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Albert Filice looks in the mirror and observes an alien consciousness through the eyes of Hegel.
I look at myself in the mirror and wonder, ‘Who am I? What is it that constitutes my individual self – my personal identity?’ In light of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807), I realize that I am nothing without my social relationships: I cannot be fully aware of myself unless I am aware of how others see me, for I define myself in relation to others. To the extent that I’m not being recognized by other people, I will be nothing more than an “empty abstraction” or “a motionless tautology”, to use Hegel’s phrases. Thus I desire recognition by others so I can substantiate and add meaning to this apparently elusive ‘I’; and yet I find the need to struggle and maintain my sense of independence from other people in order to establish who I am.
I’ll discuss the concepts of freedom and the self in Hegel’s Phenomenology by drawing connections with Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 film adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s philosophically insightful 1961 sci fi novel Solaris (also made into a film by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972). I’ll show how from Hegel’s perspective the notion of the self only makes sense within a social context; and thus how the philosophical ‘problem of other minds’ loses its intractability when understood from this perspective.
The Self As Socially Constituted
Hegel believes that the self is essentially a social construction: I am who I am only insofar as I am understood to be who I am by others. Thus, the self that I am is never immediately revealed solely by pure introspection, as Ren é Descartes might claim with his infamous cogito. Hegel would argue that one’s selfhood cannot be determined in pure isolation, but only within a complex network of social interactions, and through the many social functions and roles that one is expected to fulfil, whether willingly or inadvertently. And we mutually create each other in such a way that each person “does not see the other as an essential being, but in the other sees its own self.” (§ 179, A.V. Miller translation, Clarendon Press, 1977). Am I shy through my own self-definition, for instance, or is that something I learned and acquired from other people? I am a budding graduate student of philosophy only because I learned from others that I am not merely what I was expected to become – a computer software engineer.
Mutual recognition operates on a socially-pervasive scale, and so individualized self-consciousness can never be taken for granted, as Ren é Descartes does when he boldly utters in solipsistic isolation “I think, therefore I am.” Hegel questions this assumption in his account of how consciousness arises. Unlike Descartes, Hegel thinks self-consciousness cannot be an isolated ‘I’ or it will be an empty abstraction which is void of content (§ 167). Rather, the concrete meaning of the self is provided by the constant exchange of interpersonal relations. Thus I define my particular self in terms of how I fit within the world of human relationships. In Hegel’s words, my personality will have “proceeded from the immediate life of Spirit, which is the universal dominating will of all.” (§ 479).
Robert Solomon’s In The Spirit of Hegel quotes an insightful piece of dialogue from Sartre’s play No Exit to support the argument that a second self-consciousness is necessary as a ‘mirror’ for a first self-consciousness. In other words, we use other people to see ourselves. In No Exit, Estelle is powdering her face but cannot find a mirror, so she asks Garcin, but he ignores her. The following conversation ensues:
ESTELLE: How tiresome!
[ESTELLE shuts her eyes and sways, as if about to faint. INEZ runs forward and holds her up.]
INEZ: What’s the matter?
ESTELLE: [Opens her eyes and smiles.] I feel so queer. [She pats herself.] Don’t you ever feel that way too? When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn’t help.
Even one of the characters in Solaris, Gibarian, makes this statement:
GIBARIAN: We take off to the cosmos… ready for anything: solitude, hardship, exhaustion … death. We’re proud of ourselves. But when you think about it our enthusiasm’s a sham. We don’t want other worlds. We only want mirrors.
Freedom And Slavery
Hegel believes that what we ultimately desire is freedom. But for Hegel freedom doesn’t mean free will in the traditional philosophical sense, as in my choosing or doing what I want. Instead, freedom can mean two different things for Hegel. For one, freedom can mean independence – the desire to establish one’s own sense of self. In Hegel’s jargon, a person who is independently self-reflective would be labelled ‘for itself’ or ‘for him/herself’. I will focus on this idea of freedom: the desire to be self-conscious independent of the opinions of others. The second Hegelian freedom comes from the realization that no ultimate independence can be achieved: in fact, we are essentially interconnected, dependent on our relations, interactions and desires concerning other self-conscious subjects – other people. If we’re fortunate enough to examine who we are as conscious subjects, and learn to eliminate the false beliefs imposed by others, then we can achieve the first sense of freedom to some extent. However, although setting oneself apart from an imposed perception of oneself may qualify as independence, it is only transitory, since there will always be another relationship to experience, another person to meet. Freedom in the second sense is recognizing that one is never ultimately independent, and that each individual is harmoniously interconnected within a much larger backdrop: the collective whole.
Hegel’s master-slave parable elucidates the idea that there is no absolute, boundless freedom and independence within any kind of relationship, but rather utter dependency. Here Hegel says, “having a ‘mind of one’s own’ … [is] a freedom which is still enmeshed in servitude” (§ 196).
Solaris begins with Kris Kelvin (George Clooney), an eminent psychotherapist, being sent to rescue a scientific research team from a mission that’s gone terribly wrong aboard a space station hovering above the mystic oceanic surface of the eponymous planet. While Kelvin and his colleagues try to establish contact with Solaris, the planet itself begins to experiment, and establishes contact with the researchers’ minds by materializing their innermost thoughts and ideas into physical humanoid constructs known as ‘visitors’. Each researcher is forced to confront their visitor. Kelvin, the main character of the film and novel, is confronted with his deceased beloved, Rheya.
Rheya is spontaneously fabricated into reality completely unsure of who she is or even how she arrived. And yet she is a conscious subject, who struggles to be conscious of who or what she is. At first, the newly-replicated version of Rheya can only claim to know herself through the memories, opinions, concepts and experiences of the ‘real’ Rheya stored in Kelvin’s mind. Solaris therefore provides Rheya with a consciousness and identity, even though she cannot necessarily proclaim it as her own. Thus Solaris uses Kelvin’s memory to endow Rheya with a consciousness and behavior which at first deceives Kelvin into believing that she is the person he claims to have known, until there is a realization:
GORDON (addressing Kelvin): You’re being manipulated [by Solaris]. If she were ugly, you wouldn’t want her around. That’s why she’s not ugly. She’s a mirror that reflects part of your mind. You provide the formula… She’s a copy… a facsimile.
Eventually Rheya also becomes aware that she is an object of Kelvin’s creation rather than an independent subject. She knows that something terribly wrong is happening to her, and this realization profoundly interferes with her desire for free self-consciousness:
RHEYA: If I do understand what’s happening… then I don’t think I can handle it.
KELVIN: What do you mean?
RHEYA: I mean… I’m not the person I remember. Or at least, I’m not sure I am… I’m really… trying to understand. And… these strange thoughts keep coming into my head… and I… don’t know where they’re coming from. And I’m scared. Um, and I… I don’t know what’s happening.
Rheya is finally convinced that her idea of herself is essentially dependent on how she appears to Kelvin. This is a true example of the moment of realization that self-examination requires one to make, in order to forge the path to ‘being-for-oneself’ as opposed to ‘being-for-other’. In a pure Hegelian illustration, Rheya finally understands who she is not – “an ‘I’ which has the otherness within itself” (§ 200):
RHEYA: Don’t you see? I came from your memory of her… I’m not a whole person. In your memory you get to control everything. So, even if you remember … something wrong, I am predetermined to carry it out. I’m suicidal because that’s how you remember me. My voice sounds the way it does because that’s how you remember it.
KELVIN: It put you into my consciousness. And there you were.
RHEYA: But am I really Rheya?
KELVIN: I don’t know anymore. All I see is you.
RHEYA: I realized… I’m not her. I’m not Rheya.
In Hegel’s terminology, now neither Kelvin nor Rheya regards “the other as essentially real, but sees its own self in the other.” Kelvin literally mediates Rheya with his thoughts and ideas. Rheya also understands herself in terms of how Kelvin understands and feels about her. Rheya therefore defines herself through the opinions of Kelvin. Hegel would say that as the dependent consciousness (in Hegelian, ‘slave’), Rheya is faced with another self-consciousness and is forced to ‘come out of’ herself. Only when Rheya is profoundly challenged to see herself in the ‘other’ (through Kelvin, as the independent ‘master’ consciousness) does she begin to ‘supersede the other’, and start to seek freedom as a self-defined person.
Failure to recognize Hegel’s two senses of freedom can lead to dire consequences, as illustrated in Solaris. Kelvin sees Rheya as suicidal, and because he indirectly forces her to define herself within this negative frame, she makes many attempts to commit suicide. So unless Rheya achieves ‘being-for-herself’ she will remain a ‘being-for-other’, and maintain her dependency on Kelvin’s unwittingly destructive conceptual scheme.
However, Rheya does engage in the process of “negating the other’s otherness” by attempting to break free. Even though her selfhood was entirely moulded by Kelvin’s thoughts, she manages to reshape and reinvent herself by convincing Kelvin to see her as she wants to be seen – as an independent, free-thinking consciousness. Rheya thus begins to psychologically work towards freeing herself from Kelvin’s imposed scheme of her. As Hegel might put it, she “rids [her]self of [her] attachment… by working on it” (§ 194); and it is “through work… [that Rheya]… becomes conscious of what [she] truly is” (§ 195). (According to Hegel, work is the mark of freedom and self-realization.) Rheya thus finally comes to recognize that the world is hers to respond to – thereby enabling her to gain some sense of freedom and independence. Yet although Rheya no longer sees herself as the person that Kelvin originally projected her as, she is still dependent not only on the new, modified relationship with Kelvin, but also how she is seen through the eyes of other people. At best, she is relatively independent. Yet ultimate freedom – Hegel’s second sense of freedom – comes through the recognition that one is never entirely free from the opinions of others.
Solaris As Spirit
Just as Solaris manifests itself through expressions of individual self-consciousness, Hegel’s Absolute Spirit manifests itself through complex social institutions – including the family, civil society, and the state – as these affect the lives of individuals. This Spirit represents the conscious awareness of the collective, social whole. The highest forms of the expression of objective Spirit include art, religion and philosophy.
This idea of Absolute Spirit again suggests that no individual is truly independent in as much as they’re embedded within a sophisticated network of human relationships. Freedom is rather when the so-called individual identifies him or herself with the whole – as Spirit – and becomes consciously aware that he or she is intimately connected to the collective. Hegel writes:
“Individuality has the meaning of self-consciousness in general, not of a particular, contingent consciousness [but] Absolute Spirit realized in the plurality of existent consciousnesses … It is Spirit which is for itself in that it preserves itself in its reflection in individuals; and it is implicitly Spirit… in that it preserves them within itself. (§ 447)
Hegel further suggests that an “unhappy, inwardly disrupted consciousness” begins to feel a sudden sense of despair and an anxious desire to escape from a ‘natural existence’ to a much more grandiose and elating metaphysical existence in tune with the Absolute Spirit, where the consciousness will “imagine it has successfully attained to a peaceful unity with the other” (§ 207).
This is exactly what happens at the end of Solaris. Kelvin has come to feel that freedom from the constraints imposed by others, let alone the dependency manifested through daily engagements with the world of ‘natural existence’, can only be found through Solaris. The space station’s orbit is beginning to decay, its fuel cells are completely drained, and it will soon crash into the planet’s oceanic surface. Rather than take the escape pod, Kelvin decides to remain onboard, awaiting his ‘sublation’: to become one with, and at peace with, Solaris.
Other Minds? Not A Problem
Now I know that I have a mind, a life of many conscious experiences; but the content of yourmind is private, hidden from me. Thus, it seems literally impossible for me to know for sure that other people like you have minds with experiences like mine.
One approach to handling this so-called ‘problem of other minds’ is to first consider what it means to say I know that I have a mind of my own, and that my mind is the only thing that I know. As we’ve already seen, Hegel says I’m defined through the eyes of other people: I incorporate their ideas and understanding of who I am. Without other people, Hegel would argue, we could not have a meaningful concept of the self. So, if we are not recognized by another self-consciousness, then we cannot be self-conscious. In light of this insight, Descartes could therefore never honestly have said “I think” without being confronted by another self-consciousness: without recognizing that he is being recognized by other minds. To Hegel there is no way I could even obtain an idea of myself unless I’m interacting with another person, such as my younger brother, or even Descartes’ evil demon. The resolution of the ‘problem of other minds’ is therefore that in order to know that I have a mind, I must first recognize another person’s consciousness – that is, how another person sees me. Conversely, if nobody acknowledged my existence, I would not even be able to frame the ‘problem of other minds’ by claiming that my mind is the only thing that I can know for certain, since I won’t know it.
Solaris illustrates Hegel’s idea that being a particular person with a particular mind is dependent on that mind being consciously formulated through innumerable interactions with others. To Hegel, the nature of selfhood essentially depends on these poignant intellectual and emotional involvements. Freedom is found in recognizing this interconnectedness, where each particular self is essentially defined within the larger context. Thus the Hegelian dialectical movement of History and Idea is from the particular self and its limited interpersonal relationships, to a universal (or global) sense of selfhood and community.
Furthermore, when we discern the ‘problem of other minds’ from within the Hegelian standpoint, it begins to lose its intractability. Yet what could be more exciting for any solipsist than the idea that there is ultimately only one grand self – namely, Spirit (Geist)? As Hegel boldly put it, “[the] True is the whole” (§ 20).
© Albert Filice 2010
Albert Filice is a budding graduate student at the State University of San Jose who appreciates film and enjoys filmmaking with his younger siblings, Steven and Paul Filice. He’d like to thank Carlos A. Sanchez for the Hegel seminar. Email Albert at email@example.com.