Brandom begins his exposition of the Self-Consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology by considering “essentially self-conscious beings.” These are beings whose self-conception forms an essential part of what they are in themselves1. Since for them a change in their self-conception can bring about a change in what they are, they are capable of “making themselves different by taking themselves to be different.” If they do so, and the change then provokes a further update to their self-conception, this will begin a cascading developmental process moving through sequential alternating modifications of what they for themselves and what they are in themselves.
Needless to say, Brandom reads Hegel as understanding us to be such essentially self-conscious beings. If we are then we possess no essential features (other than our being essentially self-conscious), since what we are essentially is always subject to change as our self-conception is revised. Accordingly, rather than understanding ourselves as creatures with natures, we should understand ourselves as having histories2.
Brandom has some interesting things to say about essential self-consciousness. The way he cashes it out turns on the idea of practical identification. The link between identification and self-constitution arises from the thought that the features of a self-conception which are to be essential must be those which one takes to be essential (a point which should become clearer below).
So we should ask: What is it that one must do in order properly to be understood as thereby identifying oneself with some but perhaps not all elements of one’s self-conception. The answer we are given in Self-Consciousness is that one identifies with what one is willing to risk and sacrifice for. Hegel’s metonymic image for this point concerns the important case of making the initial transition from being merely a living organism, belonging to the realm of Nature, to being a denizen of the normative realm of Spirit. The key element in this index case is willingness to risk one’s biological life in the service of a commitment—something that goes beyond a mere desire.
There’s a clear continuity here with the Kantian conception of autonomy3, which is established in one’s capacity to acknowledge oneself as bound by a moral law (a rational principle of action) which may conflict with one’s desires. What Brandom emphasises is the nature of such acknowledgements as acts of self-constitution through practical identification. The link between sacrifice, identification and self-constitution is made vivid in the next paragraph, which I’ll quote in full:
By being willing to risk one’s life for something, one makes it the case that the life one risks is not an essential element of the self one is thereby constituting, while that for which one risks it is. An extreme example is the classical Japanese samurai code of Bushido. It required ritual suicide under a daunting variety of circumstances. To be samurai was to identify oneself with that ideal code of conduct. In a situation requiring seppuku, either the biological organism or the samurai must be destroyed, for the existence of the one has become incompatible with the existence of the other. Failure to commit biological suicide in such a case would be the suicide of the samurai, who would be survived only by an animal. The animal had been a merely necessary condition of the existence of the samurai (like the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere, which is important to us, but with which we do not just for that reason count as identifying ourselves.) No doubt even sincere and committed samurai must often have hoped that such situations would not arise. But when and if they did, failure to act appropriately according to samurai practices would make it the case that one never had been a samurai, but only an animal who sometimes aspired to be one. One would thereby demonstrate that one was not, in oneself, what one had taken oneself to be, what one was for oneself. The decision as to whether to risk one’s actual life or to surrender the ideal self-conception is a decision about who one is.
This somewhat dramatic case of risking one’s life Brandom takes as an instance of the general case of sacrificing something one is in oneself for something one is for oneself. These could equally be less consequential (though still significant) commitments and entitlements.
So, for instance, risking or sacrificing one’s job for a point of moral or political principle is a self-constituting act of identification in the same sense that risking or sacrificing one’s life for it is. […] Both express one’s practical identification, through sacrifice, with the community one thereby defends or supports.
This last quote suggests that for Hegel essential self-consciousness is linked to the social structure of self-consciousness. According to this way of thinking, what one is (in oneself) is irreducibly bound up with one’s practical acknowledgements of the communities one participates in4.
Which is not to say that they are whatever they take themselves to be. As Brandom says, their self-conception may be in error, but if so then that mistake is still an essential feature of what they really are.
The question this raises is whether such a developmental process will ever converge on a stable equilibrium. Brandom’s Hegel reckons yes. The critical moment that will usher us into the phase of Absolute Knowing will come when our self-conception contains an awareness of ourselves as such historically constituted beings, or in other words, once we’ve understood Hegel!