VC—A Reading

I. Volitions and Reality: The Honest Consciousness in VCa

1. Paragraphs [397] to [410] introduce the Sache selbst for us. Only with [411] does the exposition start of how the Sache selbst first makes its appearance as grasped by a phenomenal form of consciousness. It appears as "an immediate consciousness", specifically one that understands the complex unity of certainty and truth in action secured by the process of experience as a simple and immediate identity. This form of phenomenal consciousness is called the "honest consciousness". It contents itself with the immediacy of willing, in a way strictly analogous to how Sense Certainty, on the side of inputs to thought, contents itself with the immediacy of appearing. Looking only at willing, to the exclusion of achieving, it allows no disparity to creep into its conception of action. For it, "whichever way things turn out, it has accomplished the 'matter in hand'..."[412]. Achieving is immediately identified with willing, and what happens afterwards is not considered relevant to the success of what was done. Of course, this conception turns out to make incomprehensible the possession of determinate content by its willings, since as we have seen such content is conferred only by the friction with reality manifested in the cycle of action and experience.

2. The parallel treatment of language exits and language entries extends to the consideration of the role played by the concept of reality in relation to cognition and action. Reality exhibits itself as independent of thought on the side of action in its stubborn resistance to purpose, the gap between intent and achievement which the means employed may or may not bridge, but which in any case requires the application of some means, the making of some attempt, in order to be traversed. The certainty of action is not guaranteed of coinciding actively with its truth (i.e. conforming that truth to its certainty). Reality exhibits itself as independent of thought on the side of cognition in its capricious transcendence of belief, the gap between how things are for consciousness and how they are in themselves. The certainty of cognition is not guaranteed of coinciding passively with its truth (i.e. conforming its certainty to that truth). The priority accorded to action (understood in normative terms of responsibility and commitment constituted by the perspectival difference between performer and appraiser) as the basis of cognition (whose distinction of certainty from truth merely reflects its original on the side of action) is the central doctrine of the way of understanding the concept of reality which Hegel calls "genuine idealism". According to the typology to which this rubric belongs, Realism is impressed by the priority manifested in reality's constraint of thought in successful cognition, and asserts the ultimate independence of that reality with respect to the activity of thought. One-sided idealism is impressed by the priority and manifested in thought's constraint of reality in successful action, and asserts the ultimate independence of the activity of thought with respect to reality. [To say that cognition or action is successful is to say that is accords with its notion (Begriff). In each case that notion is, and is of, a form of consciousness, that is its content is the coincidence of notion and reality, certainty and truth.] Genuine idealism acknowledges that both entries and exits play essential roles in relating reality and thought, and thus embraces the positive insights of both one-sided approaches. But it remains an idealism in that action is accorded an explanatory priority over cognition, and reality is ultimately conceived in accordance with this priority.

3. For reality plays a special role in the social account of action, to which cognition has been reduced. The essence of action as explained above consists in the significance arising when an exit from the realm of thought, a performance or public undertaking, is at the same time an entrance available for representation and appraisal. The movement begins in thought with the formulation of a purpose, and returns to thought formulated as an attribution, via the medium of the actual. That the essence of action is social is expressed in the requirement that in general the locus of responsibility intending the action is a distinct individual from the locus of responsibility assigning its significance. Explaining the action and relation to reality of individual selves is only the first part of Hegel's project, though. For once we understand these things properly, he wants to use the same set of concepts to describe the restless activity of the whole of Spirit as the action of a self. Once we see how individual selves develop, we will be able to see the whole developing community as a self (cf. the slogan of the Preface that Self and Substance are identical). Further, once the subject of action can be identified with this whole cycle of "thought returning to itself out of otherness", a social substance essentially split into distinct but mutually recognizing individuals, the dual transcendence by reality of each individual thinker becomes simply one aspect of the self-developmental process of that social substance. The contingency, resistance to purpose and to understanding that characterize reality as an element in this process, distinguishing achievement from purpose and real achievement from its appearance to an appraiser, need not characterize the self-developmental process which comprises that contingency. The ink particles within each letter in a printed sentence may be jumbled in random and arbitrary tangles without the sentence being jumbled or tangled. As the letters within which arbitrariness reigns must be maintained as distinct individuals, so must the individual thinkers or agents with respect to which reality stands opposed as contingent and stubborn. The social substance can achieve Absolute knowledge of itself and achieve absolute power in achieving its self-directed purposes within the jumbled contingencies of action and knowledge of its component individuals.

4. It is a story such as this that Hegel is at this point aiming to become entitled to tell. It is because this story will become our understanding of the significance of action that the stage of Reason can be described to us as expressing in its action and concern for action "the certainty of being all reality", even though Reason does not yet know that this is what it is expressing. Reason is the abstraction from Spirit (social substance) of the moment of action. The understanding of the social and normative nature of action leads us to the higher kind of "doing" which is the self-directed developmental activity, realizing explicitly a form which is developed and clarified in the very process of realizing it, and to identification of ourselves with the social substance which is both the subject and the object, the purpose and the achievement of that process. But Reason is still only action as an abstract moment of this process. Nevertheless, as action it is the implicit expression of the concept of action. That concept dictates that reality shall conform to thought as purpose. This is the ideal of independence of the individual purposer, and Reason misguidedly attempts to realize that independence immediately (in abstraction from the social reflection of individual thought in inference, appraisal, justification), just as Self-Consciousness had. The criticism of merely formal theories of action with which the section on Reason ends is the culmination of an exposition of intentionalism about normative appraisal generally as a doomed strategy of independence strictly comparable concerning action to those of Stoicism and Skepticism concerning cognition. Exclusive attention to the intentions with which an action is performed (the good will) appears as one-sided. Hegel's social metaphysics of the normative requires attention to the larger whole embracing both intention or purpose and the consequences or actual achievement of performances. The detailed parallel between language exits and language entrances which stands behind this indictment deserves some attention.

5. The concepts of both cognition and action require the coincidence of their certainty and their truth, either passively or actively. On the face of it, each is prevented from being realized by the stubbornness of reality. The Cartesian strategy for realizing the concept of knowledge had been to stake out a realm of cognition unriven by any gap between appearance and reality. This was the very realm of appearance itself. For while something could appear to be red and not really be red, it could not appear to appear red and not really appear red. For this realm of certainty as subject and object of knowledge, whatever appears to be so is so. The boundaries of the knowing self were taken to coincide with what could be known in this special way realizing the concept of knowledge. A similar Cartesian strategy exists for realizing the concept of action in the face of the stubborn resistance of the real to remaking according to the purposes of thought. This is to stake out a realm of action for which the gap between attempt and achievement does not exist, a domain of ends for the achievement of which no means are required. As mistakes of perception and errors of belief are banished from the privileged Cartesian realm of cognition, so failures of attempt and miscarriages of intent are banished from the privileged Cartesian realm of action. This realm consists of volitions or willings. They are conceived of as mental episodes that are minimal actions, as appearances are mental episodes which are minimal knowings. The knowing is minimal in that no inference is endorsed beyond the internal content which is the evidence. Without interpretation, no error can arise. The actions are minimal in that no commitment is made to achieve anything other than the framing of a purpose. Every attempt counts as an achieved success (as of appearances we could say that their appearance counts as their reality), so the reach of intent cannot exceed its grasp. In the Meditations Descartes invokes the existence of mental episodes which are neither volitions nor caused by volitions (i.e. willed) as evidence of the existence of a not-self, identifying himself with that over which he had the sort of indefeasible dominion which on the side of action corresponds to the privileged incorrigible access on the side of cognition.

6. The intentionalist restriction of the objects of moral appraisal (actions) to volitions is the attempt to achieve the immediate realization of the concept of action, banishing the significance of reality by contracting action and thereby the self to the vanishing point of minimal attempts, whose aim is only attempt. The strategy is described as immediate because in this understanding of action thought does not return to itself out of otherness, but never ventures outside its own gates to begin with.

If this [honest] consciousness does not convert its purpose into a reality, it has at least willed it, i.e. it makes the purpose qua purpose, the mere doing which does nothing, the Sache selbst...[413]

The understanding of normative appraisal is purged of the contagion of causal contingency for Kant only by restricting such appraisal to the will alone. Hegel's attitude toward this strategy could be characterized in terms of the advantages of theft over honest toil, except that theft on occasion succeeds, and the strategies of immediacy never can. Die Sache selbst is the unity of action as a movement from thought as purpose to thought as appraisal of achievement, and the coincidence of the actuality of action and its concept in that unity. It is misunderstood if it is treated as something which in principle could be private, a metaphysical happening in a particular agent, without social mediation by a reality resistant of individual purposes. To begin with, the social nature of action is missed if actual achievement is not distinguished from both purpose and appraisal, and conceived as their mediation. A performance is not an action because it is caused in a certain way or results from a volition or other special antecedent state, but because of its place in the social mediation of thought with thought.

7. The attempt to see the concept of action realized immediately in volition is a strategy of independence with varieties analogous to the strategies of independence pursued by the stoic and the sceptical consciousness. Where the cognitive stoic withdraws into his freedom to interpret as appearance and hence in a certain sense assign the significance of experience and thus master it, the volitional stoic withdraws into his freedom to attempt, which reality is powerless to interfere with. The stoic admits other descriptions of his actions are possible, but insists that their true significance is to be found only in the description under which they were purposed. The volitional sceptic, more radically, would identify action with volition, treating willing as the only sort of action possible (as the cognitive sceptic identifies knowledge with appearance). Intentionalism finds what is to be appraised (that is, the achievement) in the purpose, and thus is to be understood as

committed to one or the other of these strategies of independence.

Now, the Sache selbst in being merely willed...has the meaning of an empty purpose and of a unity of willing and achievement only in thought. [414]

In "Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind" Sellars offers an account of the perversity of the Cartesian attempt to base all knowledge on that privileged knowledge of the mental for which no mistake is possible. Ordinary claims to knowledge express an endorsement of a content by the claimer. Error is possible insofar as that endorsement cannot be redeemed or vindicated justificatorily in the context of other claims which may come to be established. In the ordinary case of a non-inferential report such as "that is red", the subject does two things: expresses a responsive disposition to call the object red and endorses the claim that it is red. Appearance talk, as in "that appears (looks, seems) red" is explained as secure from error only because in saying that something looks red one expresses the same responsive disposition, but explicitly does not endorse the claim one is responsively disposed to make. Since no claim is endorsed, no error is possible. [There are subtleties arising from the extension of this account of looks talk from first person uses to third person attributions, and the subsequent possibility of first person uses of third person forms in self attributions, but we ignore these here.] Once this account of the source of the incorrigibility of "looks"-talk is grasped, it can be seen how inappropriate this sort of secure cognition is for playing the role of original or basic knowledge which can only be extended by inference beyond the realm of appearance by incurring for the first time the risk of error. For appearance talk so understood presupposes reality talk (the ability to use the safe "looks" presupposes the ability to use the risky "is"). Claims about how things look secure their independence from error simply by withholding the endorsements which could turn out to be inappropriate. But one must have mastered the practice of making such endorsements before one can engage in a practice of withholding such endorsements.

8. A similar diagnosis might be offered of volitions as that privileged form of action on the mental for which no failure of achievement is possible. As language entries require both responsive dispositions and resulting endorsements, so language exits require both dispositions to perform and commitment to an achievement under the description expressing the purpose of the action. Corresponding to "that is red", we have expressions of language exits such as "I shall start the car". Corresponding to "that looks red", which withholds endorsement of the "is" claim, we have "I shall try to start the car", which withholds commitment to achieving the intended result. One may if one likes treat minimal "tryings" as a special kind of action, one that one cannot try to accomplish and fail. But as on the side of cognition, one must not think of these as the original kind of actions, which are only extended to extra-mental actions at risk of failure of achievement. For once again, one must already have mastered the social practice of committing oneself to an accomplishment before one can master the practice of occasionally expressing an intention while withholding such commitment. "Trying" talk is parasitic on "doing" talk, and abstracts a derivative private (as in "privation") and only apparently independent dimension from the social, essentially dually perspectival practice of undertaking commitments and appraising achievements others have undertaken commitment to. The picture of action as demarcated from other behavior by the causal role played by volitions in bringing it about thus rests on the reification in the causal order of an inversion in the order of explanation. The identification of the active self with its volitions as a way of realizing the notion of action immediately, the strategy of the honest consciousness, is thus a doomed strategy of independence. The notion of action can be realized only with the social mediation of others, not by contracting the self to a circle of transparence to cognition and action, but by expanding it to include the whole cycle of social linguistic practice returning to itself out of the mediation of reality in cognized action which is the real Sache selbst.

9. The deficiencies of this immediate conception the relation between the certainty and the truth of action, what it is for the agent and what it is in itself, are manifested also in ways that do not have analogues in the discussion of Sense Certainty. For Hegel the performance as achieved or accomplished is the publicly accessible of a content whose private aspect is that performance as intended. If this connection is denied, as the honest consciousness does, then the distinction that action implies introduces systematic deception about the true nature of the action. For that true nature is identified exclusively with the intention, which is publicly misrepresented by achievements that diverge from intentions.