Feliks Mikhailov
The Riddle of the Self

2. Individual and Social (Hegel versus Russell)

It may appear that we are back where we started from: consciousness as an attribute of the individual. Admittedly, after our brief survey of the concepts evolved by several famous philosophers we should be able to offer a fuller description of this attribute. Consciousness now seems to be a set of mental processes occurring in the individual’s body, reflecting the world and making judgements about it with the help of the objective forms of mankind’s historical culture assimilated in the course of individual experience. The main role here is played by the means of social communication (above all, language). Only this proviso [the above “definition” should not be taken as anyone’s definition and certainly not mine] keeps the initial formulation of the problem intact: it is the body that thinks and is conscious of the world, the body entering into direct sensuous contact with the objects of its life activity, which include objects of human culture. Since Hegel it has been these objects which give man’s mind its most essential features, its conscious relationship to all external objects. But in the context of today’s problems it was Russell who brought us back from the cloudy philosophical heights of Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind to what appeared to be the obvious fact that man assimilates impersonal social forms of culture in ontogenesis, that is in the course of the development of the individual, in the unique experience of his one, unique life.

In view of the as yet unsolved contradiction between the individual sensuous, fabric of the individual mind and the social (impersonal) forms of culture, we can now go on to formulate the question raised by Russell about the “names” by means of which we understand each other and ourselves.

There is no way of avoiding this problem. As we have seen, it always confronted the philosophers who studied the nature of knowledge and how man acquires it. The point is that even a person’s most personal, most intimate attitude to the objects he sensuously perceives is only a conscious attitude because his dealings with them involve knowledge of them. But knowledge expressed in a word (name) relates to whole classes, although in the objective world itself there are only separate, singular objects, and it is these with which our sense perception is concerned. The social (non-personal) language, which operates with names containing knowledge of the properties essentially inherent in a whole class of objects (or the majority of them), is absorbed by the individual but is not his production, is not, so to speak, a function of his unique structure. In other words, from this standpoint language for each of us is a component element of the cultural “environment”, which we use as a means of communicating with other people. And not only communicating. It is already clear to us that words denoting the attributes of a whole class of objects help us to see something in an unfamiliar object.

So now the question arises: how do the uniquely personal contacts with a set of unique, special objects, which constitutes the basis of all knowledge, accord with the general, the supra-personal, which constitutes the content of words and all the other means of expression of social culture? And since it was Hegel who considered the general (supra-personal) meaning of words and other forms of historical culture as the cause and secret of the spiritualisation of the individual, it would now appear to be a most opportune moment to return to Hegel.

To resolve the contradictions between the social and the individual, Hegel appealed to history and showed that a contradiction is not a confrontation between certain eternal attributes (functions) of objects (structures) that have been formed once and for all, but an integral process of the constant interdetermination of some individuals by others. According to Hegel, the social forms of culture (including language) are not an environment external to each individual. They are the real, living biography of previously existing individuals, embodied (objectified) in their works, in the means of the intercourse that took place between them. The education (which Russell speaks of as leading, with some success, to the depersonalisation of language) was for Hegel the only way of spiritualising each new individual, the only way of awakening his individual consciousness. And this aim is achieved when the already educated present the individual who is entering life, with the forms of culture that provided the ways and means of intercourse of those who lived before them. Consequently, education is an integral process of human intercourse spread out in real historical time (and not only in the space of school premises).

For Hegel the forms of historical culture (of social consciousness) are never impersonal. They can and should be objectified in the means and results of human activity and intercourse (otherwise they could never be passed on to the corporeal individual sensuously perceiving the world). But even in this apparently alienated form they serve to develop the human spirit, participating as the media of people’s active intercourse, changing and becoming more perfect in accordance with new aims generated by the spiritual creation of individuals. Thus the entirely objective means and results of activity and communication in the living forms of humus interaction are de-objectified and generate conscious needs, develop people’s abilities, endow them with knowledge, skills and abilities, that is, all the cultural and spiritual determinates of consciousness.

As we see, there is nothing mystical in this most fundamental idea of Hegel’s. What is more the notion of education as a process unfolding in time is to this day crucial to the correct understanding of the formation of the human personality. We shall deal with Hegel’s mysticism a little later on. The main thing we should appreciate at the moment is that for Hegel the social is not an indifferent environment to which the individual, possessed of all his eternal attributes, adapts himself, but the mode, means and forms of the intercourse of individuals, which constitutes the essence, the content of their individual spirituality. Thus, according to Hegel, the development of consciousness is a historical process, the real time of history, that is to say, the content of human activity, and not the spatial interaction of the individual, as born, with his natural and social environment.

Now compare, the two “logics” used to characterise the development of the individual consciousness: the “logic,” of the temporal, historical unfolding of the process of human intercourse and the “logic” of the spatial interaction of man and nature, man and man, man and the “social environment” that takes place here and now. In the first case, the social is the determining of the attributes of individuals by their actual modes of living, their intercourse; in the second, it is the determining of the supra-individual (external to individuals) structure of the established forms of intercourse. In the first case, the individual is the embodiment of the historical process in the life-activity of the separate person, in the facts of his personal intercourse with others people, in his needs and abilities; in the second, it is the enumeration of his needs, abilities in themselves, the characterisation of the individual by means of the qualities, functions to be observed in him as such. In the first ease, the social and the individual reveal universal and particular forms of people’s historically developing consciousness. In the second, the social and the individual are opposed to each other as a ready-made social structure (environment) and an individual of the species Home sapiens, who is included in this environment but nevertheless remains an entirely independent structure.

However, the second “logic” has its own historical foundation, which even Hegel’s conception of the historical development of consciousness cannot demolish. This comes to light when Hegel embarks on his study of the question of the source, the essence of history itself.

For Hegel, as we have seen, the universal historical forms of consciousness are the living forms of the spiritual intercourse of individuals occurring in real historical time. The complementary, interlocking and mutually exclusive cultures of nations in the epochs of the rise and decline of these cultures are not a “social backdrop” against which people enact their little individual dramas, they are not the external, transient circumstances to which they are compelled to adapt themselves, but the actual content of their life. The meaning of their own, personal needs and aims is predetermined by the very form of their spiritual intercourse, its historical content.

For Hegel, the universal historical forms of intercourse are therefore not a collection of all the encyclopaedias, not the sum of knowledge, not the sum of wills, not the sum of all the desires people have experienced throughout their history, not the supra- and extra-personal structure of the facts of culture (logic, language, and so on), but the changing forms of the consistent, stage-by-stage development of the spirit, realising itself and existing in the consciousness of people who have actually lived and are living. The objective spirit (Russell would have called it the logic of language and scientific knowledge) realises itself in the earthly history of humanity in the form of the “subjective” spirit (consciousness) of individuals.

However, individuals are engaged in differing pursuits. They themselves are different. The consciousness is not an impress taken from some universal model. Each one becomes involved in the historical time of culture in its own way, and in its own way, in its own unique form becomes aware of that time. We encounter the infinite shades of the universal that has taken the form of the culture of a given people in a given epoch, as the modes and standards of the intercourse and activity of individuals, and in each there are certain dominating shades of the universal. Sometimes they are repeated in hundreds of thousands of people, as though according to a standard pattern; sometimes they are truly unique and distinguish the given individual from all others. But a person’s spiritual potentials always develop in the process of his becoming involved in historical forms of spiritual activity, in the process of mastering the means and modes of that activity.

Here there would appear to be no opposition between the social (objectively universal) and the individual. This is the pure dialectics of the identity of opposites. Admittedly, one is entitled to ask: but why are they opposites? And the answer is: because the logic of the origin, development, transformation and clashing of cultures – the universal Logic of Human History – although it occurs always in the specific, individual desires, passions, hopes and thoughts of living people, nevertheless differs from the logic of the individual life of the private person. And where there is a difference, as Hegel said, there must also be a contradiction.

What is it that gives rise to the dichotomy and opposition between the universal (social) and the particular (individual)? In other words, what was there to begin with? How did history begin? Here, according to the rules of logic evolved by Hegel, one ought to be able to find some third term (not social and not individual, perhaps not even consciousness) that in its development generates both the “iron march” of the logical categories assuming the form of the various cultures that supersede one another and the sensuous directness of the immediate contact of the living, thinking body with the countless varieties of the individual.

But here another problem arises. The universal, the necessary cannot be inferred from the limited sensuous experience of “partial” individuals. This was proved by Hume, and Kant’s whole conception is based on this conclusion. For both Fichte and Schelling it was axiomatic. Hegel also clearly saw that the universal forms of culture (thought and activity) determine the character of the particular experience of individuals; and even sensuousness itself (sensations, perceptions, representations, etc.) Hegel regarded as a stage in the development and realisation of the universal spirit embodied in the life-activity of the human organism. The person who is used to thinking in terms of value definitions without paying attention either to the contradictions or logic of the conception he is attempting to assess, will at once be able to write off the above proposition as an example of idealism. And sure enough, it is an example of objective idealism.

However, in Hegel’s idea that the sensuous forms of perception (in the broad sense of the term) are moments in the self-development of the spirit one can also find a “grain of reason”: a person’s feelings are spiritualised by the socially relevant meaning and significance of the objects and their qualities that are perceived. A person’s feelings are moments in the integral acts of people’s conscious life-activity.

But we must stress once again that for Hegel (as for Kant, Fichte and Schelling) the universal and necessary cannot be empirically inferred from the sensuous experience of individuals. The universal is objectified, materialised in forms, means and modes of active human intercourse. On the other hand, the assimilation of these objective objects of culture in the course of individual life-activity is the de-objectifying, dematerialisation of the universal meaning contained in them and thus the process of the spiritualisation of the individuals themselves.

Admittedly, the individuals, for Hegel, are dependent, mere executors of an externally given role. They act consciously according to the logic of the universal, changing the world around them, but their activity is essentially reproductive. Its productive part – creative thinking takes place in its own sphere, in the sphere of the universal, of pure thought. So, according to Hegel, there is no movement either in the sensuous immediacy of perception or in objective actions; there is only its embodiment and realisation. The whole creative and goal-setting essence of human development is assigned to the spiritual world of thought.

Hegel was thus able to solve the problem of the beginning of history quite unambiguously: in the beginning was the word and the word was with God. Not literally, of course. Not exactly as the Bible put it. But if the creative work of history is purely spiritual activity and is objectified in human actions, the laws of “spiritual production” are primary in relation to material activity. And in that case the Spirit is the root and essence of all that exists. Then it embodies itself in nature and is also for nature the prime source and secret of its intrinsic activity. And this is how Hegel’s system of objective idealism is built up.

But what mainly interests us is that the universal in this system (and in Hegel the universal is a synonym for the social) acquires the status of independent existence. In the opposition between the universal and the individual spirit it is the universal that turns out to be the side of the contradiction to which in its origin and essence the second side, the consciousness of the real individual, is reduced. Hegel never did find a “third term”, despite his own logic, despite dialectics – because he “found” in one of the sides of the contradiction the basis for the identity of opposites. And the result, as Russell put it, was mysticism, idealism, although Hegel’s mysticism did not lie where Russell saw it. In Hegel the source and root of people’s sensuous, bodily activity are the spirituality of the Universal Reason standing above this activity, above individuals, above nature and opposed to them.

Hegel beats Russell by proposing (long before the latter was born) the highly constructive idea of the unity of the individual and social consciousness. As we have seen, Russell never escaped from the empiricists’ customary vicious circle: everything begins from sensuous experience and reaches the universal through generalisation of its facts, but experience itself is from the start regulated and guided by universal forms of thinking. Hegel, on the other hand, found a fundamentally new way of stating the problem: for man the universal is the historically developing forms and modes of his own life-activity and thinking. In every individual they merge into the integral whole of his consciousness because with all his faculties he absorbs the universal forms of historical culture, and thus history becomes his personal spiritual biography.

But by uncritically accepting the gap which in class society polarises spiritual and material activity as such, Hegel was compelled to see precisely in spiritual creativity the root and source of real human history and ultimately to oppose the sphere of the universal (social) to the partial consciousness of separate individuals. So while “beating” Russell on one point he “concedes” to him on another, and precisely the point that interests us most of all: in both Hegel and Russell the social and the individual are independently existing determinates of consciousness. In both cases the Self and the impersonal social culture turn out to be realities opposed to each other, except that Hegel enslaves our Self by giving it in bondage to the universal (Universal Spirit), while Russell appears to grant it an almost independent status, the status of a natural “light” directed upon the natural and social environment. And yet even in Russell the independence is apparent rather than real, for social education somehow deprives the natural light of reason of its colour; its personal inimitability gradually fades and the narrowness of the sense-experience basis of knowledge condemns it to interminable doubts regarding its own nature.

Contents | 3. The End of the Mind-Body Problem