Second Nature and Education

Here I want to summarise the work from the recent Hegel seminar taught by Italo Testa at UNSW, while also developing one theme that particularly interests me: education.

The gambit of the seminar was the widely accepted assumption of recognition as the master concept of Spirit in Hegel’s philosophy, and some problems involved with this position. Recognition is often conceived as an entirely normative, ‘boot-strapping’ type of process. Where does it come from? What is its relation to the natural being of the human? Testa’s idea is that this can be elucidated through the concept of ‘second nature’, and which accordingly has concrete implications for the reconstruction of recognitive processes.

We began by breaking down the idea of second nature into some basic features, and it’s history in the literature. I’ll skip over most of this, but for two crucial distinctions: second nature takes on both Objective and Subjective kinds, and internal and external aspects. The former distinction doesn’t completely map onto the latter – and these distinctions become increasingly important.

Second nature refers to something acquired, or intentionally produced by or in a subject, but which thence becomes like nature – it assumes a prereflexive level such that it no longer requires conscious attention. Thus it refers to habits, skills, but also anything that becomes mechanical and unthinking, such as monotonous labour.

Testa began with the Philosophy of Right, where we saw the ‘objective’ dimension of habit in ethical life. This focused on s.151 in particular, where Hegel points out that education aims at making the subject ethical. That is, education forms the capacities of the subject to interact in the realm of actualised spirit: customs and institutions that are the realisation of freedom. The subject has been formed by the progressive levels of development in such a way that she now moves around in the objective realm as if it were natural to do so – and indeed, it is, but it is an acquired nature, a posited nature that has become natural.

So we can see here the necessity of the earlier levels in which established recognitive relations must depend on earlier forms of interaction. Honneth, for example, already argues this in his version of Hegel’s division, love, rights, and solidarity. But the fact remains that even at the level of ‘love’ – or close bonds in family life – there is a dependence on what we could call a ‘first natural’ level of recognitive process. Recognition cannot appear out of nowhere. It must have its antecedent in nature. In order to establish this, Testa returns to the chapter on self-certainty in the Phenomenology to read there the components of habit and second nature, if not the literal word.

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