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Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism: Negotiation and Administration in Hegel’s Account of the Structure and Content of Conceptual Norms

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My principal aim in this essay is to show how the idealist thesis that I put on the table at the outset contributes to the working out of Hegel’s pragmatist strategy for understanding the nature and origins of the determinateness of the content of empirical concepts. That idealist thesis, recall, is the claim that the structure and unity of the concept is the same as the structure and unity of the self-conscious self. Some of the clearest statements of this central Hegelian thought are in the Science of Logic:

It is one of the profoundest and truest insights to be found in the Critique of Pure Reason that the unity which constitutes the nature of the Notion [Begriff] is recognized as the original synthetic unity of apperception, as unity of the I think, or of self-consciousness . . .14

Thus we are justified by a cardinal principle of the Kantian philosophy in referring to the nature of the I in order to learn what the Notion is. But conversely, it is necessary for this purpose to have grasped the Notion of the I . . .15

What I want to do next is to sketch Hegel’s notion of the structure and unity characteristic of self-conscious selves—the fixed end of the idealist analogy by means of which we are to come to understand the structure and unity of concepts, including the Concept (which is what this passage officially addresses).

Hegel takes over Kant’s fundamental idea that to call something a self, to treat it as an ‘I’, is to take up an essentially normative attitude toward it. It is to treat it as the subject of commitments, as something that can be responsible—hence as a potential knower and agent. The question then is how to understand the nature of the normative attitudes and statuses that distinguish being a who from being a what. One of Hegel’s most basic ideas is that normative statuses such as being committed and being responsible—and so knowledge and agency—must be understood as social achievements. Normative statuses are a kind of social status. Kant thought normativity could be made intelligible only by appeal to something beyond or behind our empirical activity. For Hegel all transcendental constitution is social institution.16

The practical attitude of taking or treating something as able to undertake commitments and be responsible for its doings—in the sense articulated by concepts, that is the sense in which at least part of what one is committed to or responsible for is being able to give reasons—Hegel calls ‘recognition’ [Anerkennung]. The core idea structuring Hegel’s social understanding of selves is that they are synthesized by mutual recognition. That is, to be a self—a locus of conceptual commitment and responsibility—is to be taken or treated as one by those one takes or treats as one: to be recognized by those one recognizes. Merely biological beings, subjects and objects of desires, become spiritual beings, undertakers (and attributors) of commitments, by being at once the subjects and the objects of recognitive attitudes. At the same time and by the same means that selves, in this normative sense, are synthesized, so are communities, as structured wholes of selves all of whom recognize and are recognized by each other.17 Both selves and communities are normative structures instituted by reciprocal recognition.

This is a social theory of selves in the sense that selves and communities are products of the same process, aspects of the same structure. But it is a social theory in a stronger sense as well. For being a self in this sense is not something one can achieve all on one’s own. Only part of what is needed is within the power of the candidate self. It is up to the individual who to recognize. But it is not up to the individual whether those individuals then in turn recognize the original recognizer. Only when this ‘movement’ is completed is a self constituted. I think the structure is clearest when one considers specific recognition—that is, attribution of some specific normative status, not just treating someone as having some normative status or other (as the subject of some responsibilities, or entitlements, commitments, or authority, which is recognition in general). For instance, it is up to me whom I recognize as a good chess player. I can settle for recognizing any old wood pusher who can play a legal game, or I can set my standards so high that only Grand Masters qualify. But it is not then up to me (certainly not up to me in the same sense) whether those I recognize as good players recognize me as a good player. If I’ve set my sights low enough, it will be easy to qualify. But if my aspirations for the sort of self I want to be, and so to be recognized as, are higher, it will be correspondingly more difficult for me to earn the recognition of those I recognize. This account of what it is to be a good chess player, in the various senses that term can take—and more generally, what it is to have some specific normative status—gives the candidate a certain sort of authority: the authority to constitute a community by recognizing individuals as members of it. But doing that is also ceding another sort of authority to those one recognizes: the authority to determine whether or not the candidate qualifies as a member of the community so constituted by the standards to which I have subjected myself. Having a normative status in this sense is an essentially social achievement, in which both the individual self and the community must participate. And both the self and the community achieve their status as such only as the result of successful reciprocal recognition.

So when we talk about the structure and unity of the ‘I’ or of self-conscious selves according to Hegel, we are talking about the structure and unity produced by this process of reciprocal recognition, by which normative communities and community members are simultaneously instituted. This is what the idealist thesis proposes to use as a model for understanding the structure and unity of concepts. Here is a hint, to be followed up below. In recognizing others, I in effect institute a community—a kind of universal common to those others, and if all goes well, to me too. If they recognize me in turn, they constitute me as something more than just the particular I started out as—a kind of individual (self), which is that particular ( organism) as a member of the community, as characterized by that universal. The (recognizing) particular accordingly exercises a certain sort of authority over the universal, and the universal then exercises a certain sort of authority over the individual. It is at something like this level of abstraction that we will find a common structure between the social institution of selves and communities by reciprocal recognition, and the relation between concepts, as universals, and the particulars that fall under them, yielding the characterized individuals (particulars as falling under universals) that are presented by judgements.

I think we can understand the force of this idealist line of thought by situating it in the tradition of thought about the nature of normativity out of which it grew. Enlightenment conceptions of the normative are distinguished by the essential role they take to be played by normative attitudes in instituting normative statuses. Commitments and responsibilities are seen as coming into a disenchanted natural world hitherto void of them, as products of human attitudes of acknowledging, endorsing, undertaking, or attributing them. (Hobbes’ and Locke’s social contract theories of the basis of legitimate political authority are cases in point.) The version of this idea that Kant develops from his reading of Rousseau has it that the distinction between force, coercion, or mere constraint on me, on the one hand, and legitimate authority over me, on the other, consists in the latter’s dependence on my endorsement or acknowledgment of the authority as binding on me. This way of demarcating a kind of normativity might be called the autonomy thesis. It is the basis for Kant’s distinction between the realm of nature, whose denizens are bound by rules in the form of laws of nature, and the realm of freedom, whose denizens are bound rather by their conceptions of rules—that is, by rules that bind them only in virtue of their own acknowledgment of them as binding.

In this distinctive sense, rules get their normative force, come to govern our doings, only in virtue of our own attitudes. One is genuinely responsible only for that for which one takes responsibility; one is genuinely committed only to that to which one has committed oneself.

To be a self, a knower and agent, is, according to Kant’s original normative insight, to be able to take responsibility for what one does, to be able to undertake or acknowledge commitments. It is to be bound by norms. According to the autonomy thesis, one is in a strict sense bound only by rules or laws one has laid down for oneself, norms one has oneself endorsed. What makes them binding is that one takes them to be binding. Maintaining such a view is a delicate matter. For a question can arise about how, if I myself am doing the binding of myself, what I am doing can count as binding myself. If whatever I acknowledge as correct—as fulfilling the obligation I have undertaken—is correct, then in what sense is what I did in the first place intelligible as binding myself? (Compare Wittgenstein’s claim that where whatever seems right to me therefore is right, there can be no question of right or wrong.) The autonomy thesis says that one only is committed to that to which one has committed oneself. But this must not be allowed to collapse into the claim that one is committed to exactly whatever one then takes oneself to be committed to, on pain of so emptying the concept of commitment of content as to make it unrecognizable as such. The authority of the self-binder governs the force that attaches to a certain rule: it is endorsement by the individual that makes the rule a rule for or binding on that individual. But that authority must not be taken to extend also to the content of the rule: to what is and isn’t correct according to the rule one has endorsed. For if it does, then one has not by one’s endorsement really bound oneself by a rule or norm at all. What is chosen—the rule or law I bind myself to by applying a concept—must have a certain independence of the choosing of it. Only so can we make sense of both sides of the idea of autonomy: of making oneself subject to a law by taking oneself to be so.18 Maintaining sufficient distinction between what one does, in binding oneself by applying a concept, and the content of the commitment so instituted is particularly challenging for any theorist committed to what I’ve called ‘semantic pragmatism’. For that is just the view that it is what one does in applying concepts—undertaking commitments—that determines their content.19

I hope it is clear that this problem is a version of the question I earlier pictured Hegel as raising about the determinateness of the contents of the concepts I apply. If I have available a rule (one of many) with a content that is determinate, in the sense that it is already settled for any particular whether or not the particular falls under it (whether or not applying the concept to it would be correct), then I can bind myself by applying the concept. For the concept will then settle what I have obliged myself to do. But Hegel thinks Kant leaves it mysterious how I could have access to concepts, rules, or norms that are determinate in this sense. In effect, Kant just assumes there can be such things. Hegel thinks a rigorously critical thinker should inquire into the conditions of the possibility of such determinateness.

Hegel’s idea is that the determinacy of the content of what you have committed yourself to—the part that is not up to you in the way that whether you commit yourself to it is up to you—is secured by the attitudes of others, to whom one has at least implicitly granted that authority.20 His thought is that the only way to get the requisite distance from my acknowledgments (my attitudes, which make the norm binding on me in the first place) while retaining the sort of authority over my commitments that the Rousseau-Kant tradition insists on, is to have the norms administered by someone else. I commit myself, but then they hold me to it. For me to be committed, I have to have acknowledged a commitment, and others must attribute it to me. Only so is a real, contentful commitment instituted. Only so can I really be understood to have bound myself. This is, at base, why the possibility of my freedom (in the normative sense of the autonomy thesis: my capacity to commit myself, to bind myself by norms) depends on others. Thus Hegel maintains the apparently paradoxical view that the possibility of my autonomy depends on others adopting attitudes toward me. But the paradox is merely apparent: autonomy does not on this conception collapse into heteronomy.

Having a commitment with a definite content is intelligible, Hegel thinks, only in the context of a division of labor between the one who undertakes the commitment and those who attribute it and hold the undertaker to it. I get to decide which piece in the game I will play—say, the one labeled ‘That metal is molybdenum,’ or ‘I promise to drive you to the airport tomorrow morning,’—but I do not then get to decide what I have committed myself to thereby, what further moves are appropriate or obligatory for one who has played that piece. My authority is real, but it is partial. And the same can be said of the others, who play the game with me and simultaneously referee it. For they have no authority over my acknowledging of commitments. Their authority is only operative in the administration of those commitments—holding me to a commitment with a determinate content to which they are responsible no less than I. (Compare: the legislative and judicial functions of government.) As Hegel puts it, I have a certain independence, in which commitments I embrace. Apart from my acknowledgment, they have no normative force over me. But in exercising that very independence, I am at the same time dependent on the attitudes of others, who attribute and hold me to the commitment, and thereby administer its content. And the others, reciprocally dependent on my recognition, display a corresponding moment of independence in their attitudes of attribution and assessment of my commitments and responsibilities. ‘Independence’ and ‘dependence’ are for Hegel always normative independence and dependence. In fact, these are ways of talking about authority and responsibility.21

The actual content of the commitment one undertakes by applying a concept (paradigmatically, by using a word) is the product of a process of negotiation involving the reciprocal attitudes, and the reciprocal authority, of those who attribute the commitment and the one who acknowledges it.22 What the content of one’s claim or action is in itself results both from what it is for others and what it is for oneself. I see the account Hegel offers of this process of normative negotiation of reciprocally constraining authority by which determinate conceptual contents are instituted and applied as his main philosophical contribution, at least as assessed from the frame of reference of our contemporary concerns. This process of negotiation of competing normative claims is what Hegel calls ‘experience’ [Erfahrung]. Making explicit what is implicit in this process is saying how the institution of conceptual norms is related to their actual application in acknowledging, attributing, and assessing specific conceptually articulated commitments in judgement and action. It is this relationship that fills in Hegel’s single-leveled, unified monistic notion of experience, the aspiration for which I have taken him to share with Quine, in contrast to the two-phase, bifurcated approach common to Kant and Carnap. It is also what the notion of reciprocal recognition is offered as a model of. The idealist claim we are considering is that concepts are instituted in the same way, and hence have the same structure and unity, as self-conscious selves.

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