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Tyler van Wulven's Dissertation Defense

1445 Patterson Office Tower
Speaker(s) / Presenter(s):
Tyler van Wulven


Philosophy PhD Candidate Tyler van Wulven will be defending his dissertation titled "Hegelianism as Anti-Authoritarianism" 

His committee members are as follows

  • Eric Sanday -Chair
  • Stefan Bird-Pollan
  • Arnold Farr
  • John Russon (University of Guelph)
  • Eric Weber



My dissertation intervenes in two ongoing conversations about the nature of freedom. The first conversation seeks to understand and combat the allure of political authoritarianism. The second conversation, rooted in 19th and 20th century philosophy, sheds light on this phenomenon by suggesting that the acknowledgment and endorsement of the social and historical origins of our normative commitments would awaken us to our radical freedom. My dissertation contributes to this conversation by suggesting that authoritarianism is rooted in a failure to comprehend ourselves, and that a proper investigation into human selfhood is needed to understand and actualize our powers of self-determination. Drawing on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, I argue that selves are radically singular, free, and creative, yet fundamentally continuous with others, i.e., dependent on and constituted by others through relations of recognition. We come to recognize this presupposition of freedom through communicative practices in which we (re)interpret, (re)assess, and (re)shape inherited normative commitments. The authoritarian, by contrast, reifies normative commitments by turning over its conscious, creative powers to immutable sources of meaning, thereby failing to acknowledge their origin and inherent revisability. Through an investigation into different structures of selfhood, I reconstruct two forms of self-understanding, each of which illuminates the subjective experience at work in authoritarianism. Then, I present a form of self-understanding that is thoroughly anti-authoritarian. 

In my first chapter, I outline the structure of what I call “religious selfhood,” a form of self-understanding that correctly identifies our subjective authority over the contingency and temporality of given normative commitments. However, this insight leads it to mischaracterize these given commitments as meaningless, to project the source of normativity onto a transcendent being, and to render itself subservient to standards ostensibly authored by something nonhuman. In my second chapter, I introduce “rational selfhood,” a form of self-understanding that champions human reason and the subjective authority of the modern individual, but one that is still subject to normativity as given, i.e., written into the nature of reality. Like its predecessor, rational selfhood fails to recognize the presuppositions of secular modernity, thereby letting reason provide the ahistorical standard to which it defers, and thus again betraying its interpretive responsibility. In my final chapter, I outline and defend “substantial selfhood,” a form of self-understanding that takes seriously this interpretive task. Drawing on Hegel’s notion of forgiveness and John Dewey’s democratic vision, I argue that through repeated acts of genuine communication, we expand our experience of selfhood by taking up the perspectives of others and reinterpreting ourselves. By becoming increasingly alive to our dependence on and continuity with others, free substantial selfhood becomes possible, even if not guaranteed. Only through this commitment to continual, thoroughgoing self-interpretation in light of ongoing and unforeseen practical challenges do our normative commitments come to be recognized as both constitutive of the very selves we are and the result of collective human action. Substantial selfhood thus retains the achievements of religious and rational selfhood, namely, divinity and modern individual freedom, while remaining thoroughly anti-authoritarian via repeated acts of genuine communication through which we realize our freedom by becoming open to our continuity.