Philosophy-haters, you probably want to skip this one; it’s the stuff of nightmares.
Whoever says he acts in such and such a way from conscience, speaks the truth, for his conscience is the self that knows and wills. But it is essential that he should say so, for this self must be at the same time the universal self. It is not universal in the content of the act, for this, on account of its specificity, is intrinsically an indifferent affair: it is in the form of the act that the universality lies. It is this form which is to be established as actual: it is the self which as such is actual in language, which declares itself to be the truth, and just by so doing acknowledges all other selves and is acknowledged by them.
(Hegel, Phenomenology of Reason 654, tr. Miller)
It is select passages like these that have caused people to link Hegel and Wittgenstein, ones in which Hegel suddenly mentions language in a seemingly non-linguistic context. More than with any other book I have ever read, it is impossible to isolate any intrinsic sense to his words without considering how to interpret them in light of his successors, and just as impossible to hypothesize how they would be read had he had different successors. So as much as he’s an ur-text for any and every philosopher who followed him, Hegel is also in large part an empty prophet, his words awaiting fulfillment by the future. A trivial example: the insane obscurity of Hegel’s text is itself a comment on linguistic content in philosophy, and yet it took Gadamer to explain this sort of problem as one of an ever-shifting historico-interpretive horizon.
This particular passage comes in the middle of the section on conscience, which has something or other to do with how people follow their consciousness on a situation-by-situation basis, avoiding all Kantian moral abstractions. In the absence of any abstract moral laws, conscience justifies itself: if you act on your conscience, you’re moral, because that’s what it is to act on your conscience. But in this passage, it appears, conscience isn’t in your head, it’s in the linguistic act of saying to other people, “This is an act of conscience!” Otherwise, it’s back to subjective-objective dualism and Kant. From that, I’d guess he’s invoking a community that recognizes the idea of individual consciences that can disagree with one another, yet endorses the essential ethicality of all of them, as long as they can explain themselves. Ethicality consists of ones words denoting ethicality to the community and being recognized as such by the community. From here, we remove the ethics and we supposedly get Wittgenstein’s language-game: play the game, follow the rules, and you speak a language. Play the game of verbalizing your conscience, and you are ethical.
Maybe. Hegel is faced with two unattractive options here: first, allow any claim of conscience to count as valid in the community; or second, make claims of conscience subject to some sort of community standards. These two options, not coincidentally, map respectively onto the seesaw between the “acting” and “judging” consciousnesses that then follow.
Rather than address that problem, I want to point out that the problem is in fact a consequence of Hegel’s failure to privilege language. Hegel’s claim for speech is rather empty, because setting up a linguistic community is the easy part. If language, like the civic laws of the community, were simply a matter of communal determination, then indeed, the progression above would make sense. But to do so is to ignore the very heart of the philosophy of language, which is that language is not determined in such a way. It is the difference between enforcing a law and interpreting an explanation, and as far as I can see, Hegel thinks that those two things are the same. By eliding the problem of interpretation, Hegel’s supposed linguistic community is not linguistic at all. The gap that Wittgenstein spent decades on–that of the problematic relation of past speech to new speech acts–is missing. Without any hint as to how language as language is regulated by the community, there is nothing special about language that serves Hegel’s approach in this passage, which is why I tentatively conclude that the injection of language is arbitrary rather than necessary. Hegel’s supposed linguistic insight is only a reiteration of his earlier positions on intersubjectivity.
Robert Brandom has done some work attempting to systematize and synthesize the Hegelian and Wittgensteinian strands, but I’m not terribly familiar with it. Maybe when he’s done, we’ll again look back and see that it was in Hegel all along.