Karen Ng, Hegel’s Concept of Life: Self-Consciousness, Freedom, Logic. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020; 319 pages. ISBN: 978-0190947613.

 Reviewed by Emmanuel Chaput, University of Ottawa.

Karen Ng’s Hegel’s Concept of Life: Self-Consciousness, Freedom, Logic constitutes a significant contribution to contemporary neo-pragmatist readings of Hegel. Ng does not merely follow the footsteps of her illustrious predecessors, but sheds new light on the constitutive role of life and purposiveness in Hegel’s philosophy, and particularly in his Science of Logic. According to Ng, exploring the purposiveness theme in Hegel allows us to avoid “two disadvantages of the apperception view” (13) associated with the works of Robert Pippin and Robert Brandom: 1) the overemphasis on Kant’s Deduction argument, which the post-Kantians associated with subjective idealism; and 2) the partial and “anti-naturalist” (13) understanding of self-consciousness, which nevertheless remains one of the central concepts of the apperception view. As Ng writes: “the self-consciousness theme itself is fundamentally misunderstood and incomplete without placing it within the context of the purposiveness theme.” (13, see also 289) Ng is also critical of Brandom’s reading of Hegel as a strong inferentialist, rather siding with Paul Redding’s view of Hegel as a weak inferentialist (see inter alia 189, 216). As we see then, Ng’s book is a significant contribution in the full sense of the expression, as it seeks to further the neo-pragmatist reading of Hegel, which places the issue of self-consciousness and freedom at the core of Hegel’s philosophy, while demystifying the apparently dogmatic metaphysics of the text. And she does so by focusing on a concept often dismissed by Pippin and Brandom. (see 13–14) Ng argues, using a typically neo-pragmatist terminology, “that the Idea puts forward the thesis that life opens up the space of reasons itself.” (10)

The purposiveness of life needs to be translatable into the very structure of judgment or, to say it otherwise, “purposiveness is an enabling condition of judgment,” (25) which in turns allows the existence of the space of reasons itself. For Ng, “Hegel ultimately grounds his entire system of reason on the basis of internally purposive form. Life opens up the space of reasons and defines the space of judgment, making intelligibility as such a problem and possibility.” (234)

Ng will place a particular emphasis on the concept of judgment within Hegel’s logic. In fact, in Chapter 5, Ng will argue that “the chapter on ‘Judgment’ is arguably the keystone of the section [on ‘Subjectivity’] and captures what is most important concerning Hegel’s…assessment of the forms of the subjective Concept.” (186) This is interesting, since we tend to focus rather on the figures of the syllogism, the concluding chapter of the section, as the key to understanding Hegel’s logic. (The pun between “syllogism” [Schluss], “concluding chapter” [Schlusskapitel], and “key” [Schlüssel] is intended.) The focus of the author on the notion of judgment within Hegel’s logic is connected to her aim of reconciling Hegel’s “Logic of the Concept,” the third book of the Science of Logic which pertains to “Subjective Logic,” with Kant’s Critique of the Power of Judgment. In fact, for Ng, “Hegel’s Subjective Logic can be interpreted as his version of a ‘critique of judgment’.” (9, see also 164)

Accordingly, the first part of the book focusses on the way Hegel inherited his concept of purposiveness as internal purposiveness from Kant by showing how, already in Kant, purposiveness plays a key role in the constitution of conceptual understanding and judgment (see Chapter 2). In that respect, Ng largely remains in tune with the neo-pragmatists, who see in Hegel a worthy successor to, rather than a critique of Kant, but she nevertheless stands out from their standard view by showing the philosophical interest of the third Critique and its unity with Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, whereas for Pippin, the last of Kant’s Critiques is merely of historical interest. (see 5–6, n.5)

In Chapter 3, Ng shows how Kant’s influence on Hegel is channeled by Hölderlin’s and Schelling’s critiques of Fichte into what she calls Hegel’s “speculative identity thesis.” First articulated in the Differenzschrift of 1801, the thesis can be summed up in four propositions: 1) there is, for the living, an identity between being and life; 2) self-consciousness is irremediably related to life (which implies, for Ng, the refutation of subjective idealism and the introduction of a somewhat naturalist stance); 3) life has the character of immediacy, even though it should not be mistaken for the one-sided immediacy usually criticized by Hegel; and 4) the relation between life and self-consciousness establishes the fundamental boundaries of a logical “space of reasons.” (See Chapter 3, especially 77–81) According to Ng, the speculative identity thesis remains a central feature of Hegel’s mature system and “will provide the framework for [her] interpretation of the Science of Logic… .” (81) Ng offers a continuity interpretation of Hegel’s philosophy from his early publications to his final system, showing how his speculative identity thesis, initially developed in the Differenzschrift, still informs his “Logic of the Concept,” as she exposits it in the second part of her book. Hölderlin’s and Schelling’s critiques of Fichte will remain an essential aspect of Hegel’s take on logic and his anchoring of self-consciousness (or the Fichtean “I”) with the concept of life:

Ultimately, in combining Hölderlin’s critique of Fichte with his own, Hegel means to demonstrate that the unity of the subject, the unity of the object, and the unity of subject and object are grounded in the logical form of life. This transforms two fundamental idealist theses that are at the heart of Kantian and post-Kantian philosophy: first, “that the structure and unity of the concept is the same as the structure and unity of the self”, or the unity of the I; and, second, that the unity of the Concept or the I is the ground of the unity of the object, the source of the very form of objectivity. In transforming these two well-known idealist arguments, Hegel’s goal is to claim that the unity of the Concept qua subject, self-consciousness, or the I, and the unity of the Concept qua object, are both grounded in the unity and teleological form of life. (172–73)

To do so, Hegel will not only need Kant’s concept of inner purposiveness, but also a stronger concept of life, which may remotely be inspired by Hölderlin and Schelling, but nevertheless develops into something that is very specific to Hegel. (258)

In that regard, Ng sometimes seems to overstate the depth of Hegel’s debt toward his predecessors, especially Kant. As an example, Ng seems to go too far, in my opinion, when she tries to argue that Hegel’s doubling of the Idea into life and cognition is “Hegel’s attempt to replace Kant’s doctrine of the two stems of knowledge, where life and cognition take the place of intuitions and concepts.” (249, see also 253) Even though Ng agrees that, “it would be misleading to try to map all of Hegel’s terminology and framework directly onto its potential Kantian counterparts,” (253) she seems at the moment to give way to that tendency.

Although Ng’s argument may at times overemphasize Hegel’s debt to Kant’s transcendental arguments and philosophy (see inter alia 178, 188), she brilliantly explains some of the most challenging pages of the Logic. Interestingly, the difficulty of certain sections of the “Logic of the Concept” is not the result of the abstractness of the topic, but because at this point in the Logic, we are at a crossroad where the seemingly abstract determinations of thought and the concrete character of life meet. It is difficult to set such a meeting point between concept, judgment, syllogism, and life. Attempts to do so have either fallen on the side of raw technicality or on the side of an apparently self-evident and intuitive resolution to the problem (consisting in making life the material condition of possibility, judgment, concept, or syllogism—a solution whose evidence-like character fails to comply with the demonstrative rigour of Hegel’s Logic). In that regard, Ng’s analysis of the “Subjectivity”, “Objectivity”, and “The Idea” sections of the Subjective Logic throughout Chapters 5 through 8 of this text is a welcome contribution that avoids the double pitfall.