You are on page 1of 7

Antonio Gmez Ramos, Madrid

What does it mean not to be bound to life?


On Subjectivity and Recognition in Hegel

1 Two questions on subjectivity, to begin with


Hegels notion of recognition articulates the social dimension of intersubjectivity. As a subject,
self-consciousness can only be constituted in the presence of, and in interaction with, other subjects. Hegel also holds that such a relation is always a reciprocal recognition in different realms of
life, where a sort of reconciliation or union sublates the original separation between individuals.
From here on, I want to address in this paper two distinct but related questions.
1 Assuming that the subjectivity of self-consciousness is the result of a movement of recognition,
there remains the question what a subject as such actually is. The modern subject is defined
by autonomy, reflexivity, and a kind of epistemic privilege in self-knowledge, but we must
discern how these properties emerge in the movement of recognition.
2 What do we actually recognize in recognition? What is the content of recognition? If you
consider the subject as a bundle of identity properties that he or she claims, it is very easy to
determine such content. But a subject is really the bearer of identity, not the identity itself,
and subjectivity is something other than a bundle of identity properties, which only refer to
some kind of particularity.
A subject is someone who recognizes herself as an I, someone who can say I. To a certain
extent, the whole story of the Phenomenology of Spirit can be summed up in the question of who
is able to say I, under which conditions is it possible to say I, what is the experience of saying I,
what else is said and heard by saying I, up to the point that I ought not to be said as I, but
as we. After going through the first three chapters in of the book, consciousness learns that it
itself is actually consciousness only as self-conciousness it learns that it is consciousness of the
external world and knows it only in as much as it is self-consciousness and therefore knows that
it itself is consciousness. By this point, it has already established a first reflective relation to itself,
and this is the beginning of subjectivity. But it is still far from fully becoming a subject. It knows
about itself, but it does not know itself. In Hegels words: It likewise turns out that the cognizance
of what conscious knows when it knows itself requires even further complexity. The analytical
delineation of that complexity lies in what follows.1
What follows is the chapter on Self-consciousness or Truth of self-certainty. The complexity emerges from the fact that, in the beginning, the self-certainty of consciousness is only the
motionless tautology of I am I. This is not yet self-consciousness proper, since it still has to take
into account the difference between consciousness of the object of sense-certainty and perception and consciousness of itself: that consciousness is itself the object of consciousness. It has to
sublate that difference in order to achieve the parity [Gleichheit] of itself with itself.
Hegel expresses this ongoing (and hence continually failing) effort to achieve such parity by
saying that self-consciousness is desire itself (Begierde berhaupt). This means that self-con1Phnomenologie des Geistes, Hamburg, 1988, 102. I follow Terry Pinkards translation, as it is posted at http://
terrypinkard.weebly.com/phenomenology-of-spirit-page.html

Authenticated | agramos@hum.uc3m.es author's copy


Download Date | 12/9/14 8:56 AM

384

Hegel-Jahrbuch 2014

sciousness is always divided or estranged (entzweit), that it is eccentric to itself. That is, the
subject is always outside itself. To close the circile it must return to itself, achieving the parity of
itself with itself. It is not a simple circle, though. It is the movement of self-consciousness.
Presupposing this, self-consciousness is not a sort of spectator of consciousness, a spectator
of what is going on in the theater of the mind. It is rather the agency of consciousness itself in as
much as it knows of its agency: it is the movement of this knowing. The movement might succeed
or fail in any case, self-consciousness is something that must be achieved, it is a result. And,
since desire is self-generating, that achievement is always a provisional one. Some never come to
be actual self-consciousness, but remain just as mere persons.2

2 Life
A mere person is the individual who has not risked his life and has not achieved the truth of
being recognized as a self-sufficient self-consciousness. On the one hand, there is life. On the
other hand, there is the decision to risk it, to be prepared to risk it. The movement of recognition
and self-consciousness is a circle between these two poles. Let us first look at life.
Hegel describes it as an external, self-sufficient being opposed to self-consciousness. It is a
circular movement of generation, consumption, and destruction, the whole developing itself,
dissolving its development and, in this movement, being the simple whole sustaining itself.3
Life produces and configures differences, individualities, which it then consumes and destroys
in its own cycle. This cycle is not dependant on anything external, but rather the simple fluid
substance of the pure movement within itself.4 This is more or less the classical definition of
nature as the whole of living beings, encompassing in its movement of generation and destruction
all species and genera, where individuals are only particular instances of a species: they can be
exchanged and have no particularity in themselves.
Life lacks consciousness in as much as it is not fr sich. In fact, it is opposed to self-consciousness which, in principle, is only being fr sich berhaupt. But life contains consciousness within
itself; or, to put it another way: consciousness, too, is life. It is primarily life. Hegel emphasizes
that both life and consciousness share the very same structure. Consciousness has needs and
desires which must be satisfied in exchange with life, in the metabolism with the environment.
Being desire itself, consciousness is primarily sentient consciousness it is a body. It is crucial
to emphasize in regard to this bodily, sentient condition of a consciousness that it is doomed to
the movement of subjectivation and the struggle for recognition by other consciousness. Such a
living condition is entangled with the possible achievement of self-consciousness which already
belongs to the spirit. This bodily being must somehow belong to the content of recognition.
Now, consciousness, which is life, is life opposed to life. This estrangement of the undifferentiated fluidity is the very positing of individuality5 and the estrangement or division (Entzweiung) that then originates as consciousness, the Begierde or desire that is consciousness itself,
is one further particular difference within life itself; it is an estrangement by virtue of which, as
Hegel puts it, life points towards something other than itself, namely, towards consciousness, for
which life exists as this unity, that is, as genus.6
Lifes other that that life points towards is also life, a life that is genus itself not a particular
instance which can be interchanged with others under the common umbrella of genus. Rather,

2Ibid. 111
3Ibid. 106
4Ibid. 105
5Ibid. 106
6Ibid. 107

Authenticated | agramos@hum.uc3m.es author's copy


Download Date | 12/9/14 8:56 AM

Antonio Gmez Ramos, What does it mean not to be bound to life

385

it is the very possibility of one singular individual, that is, of a subjectivity. It knows about itself
as subjected to desire, to Begierde, but it does not know itself yet. It has to perform the whole
movement of recognition in order to achieve it. So we arrive to the second pole of that movement,
self-consciousness.

3 Subject
The passage from consciousness to self-consciousness should not be understood as the rise to a
higher point from which consciousness is controlled. There is no leap to the next level; self-consciousness is rather the movement towards parity with itself as an invariably estranged consciousness. Naturalism tends to consider consciousness only as sentient, immersed in the cycle
of life. The transcendental stance produces an unbridgeable gulf between life and consciousness.
The dialectics of self-consciousness shows the movement by which consciousness emerges from
nature, which is its very condition, but without making it into a supernatural or transcendental
being. Hegel puts this by saying that consciousness leaves behind the colorful semblance of the
sensuous world [naturalism] and the empty night of the other-worldly beyond [transcentendalism] and steps into the spiritual daylight of the present.7 Only by understanding this movement
into the spiritual daylight of the present can we grasp what a subject is for Hegel. In addition, it
is clear that this movement is the object of recognition: self-consciousness exists only as a recognized being (es ist nur als ein Anerkanntes), and it is precisely this movement what comes to be
recognized.
Self-consciousness is desire in itself, but the essence of desire is an other than self-consciousness. Desire is something other than consciousness, and it is through this experience that,
in its own eyes, this truth has itself come to be. Self-consciousness experiences this internal
estrangement of desire as negation. This universal self-sufficient nature in which the negation
exists as absolute is the genus as such, that is, it is what exists as self-consciousness. The movement, then, in which consciousness becomes self-consciousness as self-sufficient (i.e. free), universal (as it is the genus of itself, not a mere particular) nature (i.e. life) contains an absolute
negation.
But, as the story according to Hegel goes, consciousness can perform such negation only in
another self-consciousness that also negates itself and, by doing so, comes to recognize the first
self-consciousness. And this must be reciprocal, because self-consciousness finds its satisfaction
only in another self-consciousness, and this latter one must also find its satisfaction for it to
become a self-consciousness.
Robert Pippin and Terry Pinkard8 have both suggested that this self-negation of self-consciousness should be interpreted as the autonomous (i.e. free) commitment of the subject to norms and
criteria that set the pattern for evaluating the satisfaction of desires and offer a practical guide in
life: that is, the relation to the others and to the world. As Hegel put it in the Introduction, Consciousness is for itself its concept, as a result it immediately goes beyond the restriction and, since
restriction belongs to itself, beyond itself too.9 To have a concept is to have universal norms and
rules and to be able to use them by combining a subject and a predicate in order to make statements about the external world. The difference between a consciousness and a merely sentient
organism is that consciousness, since it works with concepts, has the representation and the rules
for evaluating its relation to the world, the satisfaction of its desires. A very primitive being, an
7Ibid. 107
8Pippin, Hegel on Self-consciousness. Desire and Death in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Princeton, 2011. Pinkard,
Hegels Phenomenology, the Sociality of Reason. Cambridge, 1996
9Phnomenologie des Geistes, 57

Authenticated | agramos@hum.uc3m.es author's copy


Download Date | 12/9/14 8:56 AM

386

Hegel-Jahrbuch 2014

animal, has no criteria for the satisfaction of its desires (e.g. its hunger), whereas already a child,
when she demands an ice-cream, will not accept anything else; unlike the mere natural being, she
has criteria for her own satisfaction.10 Consciousness is self-consciousness in as much as it has
a concept of itself, that is, it has universal norms and rules for evaluating itself and its agency. In
Hegels terms, the concept does not correspond to the object, or self-consciousness does not correspond to consciousness, and the latter must go beyond itself. Its voluntary commitment to norms
and rules that it has given to itself (and this is what makes it free and self-sufficient) separates it
from the immediacy of organic life in which it is immersed as a sentient being and estranges it it
is beyond itself. The difference between a mere sentient natural organism and a rational being is
that the former obeys a primitive Begierde where it has no other control than immediate satisfaction (when its hunger is stilled, the animal is centered in itself again). Rational consciousness,
on the contrary, is always estranged by its desire, it is decentered and doomed to achieve a parity
with itself because it follows norms that evaluate the satisfaction of its desire. For instance, it
cannot still its hunger without some culinary criteria about the quality and taste of food.
The negation that consciousness effects in itself, then, is constituted by its commitment to
its own norms, so that it becomes a normative being. It is normative, it acts and evaluates according to norms, and that is why it is not bound to the immediacy of organic life it is already in
something other than life itself. It is not a rupture, for it is life itself that points towards this
something other which is the normative realm; it is rather a transformation of life when consciousness returns to itself by committing itself to norms that it itself can also represent. When
life points towards something other than itself, it does not point towards an empty night of the
other-wordly, but to the consciousness of norms regulating agency: here is the starting point for
freedom, for the spirit: the I that is we, and the we that is I.11
As Hegel says later on in the Encyclopaedia, this transformation of life is a drive (Trieb) to
show oneself as free, to exist for the other the process of recognition, and this showing oneself
as free sublates the immediacy that is the corporality (Leiblichkeit) of self-consciousness, where
it has its own self-feeling.12
We will return to this Leiblichkeit and Selbstgefhl later. So far, we know that self-consciousness, as an individual, autonomous consciousness, has its own criteria for the satisfaction of its
desires and for its actions. This implies the negation of ones own immediacy and is the beginning
of freedom to have ones own criteria and to have authority over them. Actually, that is autonomy, and that is what must be demonstrated in the struggle for recognition.
What the other recognizes in me, therefore, is my own authority over myself, my not being a
member of the species in the cycle of life, but a genus in myself, a concrete universal the singularity of my individuality. Reciprocally, it is her authority over herself, her own autonomy, what I
recognize in the other. When consciousness learns that it can find its satisfaction only if the other
autonomous object opposed to it effects the negation in itself it just learns that it needs the
freedom of the other, her being normative, for its own freedom. Reciprocity of recognition also
means reciprocity of freedom. Only in the presence of another self-consciousness can self-consciousness have its own criteria and norms, as well as authority over them. In a way, Hegel was
anticipating Wittgensteins argument against private languages: it is not possible to have ones
own rules for oneself alone.

10I take the instance from Stekeler-Weithofer, Wer ist der Herr und wer ist der Knecht? Der Kampf zwischen Denken
und Handeln als Grundform jedes Selbstbewusstseins, in Hegels Phnomenologie des Geistes, Frankfurt/M., hg. von
Vieweg, Welsch, 2008, 223.
11Hegel, Phnomenologie des Geistes, 108
12Hegel, Enzyklopdie der philosophischen Wissenschaften (1830), Hamburg, 1991, 351.

Authenticated | agramos@hum.uc3m.es author's copy


Download Date | 12/9/14 8:56 AM

Antonio Gmez Ramos, What does it mean not to be bound to life

387

4 The content of recognition


We have thus found an answer to the first question. An autonomous, free subject or a consciousness that has made its self-certainty into truth is a self-conciousness that succeeds in sublating the
estrangement of its desire, and so it is no longer immediately bound to life, but instead committed
to norms and criteria. Such criteria are general, and self-consciousness can adopt a general, universal point of view (Hegel calls it the servants eigener Sinn); it can set itself apart from its own
and others particularity, and is able to recognize others as possessing rational self-consciousness
with the same capacity for universalizing.
We can now turn to the second question. What do we recognize in recognition? We do not
recognize norms, but, as I have suggested, the capacity to act freely, autonomously, according to
norms. But, then, is it not the abstract, empty recognition of just her humanity, her belonging to
the human species? No doubt, this abstract recognition is a minimal recognition that every legal
system and any kind of external interpersonal relations should always warrant. It is a minimal
recognition, though. Hegel emphatically states that a subject comes to self-consciousness if, and
only if, she enters into a relation of recognition with another subject; and the self-consciousness
that a subject achieves, she achieves as herself, not as an abstract human being. To recognize
ones own humanity, i.e. to recognize oneself as worthy of respect, is the beginning of any process
of subjectivation, and can be necessary for persons with a long history of humiliation and degradation in particular. Nevertheless, if someone only demands recognition as a human being, she is
demanding a minimum: that is, recognition as belonging to a universal genus.
The maximum is to be recognized as oneself, as the event of the subjective achievement that
one is. Not that one simply belongs to a universal genus, but that one is, as Hegel puts it, a genus
in oneself. Someone singular (einzeln). Now, this singularity, the concrete estrangement of the
undifferentiated fluidity that was the very positing of individuality, that is recognized in as much
as it is not bound to life, that commits freely to universal norms, is still life. It is Leiblichkeit, and
it has sein eigenes Selbstgefhl within it; it is not beside life. In the movement of achieving
parity with itself and sublating the estrangement of desire, the authority of consciousness over
itself is associated with ones own estrangement, with the individual, exclusive way in which the
I comes outside itself because of desire. That is, the negativity that a consciousness undergoes is
in each case its own, exclusive negativity, and this exclusivity does not disappear by the ascent
to the universality of norms, but it must be preserved in it. The singularity that a recognized consciousness achieves consists of a capacity for universality (normativity) and a unique, irreducible
estrangement where individuality is posited. In the end, what is recognized is not a universal
genus, but ones subjective response to ones individual estrangement of life: the estrangement
and the response that each individual is.

5 Two final questions


The content of recognition, and the answer to the second question would be, then, that two individuals come to fully recognize each other and even to constitute an intersubjective community
when each reciprocally recognizes the others desire, estrangement, and singular normative
response to it. Still, there are some difficulties with this description. A tension remains between
the individuality of the estrangement of desire and the universality of the normativity that each
subject must individually achieve. We might capture this tension in two different but related questions.
1 Is it possible to think of some kind of institutionalization or at the least some kind of social
realization of recognition? This is not a secondary matter, for Hegel always showed great
Authenticated | agramos@hum.uc3m.es author's copy
Download Date | 12/9/14 8:56 AM

388

Hegel-Jahrbuch 2014

interest in the role and effectiveness of institutions, and to him recognition was nothing other
than the realization of an ethical community structured in institutions.
At which point of the circular movement of recognition does recognition take place? Is it
already at the level of mere life, or must it be at the level of a fully formed and accomplished
self-consciousness interacting with other subjects?

To conclude, I want to develop both questions and explore their mutual implications.
To be sure, no possible institutional system can fully accomplish recognition of the singularity as we have described it. There are certainly politics of recognition, where governments and
administrations can be sensitive to certain particularities in human diversity, and hence try to
correct or even suppress the injustices of discrimination on the basis of social status, ethnicity,
gender, and so on. When they do so, they leave behind the abstract recognition of universality and
prove responsive to particular difficulties that individuals have to face in the construction of their
lives. But they can only reach the level of a particular (e.g. ethnic or gender) group. They cannot
reach the singularity of the individual, and it would not even be desirable that they could.
What about Hegel? Sittlichkeit is, in the end, a network of institutions that make possible the
processes of recognition through which individuals accomplish their task of becoming subjects or
self-consciousness. On the other hand, however, Hegel does sometimes conceive of forms of intersubjective relations that accomplish the movement of recognition of singularity though lacking
any institutionalization. Friendship, for instance, comes up in the Introduction to the Philosophy of Right as the best example of of ethical community, of bei sich selbst im Anderen sein.13
However, there is no place for it later on in the Sittlichkeit, where other state-rooted institutions
are considered. The concluding passages of the Phenomenology are even more striking, where the
scene of forgiveness, as Pippin has pointed out, surprisingly avoids any form of institutionalization.14 It is as if Hegel were admitting that no institution can intervene and regulate the community of two individuals who are able to recognize each other to the point of forgiveness.
It thus appears possible for there to be processes of recognition and constitution of subjectivity that take place outside any institutional frame. Some critics see positive institutional structures like those we find in Hegel as repressing intersubjectivity and the processes of individual
recognition. That brings us to the second question, concerning the level at which self-consciousness can attain recognition. Is it as a subject already constituted through institutionally regulated
interactions with other subjects? In the terms of the Philosophy of Right, is it as a citizen, as a
spouse, as an economic agent in civil society? Or should we rather locate recognition at another
stage in subjectivity, perhaps as a living being?
It is singularity that is recognized. But there is a tension between the universal character that
the subject attains in normativity and her living, embodied condition where subjectivity emerges
from desire. Both poles have their own degenerated form, so to speak. The former can deteriorate to the formal universalism of an abstract recognition that ignores singularity. The latter,
containing the immediacy of life, does not yet have the kind of rationality required by recognition.
In the Hegelian tradition, this refusal of recognition has been called reification, the failure to
recognize something as rational and its reduction to a mere object to be used. When the first pole
is too strong and institutional frames do all the work of a merely formal recognition, the threat
of the second pole arises, the danger that living subjectivities remain excluded from institutional
frames.
But we have seen that even though a subject must show that she is not bound to life, the
whole process still takes place within life itself. As a natural organism, consciousness does not
cease to live and desire. Not to be bound to life and yet not to break with it makes the singular

13Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts, Stuttgart, 1986, 57.


14Recognition and Reconciliation. Actualized Agency in Hegels Jena Phenomenology, in Degliorgi (ed.), Hegel.
New Directions, Montreal, 2006.

Authenticated | agramos@hum.uc3m.es author's copy


Download Date | 12/9/14 8:56 AM

Antonio Gmez Ramos, What does it mean not to be bound to life

389

individual into a concrete universal. In the structure of the Hegelian recognition there must be,
pace Hegel, a permanent attention to the ground of life, to the divisions in it where every new
individuality is posited, even if life does not fit in the universalistic frame of an institution. There
are, as I have suggested, figures of recognition beside any institutional frame, such as friendship
and forgiveness. In the same way, there must be other figures of recognition where mere life is at
play. That would push Hegelian dialectics into the current discussion on biopolitics.

Antonio Gmez-Ramos
Dpto. Humanidades, Universidad Carlos III, c/Madrid 126, E-28903 Getafe, Madrid
Spanien
agramos@hum.uc3m.es

Authenticated | agramos@hum.uc3m.es author's copy


Download Date | 12/9/14 8:56 AM