Hegel’s Dialectic of Morality – Part 2 “Beautiful Soul to God in the Midst”

We ended the last chapter by describing the arrival on scene of the “Beautiful Soul”, the instantiation of consciousness which maintains purity of conscience by using its own language to judge itself, and which withdraws from the world to avoid conflicts that might put its own transparency and purity of heart into question. By withdrawing, it finds itself vanishing “like a shapeless vapour that dissolves into the air”(658). However, even this conscience, which to itself seems to wither away, must be considered from the standpoint of actuality, in the manifestation of its activity to others – and to others it still appears to be acting. Since as acting in public its language can be contested by others, the unity of its pure heart and action is sundered. Therefore, the next post will deal with “the antithesis of individuality to other individuality, and to the universal”, and expunge and evaluate Hegel’s treatment of “this relationship and its movement”(659). It is this description of a relationship of inter-subjectivity which, I believe, has perhaps the strongest phenomenological content in the Phenomenology of Spirit.

The beautiful soul attempts to avoid the antithesis implicit in public action by retreating into private, but since the only true privation of inter subjectivity is suicide, every living consciousness constantly acts. When conscience acts it expresses the an antithesis in its own being which is recognizable by others. This is because an action always has a specific content which does not itself form the basis of pure duty, and yet action as the action of conscience acts as pure duty devoid of content. The filling of duty with content creates a gap which can be sorted by the beautiful soul by giving reasons in language, but others have no reason to believe these reasons, and others are particularly well disposed to doubt the selfless reasons given by others. Thus the conscience which sees itself holding more firmly to duty, and therefore not acting, recognizes the action of a conscience that does act as evil, and when acting consciousness gives reasons which attempt to align its inner being with universality it is held by judging consciousness to be hypocricy.(660)

To try to grasp the movement Hegel is here describing, try to think of a situation where an action by another person appeared in a context where things were relatively stable, and their action transformed the situation in a way opposed to the way you thought was right, either because you thought a different transformation was necessary, or because you thought things were right the way they were. For example, imagine you come home to a brutally clean house, and that tidying is your chore this week. You might respond with an immediate horror – your housemates have usurped your chance to fulfill your duty, which means the new state of things includes a clean house, but also you feeling guilty and useless. They might tell you “oh, we just had some free time and thought we’d help you out” – but you don’t believe them, you immediately assume they are lying about their inner motivations, and their true intention was to frame you as a non-contributing housemate. You see your own non-actions as pure (“I would have done it tomorrow”), and judge the conscience of the other as evil, and as hypocricy because the reasons they speak publicly appear out of line with your interpretation of their subjective intentions. In this case, they are acting consciousness, you are judging consciousness.

In the movement of this antithesis between two consciousnesses, the first transformation is in acting consciousness – the non-identity between its pure internal duty and particular externalization which makes manifest a subjective and selfish aspect of action which is at odds with duty must be made apparent. This “unmasking of hypocricy”(661) is not automatic because “hypocricy, as is commonly said, demonstrates its respect for duty and virtue just by making a show of them, and using them as a mask to hide itself from its own consciousness, no less than from others…”(661). What’s essential here is that it is not simply the case that acting consciousness lies to judging consciousness about its intentions; rather, it lies to itself first, or at least in the same moment. To return to the chores example, the acting consciousness who cleaned on the other’s cleaning day might very well believe themselves to be acting on duty; hypocricy is equally adept at making oneself appear virtuous to oneself as to others.

The transformation sought in this antithesis is the production of an identity between what the acting consciousness is in itself, and what it declares itself to be. This is to say “it must be made apparent that it is evil…the hypocricy must be unmasked”(661). This cannot be brought about, however, simply by the persistence of acting consciousness in its own rationalizations(661). If acting consciousness recognizes that by acting on its own inner law and duty it comes forth into the world as evil and as hypocricy, it simply cancels itself out. It can cease to be hypocricy only by ceasing to be at all; no alternative basis for action arises and it withers away. This is confirmed, I think, in real experience: it is in fact possible, having acted on your best principles, to recognize that your actions are nevertheless evil. But in the face of a pure judging consciousness there is no alternative than to simply stop acting (which is, of course, impossible because consciousness is actual and manifest – there is no thought without bodies and no humans, properly speaking, without the social). You can’t “do better” than acting on pure duty, or acting on your best principles, so if acting on those produce manifestly evil consequences, you might as well not act at all. This recognition does not make you become transparent to yourself in activity, it merely reveals that, for you, activity is nothing but evil. The consequence is “end activity”, but this is not a moral theory because morals concern norms for action, and ending action is not such a norm.

Similarly, the judgement of judging consciousness can not, on its own, bring about the needed transformation. Judging consciousness can be no redeemer because it is just as one-sided as acting consciousness. When judging consciousness denounces hypocricy as “base, vile, and so on, it is appealing in such judgement to its own law, just as the evil consciousness appeals to its law(663). The “zeal” of judging consciousness has the opposite of its desired effect – it demonstrates that what it calls the true duty which should be recognized is in fact not recognized, because it does not recognize the inner law of the other but only its own, despite them having the same particularity. In the one-sidedness of its emphatic denouncing it unwittingly concedes that the other “has an equal right to be for itself“(663). When judging is looked at as a positive act of thought, with positive content, the contradiction present in judging consciousness becomes clear (665). The judging consciousness does in fact contain a universal aspect – internal recognition of pure duty – but at the same time it contains a particular aspect insofar as the act of judgement is recognized as actual, and therefore external, particular, and constituting the interest of the individual as actor.

The transformative moment, then, does not happen either through as a self-recognition on the part of the actor nor through the teachings of judging consciousness towards acting consciousness. But, because the hypocricy of judging consciousness makes itself manifest alongside its denouncing parlance, acting consciousness can recognize judging consciousness as the same as itself (666). Seeing this identity, acting consciousness confesses his hypocricy to judging consciousness, expecting the same from the other – a mutual recognition 0f the hypocricy inherent in the activity of acting on duty. This confession is “not an abasement” because it is not intended to establish a disparity with the other but rather a solidarity. But, of course, the confession does not precipitate a similar confession on the part of judging consciousness. Judging consciousness repels its community with acting consciousness and becomes the “hard heart” which is only for itself, and which rejects any continuity between itself and the one it judges. And so, the situation flips: the one who confessed sees the repulsion of the other towards solidarity as in the wrong, because he fails to let what is plainly there in its existence to be manifest in speech. The judged is now judger, and judges the hypocricy of judging consciousness as evil.

Just as acting consciousness did not have the power to recognize its own evil and hypocricy through its own rationalizations, judging consciousness cannot by its own power renounce its own false knowledge of itself. Judging consciousness “wastes itself in yearning and pines away”, unable to firmly grip the contradiction in which it finds itself (668). It surrenders action in advance, so unlike acting consciousness which must annihilate itself in order to overcome the contradiction and hypocricy it finds in its action, judging consciousness needs do nothing to maintain a state of self-cancellation; it already exists in a state of withering away into nothing.

However, judging consciousness is not by necessity any more isolated in-itself than acting consciousness. While nothing demands judging consciousness participate in confession as acting consciousness did, nothing prevents it either. In fact, the process is simpler, because while acting consciousness had to recognize a hypocricy in judging consciousness which judging consciousness denied, acting consciousness has already confessed its hypocricy – all judging consciousness need do is look within itself and recognize that it too participates in the same hypocricy as is externally represented in the confession of acting consciousness. When judging consciousness recognizes this and confesses, expressing solidarity and mutual recognition with acting consciousness, this movement is called the “breaking of the hard heart”(669). Now both consciousnesses find themselves having been enticed into confessing by the vision of themselves, as hypocricy, in the other. What follows is the reconciliation of forgiveness, which is the renunciation on the part of both consciousness of their ability to subjectively recognize as good or bad a judgment in themselves or an action in the other.

In the words of reconciliation knowledge enters the realm of objectivity. Objectivity was unavailable to the movements of conscience prior to the reconciliation of acting and judging consciousness because it only knew duty in its subjective moment – either as inner judgement or, from its perspective, direct manifestation of that judgement in action. And objectivity was not available to the language of conscience because its words were the unreflexive personal narrative of the rightness of internal duty, externally manifested. This is not to say that the language employed by conscience was not itself objective in the sense of external, it was; but it failed to express anything objective because it merely manifested the feelings of subjective consciousness. The realm of objectivity is not achievable by consciousness alone, but only in relation to another consciousness with which it forms, in mutual recognition and forgiveness an “indiscrete continuity”, which is capable of holding the contradictions manifested by subjective consciousness when it tries to act dutifully(671). This “indiscrete continuity” is said to be “indiscrete” because it is not a static thing like a state-of-affairs. Rather, the continuity between the two consciousnesses is a constant activity, a constant striving, constituted by the internal contradiction in each as a subject striving towards universality (duty) and by the striving against its identity with the other. By a process which externalizes its own contradiction – explicitly expressed in the recognition of one’s own hypocricy in the action or judgement of the other -consciousness “explicitly supersedes itself with its own self” and “returns to the unity of the seif” – and by returning to itself as something which is at the same time recognized as external consciousness is able to actually achieve in concrete the self-transparency which it was able to achieve in abstract as a beautiful soul. This is to say that the universality of conscience (duty) is enabled by the activity of mutual recognition to gain a content which does not destroy its universality, because the judgement of content as contingent is recognized as itself an expression of contingency and particularity.

Hegel uses a drastic and strange phrase to describe the state which is achieved in the duality of two mutually recognizing subjects at the end of the dialectic of conscience:

The reconciling Yea, in which the two ‘I’s let go their antithetical existence, is the existence of the ‘I’ which has expanded into a duality, and therein remains identical with itself, and , in the complete externalization and opposite, possesses the certainty of itself: it is God manifested in the midst of those who know themselves in the form of pure knowledge. (671)

“God” here is not a personal saviour, or a source of secret divine knowledge which might be put into writing by a prophet; rather, this is the idea that “God” means the objectivity which individuals gain when they recognize that their existence is not universally individual and contingently social but the opposite. In the duality of the two ‘I’s what they “let go” of is the priority of their own internal subjective cognition of duty – through their interaction they recognize that the truth of the internal subjective cognition of knowledge or duty is neither that it is immediate and pure nor that it is immediate and worthless, but rather that knowledge rises to the level of objectivity only in sociality. Internal cognition of knowledge is universally valid or contingent and worthless, that is simply the wrong question. Our existence, both as moral beings but also as knowers (this distinction is hard for us to grasp because the widespread existence of the is/ought fallacy makes the normative ground of truth difficult for us to recognize – I will write more about this in the next part), can be rightly said to occur primarily in the realm of sociality, despite the obvious fact that society is made up of individuals. The priority of the social is, in fact, what Hegel demonstrates in this dialectic: individuals are capable of objective cognition (which is to say, cognition which is evaluable in public against a universal standard) only insofar as they have already transcended the moments of subjective solipsism that characterize conscience and acting and judging consciousness right up to the point where mutual recognition occurs. “God” is “in the midst” because “those who know themselves in the form of pure knowledge” do so only on the basis of engaging in substantial and constant relations of recognition and striving with others, and these relations as substantive are named “God”. And, “God” can be said to be “manifested” because these relations are not merely formal and abstract, but concrete and recognizable. They are phenomena which are manifest for those engaging, and also for others, because as humans we have the capacity to recognize not only the relations we are in, but also those relations between others which we are not direct participants in.

I decided to write summery/analyses of the Conscience section from Phenomenology of Spirit because this text is important to me, and because I thought setting to work on it would reveal to myself the latent possibilities for integrating the activity of mutual recognition into Merleau Ponty’s theory of sociality. And it is uncanny the extent to which that has become clear, mostly in last paragraph above. This is to say I’ve written these mostly for myself, but I’ve also published them in public – if this helps anyone understand this difficult chapter, please let me know. Or, if you find self-publishing to be inherently vain and you’d rather I keep my personal thought processes private, you can say that as well.


2 thoughts on “Hegel’s Dialectic of Morality – Part 2 “Beautiful Soul to God in the Midst”

  1. Profoundly interesting and enlightening, but since Hegel’s argument is a system I look forward to the promised next stone in the arch. I particularly value the examples of hypocrisy you provide, and wonder how far Hegel’s arguments can be told in parable form.

  2. This analysis of Hegel’s Conscience is enlightening, beautifully written, and extraordinarily helpful for one trying to work through the text. I always appreciate when Hegel is taken up and written about in a way that is accessible–for what is language but the attempt to make one’s thoughts transparent for others?-(or as you said, to make “our self-consciousness… immediately present for others”).
    Thank you for the clarity with which you’ve presented this section; this text is so important and compelling for many reasons, but it is not one I had ever considered recommending to anyone outside of a philosophy department. It’s good to know that it can be summarized in such a way that its message can be made evident to anyone (who was willing to have a dialogue of course).

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