Saturday, December 10, 2016

What "Pleasure in Pleasure and Necessity"?

More than once in the video commentary and in my social media postings of the videos, I remarked that, when it comes to treatments of Hedonism - moral theories that identify pleasure as The Good - the one contained in this short section, "Pleasure and Necessity" is probably one of the oddest discussions one might come across.

You don't have to take my word for that, though.  I suspect there are quite a few commentators who are not entirely happy with this portion of the work.  Jean Hyppolite - a translator and commentator I always enjoy reading - notes "Hegel's abstract language", and points out the need to "show the truly concrete meaning of this experience".  He'll tell us that "[w]hat Hegel has in mind is primarily sensuous love", but he admits "this is never made explicit".

Hyppolite also suggests that Hegel provides "a description of the hedonism of every epoch, albeit, to be sure, a refined hedonism."  I can't say I agree with that qualification myself, and although I can see why one might interpret Hegel's allusive, or even at times almost cryptic remarks about "pleasure" to refer primarily to those of sensuous love, I don't agree with according that primacy.  There's more going on in this passage, I think, when it comes to the pleasure - or pleasures - involved.

Why Discuss Pleasure In The First Place?

That's a good question.  Why is Hegel discussing pleasure here?  This isn't like what we see in many other treatments of hedonism, where for example, the claims of pleasure are being examined in terms of the good(s) of human existence.  Typically, there's three main ways in which that sort of discussion proceeds.

One might actually be committed to some sort of hedonistic viewpoint.  For instance, one could be a classical or modern Epicurean.  Or one might be a Utilitarian who hasn't strayed too far away from Bentham's insistence that pain and pleasure are the two masters.  In that sort of case, after attempting to prove that everything really does comes down to pleasures and pains for human beings (whatever else we might say about life, morality, and so forth), the discourse tends to be about why some pleasures are better or more rational than others.  There's a prudential attitude, perhaps even a calculus proposed by these sorts of hedonists.

Then there's those for whom pleasure seems entirely irrelevant - or perhaps seductive, misleading, even disgusting - from a moral point of view.  Pleasure not only is definitely not the good, but is liable to lead us entirely astray if it leaches into any of our considerations.  Kant himself, despite what he says at some points in his work, does not really go quite that far (there is at least a duty of sorts to produce pleasure for others, if not for ourselves), but you can find some people who do espouse a kind of attitude like that.

Then there's what are, in my view, more realistic treatments of pleasure, often coming to us from virtue ethicists.  These people, among whom I'd include Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Boethius, and Thomas Aquinas, do think that pleasure is something good, but that it is a limited good, of a lower type and value than other kinds of goods.  So, for example, Aristotle thinks that the person who takes pleasure in engaging in virtuous activity enjoys that good of pleasure - and in fact ought to feel it - but the person who just does things like the virtuous person, thinking thereby to enjoy pleasure, has got matters mixed up.  It's the virtue that is really valuable, and the pleasure is just the icing on the proverbial cake.

Hegel doesn't follow out any of these lines in his analysis.  It could be interesting that once a person does decide he or she wants to pursue pleasure, that person engages in some rational prudential process to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.  It might even be interesting that the person thereby has to learn a good bit about pleasures and pains so that they can be intelligently compared against each other as one does one's practical decision-making.  But Hegel does not discuss that.  In this section, Hegel is also entirely unconcerned about the enemies of pleasure, those representatives of the "ascetic principle", as Bentham called it.  The person he focuses upon in this section does want pleasure, and does take pleasure as their good.

He's also not examining the relative value or goodness of pleasure in the way that, for example Aristotle does in Nicomachean Ethics book one, or Thomas Aquinas does in Summa Theologiae, IaIIae, question 2. by this I mean he's not setting pleasure out in a field of contenders for what genuine human happiness, or the most fulfilling good, would be.  That said, you might view him as doing something in a distant way akin to what those earlier dialectically systematic philosophers we're doing.

In this section, Hegel will allow pleasure to have its say.  He follows out what is the case, or what happens, when a person does in fact take pleasure to be a good around which he or she orients his or her existence.  And, if it turns out - as it will - that pleasure is something not only insufficient, but that its pursuit and elevation as the good brings to light contradictions, well, that's what he's after in his analysis. To see why, you have to look back a bit in the text.

Pleasure, Hedonism, and the Good of Human Existence

The larger sub-section of the Reason section that this discussion occurs in is titled "The Actualization of Rational Self-Consciousness Through Its Own Activity".  We're finished with "Observing Reason" - that is, at this point in the text, we've made an important transition from the primarily theoretical or speculative to the practical - we're looking at human action, at ways of life, at decision-making, choices and what gets learned in the process - both by the person placing that stake and living that commitment out (the rational self-consciousness whose path is being narrated as that "shape of consciousness", and by us (the observers, along for the phenomenological ride).

An important transition occurs in the introduction to this new section.  This is a transition, or better put a dialectical development, that Hegel tends to associate with the modernity he inhabits.  As a side note, it is very important to keep in mind - even just in our own time, but still more for Hegel's time - that "modernity" and "modernism" is not something that can be simply or unquestioningly taken for granted, except where it has succeeded in becoming the new (and eventually, with time, the old) status quo.

The development particularly relevant here is the loss of what Hegel calls "Ethical Substance," something that could originally be associated with a particular culture, a way of life, a working society.  There would be some dynamism within any living, vital culture - for example, successive generations of young people have to be socialized out of the barbarism of childhood, and then eventually they become the new dominant group steering the society by the aggregate of their decisions, practical comportments, relationships, and so forth.  There's also a static aspect balancing out the dynamic one.

What this is in this section is what Hegel calls an "ethical order", associated with a "free people" or if you like a "nation" (Volk).  This consists in a set of acknowledged and agreed upon, if not always strictly followed, norms - laws, customs, ways of doing things and understanding things. There are problems with this ethical substance when it is taken as the absolute, And Hegel does explore some of those in that introductory portion of the text. But what's most important is that the individual is shaken out his or her association with that nation or culture. Here's how Hegel describes it:

[T]his immediate unity with spirit, the mere being of himself in spirit, his trust, is lost. Isolated and on his own, it is he who is now the essence, and no longer universal spirit. . . And thus establishing himself - and each moment, because it is a moment of the essence, must succeed in exhibiting itself as the essence - the individual has thereby placed himself in opposition to the laws and customs. These are regarded as mere ideas having no absolute essentiality, and abstract theory without any reality, but he is this particular "I" is his own living truth.

So what we have here is on the one hand the emergence of individuality against the arbitrariness of the culture from which the individual emerges, and on the other hand the loss of the centering, the knowing how to get about, or if you like the moral compass, that had been provided by the society to the individual.  The individual is now what is essential. But that leaves so much unresolved. If earlier questions were not raised because the answers were already in place, now one hardly knows which question to ask first.  But here's one: what is the good for me?  Or, what should I be doing? Or put it somewhat more formal terms, where am I to find my happiness?

That is indeed the set of questions that are being addressed, and not in a purely theoretical but in a practical way by this new shape of consciousness, that of hedonism, or if you prefer that of pleasure and necessity.  Why pleasure? Why not something else, like duty? Or wealth? Or social status and prestige, what used to be called honor?  Or power? Why start out with pleasure and the good for the person?

Why not start out with pleasure? Shouldn't that be the question instead?  Hegel writes about it much more abstract terms - the aim of self-consciousness 'is to give itself as a particular individual and actual existence into enjoy itself as an individual in it." This sounds much more deliberative than it really is. It's true that sometimes people, when things have broken down for them, or they have become disillusioned with the organization, institution, or larger culture would stabilize, adopt hedonism in one form or another, and talk accordingly where they justify it to themselves or to others.  But that needn't be the case.

Human beings do desire pleasure, and they find myriad in which to take it, to develop it. There are, to be sure all sorts of techniques, manuals, advice columns, even classes one can take, to help one in that regard. But even of all those were lacking, some – indeed perhaps even many – would still figure out how to have a good time, and what it requires her to make that happen in terms of planning, priorities, decision-making, the way one orients one's life. Pleasure seeking and pleasure taking are integral to the human condition – that's why what truth there is in hedonism is there to be found.

On the other hand, if Hegel is correct in his analysis of what a life oriented towards pleasure is like and what it comes out of, what the person who makes pleasure the central is doing is in fact attempting to make the enjoyment of pleasure into a substitute - and for what?  For the now lost connection with an ethical substance that exceeds the scope of the mere individual.  And isn't that what we see so often when somebody is a hedonist?  There are some bon vivants, who seem to be hedonists temperamentally and who do indeed produced pleasure for others around them. There are a few genuine Epicureans out there.

But doesn't it seem, when you look at more than just the immediate situation of pleasure - when for example you see the person who was your drinking buddy at happy hour in the rest of their life – as if there's something missing, as if a lack haunts their life, which they try to fill in understandably enough with more and more instances of pleasures?  Why would this be the case? Hegel has an answer to that - as of course do other thinkers like Freud or Mill in their own ways - and his answer is that they are attempting to provide themselves with what is missing for them, and what they desperately need. They're trying to wrest this from the world, to take this from what is other to them, and they might even for a while be relatively successful.

Why Does Hedonism Fail Here?

Let me point out again how Hegel does not adopt the commonplaces or tropes of his predecessors, in hi analysis of hedonism.  He does not point towards higher goods and say that pleasure falls short of these in one way or another. He also doesn't simply say that pleasure is slavish or animalistic, that is, not worthy of our lofty human nature.  He understands full well that hedonism has exercised - and still exercises - a strong attraction for many, including those who otherwise might be pursuing other approaches to happiness, meaningfulness, or if we want to stay very close to his terminology, the essential, what really matters.

One of the very features pleasure (particularly physical pleasure) exhibits that ends up being used to explain why it cannot be that good - that it is inherently subjective, something about the subject feels and another subject cannot partake in - is  precisely why at this point pleasure would be the shape that the good being sought takes for the individual self-consciousness.  Paragraph 361 brings this across:
It plunges therefore into life and indulges to the full the pure individuality in which it appears. It does not so much make its own happiness as straightway take it and enjoy it. The shadowy existence of science, laws, and principles which alone stand between it and its own reality vanishes like a lifeless mist which cannot compare with the certainty of its own reality. It takes hold of life much as a ripe fruit is plucked which readily offers itself to the hand that takes it.
When you ask people who are pursuing pleasure often times in what seem like self-destructive or counter-productive ways, what it is that they're trying to get out of it one of the answers you'll sometimes here is that they just wanted to feel something (sometimes qualifying this as a wish to "feel alive").

There is a sort of independence, or at least agency, that accompanies pleasure. That is what Hegel concentrates upon, and there is where his analysis of pleasure takes it very strange-seeming direction.  He is going to talk about thought, the category and categories, and ultimately steer the conversation towards fate and necessity.  How does that happen? It is partly through the reference to an other self-consciousness, as integral to the "enjoyment of pleasure, to the consciousness of its actualization in a consciousness which appears as independent", which turns out to involve the "vision of the unity of the two independent self-consciousnesses."

You can see why Hyppolite and others have read in a primary reference too sensuous love, to the other as and another to be enjoyed in bodily form, in this section.  But I don't think that's the only way we can understand this process of the pleasure taken by the individual slipping away into something of the stark universal.  After all, there are many ways we can share pleasures together without romantic or erotic involvements. And the realization - as one enjoys, repeats, enjoys again, and eventually becomes perhaps jaded with one's pleasures - that others have similarly attained that level of worldly connoisseurship, can also deprive the pleasures of their initial or even intermediate charms.

In the end, all the pleasures certainly are enjoyable, and may provide distractions for a long while, an exclusive focus upon them, rather than the immersion in all the other facets of a more substantial, traditional ethical life, frees us by leaving a void where the pleasure no longer is for an encounter with the fate or necessity of which Hegel speaks, and with which this section ends.  Hegel speaks of this as a situation in which "the absolute unyieldingness of individual existence is pulverized on the equally unrelenting by continuous world of actuality".

Later he remarks: "Consciousness, therefore, through its experience in which it should have found its truth, has really become a riddle to itself."  It may of course attempt to solve this riddle by simply diving into a new set of pleasures, but that's how the dialectic, in the case of individuals, stops itself short, cycling ever around the same now-established poles. This isn't the end of the story, of course, even for the developments narrated in this section. But this is where we can leave off in the discussion of pleasure, for the time being.

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