Trivulzio Portrait/Portrait of a Man (1476) by Antonello da Messina (1430-1479). Courtesy Turin City Museum of Ancient Art/Wikipedia


The subjective turn

For Hegel, human nature strives through history to unchain itself from tradition. But is such inner freedom worth the cost?

by Jon Stewart + BIO

Trivulzio Portrait/Portrait of a Man (1476) by Antonello da Messina (1430-1479). Courtesy Turin City Museum of Ancient Art/Wikipedia

What is the human being? Traditionally, it was thought that human nature was something fixed, given either by nature or by God, once and for all. Humans occupy a unique place in creation by virtue of a specific combination of faculties that they alone possess, and this is what makes us who we are. This view comes from the schools of ancient philosophy such as Platonism, Aristotelianism and Stoicism, as well as the Christian tradition. More recently, it has been argued that there is actually no such thing as human nature but merely a complex set of behaviours and attitudes that can be interpreted in different ways. For this view, all talk of a fixed human nature is merely a naive and convenient way of discussing the human experience, but doesn’t ultimately correspond to any external reality. This view can be found in the traditions of existentialism, deconstruction and different schools of modern philosophy of mind.

There is, however, a third approach that occupies a place between these two. This view, which might be called historicism, claims that there is a meaningful conception of human nature, but that it changes over time as human society develops. This approach is most commonly associated with the German philosopher G W F Hegel (1770-1831). He rejects the claim of the first view, that of the essentialists, since he doesn’t think that human nature is something given or created once and for all. But he also rejects the second view since he doesn’t believe that the notion of human nature is just an outdated fiction we’ve inherited from the tradition. Instead, Hegel claims that it’s meaningful and useful to talk about the reality of some kind of human nature, and that this can be understood by an analysis of human development in history. Unfortunately, Hegel wrote in a rather inaccessible fashion, which has led many people to dismiss his views as incomprehensible or confused. His theory of philosophical anthropology, which is closely connected to his theory of historical development, has thus remained the domain of specialists. It shouldn’t.

With his astonishing wealth of knowledge about history and culture, Hegel analyses the ways in which what we today call subjectivity and individuality first arose and developed through time. He holds that, at the beginning of human history, people didn’t conceive of themselves as individuals in the same way that we do today. There was no conception of a unique and special inward sphere that we value so much in our modern self-image. Instead, the ancients conceived of themselves primarily as belonging to a larger group: the family, the tribe, the state, etc. This meant that questions of individual freedom or self-determination didn’t arise in the way that we’re used to understanding them.

Today, most of us feel strongly that we have the right to make the important decisions concerning our lives as individuals. It is our choice what course of study we wish to pursue, which profession we wish to go into, which person we wish to marry, or what religion we wish to believe in. These are conceived as personal choices that individuals have the right to make for themselves. While this idea is entirely intuitive to us today, it’s not absolute but rather socially and historically conditioned. The ancients had a very different understanding of such things.

For the Mesopotamians, Egyptians and Greeks, individuals didn’t have such rights. People were born into specific families or classes, and this largely determined what they would do in life. These ancient cultures were dominated by custom, and traditional practices dictated every aspect of their behaviour. These customs were intertwined with law, education, religion and other aspects of culture, which served to validate them. One’s opportunities were defined and limited according to one’s class and caste. Likewise, the roles of the sexes were firmly fixed. Young people were expected to follow the wishes of their parents, and their own views and wishes weren’t perceived to have any value. Young men were thus obliged to follow in the professions of their fathers, while young women were compelled to accept as a husband someone whom the parents or wider family had chosen. The inward side of the individual wasn’t recognised as it is today.

We can see this clearly in a number of different ancient texts. The Greek historian and biographer Plutarch describes in detail the regimented life of Spartans, which was largely the result of the laws introduced by the highly esteemed lawgiver Lycurgus. Plutarch explains that the training of the Spartans

extended into adulthood, for no one was permitted to live as he pleased. Instead, just as in a camp, so in the city, they followed a prescribed lifestyle and devoted themselves to communal concerns. They viewed themselves absolutely as part of their country, rather than as individuals.

Plutarch further writes that Lycurgus ‘accustomed citizens to have no desire for a private life, nor knowledge of one, but rather to be like bees, always attached to the community, swarming together around their leader, and almost ecstatic with fervent ambition to devote themselves entirely to their country.’ Lycurgus’ constitution was widely praised in the ancient world, and it was thought that he had found the correct recipe for creating a society that would produce virtuous and flourishing people. But Lycurgus’ Sparta is a society that doesn’t recognise the validity of individuals to make decisions for themselves. It doesn’t cultivate subjectivity or individuality but rather conformity. The point is clear: there is nothing about the individual that should be regarded as having a sustaining value since everything must be subordinated to the needs of society or the state. What one is as an individual ultimately doesn’t count for anything.

The failure to see the inward side of individuals also extended to questions of moral and legal responsibility and culpability. Today, law courts examine closely the intention of the accused in order to assess the degree of punishment that’s appropriate. A carefully planned and calculated act of violence is considered worse than a spontaneous outburst caused by a momentary loss of self-control due to anger or jealousy. But for the ancients, the inward intentions of the individual weren’t considered to be relevant in the assessment, and so the focus was solely on the external action itself. The issue was simply what happened, not what one intended. Oedipus never planned or intended to murder his father or marry his mother, but he is nonetheless regarded as guilty by his actions alone. Even the fact that he tried to do everything he could to avoid this doesn’t mitigate the degree of his culpability for the crimes.

Socrates is thought to have initiated a revolution in thinking with regard to the subjectivity of the individual. A member of the Greek scientific revolution, he believed that nothing should be accepted merely because it has been passed down by tradition. Instead, Socrates argued, individuals have the obligation to examine any truth claim with their own critical reason, and only when it passes that test can it be accepted. He made a nuisance of himself by going around Athens and asking people about things on which they claimed to have expertise. He ironically flatters them in order to get them talking confidently about one subject or another. He then cross-examines them and quickly shows the mistakes in their reasoning. In the end, his interlocutors are left angry and humiliated. The point is to show that most people simply accept as true what they’re told from custom and tradition, but these views rarely hold up to critical examination. Socrates’ radical message was that people should be critical about everything and accept only what could be demonstrated to the satisfaction of one’s reason. In short, it was the individual who had the right to give his or her consent to what was thought to be true instead of it simply being dictated from above. This was a provocative and radical idea that Athens wasn’t yet ready for, and it cost Socrates his life.

The Socratic revolution gained traction with the introduction of Christianity. Jesus rejects the power of this world and points toward the inward side of human beings. Many of his teachings imply a shift from the outward focus of the old law to the inward focus of the new. Jesus says to his followers:

You have heard that it was said: ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman in lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

The old law forbids adultery: an external action in the world. But Jesus claims that the sin takes place in the inward sphere of one’s heart when one has adulterous desires. So, in effect, with these desires one has committed a crime before one has even acted. Likewise, he criticises those who make a great outward show of worship, and encourages his followers to pray quietly on their own. The important thing is not the action in the world but the inward disposition of the individual. The locus of morality now becomes the inner sphere.

Dante’s struggle is an inward one, with his personal spirituality; the struggles of Odysseus are with the external world

This means that morality is vastly expanded in its scope. Actions in the world are always limited in space and time; one can actually do only a finite number of things. By contrast, when it comes to one’s inner thoughts and desires, there is an infinite sphere. This creates a considerably more rigorous standard for ethics since one needs to monitor not just what one does but also what one thinks. This can quickly lead to obsession in the regulation of one’s thoughts as pure and worthy of God. Instead of judging just the finite number of sinful actions one does in life, God now assesses the virtually infinite number of sinful thoughts and desires that each of us has in the privacy of our own mind – most of which are never realised through action.

Another example of the shift from the outer to the inner realm can be found in the radically different natures of the epics of the Greek and Roman authors in contrast with that of the Christian poet Dante Alighieri. In Homer, we’re presented with great deeds accomplished by heroes in the external world, the siege of Troy, Odysseus’ defeat of the suitors and the restoration of his rightful place as King of Ithaka. Similarly, in Virgil, we follow the story of Aeneas in his efforts to find a new homeland for his people and prepare for the founding of Rome. All of these things are events in the external world. By contrast, Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308-20) is about the development of the spiritual, inward life of a single individual. Although it is true that he too in a sense takes a great journey like Odysseus and Aeneas, and he too meets a number of colourful characters along the way, the nature of his journey is nonetheless radically different. Dante’s struggle is an inward one concerning his personal spirituality in contrast with the struggles of Odysseus and Aeneas, which are with the external world.

From our modern perspective, most of us are presumably happy that we have the right to make the decisions concerning our lives. This is broadly what Hegel refers to as the principle of subjective freedom, that is, the idea that individuals have the right to grant or withhold their assent with regard to issues concerning right and wrong with which they’re presented. In the modern world, we have the right to reject and criticise what contradicts our individual conscience. This was precisely what was missing in the ancient world. The development of the idea of subjective freedom is thus in many ways the story of human liberation from the domination of custom and tradition. It is only with the development of this idea that the principles of, for example, individual human rights, religious freedom, freedom of speech and of conscience came about. These are of course things that we treasure in the modern world, and so it’s easy to read the historical narrative as a one-sided glorious tale of the victory of the individual over tradition.

But the matter is not so simple. While we moderns treasure our personal freedom, we also pay a price for it. Since we tend to be focused on our individuality and to make that the standard for truth and right and wrong, we’re confronted with the peculiarly modern problem of alienation and anomie. Modern people often feel isolated and separated from the community, the state and other larger instances. It is especially easy to feel disoriented and lost in a city, where one encounters masses of people every day with whom one has no real connection. And it is difficult for us to feel any immediate sense of identification with larger institutions and social structures that so often seem to contradict our own sensibilities.

The beneficial aspect of ancient culture was that it fostered a sense of family and community. Everyone knew their assigned role and played it, and this was thought to be the key to a flourishing life. People felt an immediate identification with their culture, their religion and their society. The ancients expressed this in terms of harmony and the medieval thinkers in terms of order. So long as people stayed in their appointed place, it was thought that everything would run smoothly. But when someone steps out of line, the order is broken and disharmony threatens. Today this more substantial sense of community or life in society has been lost, and this is the price we’ve paid for our individuality. Most of us would probably argue that the elimination of rigid classes and socially determined constraints was a good thing that marked an important step in human development, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is a trade-off here, and that this development has come at a cost.

Hegel claims that, while the emergence of subjectivity in the ancient and medieval world was a liberating development, in the modern world the pendulum has swung too far to the opposite extreme. Beginning with the Renaissance and the Reformation, there has been an ever greater recognition of the value and importance of the subjectivity of the individual. This has produced ideas such as Luther’s notion that religious faith is a matter for individuals to decide on their own, or the Enlightenment idea that individuals are in possession of universal, God-given human rights. With the Romantic movement in the 19th century, the celebration of individuality accelerated with ideas such as the cult of genius, life as art, free love, and the rejection of bourgeois values. Elements of these ideas can also be found in the cultural movement of existentialism in the 20th century, which seemed in some cases to deny the truth of any external objective sphere and to insist on the absolute spontaneous freedom of the individual.

This development has culminated in the Western culture of the 21st century, which is sometimes characterised as an age of self-indulgence and narcissism, where we are all individual atoms pursuing our own private goals and ideas, with no regard to anything outside us. What was originally the emergence of subjectivity against the background of tradition has now become the dominance of subjectivity against the tattered remains of tradition and, indeed, any conception of an external truth.

Today, we dedicate much of our lives to developing and asserting some sense of personal self-identity that is identifiable and separable from that of others. People have become increasingly creative in the ways in which this is done. The obsession today of creating a profile for oneself on social media has often been cited as an example of the narcissism of the modern age. It lends itself to an exaggeration of the importance of one’s activities and accomplishments and tends to tune out anything in the external world, such as one’s failures or shortcomings, that doesn’t fit with the narrative one wants to tell about oneself. In all of this we see sometimes seemingly desperate attempts to create a fictional persona for ourselves that’s different from others. Independent of any actual facts, people can become authors of their own stories – true or imaginary – that they can tell as they wish.

We are in a world of relativism where anything that doesn’t suit us can be branded fake news

Our focus on ourselves as individuals today involves virtually every aspect of our lives: our bodies, our clothes, our personal possessions, our interests and tastes. At every level, there is a desire to find something that expresses the purportedly unique qualities of oneself as an individual. Advertisers and marketers have long been attuned to this intuition and constantly exploit it. Paradoxically, they manage to convince us that if we buy their product, like millions of others, we will express our unique individuality. Fortunately for the businesses who make money on such things, there is a spiralling or circular effect that takes place. The goal is to find something special that can serve as an external sign to the outside world reflecting who one is as an individual. But these signs are ephemeral since very soon other people will also be attracted to the same things, and what appeared initially as an expression of individuality is then gradually transformed into exactly the opposite, a sign that someone is simply following the crowd. Hence the quick changes in teenagers’ interests and points of identification. One needs constantly to be on the lookout for something new and unique, which then only has value for a limited period of time. When a trend reaches a critical threshold and becomes too popular, it ceases to serve its function, and something new must be found to replace it.

Desperation to assert oneself as an individual is a demonstration of the importance of the principle of individuality and subjectivity in the modern world. While some might smile and regard this as an adolescent problem with little broader import, the issue runs much deeper. In our own times, it has led to the rejection of any form of objective truth. It has led us to a world of relativism where anything that doesn’t suit us or conflicts with our interests can be branded fake news or the result of party politics. The idea that there is an external, objective sphere of truth is quickly disappearing. Some commentators, such as Ralph Keyes and Lee McIntyre, have claimed that we are living in what they call a ‘post-truth’ world. This is the result of the increasingly radical assertion that individuals, as individuals, can dictate their own truth.

This is perhaps most visible in politics. Political debate is supposed to be characterised by serious discussions about real issues concerning the good of society, and these discussions are supposed to be based on factual evidence that can be cited as support for one policy or another. This form of political debate has been replaced by appeals to emotions, produced by cynical attempts to mislead voters with lies and false information intended to cast a negative light on opposing candidates or policy views. Professional firms offer the service of explicitly creating distortions and disseminating falsehoods in order to sway public opinion in one direction or another. Apart from the given ideology that informs their specific political orientation, the justification that is given for this always returns to the claim that there is no objective truth anyway, and so one is at liberty to spread manufactured and strategically packaged misinformation. This is a disturbing tendency not just for politics but also for fields such as journalism, education and science. Examples of this readily come to mind when one thinks of deniers of climate change or the Holocaust. Things such as the scientific method, the verification of sources and fact-checking no longer seem to be particularly relevant.

In his lectures, Hegel tries to identify the stages of the development of history. Antiquity is characterised by the unreflective, immediate identification with the whole. There is a harmony of the individual in his or her role as family member, citizen and so on. In this picture, individuals are like children who aren’t yet fully mature or able to make rational decisions on their own. They aren’t yet fully free. Modernity is characterised by a sense of alienation that leads to rebellion and disharmony. The individual feels compelled to assert him- or herself against the family, the school, the state or other larger institutions. This is the mindset of the Romantics in Hegel’s day – and of our own times.

According to Hegel’s theory of history, each period has its own justification: ‘Every stage in the development of the idea of freedom has its own special right, since it is the existence of freedom in one of its own determinations.’ Freedom is something that emerges slowly over the millennia, and with it the conception of what it is to be human develops. The one principle necessarily produces its opposite. Hegel’s idea is that we need to find the right kind of balance between the two extremes of traditionalism and individualism, one that would preserve the sense of community and solidarity that we find in ancient cultures but that would still leave space for the development of the individual. Clearly, we haven’t yet reached that point in history where we have achieved this balance.

We need to find some way to recover the idea of objectivity and external truth

The connection between our conception of human nature and our idea of truth isn’t always immediately obvious. But as we have seen, these things are closely connected. When humans began to recognise something important and irreducible about the inward sphere of the individual, a shift gradually took place in the notion of truth. Over time, the idea of a fixed truth in the external world started to erode, and concepts such as subjective truth (Søren Kierkegaard), perspectivism (Friedrich Nietzsche), and the indefinite deferral of meaning (Jacques Derrida) began to emerge.

This development has now culminated with a complete denial of any objective truth or validity. When this view establishes itself, people feel that they are at liberty to make up their own fiction and assert it as reality, even if their fictional version stands in stark contradiction to objectively verifiable facts, established law, accepted custom or self-evident ethical principles. Any objective evidence that seems to be in conflict with their views they reject as an infringement on their rights as an individual.

For many people, this is a disturbing tendency in our modern world since it eliminates all sense of personal responsibility or culpability. Even the most heinous behaviour or action can always be justified with an appeal to the truth of the individual. While no one has any interest in undermining individuality, there is a growing sense that we need to find some way to recover the idea of objectivity and external truth. Only in this way will it be possible to overcome alienation, restore meaningful political debate, and create the conditions for the individual to flourish in a wider community.

This work was produced at the Institute of Philosophy, Slovak Academy of Sciences, and was supported by the Agency VEGA under the project Synergy and Conflict as Sources of Cultural Identity, No. 2/0025/20.