The Logic of Self-Conscious Animals

Substance and Subject

Here is one way of starting. We are natural animals, but there is a way in which we are different from other animals. One way of thinking about that is to claim or try to demonstrate that there is something very “un-animal” about the stuff out of which we are constituted. That is not Hegel’s way. For him, there is a line that runs from nature to fully minded agents, but it is not a line that runs from the animal to the nonanimal but rather from animals with a certain type of self-relation to animals with a very different self-relation. Something like that thought is behind his summary statement in the Phenomenology that “everything hangs on apprehending and expressing the true not just as substance but also equally as subject.1 Or, as we might alternately put it, if Hegel is right about the importance of that statement, then everything about what we say about Hegel hangs on what we take Hegel to mean by that assertion. Let us start with the view that Hegel’s statement about substance and subject is the key to his idealism. At first, let us simply lay out some of the basic commitments and come back to their interpretation and defense later.
One of the oldest interpretations of Hegel’s thought takes his idealism to consist rather straightforwardly in the claim that only spiritual (or perhaps mental) things are real, and that the supposedly nonspiritual world of interstellar gases, stars, and the more mundane supposedly nonspiritual world of rocks, plants, and animals is an unreal or untrue manifestation of that deeper spiritual reality—or, on another version of the same view, it holds that there must be some singular big Mind that constructs objects out of its own experiences but that those objects remain only spiritual constructions, even if they appear (untruly) as physical. This is the most common view of Hegel’s idealism: It is supposed to be a monistic metaphysics of Geist, i.e., of “spirit” or “mind.”2 Mind is not a feature of nature so much as nature is supposed to be a manifestation of a more basic spiritual order of the world.
Although it is always tempting to assimilate Hegel’s idealism to one of these other, more familiar forms of idealism, it is also misleading. One of Hegel’s favorite analogies—which pops up in all the various places where he remarks that animals are true idealists—is in an indication that his is not an idealism that declares everything to be ultimately mental. Animals do not, he notes, take food to be untrue or merely one-sided phenomenal appearances of an underlying mental reality. Rather, as he puts it, they confront the things that show up to them as food and “without any further ado, they simply help themselves to them and devour them.”3 Animals do not, that is, construct the objects of their world out of their mental experiences. To animals with the requisite sensory apparatus, things “show up” as food because of the purposes the animal brings to bear on its environment by virtue of being the kind of animal it is. Lettuce shows up for rabbits as food because of the kind of creatures rabbits are, just as rabbits show up as food for foxes because of the kinds of creatures foxes are.4 What “shows up” to an animal as salient in its world depends on the species interests it brings to bear on that world. Food can “show up” only to creatures with the proper organic makeup and the appropriate nervous systems, but nothing shows up to an iron spike. However—and it is here that Hegel’s genuine idealism starts to come into view—for self-conscious creatures, very different things can “show up” in experience, for example, states, constitutions, divinities, artworks, and ethical requirements.5
We can put the first provisional formulation of Hegel’s idealism in this way: It is a view that the way the world shows up for living creatures depends on the nature of the creature and that the world “shows up” for creatures with a capacity for self-consciousness in a way that it cannot for non-self-conscious creatures. Put in this way, it is not the thesis that the mind creates the world or that what is really fundamental or more basically real are mental things, nor is it the idea the world is inherently spiritual and not material, nor is it the idea that subjects “construct” (either socially or individually) these kinds of things, nor finally that subjects impose conceptual meaning on some kind of distinct and neutral sensible information. The world is not dependent on us for its existence or its structure, but what “shows up” as salient in our world is a function of our species interests as the beings we are.
There is a second way of stating Hegel’s idealism that augments the first one, which has to do with the way things show up to thinking creatures. It holds that not only are there items which can only be entertained in thought—although the infinitely large and the infinitely small are not perceptible they are thinkable—there is also nothing in the world that is in principle unavailable for conceptual thought. There is no reason to think, for example, that there are items which can be felt or grasped in some deep emotional state but not thought. A corollary to this is that for Hegel’s idealism, the world taken as a whole—the “totality” of such things—is only available to thought and not to intuition. We can think of the infinite, we can imagine it, but we cannot see it. Because of this capacity for comprehending the world that goes beyond the more direct deliverances of experience, things can show up for humans in a way that they cannot for non-self-conscious creatures. As such self-conscious creatures, we become capable of wondering whether the way things show up for us is the way things really are. This capacity for self-conscious thought—and, in Hegel’s language, for entertaining the “universal”—is the determining feature of our species life. That also means that our species life is also characterized by a profound unease with itself, another corollary of Hegel’s idealism but which requires a different argument. This is a feature of our type of self-relation, not an indication that we are made of different stuff than other natural things.
Nonetheless, even if Hegel’s idealism is not, after all, a monistic metaphysics of spirituality, it is still metaphysics.6 What kind?

Life’s Purposes

Once again, it is best to begin by laying the view out before going into it in more detail. The way the world shows up for animals has to do with their own nature, but that does not mean that the world has been organized to show up as it does to animals. Nature as a whole means nothing, aims at nothing, and cannot organize itself into better or worse.7 However, there is nonetheless a place for a kind of functional teleology in the structure of organisms.8 Living creatures have functions that are basic to themselves as organisms, namely, survival of the individual and reproduction of the species, even though sometimes those requirements may conflict with each other. In terms of Hegel’s overall idealism, there is no need to see the teleological structure of organisms as implying an overall teleological structure to nature itself. That animals act in terms of an “inner purpose” does not imply that that there is an overall purpose to nature as a whole (such that nature’s organization would require an organizer) nor that they are aware of that purpose. It is, as Hegel says, a mistake to think that all such purposes must be conscious purposes or be the purposes that are at work paradigmatically in conscious action.9
These ends are not merely artifacts of our own species-bound way of describing nature. The concepts of disease and injury suggest that such explanations in terms of an animal’s nature have a basis in a real feature of the world and are not merely features of our way of describing nature. An animal, unlike, say, a rock can have things go well or badly for it, even in the cases where the animal does not have the neurological apparatus to take note that something is going badly for it.10 Disease is a way of things going badly for the animal: An animal is diseased when something external to the normal functioning of the organism interferes with it, and the animal is prevented from (or has difficulty with) living in the terms of the standards appropriate to its form of life (or, as Hegel would put it, when it is inadequate to its concept). To say that an animal is in a diseased state is thus not merely a subjective requirement on our part or just a way of talking. Or, again as Hegel phrases it: “The defect in a chair which has only three legs is in us; but in life, the defect is in life itself, and yet it is also sublated because life is aware of the limitation as defect.”11 Thus, for things to go well or badly for a creature does not require the existence of their being creatures with “wills.” We humans do not bring all value into the world.
However, what is a disease for the particular animal may be a means of sustenance for the microbes that are causing the disease. This is yet another manifestation of what Hegel calls nature’s impotence in this regard.12 It would be pointless to romantically protest and blame nature for this, since nature cannot put itself into any better order. In fact, “better order” makes no real sense at all in the case of nature as a whole. Instead, in nature, a creature’s ends are bound up with circumstances external to it, such that what counts as disease for the animal will be nutrition for the parasite, and predator and prey exist together.
Life is its own purpose, even if the emergence of life on earth itself fulfills no further purpose of nature itself. Hegel calls life a Selbstzweck, an end unto itself (as does Kant). The living creature is its own end even though the purpose of life is distributed among many different creatures who do not in an important way share that purpose with each other.13
Just as disease is a real feature of nature, reasons also have a place in the natural world. Some animals can be said to respond to reasons that are in the nature of things, given the species-nature they have. The mouse running from the cat is responding to a good reason right there before it. The cat coming after it shows up to the mouse as danger, as a good reason to get on the move speedily to somewhere else. Some animals, even those whom we may not ordinarily at first describe as particularly intelligent, may even maintain a certain flexibility about how they do this and thereby display at least a type of cognitive skill. Since for these animals there is a way that they take in the world in light of their natures, they can be said to be subjects in Hegel’s sense.14 They experience things, and they act accordingly. He thereby clearly sees a kind of continuum at work in the passages from life to animal life to human life, and that continuum has to do with the quality of the responsiveness to reasons such organisms confront. The human subject responds to its purposes as purposes.15
The difference between having reasons and being aware of reasons as reasons means that there is a rupture between all other forms of life and human life. Only the human form stands in the kind of self-relation that we find exemplified in exemplary fashion in self-consciousness.

Making Sense of Human Life

The difference between animal life and human animal life has to do with the kind of self-relation that human animal life has to itself. Humans, that is, are self-conscious primates, odd creatures in the natural order, not because they are made of different “stuff” nor because they can exercise some kind of nonnatural causation of their actions but because they are constituted by distinctive kind of self-relation. To get straight on this, it is still worth spending a little more time on an exposition of the concept of self-relating life before we look at how it might be defended against its competitors.
The human shape of life is self-conscious. Describing it like this, of course, suggests that it is a life that is always reflectively aware of itself, but on Hegel’s conception, such reflective self-awareness is to be distinguished from another form of self-awareness that consists in moving within a world of involvements in which there is an awareness of what one is doing in terms of various “ought’s,” “musts,” and “ought not’s” without there necessarily being any separate act of reflection accompanying one’s awareness. For example, as you are reading this sentence, you are aware that you are reading a sentence and not, say, swimming, cooking, gardening, or skydiving. If asked, for example, “What are you doing?,” the answer is: “Reading a sentence or two.” This is not a matter of having already been reflectively aware that you were reading the sentence as you were reading the sentence, as if you were reading the sentence and in a separate act thinking to yourself, “I am reading this sentence.” (If it were, a vicious regress would immediately set itself in motion.) To use a Kantian idiom to refer to this kind of self-conscious life that although self-conscious need not be reflective in all its operations, we can call it an apperceptive life. To shift to a slightly more Hegelian idiom: To be an apperceptive life—a subject—is to know that one is this shape of life exactly by being the life that falls under the concept, and an apperceptive life falls under that concept just by bringing itself under that concept.16 We are self-conscious animals by being the animals that bring ourselves under that concept of “self-conscious animal.” Moreover, we are not disembodied somethings that, on looking more carefully at themselves, decide to bring themselves under a certain concept. We are the creatures we are by bringing ourselves under the concept.17 We fall under the concept by our actualizing the concept in our own lives. Hegel refers to this in various places as the concept’s giving itself its own reality.18 The absolute identity of the two-in-one—of the I aware of me—is the apperceptive self. This conception of subjectivity’s apperceptive self-relation comprises more or less the ground floor of Hegel’s metaphysics of subjectivity.
Because this is an achievement on our part, we live (in one of Hegel’s striking metaphors) as “an amphibious animal, because [we] now have to live in two worlds which contradict one another.”19 We are natural creatures subject to natural needs and forces, and we are “spiritual,” normative creatures who live in a world of various normative demands, involvements, and contours.20 This opposition is at the heart of human subjectivity, but it is an opposition at all only because apperceptive organisms bring such a division on themselves. However, that we are amphibians who live with this tension between our normative and natural lives does not mean that we are not creatures who, as it were, have our apperceptive lives merely glued onto our natural lives. In our self-consciousness, we become different natural creatures—rational animals—and not just animals with an added function of rationality grafted onto us. In Matthew Boyle’s phrase, Hegel’s conception of human subjectivity is not an “additive” but rather a “transformative” conception of the role of reason in our lives.21 It is a life that essentially involves the capacity t...