- Freedom and Reflection: Hegel and the Logic of Agency
In this ambitious study, Christopher Yeomans argues that Hegel’s Science of Logic contains the resources for resolving traditional problems with free will that have long divided libertarians, determinists, and compatibilists. According to Yeomans, Hegel belongs to none of these camps; instead, he maintains both the libertarian’s belief that freedom entails “an open future with alternate possibilities,” which the compatibilist denies, and the determinist’s claim that our actions are necessary events in the world (8). How can Hegel maintain this without incoherence? On Yeoman’s account, by redefining determinism so that “rather than being incompatible with free will it serves as an articulation of its basic structure” (8).
Yeomans proposes understanding Hegel’s redefinition of determinism in terms of his “response to three different versions of the principle of sufficient reason [PSR] that have historically seemed to make free will problematic” (4). These three versions are (1) “that everything has an explanation or ground,” (2) “that sufficient reasons make what they explain necessary,” and (3) “that every phenomenon [has] a cause” (4–5). These versions pose a threat to the idea of free will because they suggest, respectively, that one’s “action is external to, necessitated by, and is fixed and passive in relation to the sufficient reason which explains or motivates it” (65). Hegel’s response to determinism on Yeomans’s telling thus amounts to showing that the demands of explanation imposed by PSR are compatible with free will because key concepts at work in PSR’s various versions—“grounds (explanations), modal concepts, and causation”—do not exclude but rather make possible and illuminate essential features of free will (65).
Yeomans presents his case with admirable rigor and clarity. His book’s three main parts are designed to take on problems specific to the above formulations of PSR. Each part is divided triadically, with the first chapter framing the problem in both traditional and contemporary terms, the second presenting a “detailed reconstruction of Hegel’s argument for his specific conception” of the concepts at stake in PSR, and the third applying the concepts of the Logic to Hegel’s “practical philosophy to fill out a more positive conception [End Page 133] of free will” (65). Yeomans avowedly takes a problem-based rather than a historical approach in all of this (22), and he goes to great lengths to show the abiding relevance of Hegel’s philosophical concerns to both our commonsense convictions about agency and contemporary philosophy of action. Given the complexity of the concepts treated by Hegel and the sheer difficulty of the Logic, this approach is both sensible and commendable. There are, however, some drawbacks to it.
Principal among these is a lack of textual support for some of the key claims Yeomans attributes to Hegel. The most striking example is his gloss on the concept of reflection as the concept of expression. On Yeomans’s reading, the logical categories of positing and reflection-into-self designate a process of creation and interpretation through which all beings—from chemical compounds to single-celled organisms to human beings (cf. 49–51, 166, 250)—express themselves. Given Yeomans’s interest in showing that even at this fundamental logical level Hegel’s account provides the resources for showing that “determining relations to others are taken to provide resources for self-determination” (54), this interpretation of ‘reflection’ is understandable, and I would go so far as to say that it is compatible with what Hegel means by ‘reflection.’ But compatible or not, it is a case of simple overdetermination: at this stage in the “Doctrine of Essence,” Hegel takes himself to be working out what the very idea of essence qua absolute negativity involves, and that is all he is entitled to do by his own self-imposed constraints on immanent conceptual analysis. Beings—if we are even entitled to speak of them in the plural at the outset of “Essence as Reflection Within Itself”—are thus said to constitute themselves through...