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Hegel and Wittgenstein

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.


  1. i’m not able to say anything about hegel off the top of my head, but from your note here i get the strong impression that whatever hegel means by ‘acknowledgement’ (would that be different from ‘recognition’, i suppose?), you’re not doing justice to it.

    but then i like cavell. i wish ‘the claim of reason’ were accessible enough that i could persuade you to read it. but maybe i’ll just send you whatever summary of it i write when i finish it.

  2. I wonder if one missing link here might be early Romantic writing on language? This really is just a pointer, not an informed response, and I don’t have piles of back issues of Athenaeum to consult.

    But indeed, family resemblances to Wittgenstein crop up all over the history of philosophy.

  3. as it should be if he’s only reminding one of things we all already know. : )

  4. Notwithstanding Cavell acknowledgement is stronger in my reading too. I think I am confused by the injection of the concept of interpretation vis a vis Hegel’s verb “say”. But again Cavell mocks me.

  5. I have (naturally) been thinking about Cavell too; and I have not my Hegel about me. But I read this I think slightly differently from you It sounds a bit like the antinomy of taste in the third critique. I think the bit about language is illustrative; Hegel’s colons (or Miller’s) often work that way. So that all action is the instantiation of a form of universality according to the abstract and formal quality of the will separable and separated from brute, particular events and actions; just as all use of language is an instantiation of the self’s Heimat within the abstract and universal Aether. I don’t think it’s late Wittgenstein here that Hegel can be juxtaposed to, but early — the TLP, although with less of the necessity LW found for something like solipsism. I think Cavell would not want the acknowledgement to go through universality; hence his insistence on the ordinary.

    Great quotation.

    (Also do you read comments on your lj syndication, or should one always go here to comment?)

  6. (I don’t really check the comments on syndication; I wasn’t aware that the feed was still working!)

    I still read it as being more than illustrative, but admittedly, this is very opaque. The self gets instantiated even prior to language because consciousness/self-consciousness has already been supplanted by intersubjectivity by this point (or rather, it SHOULD have; one of my major complaints is that Hegel seems to forget about the noumenal/phenmoneal collapse in “Force and Understanding” for about the following three hundred pages!)

    By this point in the text, the universal abstract, Kantain moral Wille has already been tossed aside in the previous section (“Dissemblance and duplicity”) in favor of the pratical, worldly Willkur (in “Conscience”), so language doesn’t hold that spot of particularity on its own.

    I take Hegel to be using language to have some compensatory role for the “moral luck” quality of Willkur and practical action, but I have no idea how he intends for this to work, nor how it could work given the lack of preparatory work.

  7. J.J. Maarleveld

    27 November 2009 at 05:34

    I disagree with your conclusion that language here is arbitrary.

    The essence of Hegel’s passage is that the subject has to gain objectivity in the external world. His ‘living in the community’, which, according to Hegel, is man’s goal, entitles him to be part of the ethical life of his community.

    This first bit is something that you do adress. But in my opinion, language here is very broad, it is the act of being a subject in the community. It is the moral action as described in the Elements of the Philosophy of Right. Without the connection to the community a subject would be stuck in the endless ‘ought to’ (sollen), which is Hegel’s critisism of Kant.

    I believe language is essential here, especially with Wittgenstein: that you cannot play a language-game alone. You need objective external reference to your moral behaviour.

    Furthermore, Hegel does indeed see no difference between ‘is’ and ‘ought to’. You describe that as “the difference between enforcing a law and interpreting an explanation”. Hegel indeed sees those two as one in Ethical life, as the realisation of freedom.

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