I want a cup of coffee – Philosophy of Right #5

Is there a specific gland, organ or hormone that enables you to “want”? Does my body “want” something? My kidneys? My heart? (In the Bible it is, metaphorically…) Or is it me, the ego, doing the wanting, just as it is me that is doing the thinking?

We might have the idea that wanting something is like desiring something. Sometimes what I want can feel like being hungry for something. But it is definitely not the same. The will (freedom, der Wille in German) is thought. I like to say: thought in action, because it is directed at something else (like in theoretical thought), and does something or at least prepares me for doing something. And I do really want that cup of coffee as I am writing this morning.

#5 of the introduction gives us the explanation of this phenomenon, and one might present it as an analysis of the simple sentence “I want a cup of coffee”. At least I did. (Though of course Hegel didn’t, he does not work with such crude examples.)

So this is how we start analyzing modern society, we ask this question: what is the free will? (My analysis of #5 can be found here: AUDIO #5)

The first thing to say in general about the human will is, that it is “universal” and indeterminate. (Universal because we can want anything, and indeterminate because we determines ourselves with regard to an object and we are not determined by the object. My cup of coffee does not cause me to want it.) When we focus on the ego that wants something, this ego is not predetermined to want some things and not want other things. I can want just about anything – although it is obvious that there is a restriction here, in that I cannot really (rationally) want the impossible. E.g. when I say “I want to jump over the mountain”, this is merely an expression of an (over-active) imagination. But even then, the form of this imagination has to be the same, I really want this even when I am just fantasizing. Sometimes I do indeed, e.g. after watching a Harry Potter movie or some other great phantasy.

Hegel stresses the fact that the will is an expression of an ego, the “I” that does the wanting, and that this “I” can always withdraw into itself. I may discover that as soon as I smelt the poor coffee this morning, I changed my mind and now I want a cup of tea. Same “I”, not the same liquid. I can abstract from all contents, objects, and determinations of the act of the will and after that, I’m left with the pure empty “I want” X, without thinking about “X” at all. This option of withdrawing from my wanted object into myself is called “Reflexion des Ich in sich”, the reflection of the ego into itself. Abstracted from its object it is still there: the potentiality of wanting something. I can be aware that I have the ability to want something, without exercising it.

What does this mean? It means that wanting is not like desiring, it is not the object that determines the act of my will. The feeling of hunger is determined by the state of my body; desiring food leads to the act of consumption that is triggered by both my bodily needs and the apple in front of me. (No thank you, way too early, I can want to postpone my eating.) I experience hunger and thirst more as determinations coming to me externally – “me” being my thinking. Even if I must also be conscious of the fact that “I” as a body feel the hunger and am determined by it. Hunger is after all not imaginary or merely a thought. But to want this cup of tea (and not coffee, or water or whiskey) is an act of the ego, that is not predetermined by thirst.

See the difference? Thurst in general and even desiring a cup of coffee lies below the threshold of consciousness. Wanting to drink it is a thought that I can be acutely aware of. And the “I” that is “doing” the wanting can be very much conscious of itself: as the universal or general potentiality, the ability to want anything – it is basic individual freedom, to be distinguished from desires, appetite, consumption.

So, when I say: I want a cup of coffee, we should understand it like this:

I want something, and I know that I want “coffee”, but this coffee is not the determining element; there is something that I want, but whatever it is, it is merely an example of what I can want. I can always want something else. Therefore: Wanting is an act of the ego, that is not determined by its object and to that degree, it is free will.

Only humans can want like this. Hegel gives as a prime example suicide or the ability of human beings to take their own life. Suicide shows the ability to abstract from all objects, from my own desires, from my own life even. Animals are always determined by something other than themselves. Their instincts will not allow anything like a rational decision to commit suicide. (However, they can sometimes act as if they do, when they are fleeing pain or are under extreme duress.) Humans can. And this tragic ability does demonstrate to us, that the will is universal, able to abstract from its contents, and has this element of pure, formal will.

Or, as Hegel likes to say:

5. The will contains (α) the element of pure indeterminacy (the object does not determine the will) or that pure reflection of the ego into itself (withdrawing from the wanted object into itself, reflecting upon itself – not consciously but within the act itself; not making the act of the will the object of thought) which involves the dissipation of every restriction and every content either immediately presented by nature, by needs, desires, and impulses, or given and determined by any means whatever. This is the unrestricted infinity of absolute abstraction or universality, the pure thought of oneself.

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