosophy becomes visible, but also its fundamental flaw. On the one hand, the empirical object of experience, the thing, is separated from its real matter, its ‘thingness’, which then becomes the transcendental condition of the possibility of knowledge as a merely negative concept of the Thing-in-itself. This distinction makes sense. Properly conceived of, ‘thingness’ is indeed not an abstracting generalization of empirical things. The empirical things only exist insofar as they express thingness, which tells us that the most concrete empirical things are in fact the most abstract determinations, and that their apparently most abstract determination, to be thingness, is the most concrete, presents to us the contradiction of the empirically given thing, viz. that it is a non-identity with itself.

So, Kant may bring to light this absolute negation within the thing, but on the other hand, however, he presents it as a contradistinction between the appearances and the Thing-in-itself, when in fact the negation is maintained because Kant challenges the objective validity of the empirical within sensible intuition, yet at the same he upholds sensibility’s pure element, viz. to be a relation to otherness. It means that the pure intuition a priori is not distinct from empirical quality insofar as the pure intuition a priori brings to light what the empirical quality of intuition in itself is, viz. non-identity or manifold. Therefore, the absolute nothingness that Kant only attributes to the pure forms of intuition, space and time, applies to the empirical quality of the judgment as well. Kant is not able to draw this conclusion without losing his essential point that we must conceive of the possibility of knowledge as a relation to absolute otherness. As a result, he does not reflect on the inner relation between the empirical quality and the pure quantity of sensible intuition.

Furthermore, Kant ascribes this contradiction of empiricism, which his transcendental idealism should resolve, not to the things but to the subject. Precisely by his construction of the Thing-in-itself, the things in themselves are not burdened with it. For this reason, Hegel accuses Kant of having “a tenderness for the things”, which might not be so dramatic, Hegel adds, if it were not for the fact that Kant treats the subject without any such tenderness.

Hegel emphasizes that the empirical and the pure are intrinsically related; nevertheless, he certainly doesn’t deny the core of the transcendental argument that the natural things are not how they appear to us and that the Thing-in-itself or thingness is not merely the abstraction of concrete objects. His point is, however, that the contradiction of the empirical not only applies to the subject but to the things as well. Already in the first chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit, on sense-certainty, Hegel argues that the contradiction applies to empirical reality as such. The contradiction of sense-certainty is that the subject relates to the object, but insofar as the object indeed appears to the subject, the subject is not distinct from the object, which means that there isn’t a relation. In this contradiction – the empirical object is distinct and not distinct from the sensing subject – it already becomes clear that the separation between subject and object is problematic in general, and hence the contradiction applies to both.


Hegel’s concept of recognition

I will now go on to discuss how Hegel’s concept of recognition in the self-consciousness chapter from the Phenomenology of Spirit can solve this contradiction. Hegel’s concept of self-consciousness reflects Kant’s transcendental subject insofar as Hegel too considers self-consciousness to be the presupposition of consciousness. However, whereas Kant understands the transcendental subject as categorical and distinct from the senses, Hegel systematically develops self-consciousness as the resolution to the contradiction of the sensible things with themselves. His point of departure for thinking self-consciousness is the inner relation between subject and thing, which contains a contradiction, but one, which can neither be attributed one-sidedly to the thing nor one-sidedly to the subject.

Pushing the relation between consciousness and self-consciousness to its extreme, we could say that consciousness is the thing that is also a subject, and self-consciousness is the subject that is also a thing. On the one hand, in their immediate shape, i.e., consciousness as sense-certainty and self-consciousness as self-certainty, this other side – say, the subjectivity of the thing and the thingness of the subject – remains unarticulated. On the other hand, precisely in the reflection of the immediate shapes this other side is brought to light. In this way, consciousness experiences, in its fixation on the thing, that it is subject, and the self-certain self-consciousness experiences that it has thingness too. This latter experience is what Hegel calls “the fear of death” (Furcht des Todes), which introduces the relation between lord and bondsman (Herr und Knecht). In my view, the lord/bondsman-relation can be understood as Hegel’s solution to the contradiction that Kant’s antinomies have brought to light. Before I show how Hegel has done justice to what is at stake in transcendental philosophy, I give a concise presentation of the development from the pure (self-certain) self-consciousness to the self-consciousness of the relation between lord and bondsman.

Hegel begins with positing the pure self-consciousness. It is pure because it stands in a purely negative relation to nature or thingness. As immediate self-determination, the self-certain self-consciousness believes that it exists as a substance independent from any relation to otherness. However, the proclaimed independency is deeply problematic, because here, self-consciousness can only determine itself by showing that sensible nature is nothing. Hegel calls this the satisfaction of needs: only if the needs of the subject are satisfied, the subject proves that nature has no independence but can be fully integrated in the self-determination of the subject. For this reason, Hegel calls the pure self-consciousness “desire” (Begierde). The pure self-consciousness can only internalize an external nature if the essence of nature is subjectivity, in other words, if nature has a self too. However, the negation of nature in the satisfaction of needs precisely proofs that nature is nothing and has no self. This results in the contradiction of desire: nature must be negated and not be negated at the same time.

Hegel’s next step is, therefore, to posit that pure self-consciousness should not be understood as desire, but as “pure recognition”: we can only conceive of self-consciousness as a relation between a manifold of self-consciousnesses. A real self-consciousness can only have a relation to external nature if this external nature is a self-consciousness too. How is this a solution to the contradiction of desire? The problem of desire was that nature is independent but can also be negated. This is only possible when this nature has already negated itself within itself. In other words, nature that has an essence that is not opposed to the subject must be a self-negation. In terms of subject and thing, this means that the subject can negate the thing because the thing itself is a subject that already has negated its thingness all the time.

The third step is that the relation of pure recognition makes explicit that the possibility of the negation of external nature (the satisfaction of needs) is tied to an inner negation: the subject has thingness, i.e., it has a body, but at the same time it transcends this body. When we look at it in this way, self-consciousness is not an independent spiritual substance (like Descartes’ cogito) but essentially the unity of mind and body, which implicates both independency and dependency. It also means that the symmetry of pure recognition presupposes an asymmetry: the subject can only relate to another subject if it conceives of itself and the other as a unity of subject and thing. The unity of subject and thing is, however, has the form of an asymmetrical relation, because the mind is not immersed in the body, the subject is not immersed in thingness; it has a relation to it, because it can negate thingness. It is a relation of transcendence. This asymmetry is the presupposition of the symmetry of pure recognition, and it is explicated by Hegel in the relation between lord and bondsman.

This is the right place to address what I think is a misunderstanding about the development from desire to the relation between lord and bondsman. Often, this development is presented as a linear process: two self-consciousnesses, existing in and for themselves, enter a relation of recognition, and a societal relation comes about. I disagree with this interpretation. Methodologically, the self-consciousness chapter develops, just like the rest of the Phenomenology, through the uncovering of hidden presuppositions. So, the immediate self-certainty of self-consciousness turns out to be possible only under the condition of a pure symmetrical recognition between subjects, and this pure recognition in return turns out to be possible only under the condition of an asymmetrical recognition between subject and thing. In this picture, we should not even say, strictly speaking, that the lord/bondsman-relation is the ‘realization’ of the pure recognition. We should say, instead, that the pure recognition presupposes an asymmetry, and hence it can only exist as a relation that is both symmetrical and asymmetrical, which Hegel then calls the relation between lord and bondsman.

Therefore, the lord/bondsman-relation is not so much the result of the submission of one self-consciousness by another self-consciousness, but it is the societal self-consciousness in which the negation of the thing by the subject is really executed. Hegel’s real claim is, therefore, quite contrary to the common understanding that the lord/bondsman-relation is only the first still inadequate realization of pure recognition. His claim rather is that this societal self-consciousness understood as lord and bondsman is the first adequate realization of the pure recognition.

How is this possible? At first sight, it looks as if there exists a relation of inequality: the bondsman subjects himself to the lord. However, the inequality is not brought about by the subjection, but it further explains what the nature of the inequality is that conditions the pure recognition. What needs to be understood is how the negation of the thing by the subject does not remain abstract, but becomes real. For the subject, the thing must be real and unreal – real, because otherwise there is nothing to be negated, and unreal, because its reality can be negated. Hegel suggests that, to avoid contradiction, we should distribute this twofold relation between subject and thing over two uneven self-consciousnesses. He calls the self-consciousness, for whom the thing is real, the bondsman; the self-consciousness, for whom the thing is nothing, becomes the lord.

Hegel notes that this division is somewhat artificial and provisional. In the end, the unity of self-consciousness must be understood. The point of the lord/bondsman-relation is not, therefore, to draw a relation between two separate entities, but to explicate a twofoldness that is inherent to self-consciousness and constitutive for pure recognition. Hegel’s first step in the development from pure recognition to the lord/bondsman-relation is to present the two self-consciousnesses as being involved in a life-and-death struggle. In this representation, we conceive of the self-consciousness as a subject that can negate its thingness: by fighting to the death, the subject ‘proves’ that his body means nothing to him, it has no substance. However, the ‘truth’ of this inner negation is only experienced in the death of the other. Only if the other is destroyed, the subject can reassure itself that the thing has no substance. In this relation, the other is not recognized as another self-consciousness, but a thingness that stands between self-consciousness and its realization. However, insofar as the inner negation is only possible as the negation of the other, the other is not alien to the subject, and hence not merely a thing. At the level of the life-and-death struggle, this twofoldness that the other, which must be destroyed, is both thing and subject, appears as an unsolvable contradiction.

Therefore, the next step is that the other self-consciousness is recognized as another self-consciousness. According to Hegel, the very fact that such recognition could be possible at all implies that self-consciousness is both subject and thing, both mind and body. Only under the condition that we conceive of self-consciousness as this mind/body-unity, we can begin to make sense of the reality of self-consciousness. In the life-and-death struggle, it becomes clear that the inner negation is dependent on an external negation: the subject can only negate otherness if the otherness negates itself. We can only fight others to the death because they are mortal. The question is, however, how this inner and external negation can take place without losing self-consciousness. For Hegel, this is possible as a societal self-consciousness: the subject can negate nature (without dying) as a member of society. By living according to social rules instead of natural needs, urges and desires, individuals can hold back their natural inclinations. Now, this way of negating thingness is not directly a solution, because it establishes a circular argument, a petitio principii: the societal self-consciousness only exists because its individual members are able to transcend their natural inclinations.

The only way to break away from the circularity is to posit a negating self-consciousness that conceives of itself as the expression of a self-consciousness that has already overcome nature. Such a self-consciousness can negate nature, because it recognizes itself in a being that already has negated nature all the time. So, the bondsman subjects himself to the lord because he recognizes his own essence in the lord. In other words, his ability to negate nature is objectified by the lord as the actuality of this ability. The subjection of the bondsman to the lord is not an act of powerlessness but one of freedom: only because he is intrinsically free and not determined by his inclinations, he can obey a social norm, represented here by the lord.

The experience that is linked to this realization is the “fear of death” (Furcht des Todes), which has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, self-consciousness experiences, in the life-and-death struggle, that it can put its life at stake, but on the other hand, precisely by doing so, self-consciousness experiences that life is the necessary condition of being a self. So, in one and the same experience, self-consciousness experiences that it needs life, but that it can also transcend life. It experiences that its true life is not its life within the natural realm, where death rules as the “absolute lord”, but that the realm of self-consciousness is a societal realm, a second nature.

Again, this transition is not linear – it is a hidden presupposition becoming explicit. What becomes explicit is that the reality of self-consciousness is not a nature that stands in opposition to self-consciousness, but a nature that is self-conscious. The nature that is self-conscious is represented by the lord. In this way, the lord actualizes and grounds the relation of pure recognition. This actualization does not, however, make the recognition any less pure, because for the lord, there is no opposition between nature and self-consciousness whatsoever. Still, this is only one side of the lord/bondsman-relation. Because recognition essentially is a relation between self-consciousnesses, its purity can only exist as a relation. In other words, the bondsman might merely be the impure expression of what the lord is in a pure manner (because he is mediated by the experience of the fear of death), but the lord is only pure because the bondsman mediates nature for the lord. Hegel thus concludes that the truth of the lord/bondsman-relation is in the self-consciousness of the bondsman: the pure lord is merely the mirror-image of the pure freedom that allowed the bondsman to transcend nature in the first place.

So, in the relation between lord and bondsman, or the capacity to transcend a given reality, is attributed to the bondsman, because the bondsman mediates between the lord and the thing. Now, returning to the general relation between consciousness and self-consciousness that we are discussing here, this conclusion sounds somewhat paradoxical. Hegel’s argument seems to be that real self-consciousness is possible, because thing and subject are, in the end, not in opposition: the subject is thing, and the thing is subject. This truth is not created by the pure recognition, or the societal self-consciousness of lord and bondsman, or the fear of death, but only made explicit by them. However, the mediation of the bondsman between the lord and the thing, further specified by Hegel as the activity of labor, i.e., the gradual negation of the thing so that the lord can merely consume and enjoy nature, suggests that there is a natural reality outside of self-consciousness. A sort of hidden Thing-in-itself. If this were truly the case, Hegel would not have genuinely considered Kant’s transcendental argument: The Thing-in-itself cannot be negated.

This brings us back to the original question: what precisely is the relation between subject and thing? So far, it seems as if Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness only answers this question one-sidedly by pointing out how the subject can transcend the realm of things; still, its presupposition, viz. that the things must allow for this, apparently remains unexplained. This presupposition must entail that the subject can only transcend things insofar as the subject already is the essence of the things all the time. As a result, the thing to which the bondsman relates directly, and the lord indirectly, cannot be a Thing-in-itself. In other words, it cannot be an otherness that is not subject.


The thing as force

Now, this thesis is not discussed in the self-consciousness chapter but in the preceding consciousness chapter: Force and the Understanding. It discusses the final subjective certainty of empirical consciousness, viz. whether we can conceive of substance as ‘force’ or ‘a play of forces’. Hegel derives the representation of nature as a force from the natural sciences: we can intellectually grasp nature by taking it as a play of forces that works according to natural laws. In the end, Hegel indeed concludes that the reality of the concept cannot be conceived of as a play of forces, but only as subject. However, within the development of this insight, and this is crucial for my argument, Hegel argues that there are not one but two ways in which the understanding tries to find the concept in objective nature: the two truths of the understanding.

The first truth of the understanding is to conceive of the concept as the supersensible unchanging essence of the many appearances. In this conception, the natural law unifies a given manifold. This results in contradiction, because there are many natural laws. So, a particular law of nature (for example, the law of gravity) can never express the lawfulness of objective reality as such. In the second truth of the understanding, these opposites are brought together. The dynamic of the general lawfulness of nature expressing itself as a particular law of nature, and the return of this particular law to the generality, becomes the actual movement of the play of forces. Hegel calls it “the principle of alternation”: das Ungleichwerden des Gleichen und das Gleichwerden des Ungleichen. Whereas in the first truth, the law form is the unmoving unity contrasting the changeable world of appearances, the second truth posits a law form that is dynamic change.

Now, in the transition from the first truth to the second one, the Copernican Turn is already partly executed. Whereas Kant criticizes the paradigm of the natural sciences for not considering the distinction between appearances and the Thing-in-itself, Hegel’s second truth of the understanding straight-forwardly posits an understanding for which this distinction exists, but which still is an understanding that considers this distinction to be innate to objective nature rather than already attributing it to the subject. This position is a possibility that Kant never takes into consideration. For him, attributing an intelligible origin to any determination that is only made known to us empirically neglects the distinction between the appearances and the Thing-in-itself. However, Hegel does not bypass this distinction, but he takes the absolute difference of form and content as the intelligible self-differentiation of the play of forces. The inner unity of the pure intuition and empirical intuition, form and content, is conceived of as an absolute self-differentiation.

Now, the third antinomy has pointed out that a causal succession must have, by principle, an absolute beginning. However, we cannot conceive of an absolute causation because it is spontaneous and we only understand causation that exists as a succession. By positing the law structure as a movement of absolute self-differentiation, Hegel brings together these opposites: from the perspective of the second truth of the understanding, the ‘force’ now becomes the concept as spontaneous causation. Again, by doing so, Hegel does not overstep the problem of the third antinomy. On the contrary, precisely by acknowledging this problem, Hegel shows that taking substance as a play of forces – i.e. as a natural occurrence – is, in the end, inadequate.

The problem is that the law by which nature is understood as this absolute alternation must be an absolute law. As a law, it must be intelligible; as an absolute, it must be spontaneous. Yet a natural law can never be both at the same time. Hegel uses the example of the law of gravity. According to the first truth of the understanding, a falling object is a movement in space and time, which can be described with a mathematical formula. According to the second truth, however, the law of gravity does not describe a movement in space and time, but a movement that unifies space and time: It equates two essentially unequal forms (das Gleichwerden des Ungleichen). Here, the movement described by the law of gravity unifies space and time ‘spontaneously’, because it does so in a way that is not a logically deducible development. That means, however, that the intelligibility of the law is not proven but merely posited. The law-form does not grasp nature in-itself at all, but it is a merely posited unity, which Hegel then calls the “tautology of the understanding”. The result is that the absolute distinction, which is projected in nature, into the object, as a play of forces, turns out to be only conceivable as the self-distinction of a subject.

So how is this development from consciousness to self-consciousness a further reflection on transcendental freedom? By conceiving of nature as a play of forces, we in fact begin to understand nature as a self already. In other words, in the consciousness chapter, there is already a conception of the self, viz. the force in the shape of spontaneous causation, posited as the unity of nature. Here, Kant’s antithesis to transcendental freedom that the idea of absolute causation evokes contradiction, is not denied by Hegel; on the contrary, he argues that transcendental freedom is still an empirical and natural representation of what is in truth a relation of spirit. The law which no longer contradicts the concept of self-realization is not a natural law, but the law of self-consciousness.

Given that this is the essence of the thing, which I argue, it brings us back to the thingness that is experienced in the fear of death. Here, self-consciousness cannot experience a thingness that is external to what self-consciousness is in itself. Hegel expresses this when he says about the self-consciousness in the fear of death that it has “trembled in every fibre of its being”. The original German phrase “Alles fixe hat in ihm gebebt” implies that every fixation dissolves. So, obviously, the fear of death implies a confrontation of self-consciousness with its organic existence as a necessary condition of its self-conscious existence, but in addition to that, it also implies that the thing is not merely this organic thing; instead, it is the absolute indeterminacy of life. In the end, the thing, which the bondsman experiences, is the unity of thing and subject, not merely as life but as self-conscious life. Self-conscious life is, therefore, the presupposition of the fear of death, not its result. Seeing that the thing, to which both the bondsman and the lord relate, is the absolute grounding of self-consciousness, it is no surprise that the lord/bondsman-relation results in the stoic self-consciousness, which posits the result of labor as a nevertheless absolute unity of thing and subject. Yet this further development lies outside the scope of this paper.

Dutch neo-Thomism and the critique of modern philosophy (Apr 2016)

Conference “Metaphysics in Modernity: Tradition and Innovation”, 16 March 2016, Leuven.


A remarkable feature of neo-Thomism is that it did not attribute a ‘metaphysical rest’ to modern philosophy, like for example Nietzsche, Heidegger and Habermas did. Instead, it claims that modern philosophy suffers from a ‘lack of metaphysics’. In this presentation, I will illuminate this supposed lack from the perspective of Thomas of Aquinas’ attempt to unite the Christian idea of creation with Aristotelian philosophy. Before we examine more closely how this attempt is confronted with modern philosophy, we need to understand why this confrontation is important today. In fact, the philosophy of Thomas of Aquinas is more important today than it was in the 12th Century, because today neo-Thomism is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic church. This evidently raises the question: How up-to-date is Thomistic philosophy? The article in which the question is put forward in the most pregnant way is “Wijsgerige reflecties op de scheppingsidee: St. Thomas, Hegel en de Grieken” (Philosophical reflections about the idea of creation: Saint Thomas, Hegel and the Greeks) from 1975 by Jan Hollak. Hollak poses, I think, the one quintessential question: Is Thomas’ concept of absolute truth (God) compatible with modern subjective freedom that Kant calls autonomy? On the one hand, Hollak acknowledges that the classic Thomistic understanding of the idea of creation stands in a problematic relation to modern freedom. On the other hand, he sees an unused potency in the Thomistic doctrine of God’s trinity that could resolve this problem. Another scholar in Dutch neo-Thomism, Jan Aertsen, offers a comparable reading of Thomas; therefore, we will also include him in our investigation.

Both Hollak and Aertsen stress that modern philosophy’s lack of metaphysics concerns the Kantian viewpoint that the entire domain of metaphysics is covered by the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. Kant emphasizes that analytic judgments are always a priori, but also tautological. The possibility of metaphysics therefore depends, Kant argues, on the possibility of pure synthetic judgments a priori. And even though Hegel – the most important modern discussion partner for Hollak – rejects the analytic/synthetic-distinction, his philosophy can nonetheless be regarded as a thinking through of Kants synthetic judgment a priori. For Kant, the synthesis remains a conjunction between two originally distinct faculties of knowledge, understanding and intuition; Hegel shows that the synthesis is merely the abstract moment of what is in truth a dialectical relation between mind and body. So what appears in Kant as the contingent relation between the categories and the senses, is understood by Hegel through the unity of mind and body. Hollak praises Hegel’s speculative dialectics because it transcends the sphere of categorical thinking by conceiving the understanding “as being in relation to … human spirit as embodied spirit”. At the same time however, Hollak thinks that Hegel does not fully grasp the sphere of the ‘supra-categorical’ (het boven-categoriale), i.e., the spiritualness of embodied spirit.

Aertsen’s 1986 article “Eenheid en veelheid: Thomas van Aquino over de grondvraag van de metafysiek” can illuminate the meaning of the supra-categorical. Like Hollak, Aertsen argues that in the analytic/synthetic-distinction the ‘genuine’ idea of metaphysics, or at least Thomas’ conception thereof, remains out of sight. Against Kant’s rejection of the doctrine of the transcendentals (the one, the truth, and the good) as solid building stones for metaphysics because of their tautological character, Aertsen claims that Thomas develops a doctrine of the transcendentals that avoids tautology. To say that the being is one adds something to the being, if we regard unity as undividedness. The oneness of the being in the meaning of undividedness points towards a conception of truth that cannot be expressed in synthetic thinking, because in synthetic thinking unity appears as the unity of unity and difference. With regard to Thomas’ conception of unity as undividedness the relation between the one and the many is different. Here, the measure to which the being is more divided or less divided is comparable to the measure to which the being is more one or less one, or more manifold and less manifold. Consequently, the being that less divided is not only more perfectly one, but also more perfectly many.

This fundamentally different approach to the relation between oneness and manifold is important to neo-Thomism because the Catholic Church teaches the trinity: God is perfectly one and he is perfectly many. In comparison, whereas synthetic thinking can only conceive of perfectibility in terms of conjunction, the unity=undividedness operates through perfect disjunction. Hollak criticizes Hegel’s philosophical reconstruction of the trinity in his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion as a dialectical development, because this presents the trinity one-sidedly as a conjunction. For Hollak, this implies an illegitimate transgression of the limits of philosophy in the sense that Hegel tries to grasp the how of God. When Hollak maintains that a philosopher ought not make claims about the how of God, only to introduce his neo-Thomistic philosophical concept of God, our most reasonable interpretation is to assume that this philosophical concept of God does not completely comprehends God but merely comprehends his incomprehensibility.

At this point, Hollak introduces Thomas’ conception of creation. The finite being in relation to its absolute origin of being has to be regarded, from the perspective of the creator, as a relation of creation; and from the perspective of the creature as a relation of becoming-created. Because in this relation the creator is perfectly independent from the creature and the creature is perfectly dependent from the creator, God’s infinity is not at all compromised by his act of creation. He is absolute freedom. Hollak notices, however, that God’s absoluteness is being emphasized at the expense of the freedom of the creature, which finds itself in a relation of pure dependency. He compares this to Hegel’s relation between lord and bondsman and it is easy to see in it the metaphysical expression of the unfreedom and inequality that Hegel observes in Catholicism. True freedom, according to Hegel, is to be found in the overcoming of the relation between lord and bondsman. Hollak tries to conceive of a similar overcoming in the context of the idea of creation, which so far only one-sidedly expresses the dependency of the creature of its creator; and hence how the finite occurs in the infinite, but not how the infinite occurs in the finite.

How does the overcoming of the relation between lord and bondsman takes place in Hegel? Most importantly, the relation between lord and bondsman is a relationship of freedom, as opposed to what for example Kojève and Habermas believe. In the lord and bondsman freedom is real as the self-subjection of the bondsman to the lord: it is a metaphor for the individual that obeys the laws of society. Hegel’s point is that obedience implies freedom, because it shows that the human individual’s fidelity to a non-natural law form is not fully determined by natural inclinations. However, to the extent that this freedom only appears as ‘working in the service of the lord’, it remains one-sided and inadequate. Overcoming the lord/bondsman-relation consists in grasping the freedom that makes this relation possible as it is in and for itself. In this grasping, the mutual dependency of lord and bondsman becomes explicit: the bondsman has to become its own lord, it has to serve its own essence.

If we want to conceive of a similar overcoming with regard to the Thomistic idea of creation, the point cannot be that the pure independency (exemplified by the lord) turns out to be depending on the activity of a finite being (exemplified by the bondsman). Instead, that which has to be grasped is the perfect dependency. Hollak uses the term “relative autonomy”. The true grasping of the perfect dependency expressed in the idea of creation, i.e. the one of the finite creature from its creator, cannot be a synthesizing or dialectical grasping. Thus insofar as Hegel’s grasping of the lord/bondsman-relation implies a relation of mutual dependency in which the lord, i.e. freedom, depends on the bondsman, i.e. the realization of freedom, infinitude and finitude mingle on improper grounds. However, if we concentrate on Hegel’s claim that the bondsman understands that whatever he does in service to the lord is in truth service to himself and his own essence; acquiring this insight in no way implies a (self-)finitization of this essence. This makes a non-dialectical reading of Hegel’s passage of lord and bondsman possible, through which Hollak succeeds in explicating a non-synthetic and non-dialectical dimension of the concept of modern subjective freedom; a dimension, which nonetheless belongs to the core of freedom.

Similar to our understanding that the lord, which is being served by the bondsman, is in fact the absolute essence of the bondsman, the finite being can recognize its autonomy in the relation of perfect dependence. The finite being is absolute, i.e. free, in a finite manner. Hence the term ‘relative autonomy’: autonomy exists as relation. Relative autonomy does not indicate a dialectical relation, but signifies in the words of Hollak the domain of spirit as a supra-categorical sphere, but apart from Hegel’s mind/body-related transcending of categorical thinking. Hollak regards it as ‘revelation’ in the Christian meaning, the creator who announces himself in the creature, which he conceives of as an internal critique of Thomas of Aquinas. The latter’s conception of the idea of creation as a relation of perfect dependence cannot account for creation as revelation. Consequently, Thomas misconceives of the relation between creature and creator as one of passive participation, whereas Hollak argues that perfect dependence does not exclude active participation at all: the finite being participates in the infinitude of God to the extent that he takes on his being-created in a self-conscious manner.

This shows that the Thomistic conception of the doctrine of creation does not contradict subjective freedom, even though it posits a perfect dependency of the creature from its creator, because the finite being’s consciousness about his contingency is at the same time self-consciousness. The theological doctrine in Roman Catholicism about the nature of the finite being’s perfect unity with God thus can be affirmed without violation subjective freedom, which was Hegel’s concern in the first place. The apparent ambiguity, to be able to affirm the that but not the how of God, disappears when we understand that the any possible knowledge of God is to be obtained exclusively through the finite being’s active participation to the relation of perfect dependency. In other words, the knowledge of God is mediated through self-knowledge, always mediated and always indirect. In this regard too, it is clear that the point is not to overcome subjective freedom. In fact, retrospectively, subjective freedom is necessary to make the Thomistic doctrine of God comprehensible at all.

This brings me to the end of my paper. For the sake of completeness, I have to add that Hollak thought that his critique of Hegelian dialectics concerned Hegel’s entire philosophy: Hegel does not fully do justice to human contingency, because he reduces the absolute to its dialectical relation to finite reality. I disagree with this assessment: for Hegel, the relation between absolute and objective spirit is not a purely dialectical relation. However, this discussion cannot be decided here. What I find convincing about Hollak’s criticism of Hegel is that he shows that Hegel is wrong when he privileges Protestant religion as the only religion that does justice to subjective freedom. Particularly in our world, which is one of many cultures, such a position is obsolete. Hollak’s analysis makes explicit that in this specific sense, Hegel does not do justice to the contingency of the tradition in which he philosophizes. Again, this is not Hollak’s position but my position to clarify why neo-Thomism is relevant today: it is a serious attempt – and in the case of Hollak: a successful one – to reconcile tradition and modernity, whereas the common tendency of today’s discussions is too often polarizing.

Why we must save the humanities (Apr 2015)

Lecture for New University / ReThink @ Tilburg University, 2015


Previous contributions have already pointed out that the dominant discourse of economic rationality, the so-called “rendementsdenken”, undermines the academic values that universities should endorse. Jan Blommaert argues that this discourse is characterized by one-sidedness and close-mindedness in relation to our own history and culture. Paul Mustaers shows that also an organization like NWO has handed oneself over to this type of thinking. Furthermore, Eric van Damme makes clear that it is not only a problem of the humanities but that is has infected the rest of academia as well. I want to contribute to this discussion from a philosophical perspective by giving a short analysis that shows how deep and difficult the problem actually is.

The most important thing is to realize that the utility discourse is not opposed to true scientific thinking. In fact, the utility argument is nothing but the practical reality of scientific rationality. The means of the utility discourse are methods and models that has been developed at our universities. “De Waarheid” and “Het Rendement” (The Truth and The Profitability), as Ramsey Nasr puts it, are two sides of the same coin. The emphasis on measurable performances, efficiency, output, rankings, etc.: it is all a matter of streamlining university practice within a discourse of political decision making that demands rational-empirical argumentation. Here, the “hard facts” are always superior to “trust” and “ideals”.

Perhaps there is irony in the fact that even scientists are now beginning to revolt against the practical application of the rationality that they are themselves using and developing. But they are not hypocrites, because it actually threatens the existence of science itself. Also the scientific discourse finds its continuity only in an institute that not only reproduces the specific knowledge of a scientific discipline, but also takes care of the marginal conditions that make possible the transition of knowledge to the next generation. These marginal conditions are not part of the measurable output but consist of a cultural development. And reproducing the highly advanced specialist knowledge of modern science requires a general intellectual development that corresponds to a significant level of civilization. The problem is that this process of Bildung is essentially a cultural praxis that cannot be objectified in terms of scientific results. As a consequence, to use the words of the young Karl Marx, the scientific discourse can by principle never generate enough output to fully reproduce itself.

So even if one wishes to conceive of university as a company for the production of knowledge, one has to have some idea of how to find continuity in the transition of knowledge. A cultural practice that cannot be transferred in terms of scientific discourse, can nonetheless be transferred through participation in the academic culture. Yet the demands of cultural participation are not compatible with those of rational-empirical argumentation, because it demands an attitude of engagement and commitment, which is contrary to one that assesses participation rationally in terms of investment and pay-off. To put it in terms of the dominant discourse: engagement implies an incalculable risk. This means that the communicable knowledge (i.e., knowledge that can be valorized) is always a limited part of the whole of knowledge that is required for the learning process.

For this reason, Eric van Damme’s fatal analysis of the university board’s policy plan and his very sympathetic plea for a bottom-up approach is extremely difficult to grasp for managers. His argument is intuitively simple: professionals have practical know-how that is relevant for decision making. The problem is that this argument cannot be objectified. There is no model for it. And therefore it is, as simple and modest as the argument is, a principally nonconformist argument. The objection of the Board, completely in correspondence with the spirit of our times, will always be: of course, we believe Van Damme and we share his ideals, but you cannot build a policy on belief and ideals – so let us go back the familiarity of numbers. But Van Damme’s plea makes something very clear: it shows that a policy that tries to reproduce scientific research using exclusively the means of science alienates itself from scientific practice.

Distrusting everything that resorts to faith, trust or ideals when it comes to policy making, rests on the assumption that outside of the dominant discourse there only is subjectivism. Ad Verbrugge has pointed out that this subjectivism is only the result of rejecting everything that cannot be scientifically explained by disqualifying it as an appeal to authority. This tendency to discredit anyone because he or she appeals to a different kind of argumentation (like calling philosophers romantics because they deviate from dominant discourse) makes subjectivism the logical reverse of the demand of rational-empirical argumentation.

This can be elucidated with a reference to every teacher’s experience with a student who says: “It is not an argument, because I do not get it.” The student is absolutely right, he does not get it and there is nothing you can do about it. This may be the most direct evidence that scientific knowledge cannot be reproduced without cultural mediation: if the culturally shared relation between student and teacher is denied, the transition of knowledge becomes impossible. Unfortunately, the reduction to subjectivism that is induced by rational-empirical discourse also targets those cultural practices that cannot be counted among the output (i.e., that cannot be objectified in models), but nonetheless function as marginal condition on which science itself depends for its reproduction.

So the negative resistance against the discourse of economic rationality, must provide a positive answer to the question: How can the university institutionalize the cultural means that make knowledge transition possible? A faculty of humanities is the age-old answer to this question. The humanities can prevent that articulating the principal impossibility of complete objectification results in subjectivism (that is just as arrogant as visionless) by showing that the limits of knowledge have been recognized and discussed countless times in countless ways in our history and culture. Who poses “big questions” about the purpose of science, how it is possible, and how it relates to the concrete life-world, is not lost in subjectivity. He or she instead becomes aware of the normative framework that is presupposed by science but cannot be explained by science. These questions are, say, the spectacles through which a cultural life becomes comprehensible without which there would be no objective reality to be modeled.

What should the humanities do? The first and foremost and in fact only task of the humanities is to criticize the rational-empirical discourse, because only in this way we can open up another discourse that is self-conscious about the cultural life that makes scientific discourse possible. Humanities is matter of critical analysis, not of opinion. Seen in this way, the fact that scholars in literary theory might prefer Kafka to Skinner or philosophers prefer Kant to Newton (or in fact, prefer connecting an idea to a name rather than a theory), is not a way of simply turning away from the objectivism of science, but testifies to a professional interest in the cultural conditions of the science company itself. Or to paraphrase Immanuel Kant, having insight in the limits of theoretical reason also creates the possibility of acquiring positive scientific knowledge.

To say that academic education demands an element of reflexion about the nature of science that cannot be cut loose from the humanities, is not original. Cobbenhagen, founder of what later became Tilburg University, recognized this and made philosophy an obligatory course in all educational programs. Looking at the crisis in the humanities, that is extending to the entire university, it is clear that Cobbenhagen’s idealism is no longer taken for granted. It is too easy to blame the university board for this. In fact, it is entirely thanks to the board that our Department of Philosophy exists. Philosophy in Tilburg neither has quantity nor prestige, but apparently it is still considered valuable. The question is, of course, for how long.

My biggest fear is not that the board will apply utility standards, like what happened in Rotterdam, but that the board will have to conclude at some point that our department no longer reflects her original purpose and therefore has made itself redundant. Philosophy in Tilburg became independent in 1986 on the basis of the argument that excellent philosophy education needs a research institute that practices philosophy as a autonomous discipline. The institutional guarantee for autonomy was provided in the form of the chair “history of modern and contemporary philosophy”. This chair has recently been discontinued and the management has set up a new key policy focused on a branch of philosophy that takes the dominant scientific rationality as its point of departure and denies that philosophy has distinctive questions.

The irony of this policy is that it wants to connect to other disciplines so badly that it achieves the exact opposite: the other disciplines’ demand for reflectivity and a self-critical approach (which they need to take care of the marginal conditions of their own education) is answered with the uncritical repeating of a discourse that is already known and daily practiced in the other disciplines. There is no widening or deepening of any horizon. It is bringing owls to Athens. So if in a few years, when the contracts of service teaching (the so-called “vierprocentsregeling”) will be evaluated, there is no argument as to why these contracts should be prolonged. Given the Department’s key orientation, bringing Cobbenhagen’s idealistic argument on the table would be very ill-conceived. The best we can hope for is that the university board will not begin to think about the importance of philosophy education any time soon.

To conclude, seeing what is happening at our university, we can say that the crisis in the humanities neither has sailed past Tilburg nor that it is merely a crisis of the humanities. In fact, it becomes increasingly clear that we are facing (the beginnings of) a full-blown crisis of the university. Perhaps there is one luminous spot: the dominance of the utility discourse gives us the practical experience that the one-sided domination of scientific rationality even undermines, in the end, the conditions of scientific education that has no other purpose than to reproduce this kind of rationality. Under these circumstances, a new insight may dawn upon us: we learn that if we want to live of the fruits of the tree of knowledge, we must not only reach up but also reach down to take care of the ground on which the tree grows.