an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

Volume 15, Spring 2018, ISSN 1552-5112


Becoming One Who Is: Self-Consciousness, Stance and Literary Art in Hegel, Lukács and Adorno



Richard Eldridge







Whatever else they are and however they come to be so, human beings are at least self-conscious, self-interpreting, stance-taking animals. Kant took this to be a matter of transcendental psychological fact, that is, a thesis that cannot plausibly be denied by any claim-making rational finite animal––simply an obvious and irrepudiable fact as it were, that is built into our possession of the faculties of sensible intuition, understanding, and reason.

        This claim naturally prompts puzzlement about how, as evolved animals, we have come to have such faculties. As is well known, Fichte, Schelling, and others proposed variants of Kant’s irrepudiability-of-apperceptive-awareness thesis, to explain why it is true. But on the whole they failed to ground their accounts in a plausible story about natural processes and mechanisms in which apperceptive awareness might be embodied. As a result, from a contemporary scientific point of view, their positions, along with the claims of faculty psychology in general, seem merely stipulated or posited, and they fail to be convincing.  Within contemporary scientific psychology, in contrast, we find mysterious talk of inner representations that possess syntactic structure, are inferentially related and embodied in brain states–––talk that is scarcely less mysterious than the claims of faculty psychology.  Or instead, we find various forms of eliminativism that implausibly deny the existence of genuine claim-making powers and self-consciousness.

        Is there, then, another way to think about self-consciousness, apperceptive awareness, and what it is to be a claim-making rational animal?  In paragraphs 394 and 395 of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, the very opening paragraphs of Section C - Reason, Chapter V - The Certainty and Truth of Reason, Subsection C - Individuality Which Takes Itself to be Real in and for Itself, ¶394 begins as follows:


Self-consciousness has now grasped the Notion of itself which, to begin with, was only our Notion of it, viz. that in its certainty of itself it is all reality; and End and Essence are for it henceforth the spontaneous interfusion of the universal—of gifts and capacities--and individuality.  The individual moments of this fulfilling and interfusion, prior to the unity in which they have coalesced, are the Ends hitherto considered. These have vanished, being abstractions and chimeras belonging to those first shallow shapes of spiritual self-consciousness, and having their truth only in the imaginary being of the heart, in imagination and rhetoric, not in Reason. This, being now in and for itself certain of its reality no longer seeks only to realize itself as End in an antithesis to the reality which immediately confronts it, but, on the contrary, has the category as such for the object of its consciousness.[1] (236).


This is, to put it mildly, highly specialized vocabulary that is far from transparent; hence more than a little unpacking of it is in order. This opening idea is that we have now changed our standpoint for understanding self-conscious beings. Initially—that is, in Chapters I to IV—self-conscious beings, which are human beings with distinctive points of views on things and who engage in discursively structured activities of claim-making and reflective claim-assessing—were taken to be special kinds of objects, or objects with special powers in the world. The facts of simply being made with faculties or powers a) of the sensible intake and recognition of particulars, b) conceiving of kinds, c) of describing relations between particulars under laws, and d) of asserting oneself and seeking recognition from another subject, were, successively, simply taken as given. In each case, the proposed understanding of the subject as a special kind of object failed to explain how claim-making activity and the reflective assessment of claims are possible. If any proposed explanation of what it is to be a subject fails to explain this, then it is, by Hegel’s lights, obviously inadequate, for we are undeniably the kinds of beings who make claims and who reflectively assess them. Hence we now consider a new conception of ourselves as spontaneous end-pursuers.

        One might of course from a natural scientific point of view reject Hegel’s move here. After all, the human being is an evolved biological animal, and surely what makes the human being to be whatever it distinctively is must, one might think, somehow in the end be explained by appeal to facts about the human brain and its evolutionary history. Perhaps, contra Hegel, we just are objects in the world with special kinds of biologically-evolved powers. Psychology in Hegel’s time might have been insufficiently developed to account for human claim-making activity and reflection on it (as it remains insufficiently developed in ours), but surely—it might be objected—it must be somehow possible to do so, at least in principle.

        In favor of Hegel’s move, however, it can plausibly enough be argued that there is a kind of self-defeating paradox attaching to the suggestion that we can fully understand human claim-making activity scientifically as a function of the brain and its evolutionary history. Surely the brain is the evolved locus of certain basic capacities of perception, spatial orientation, memory, and so on. But will a natural scientific account of these suffice to yield an explanatory account of claim-making and reflective assessment? As long as natural scientific theories centrally take the form of law formulations relating causes and effects, there is at least some reason to be skeptical.


Law formulations cast effects as brought about by their causes with natural necessity. Ideally, in a fully specified law formulation with all independent variables registered in the account of the cause, that natural necessity amounts to inevitability. Yet the products we produce in our claim-making activity seem not to occur with inevitability. Ask me in relevant circumstances whether the cat is on the mat. Will I inevitably utter the syllable “yes,” as an automatic output of my brain activity?  No, not inevitably, but rather only as long as I have heard and understood the question, have paid attention, have found the light good enough, have decided to be sincere in replying, have not taken the question as metaphorical or allegorical, and so on. Claims about causes of human actions, including expressions of beliefs, are strongly ceterus paribus or “all other things being equal” hedged, in a way that it seems difficult to sublime away by incorporating the hedges into independent variables in the antecedent of a law formulation. Analytic or definitional reductions of states of epistemic commitment, such as beliefs about cats on mats, to discrete, causally activated dispositions or brain states just do not seem to be in view. In involving strong ceterus paribus hedging, the logic of belief is just different from the logic of cause-effect relations in nature that fall under natural necessity. We make strongly hedged and active contributions to our expressions of our beliefs, as we choose to act on some among many available motives, with various degrees of attentiveness and alertness. To deny this is to deny the existence of the very phenomenon that wants explanation.

        If this is right, then we must at the very least understand ourselves as ineliminably active beings, beings who both make a contribution to the structure of our consciousness insofar as it has discursively structured contents and who rank-order their motivations and decide to act on some of them rather than others at any given moment.

And this is Hegel’s point.

We are now to understand ourselves—our discursive consciousness, our claim-making activities, and our actions that express them—as somehow self-grounding, not the result of natural necessity alone. We are to understand that form of being as itself “all reality,” that is, as not fully grounded in and not adequately explained only by any physical or biological natural facts.

        From this point of view, Hegel goes on, for any existent human, discursively structured point-of-view-bearing subject, “End and Essence are for it henceforth the spontaneous interfusion [of the universal …and individuality.”[2] That is to say, we are now considering human subjects who think of themselves as just so happening to have projects and ends that they as individuals freely choose to commit themselves to and to sustain.  They as it were find themselves as just so happening to have one or another gift or talent—for example, an ear for music, a memory for historical facts, or athletic ability—not in virtue of material givens such as brain states or muscle mass alone, but also as something they are just freely good at and to the development of which they might freely commit themselves.

Such gifts and talents might be shared by anyone and are shared by many, so that it makes sense to think of them as universals: things that can be in more than one individual or place at one time. The issue for any subject who thinks of itself in this way is then: can I over time develop and exercise my talents freely in a way that both solicits continuing recognition of the worth of my course of life and sustains my own cathexis to it? The ends, goals, or projects to which one commits oneself are now understood not simply as ends, goals, or projects that one just happens to have and that mysteriously putatively demand one’s allegiance as simply given, say by one’s heart or imagination. These very same ends, goals, and projects are now understood as things to which one might freely commit oneself on the basis of reasons and as things the pursuit of which over time may require learning and the modification of strategies for their pursuit. Under this conception, one does not, for example, simply become a teacher, craftsman, parent, or professional ‘just like that,’ for no reason and as a finished product. Rather one tries out one’s gifts and talents over time, reflects on them, and modifies their exercise, as one freely goes on with a developing project. Moreover, having given up the strategies of brute domination, servitude, and withdrawal from the world, the human subject now confronts its environment or world not as something absolutely and inflexibly hostile and foreign to it, or antithetical to it, but rather as a set of material circumstances within which and on which it can work over time, through forming and revising strategies through which gifts and talents might be successfully expressed. In this sense, the rational human, project-having and reflecting subject is certain of its own reality; it sets itself to a course of work and development with reasonable enough confidence that its efforts are not necessarily doomed to failure. As Paragraph 394 goes on to put it, for such a human subject, “Action is in its own self its truth and reality, and individuality in its setting-forth or expression is, in relation to action, the End in and for itself.”[3] To undertake the active expression of individuality, developed and freely maintained according to reasonable standards and in response to circumstances, is just what it is to have a life as a human subject.

        The question for Hegel will then be: is this conception of what it is to be a human subject, or what being a human subject ultimately consists in, adequate? Can it make sense of actually existing human subjects and their courses of life? And for Hegel the answer to this will be “No;” ultimately, the having and executing of projects on the part of individual subjects, taking themselves to have gifts and talents, must itself be understood as possible only through the inheriting, maintaining, and revising of historically developed forms of shared social practice and institutional life that have established themselves as reasonable enough among a people over time. Individuals will turn out to become the distinctive individuals they are and to maintain themselves in their individualities not only by taking themselves to have particular gifts and talents and then working to develop and express them over time, but also by being, and by thinking of themselves as being, essentially participants in shared, good-enough practical, social, and institutional forms of life, including forms of familial, economic, political, religious, and philosophical life. Here, moreover, the idea of being good enough counts for something. Broadly characterized, only a modern, more or less post-European way of life that includes the central institutions of the nuclear family, a regulated free market economy, and a parliamentary democracy is reasonably endorsable and hence stable and good enough.

        For the moment, however, never mind this further argument. Consider only the account of what it is to be a human subject that has so far been sketched. Two things about it might immediately occur to you. First, it is plausible enough, at least in describing a certain stage of life: late adolescence. Like me, many of you spend a fair amount of your time around 18 to 22 year-olds. If they are lucky enough not to be fully dominated by economic necessities, then one of the things that is frequently, even centrally on their minds, as they seek to define themselves both in relation to and against their parents and peers, is how to become the grownup individual whom they inchoately take themselves to be. They seek somehow to define themselves by acting and choosing, while also maintaining a sense that this self-definition is a kind of exploration of who they really already are.  Or as Hegel puts it in ¶401:


The individual who is going to act seems, therefore, to find himself in a circle in which each moment already presupposes the other, and thus he seems unable to find a beginning, because he only gets to know his original nature which must be his End, from the deed, while, in order to act, he must have that End beforehand. But for that very reason he has to start immediately, and, whatever the circumstances, without further scruples about beginning, means, or end, proceed to action.[4]


If one is lucky in such things as finding a good range of opportunities, helpful teachers, coaches, and mentors, and the support of friends, lovers, and family, all within a framework of an institutional life that is not brutely coercive and repressive, then one will more or less muddle through.

But in any case, the central claim seems right: there is a moment in human life, at least in modern pluralized societies, where how one is to become more fully who one already inchoately is presents itself as a problem.

        Second, Hegel’s claim about how individuals address the problem of becoming who they are is not in any important sense inner, and it does not separate cognition from emotion. That is, the kind of self-understanding one seeks as one seeks cathexis to nexes of activities and relationships involves reflection on how things have gone and are going within courses of worldly activity. One asks not, “What is in my mind?”, but instead “Does this activity or relationship feel right? Is it going well? Is it significant? Am or am I not developing talents and powers of attention and interest within this setting?” Here thought and principle are not separated from passion and feeling. Ripeness is all. As Hegel observes in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History, “Laws and principles have no immediate life or validity in themselves. The activity which puts them to work and endows them with real existence has its source in the needs, impulses, inclinations, and passions of man.”[5] From within complexes of passions, principles, internalized commands, practical and institutional possibilities, and senses of talent and gift, individuals in the process of self-formation seek to find their way to articulate clarity about who they are and what they are up to.

        A set of interrelated further questions about this picture of the development of partially articulated, passionate, self-conscious individuality naturally suggest themselves. How is this development conditioned? More specifically, what about the roles of biology, parents, teachers, siblings, peers, and surrounding social forms and practices? Don’t these influences set stronger limits to the development of self-conscious individuality than Hegel suggests?  For Hegel, these limiting conditions are both real and yet also ultimately enabling. As already suggested, how they operate will get cashed out in a larger story about the development of Sittlichkeiten or forms of ethico-social life that are in the end beneficent for the development of meaningful self-conscious individuality within good enough social settings. For obvious reasons, we cannot be as confident as Hegel that all will go well and that these limiting conditions will prove to be beneficent and enabling in fact. As Robert Pippin remarks in commenting on the continuing need for art in modernity as a vehicle for the development of individuality against the grains of social forms, modern life is “a world of freedom realized, or reconciled social relations of persons who are free because they actually stand in relations of at least institutionally secured mutuality of recognition” which, contra Hegel, is “clearly false as a claim about European modernity [both] in the first third of the nineteenth century” and on into the present.[6] We are all too aware of the diversities of social forms and of the agonies and horrors that many of them, perhaps all of them, often enough impose on subject development. The accomplished end of history in a life of right is clearly not at hand, and the development of individual subjectivity frequently involves normalization into a role that does not support reasonable cathexis to it, but is instead marked by remainders and shards of unacknowledged or unexpressed feeling, desire, and attitude.

        Nonetheless, human subjects are not simply things. As the contemporary German philosopher Georg Bertram aptly puts it, “the human form of life is one that is reflexively constituted in a particular way. Human beings are not what they are by nature alone. Nor are they constituted as what they are as a simple result of tradition. Rather, human beings must also always determine what they are ever anew. The human being is what he is always also through the fact that he takes a stance.”[7]

        How then, in our actual setting now, might this stance-taking be done more self-consciously and more effectively than it, mostly implicitly, is? At the very opening of The Theory of the Novel, Lukács writes that "happy ages have no philosophy; ... philosophy as a form of life or as that which determines the form and supplies the content of literary creation, is always a symptom of the rift between 'inside' and 'outside', a sign of the essential difference between the self and the world, the incongruence of soul and deed."[8] (29). Given the essential interrelations between philosophy, literature, and history, one might say the same thing about these latter forms of thought and writing, too. Lukács regards 8th century BCE Greek life as exempt from this sense of rift and frustration and as able to maintain senses of orientation and value among its members simply by retelling the Homeric epics. But one may wonder whether Lukacs is quite right about early Greek life, and in any case he concedes that the sense of living within what he calls arounded totality’ is already lost by the time of the emergence of tragedy around 550 BCE. Surely for us times of rounded totality are well lost, along with all their aching joys and dizzy raptures.

Given the standing occasioning circumstances of philosophy, literature, and history in frustration and disappointment, coupled with a sense of powers yet to be fully actualized, one might think of books that aim at describing transfigurations of life into fuller meaningfulness, egos, and historical social forms as comparable with with each other, insofar as they each exist, as it were, as emergent entities caught between impulse and rational order.

The comparison I have in mind can be set out as follows: Philosophical theories as completed rational summae of conditions of meaningful life; Historical forms of social life as ensembles of semi-stable, evolving, contested roles, rights, and responsibilities; Superego; Requirements for complete rational intelligibility; Ego; Serious books of history, philosophy, and literature as interrogations of possibilities of meaning-making, infused with tension and conflict; Erotic longings; impulses toward meaning outside preformed social scripts and toward transformations of social scripts; Id, Libidinal Energies, Primary Process; Erotic longings for life otherwise, for fullness of lived sensuous meaning.

The only actually existing entity is one that is emergent and evolving, specifically in being caught between experienced requirments of rational order, intelligibility, and stasis, along with experienced polymorphous, particularized  impulses toward change­­. The actually existing intermediate entities bear experienced requirements and impulses as attributes of themselves.  In Cavellian terms, the suggestion is that books, egos, and social forms live between avoidance-aversiveness­ independence-selfhood, on the one hand, and acknowledgment-intelligibility-deference­ community, on the other.[9]  We might at certain moments hope to live either in ego-dissolution into the bliss of fully liberated but undirected erotic impulses––a life of jouissance––or to live in submission to fully articulated and dispositive rational authority––a life of reason. But aspirations to such forms of life, involving the complete dissolution of tensions internal to the ego are misbegotten, however tempting they may be as fantasies. Ego identity amidst internal tensions is inevitable, as long as we are agents within a world we do not comprehend absolutely, and we would do well to come to terms with our situations otherwise than by either dismantling all cultural scripts or by absolutizing them.

This is, I think, what Adorno means in urging the practice of negative dialectics on us. Here is one crucial characterization that he offers of that practice:


[Negative] dialectics is the self-consciousness of the objective context of delusion; it does not mean to have escaped from that context.  Its objective goal is to break out of that context from within . ... Being at once, [however], the impression and the critique of the universal delusive context, it must now turn even against itself   . . . It lies in the definition of negative dialectics that it will not come to rest in itself, as if it were total. This is its form of hope.[10]


This is to say, first, that we do live within objective contexts of delusion. We do not live within the full actualization of our powers of meaning-making, but rather we live caught between the competing experienced promptings of libidinal energy and rational-cultural order. The tensions between these demands also suffuse our forms of social life and our forms of serious thinking about ourselves and our social lives. Resistances to some norms experienced as stultifying play off against equally felt needs for social order under norms.  Forms of social life can be changed; moves can be made––for different reasons and in different directions in different contexts. We are not fated to endless repetitions of particular forms of either givenness or conflict. But we are condemned to a kind of indigence: to the poverty of never being able fully to overcome some forms of conflict so as to live in the clear light of reason alone. That form of philosophy 's utopic and irenic ambition should be abandoned, and philosophy should accept the standing openness to refiguration and re-emplotment that it shares with literature and history (both written and lived). 

        In practice this will mean thinking of philosophy, along with literature and history, not as a form of science or scholarship in which fixed results are achieved through applying eternally reliable methods to given material. Instead, the frustrations, disappointments, or rifts that occasion serious thinking can be confronted and worked through––durcharbeitet to invoke the Freudian term––to some extent, in the hope of achieving some increase in articulate clarity about one’s situation and prospects, yet without arriving at any permanent solution. The fundamental itineraries of the exercise, actualization, and defeat of powers of human meaning-making and critical reflection are dramatic and ironic, not demonstrative and logical. The fruits of such itineraries, and of records of them, will not be doctrinal conclusions with QED appended, but instead a sense that life has been felt and lived, as we, our texts, and our social forms remain, in Wordsworthian terms caught between apocalypse and akedah. 

John Stuart Mill famously remarks that eloquence is heard, poetry is overheard.  To say this is to say that we, its readers, are not supposed to learn formulated, takeaway conclusions about what has been, is, or ought to be the case from either poetry or literary art in general––or from philosophy, I am claiming. To look for such things is to misunderstand the enterprise. Instead we are invited or solicited to enter imaginatively into the movements of the personae in the text, both authorial voices or characters, and to resonate to their mixtures of frustration, aspiration, accomplishment, and defeat. Affinity, a sense of being called into like imaginative activity by a voice in the text, and thence anew toward possibilities of refigured practice, and not adaequatio to a person- and value- independent world, is the mode in which literary and philosophical truth is achievable. Often we will have to learn to hear ambivalences and ambiguities in the literary and philosophical texts under study, in historical texts and the realities they present, and in ourselves. In Therapeutic Action and A Case for Irony, Jonathan Lear offers powerful accounts of psychic maturity as the actualized skill of hearing ambivalences. Or, to return to Lukács, the novel, which both tracks and participates in practices of always incomplete, culturally situated efforts at stance-taking, self-formation, and maturity, “appears as something in process of becoming,”[11]  and not as the announcement and justification of achieved results, and our task as readers is to attend to the multiple and not fully conclusive movements of this becoming. Reasonable hope allows, but also happily requires, nothing more than this.




an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 15, Spring 2018, ISSN 1552-5112




[1] G. W. F. Hegel,  Phenomenology of Spirit, trans. A. V Miller (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1977), ¶394, p. 236.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., p. 401., p. 240.

[5] G. W. F. Hegel, Lectures on the Philosophy of World History: Introducction, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 70.

[6] Robert B. Pippin, After the Beautiful: Hegel and the Philosophy of Pictorial Modernism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), p. 37.

[7] Georg Bertram, Kunst als Menschliche Praxis: Eine Ästhetik (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2014), pp. 12-13; my translation.

[8] Gyorgy Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, trans. Anna Bostock (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1974), p. 29.

[9] For a brief summary of Cavell’s philosophical anthropology of human beings as caught between acknowledgment and avoidance, see Richard Eldridge, “Introduction: Between Acknowledgment and Avoidance,” in Stanley Cavell, ed. Richard Eldridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 1-14.

[10] Theodor W. Adorno, Negative Dialectics, trans. E. B. Ashton (New York: Continuum, 1973), p. 406.

[11] Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, pp. 72-73.