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Continental Philosophy Review

Gadamer: Reflection and Self-consciousness

Subjectivity and intersubjectivity, subject and person

domingo 30 de abril de 2017, por Cardoso de Castro

Extract p. 277-279, translated by Peter Adamson and David Vessey, from Continental Philosophy Review 33: 275-287, 2000

Thus the structure of reflexivity returned to center stage in philosophy. “Reflection” and “reflexivity” are etymologically derived from the Latin expression reflexio, a familiar term in optics and mirroring. It could not   have developed to its newer meaning, its natural meaning for us, before the emergence of the scholastic sciences. Originally it referred merely to the fact that light itself is made visible only by that which it shines upon. This could be taken as the chief characteristic of self-relationality and self-ness, which as self-motion befits the life as such, and which for the Greek constituted the soul, psyche  . It is plausible enough that such a structuring principle would befit life as such in the case of humans and animals. But even plants form themselves by striving towards an organic unity, and subsist in themselves. The Aristotelian tradition   called this the anima vegetativa. This foundational structure of the organism presents problems that were already being discussed in Plato  ’s day. How can there be self-motion at all, if everything in motion has a mover? How can the moved itself be a mover? The entire problematic of heauto kinoun, taken up by Aristotle   in Physics VIII becomes apparent and finds its expression in the concept of nous. Here we recognize the concept of Spirit, so that Hegel   brought to a close his system   of the philosophical sciences, which he called the “Encyclopedia,” with a quotation from Aristotle. The highest existent is nous, which represents the structure of reflexivity as the noesis   noeseos, the thinking of thought. Whatever is present to itself having the structure of reflexivity, provides the highest fulfillment of being as present.

Greek philosophy came this far, but not without raising the objection that reflexivity is always a secondary phenomenon, compared to turning directly [278] to some object. Thinking is primarily thinking of something, and only then thinking of thought. Aristotle saw the problem with complete clarity. Turning back on one’s own thinking is always only “incidental” (en parergu). Thus Aristotle found it necessary, in the ontotheological sphere of his metaphysics, to trace the ordering of motion in the universe back to a highest existent, which is characterized by self-relation. How differently does the apodictic evidence of self-consciousness stand   at the center of philosophy for us! Transcendental   idealism gives subjectivity the rank of the absolute. Only in the middle of the 19th century, with the return to Aristotle, did Franz Brentano   challenge the primacy of self-consciousness. He was followed by Max Scheler  , who insisted that this primacy must be given to the givenness of the thing rather than to self-consciousness.

What motivates the modem ranking of self-consciousness over consciousness of the thing is the primacy of certainty over truth, which had its basis in the methodology of modern science. In contrast to the classical notion of method, since Descartes   method has been understood as the way to make things certain, and in this sense there is only one method among the plurality of methods. Here, with the emergence of the modern sciences, philosophy takes on the persisting task of mediating between the tradition of metaphysics and the modern sciences. It is the task of making compatible what is incompatible: the empiricism of science and the eternal truths of metaphysics. This explains the fact that the ancient notion of system first returns to philosophy in the modern era. In the older usage of the Greeks, the word “system” plays a role only in astronomy and music, that is, where the task was (as regarding the heavens) to make the irregular motions of the planets compatible with the circular motion of the stars, or to designate the “tones” in music. The transfer of the concept of system to philosophy assigns to philosophy the same task: to mediate ever-progressing scientific research with the truth-claims of philosophy. With Leibniz  , the word “system” even finds its way into the titles of works.

But the final synthesis  , which was most strongly influenced by system-construction in philosophy, was without doubt that of German Idealism. Thus the successors of Kant   grounded all knowledge on the first, highest principle of self-consciousness. This represents precisely, as Kant called it, a “Copernican turn.” It fell to Kant’s successors to give content to the formal   notion of self-consciousness. Schelling   outlined his philosophy of nature, which was supposed to give the “physical proof of Idealism,” in so far as when the advancement of the potencies of nature reached their highest potency, self-consciousness would be brought about in a flash from the Absolute. Going beyond Schelling, Hegel integrates the entirety of historical consciousness [279] into Idealism, and linked the dialectic of life to the concept of self-consciousness. This prepares the way for the role played by the concept of life in 19th and 20th century philosophy. The crucial link is found in Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the well-known, but equally misunderstood, chapter on the slave and master, which shows the meaning of work. [1]] True self-consciousness is founded in work. By stamping the worked form on the other, through work, appropriation of the other is achieved. This is the first higher self-consciousness, from which leads the path to the highest self-consciousness of Spirit.

This is on the way to the critique of self-consciousness as undertaken by Marx   and, today, by the critique of ideology. From Nietzsche   to the present, this critique dominates philosophical thought. In a well-known phrase, Nietzsche directly challenged the idealist principle of self-consciousness, when he said, with a nod to Descartes, “it must thoroughly be doubted.” Ever since, statements that take self-consciousness as simply given seem to us naive. For instance, Nietzsche already refers to the function of dreams, which Freud   would later put in the forefront, giving the example of someone fast asleep who re-interprets the sound of an alarm clock as a cannon, and dreams an entire battle merely in order to wake himself up. What Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud have in common is certainly this, that one cannot just take the givenness of self-consciousness as a given. Here arises a new role for the concept of interpretation  . One thinks of Nietzsche’s well-known words, “I know of no moral   phenomenon. I know only moral interpretations of the phenomenon.” Nietzsche’s use of the word “interpretation” is, in itself, only the borrowing of a word from the language of philology. But it certainly says volumes that this use of “interpretation” has gone well beyond all philological use to become a basic category of modem philosophy. Heidegger’s taking up of the concept also marks, with that very taking up, the critical development of Husserlian phenomenology’s concept of the phenomenon.

[1Cf. the work on Hegel in the Gesammelte Werke Vol. 3, p. 47ff. [Translated as “Hegel’s Dialectic of Self-Consciousness” and published in Hegel’s Dialectic (tr. P. Christopher Smith, New Haven: Yale University press, 1976, pp. 54-74).