Hegel on Self-Consciousness by Robert Pippin

Pippin, Robert. Hegel on Self-Consciousness: Desire and Death in the Phenomenology of Spirit, Princeton, 2010.


You all at this moment know what you are doing – reading a book about Hegel, let us say – and as Elizabeth Anscombe among other made famous, you know it not by observation (the way you would know that someone else is reading something) nor by inference from observation. You know it just by engaging in such an activity and sustaining that activity. Likewise, you know what you believe I mean to be saying without inspecting some mental inventory of your beliefs or other mental items. You know it by knowing what you take me to be saying. Likewise, “knowing” what you are now doing would make no sense to you, would not be knowledge, unless that activity also seemed explicable; knowing what you are about involves knowing why you are about it, and so involves what you take to be the reasons you are doing it. Likewise, knowing what you believe involves knowing why you take something to be true, what you take to be reasons for believing it. No one, that is, “just” believes something or “just” does something.

What do these simple observations tell us about “self-consciousness?” I have argued that Hegel means to say something very similar and that, for Hegel, the claims make clear that self-consciousness is not the awareness of an object, at least not any observed object, and that it is a dynamic process, a doing in a way and a thinking in a way, not any momentary, second-order awareness. Somewhat surprisingly, he called that whole process “desire” and I suggested in the last chapter that this was because, looking at things this way, such a way of knowing oneself in knowing or doing anything, not being momentary or punctuated in time, must involve some projection over time, a way of constantly and implicitly being attentive to, or at least open to the possibility of, whether one had it right, either about what one believed to be true, or about what one was doing or whether one had the reasons one took oneself to have. This is, I think, the most important aperçu in what we call German Idealism and it receives its fullest expression in Hegel’s thought. (The formulation just used was closer to the way Fichte would put the point in his discussion not of Begierde or desire but of Streben or striving.) I can put the same point another way, and at a very high altitude, by noting something unusual about Kant…

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