Hermeneutic Biology?

Aristotle’s biological works are quite fascinating and lively. They contain abundant experiential reports, including some hearsay, intermixed with thoughtful reflection. Ultimately it is the reflective aspect that gives them their enduring value.

Sometimes, the content is surprising. For instance, book 1 of Parts of Animals is the place where he thoroughly criticizes the notion of classification by dichotomy. With concrete illustrations from the animal kingdom, he shows that commonly recognized kinds cannot be arrived at by successive dichotomous distinctions. Aristotelian distinction is n-ary rather than binary, pluralist rather than dualist.

Elsewhere (Metaphysics 982b) he famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. At Parts of Animals 645a, he added, “We therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous: and as Heraclitus, when strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful. Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in natures’s works in the highest degree, and the end for which those works are put together and produced is a form of the beautiful” (Complete Works, revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 1004).

Sentience

The talking or potentially rational animal is an ethical distinction, not a biological species in the sense of Linnaeus. The talking animal is one that could potentially join with us in ethical deliberation, but all animals at least are considered sentient, as having some kind of living awareness. Even our word “animal” comes from anima, which the Romans used to translate the Greek psyche or “soul”. The latter had its origins among the poets, and was developed by Aristotle into a key concept of his hermeneutic biology.

Prolonged meditation on what this living awareness really is seems to me to lead in directions more poetic than discursively philosophical. (I mean neither to denigrate poetry in the way commonly attributed to Plato, nor to assert its superiority in the manner of Heidegger’s later works, just to recognize it as something different from what I am mainly doing here.)

Be that as it may, beyond the community of ethical or sapient beings is the larger community of sentient beings, with whom we ought to feel some kinship. This relation between the ethical community and a larger community to which it belongs is something that itself has ethical significance. So even if we can’t really explain what life is or what awareness is, as ethical beings we ought to respect that broader kinship.

Respect for All Beings

Not just all people but all beings whatsoever deserve our respect. Many additional specialized considerations apply to beings subject to ethical appraisal (“us”), and a lot of the time I focus on these. Mutual recognition in the strong sense applies only between ethical beings, and thus only between potentially rational or talking animals, but the ethical significance of mutuality is much broader than that.

I want to say that a good ethical being claims no unequivocal mastery over any other being, period. Every being — even including inanimate objects — is to some extent an end in itself, and not simply a means to our ends. Of course, we are not unequivocally subordinate to the ends of any being, either, so it it not always wrong to sacrifice other beings to our ends. (We must eat, for instance.) But as ethical beings, we ought to be careful and thoughtful about how we achieve our ends. We are stewards, not masters.

There can be no simple rule about whether the end justifies the means. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. The answers are in the details of each case. Full evaluation of such questions could only be achieved by the universal community of all ethical beings, but the universal ethical community and its principles are not a finished achievement, only a work in progress. Nonetheless, ethical beings implicitly deliberate on behalf of all beings, not just on behalf of themselves.

Poetry and Mathematics

Philosophy is neither poetry nor mathematics, but a discursive development.  Poetry may give us visionary symbolism or language-on-language texturings that deautomate perception.  Mathematics offers a paradigm of exactitude, and develops many beautiful structures.  But philosophy is the home of ethics, dialogue, and interpretation.  It is — dare I say it — the home of the human.

Poetry and mathematics each in their own way show us an other-than-human beauty that we as humans can be inspired by.  Ethics on the other hand is the specifically human beauty, the beauty of creatures that can talk and share meaning with one another.

Hegel’s Ethical Innovation

Terry Pinkard’s biography of Hegel shows him as primarily motivated by ethical and social concerns. The common image of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician ignores his many highly critical remarks about metaphysics, and his stated desire to replace metaphysics with a “logic” concerned with the elaboration and refinement of meaningful content. Hegel remains very challenging to read.

In his third and final Woodbridge lecture, “History, Reason, and Reality”, Brandom distills and reconstructs Hegel’s principal philosophical objectives, and clarifies his relation to Kant.

Hegel is arguably the inventor of what later came to be called meta-ethics. Further, he promotes a version of meta-ethics that is normative all the way down — that is to say, it does not try to explain values in terms of something else. There is no sharp boundary between ethics in the small and this kind of meta-ethics, which ends up including everything.

Brandom suggests that discourse about values or normativity is in fact the one kind of discourse that is truly self-sufficient; that all other discourse implicitly depends on it; and that developing explanations that take this into account is one of Hegel’s great contributions.

According to Brandom, Hegel thinks that Kantian ethical autonomy as Kant himself developed it, though a huge improvement over some previous explanations, still did not eliminate the asymmetry or one-sidedness of responsibility typical of the authority-obedience model. Hegel sees the one-sidedness of the responsibility to obey in the authority-obedience model and the one-sidedness of presuming to judge everything for ourselves as a sort of mirror-image variants of the same basic failure to treat responsibility as two-sided. He also thinks Kant could not adequately explain how autonomy and a universality of values could coexist, though Kant clearly wanted them to.

The reciprocity of mutual recognition is Hegel’s answer to these difficulties. We freely choose particular commitments over others, but the content of those commitments is not just whatever we say it is. On the other hand, that content is not fully predetermined either, so we do play a role in its determination. (See Mutual Recognition; Mutual Recognition Revisited; Pippin on Mutual Recognition.)

“[T]he reciprocal recognition model requires that the authority of conceptual contents over the activities of practitioners (their responsibility to those contents) be balanced by a reciprocal authority of practitioners over those contents, a responsibility of those contents to the activities of the subjects of judgment and action who apply them.  And that is to say that Hegel is committed to understanding the practice of acknowledging commitments by rational integration as a process not only of applying conceptual contents, but also as the process by which they are determined” (Reason in Philosophy, p. 82; emphasis in original throughout).

What it is to be a concept for Kant and Hegel fundamentally involves playing a normative role. Hegel takes the further step of explaining the determination of concepts through concrete, historical, open-ended processes of mutual recognition. This has implications for the nature of determinateness itself.

“One of Hegel’s key ideas, as I read him, is that in order to understand how the historical process of applying determinately contentful concepts to undertake discursive commitments (taking responsibility for those commitments by rationally integrating them with others one has already undertaken) can also be the process of determining the contents of those concepts, we need a new notion of determinateness” (p. 88).

Here Brandom is highlighting a crucial aspect of Hegel’s deeper argument that runs counter to his frequent recourse to rhetoric about a “system” and related themes, which Fichte and the influential early Kant-interpreter Karl Reinhold before him had made very popular in German philosophy at the time. Hegel’s rhetoric often seems much easier to understand than his in-depth arguments, but it is a fatal mistake to assume that the apparent meaning of the rhetoric is a good guide to the meaning of the in-depth arguments. Hegel is far from the only philosopher to develop very nonstandard, idiosyncratic connotations for some common terms, but he may have done more of it than anyone else. This means it is better to interpret his rhetoric in light of an interpretation of his in-depth arguments than to take the rhetoric as authoritative.

The “new notion” of determinateness that Brandom attributes to Hegel is in effect what I would call an open, genuinely Aristotelian determinateness rather than a closed Stoic/Cartesian one. (See also Univocity; Equivocal Determination; Aristotelian Identity; Aristotelian Causes; Free Will and Determinism).

Brandom develops a detailed model of open-ended determination by mutual recognition, by dwelling at length on the kinds of things that happen in the evolution of common law and interpretations of case law in jurisprudence.

Unlike the way we think of the physical determination of events, which only “flows” in one direction, the determination of meanings and the meaning of talk about being is a reciprocal determination between forward application of concepts to situations and backward-looking interrogation of their meaning. Historical time understood as the time of the historical constitution of meaning inherently involves a reciprocal determination of forward- and backward-looking interpretation.

Brandom says that Hegel’s famous contrast between Understanding and Reason is one between a view that assumes conceptual determination is already complete and one that recognizes it as inherently subject to indefinite further development.

“[Hegel] is very much aware of the openness of the use of expressions that is the practice of at once applying concepts in judgment and determining the content of the concepts those locutions express.  This is the sense in which prior use does not close off future possibilities of development by settling in advance a unique correct answer to the question of whether a particular concept applies in a new set of circumstances.  The new circumstances will always resemble any prior, settled case in an infinite number of respects, and differ from it in an infinite number of respects.  There is genuine room for choice on the part of the current judge or judger, depending on which prior commitments are taken as precedential and which aspects of similiarity and difference are emphasized” (p. 89).

Prior uses have real weight, but nonetheless do not by themselves “determine the correctness of all possible future applications of a concept” (p.90). (See also Brandomian Choice.) According to Brandom, Hegel develops a new “recollective”, “genealogical” approach to justification that takes into account the continual reshaping of the interpretation of past experience in the light of new experience.

Hegel the man was not immune to some of the common prejudices of his own cultural milieu, but his philosophy provides a principled basis for challenging all such prejudices, in a careful way that avoids indiscriminately denying the value of past experience.

Autonomy, Normativity

Brandom’s second Woodbridge lecture “Autonomy, Community, and Freedom” picks up where the first left off, invoking “the innovative normative conception of intentionality that lies at the heart of Kant’s thought about the mind” (p. 52; emphasis in original throughout).  “The practical activity one is obliging oneself to engage in by judging and acting is integrating those new commitments into a unified whole comprising all the other commitments one acknowledges….  Engaging in those integrative activities is synthesizing a self or subject, which shows up as what is responsible for the component commitments” (ibid).  

A self or subject in this usage is not something that just exists.  It is a guiding aim that is itself subject to development.  “[T]he synthetic-integrative process, with its aspects of critical and ampliative activity [rejecting incompatibilities and developing consequences] provides the basis for understanding both the subjective and the objective poles of the intentional nexus.  Subjects are what repel incompatible commitments in that they ought not to endorse them, and objects are what repel incompatible properties in that they cannot exhibit them” (p. 53).  

Brandom thinks Kant’s analogy between moral and natural necessity already begins to lead in a Hegelian direction.  On both sides of this analogy but especially on the moral side I am sympathetic to Ricoeur’s view and prefer to soften Kant’s talk about necessity, but I still find the analogy itself to be of great importance, and I very much want to support what I think is Brandom’s main point here.

(In general, I am almost as allergic to talk about necessity outside of mathematics as I am to talk about arbitrary free will, so I had to go through a somewhat lengthy process to convince myself that Brandom’s usage of Kantian necessity is at least sometimes explicitly nuanced enough that I can accept it with a mild caveat. Taken broadly, I am very sympathetic to Brandom’s emphasis on modality, independent of my more particular issues with standard presentations of necessity and possibility. There are many kinds of modality; necessity and possibility are actually atypical examples in that they are all-or-nothing, rather than coming in degrees. Modality in general is certainly not to be identified with the all-or-nothing character of necessity and possibility, but rather with higher-order aspects of the ways of being of things. See also Potentiality, Actuality.)

Brandom recalls Kant’s meditations on Hume.  “Hume’s predicament” was that neither claims about what ought to be nor claims about what necessarily must be can be justified from claims about what is.  “Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the position Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-fact empirical claims and judgments perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (p. 54).  For Kant, the very possibility of empirical or common-sense understanding depends on concepts of normativity and modality.  

All inferences have what Brandom calls associated ranges of counterfactual robustness.  “So, for example, one must have such dispositions as to treat the cat’s being on the mat as compatible with a nearby tree being somewhat nearer, or the temperature a few degrees higher, but not with the sun’s being as close as the tree or the temperature being thousands of degrees higher.  One must know such things as that the cat might chase a mouse or flee from a dog, but that the mat can do neither, and that the mat would remain essentially the same as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not” (pp. 54-55).  Here I think of the ancient Greeks’ notion of the importance of respecting proper proportionality.  Brandom says that a person who made no distinctions of this sort could not count as understanding what it means for the cat to be on the mat.  This I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Brandom adds that “Sellars puts this Kantian point well in the title of one of his essays: ‘Concepts as Involving Laws, and Inconceivable without Them’” (p. 55).

If this is right, Brandom continues, then knowing how to use concepts like “cat” and “mat” already involves knowing how to use modal concepts like possibility and necessity “albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (ibid).  Further, concepts expressing various kinds of “oughts” make it possible to express explicitly distinctions one already implicitly acknowledges in sorting practical inferences into materially good and bad ones.  A central observation of Kant’s is that practices of empirical description essentially involve elements that are not merely descriptive.  Brandom says he thinks the task of developing a satisfying way of talking about such questions is “still largely with us, well into the third century after Kant first posed them” (p. 57).  “[W]e need a way of talking about broadly empirical claims that are not in the narrow sense descriptive ones, codifying as they do explanatory relations” (p. 58).  Brandom identifies this as a central common concern of Kant, Hegel, Pierce, and Sellars.

Upstream from all of this, according to Brandom, is “Kant’s normative understanding of mental activity” (ibid).  This is closely bound up with what he calls Kant’s “radically original conception of freedom” (ibid).  In the Latin medieval and early modern traditions, questions about freedom were considered to be in a broad sense questions of fact about our power.  For Kant, all such questions of fact apply only to the domain of represented objects.  On the other hand, “Practical freedom is an aspect of the spontaneity of discursive activity on the subjective side” (pp. 58-59).  

“The positive freedom exhibited by exercises of our spontaneity is just this normative ability: the ability to commit ourselves, to become responsible.  It can be thought of as a kind of authority: the authority to bind oneself by conceptual norms” (p. 59).  Brandom recalls Kant’s example of a young person reaching legal adulthood.  “Suddenly, she has the authority to bind herself legally, for instance by entering into contracts.  That gives her a host of new abilities: to borrow money, take out a mortgage, start a business.  The new authority to bind oneself normatively… involves a huge increase in positive freedom” (ibid).

Rationality for Kant does not consist in having good reasons.  “It consists rather just in being in the space of reasons” (p. 60), in being liable to specific kinds of normative assessment.  “[F]reedom consists in a distinctive kind of constraint: constraint by norms.  This sounds paradoxical, but it is not” (ibid).  

“One of the permanent intellectual achievements and great philosophical legacies of the Enlightenment [I would say of Plato and Aristotle] is the development of secular conceptions of legal, political, and moral normativity [in place of] traditional appeals to authority derived ultimately from divine commands” (ibid).  I would note that Plato and Leibniz explicitly argued what is good can never be a matter of arbitrary will, and the better theologians have also recognized this.

This leads finally to Kant’s distinctive notion of autonomy.  Brandom’s account focuses directly on the autonomy of persons, whereas I put primary emphasis on the autonomy of the domain of ethical reason, and consider the autonomy of persons to be derived from their participation in it.  But I have no issue with Brandom’s statement that “The autonomy criterion says that it is in a certain sense up to us… whether we are bound” (p. 64) by any particular concept.  As Brandom notes – alluding to Wittgenstein — here we have to be careful not to let arbitrariness back in the door.  Our mere saying so does not make things so.  (If we recognize that it is primarily ethical reason that is autonomous, this difficulty largely goes away, because ethical reason by its very nature is all about non-arbitrariness. See also Kantian Freedom.)

“[O]ne must already have concepts in order to be aware of anything at all” (p. 65), and any use of concepts already commits us to a measure of non-arbitrariness.  As Brandom points out, pre-Kantian rationalists did not have a good explanation for where concepts come from.  Kant does have at least the beginning of an answer, and I think this is why he sometimes qualifies unity of apperception as “original”.  This does not mean that it comes from nowhere, but rather that its (ultimately still tentative) achieved results function as the ground of all concept-using activity.

At this point, Brandom begins to discuss Hegel’s response to Kant.  Hegel rather sharply objects to what I would call Kant’s incomplete resolution of the question where concepts and norms come from.  Kant could legitimately answer “from unity of apperception” or “from Reason”, but Hegel still wants to know more about where Reason comes from, and how unities of apperception get the specific shapes they have.  For him, Reason clearly cannot just be a “natural light” ultimately given to us by God.  Its emergence takes actual work on our part.  Further, this work is a social, historical achievement, not an adventure of Robinson Crusoe alone on an island.  We cannot just accept what society tells us, but neither can we pretend to originate everything for ourselves.  This is what makes the application of autonomy to individuals problematic.  Instead, Hegel wants to develop a notion of shared autonomy, as a cultural achievement grounded in a mutual recognition that does not have to be perfect in order to function.

Brandom credits Hegel especially with the idea of a normative symmetry of authority and responsibility.  The traditional authority-obedience model is inherently asymmetrical.  Authority is concentrated mainly on one side, and responsibility (to obey!) is lopsidedly concentrated on the other.  This is a huge step backwards from the attitude of Aristotle and the ancient Greeks generally that “with great power (or wealth) comes great responsibility”.  Mutual recognition on the other hand is a solid step forward, further generalizing the criteria Aristotle already built into his notion of friendship and how we should regard fellow citizens. (See also Self-Legislation?)

Kantian Intentionality

Brandom’s Woodbridge lectures – published in Reason in Philosophy (2009) — are to date the best introduction to his groundbreaking thought on Kant and Hegel.  He makes it clear this will be a rational reconstruction of key themes rather than a textual or historical commentary.  

The first lecture, entitled “Norms, Selves, and Concepts”, summarizes the innovative account of intentionality Brandom attributes to Kant.  According to Brandom, Kant raises the radical question of representational purport — what it even means for someone to take something as representing something.  Simultaneously, Kant breaks with the standard early modern view of judgment that identified it with mere predication.  

“Here is perhaps Kant’s deepest and most original idea, the axis around which I see all of his thought revolving.  What distinguishes judging and intentional doing from the activities of non-sapient creatures is not that they involve some special sort of mental processes, but that they are things knowers and agents are in a distinctive way responsible for….  Judgments and actions make knowers and agents liable to characteristic kinds of normative assessment….  This is his normative characterization of the mental” (pp. 32-33; emphasis in original).

For Kant, to judge and act are to bind ourselves to values, or as Brandom calls them in arguably more Kantian terms, “norms”.  The rules or principles by which the content of our commitments is articulated Kant calls concepts.  Brandom quips that Descartes had asked about our grip on concepts, but Kant asked about their grip on us.

Reversing the traditional order of explanation, Kant says we actually understand concepts in terms of the role they play in judgments, rather than understanding judgments in terms of component concepts.

What Kant calls the subjective form of judgment (“I think”) indicates the relation of a judging to the unity of apperception to which it belongs.  Brandom says this tells us who is responsible for the judgment.  (I think the identity of unities of apperception is actually more specific than that applied to human individuals in common sense, because the constellation of commitments that is the referent of “I” today may not be quite the same as it was yesterday.)

In making a judgment about something, we make ourselves responsible to that thing — to however it may actually turn out to be.  Judgments are supposed to be about how things are.  To make a judgment about something is to acknowledge that how it actually is has authority over the correctness of our judgment.

What we make ourselves responsible for in judging is the content of the judgment, which Brandom will understand in terms of what further inferences it licenses or prevents from being licensed.

Finally, what we do in making ourselves responsible is to make ourselves responsible for a fourfold task: to integrate our judgment into a unity of apperception; to renounce commitments that are materially incompatible with our judgment; to endorse commitments that are material consequences of our judgment; and to offer reasons for our judgment.

Kant’s alternative to judgment as predication, according to Brandom, is judgment as the undertaking of these task responsibilities, understood ultimately in terms of the ongoing synthesis and re-synthesis of unities of apperception.  Further, “The key to Kant’s account of representation is to be found in the story about how representational purport is to be understood in terms of the activity of synthesizing an original unity of apperception” (pp. 37-38).  

“[W]hat one is responsible for is having reasons for one’s endorsements, using the contents one endorses as reasons for and against the endorsement of other contents, and taking into account countervailing reasons….  [W]e are the kind of creatures we are – knowers and agents, creatures whose world is structured by the commitments and responsibilities we undertake – only because we are always liable to normative assessments of our reasons” (p. 38).

Concepts “are rules for synthesizing a unity of apperception.  And that is to say that they are rules articulating what is a reason for what” (p. 39).

“Kant’s ideas about the act or activity of judging settle how he must understand the content judged” (ibid).  Kant’s methodological pragmatism, Brandom says, consists not in privileging practice over theory but in “explanatory privileging of the activity of synthesizing a unity of apperception” (p. 40).

A unity of apperception is not a substance (and especially not in the rigid early modern sense).  As Brandom says, it is the “moving, living constellation of its ‘affections’, that is, of the concomitant commitments that compose and articulate it” (p. 41).  Looked at this way as extended in time, I would say it is not an existing unity but rather a unity always in the making.

All conceptual content for Brandom traces back to this original synthetic activity.  “[R]epresentational purport should itself be understood as a normative (meta) concept: as a matter of taking or treating one’s commitments as subject to a distinct kind of authority, as being responsible (for its correctness, in a characteristic sense) to things that in that normative sense count as represented by those representing states, which are what must be integrated into an original synthetic unity” (p. 42).

The early modern tradition took it for granted that referential representational intentionality is prior to inferential expressive intentionality – in effect that it is possible to know what is being talked about without understanding what is said.  This would seem to me to require a kind of magical clairvoyance.  As Aristotle might remind us, we approach what is primarily through what is said of it, not of course by the mere saying, but through the care and responsibility and many crisscrossing revisitings that we invest in understanding what is said.

Brandom suggests we look for an approach to Kantian objectivity by a kind of progressive triangulation through examining material incompatibility and material consequence in what is said.  “Represented objects show up as something like units of account for the inferential and incompatibility relations” (p. 45) that for Brandom come first in the order of explanation. To treat something as standing in relations of material incompatibility and consequence “is taking or treating it as a representation, as being about something” (ibid).

The most important and valuable parts of Kant’s thought, Brandom suggests, can be reconstructed in terms of the process of synthesizing a unity of apperception.

Brandom on Reason

In the introduction to Reason and Philosophy (2009), Brandom identifies with “a venerable tradition that distinguishes us as rational animals, and philosophy by its concern to understand, articulate, and explain the notion of reason….  Kant and Hegel showed us a way forward for a rationalism that is not objectionably Cartesian, intellectualist, or anti- (or super-) naturalist.  Nor need it treat the ‘light of reason’ as unacquired or innate” (pp. 1-2; emphasis in original throughout).

“Rational beings are ones that ought to have reasons for what they do, and ought to act as they have reason to” (p.3).

“Taking something to be subject to appraisals of its reasons, holding it rationally responsible, is treating it as someone: as one of us (rational beings).  This normative attitude toward others is recognition, in the sense of Hegel’s central notion of Anerrkennung” (p. 3).

The role of recognition makes things like authority and responsibility into social statuses.  These “are in principle unintelligible apart from consideration of the practical attitudes of those who hold each other responsible, acknowledge each other’s authority, attribute commitments and entitlements to each other” (pp. 3-4).

If we take meaning seriously, we cannot take it for granted.  Inferential articulation is involved not only in determining what is true, but also in the understanding of meanings.  What we mean and what we believe are actually interdependent.  He refers to Wilfrid Sellars’ thesis that no description can be understood apart from the “space of implications” in which the terminology used in the description is embedded.  “Discursive activity, applying concepts paradigmatically in describing how things are, is inseparable from the inferential activity of giving and asking for reasons” (p. 8).  

“[T]he acts or statuses that are givings of reasons and for which reasons are given – are judgings, claimings, assertings, or believings.  They are the undertakings or acknowledgements of commitments” (p. 9).  “[R]ationality is a normative concept.  The space of reasons is a normative space” (p. 12).  Philosophy should be concerned not just with pure logic and semantics, but with “the acknowledgement and attribution of… statuses such as responsibility and authority, commitment and entitlement” (p. 13).

Searching for a Middle Term

“But nothing, I think, prevents one from in a sense understanding and in a sense being ignorant of what one is learning” (Aristotle, Posterior Analytics; Complete Works revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 115). The kind of understanding spoken of here involves awareness “both that the explanation because of which the object is is its explanation, and that it is not possible for this to be otherwise” (ibid). To speak of the “explanation because of which” something is suggests that the concern is with states of affairs being some way, and the “not… otherwise” language further confirms this.

Following this is the famous criterion that demonstrative understanding depends on “things that are true and primitive and immediate and more familiar than and prior to and explanatory of the conclusion…. [T]here will be deduction even without these conditions, but there will not be demonstration, for it will not produce understanding” (ibid). The “more familiar than” part has sometimes been mistranslated as “better known than”, confusing what Aristotle carefully distinguishes as gnosis (personal acquaintance) and episteme (knowledge in a strong sense). I think this phrase is the key to the whole larger clause, giving it a pragmatic rather than foundationalist meaning. (Foundationalist claims only emerged later, with the Stoics and Descartes.) The pedagogical aim of demonstration is to use things that are more familiar to us — which for practical purposes we take to be true and primitive and immediate and prior and explanatory — to showcase reasons for things that are slightly less obvious.

Independent of these criteria for demonstration, the whole point of the syllogistic form is that the conclusion very “obviously” and necessarily follows, by a simple operation of composition on the premises (A => B and B => C, so A=> C). Once we have accepted both premises of a syllogism, the conclusion is already implicit, and that in an especially clear way. We will not reach any novel or unexpected conclusions by syllogism. It is a kind of canonical minimal inferential step, intended not to be profound but to be as simple and clear as possible.

(Contemporary category theory grounds all of mathematics on the notion of composable abstract dependencies, expressing complex dependencies as compositions of simpler ones. Its power depends on the fact that under a few carefully specified conditions expressing the properties of good composition, the composition of higher-order functions with internal conditional logic — and other even more general constructions — works in exactly the same way as composition of simple predications like “A is B“.)

Since a syllogism is designed to be a minimal inferential step, there is never a question of “searching” for the right conclusion. Rather, Aristotle speaks of searching for a “middle term” before an appropriate pair of premises is identified for syllogistic use. A middle term like B in the example above is the key ingredient in a syllogism, appearing both in the syntactically dependent position in one premise, and in the syntactically depended-upon position in the other premise, thus allowing the two to be composed together. This is a very simple example of mediation. Existence of a middle term B is what makes composition of the premises possible, and is therefore what makes pairings of premises appropriate for syllogistic use.

In many contexts, searching for a middle term can be understood as inventing an appropriate intermediate abstraction from available materials. If an existing abstraction is too broad to fit the case, we can add specifications until it does, and then optionally give the result a new name. All Aristotelian terms essentially are implied specifications; the names are just for convenience. Aristotle sometimes uses pure specifications as “nameless terms”.

Named abstractions function as shorthand for the potential inferences that they embody, enabling simple common-sense reasoning in ordinary language. We can become more clear about our thinking by using dialectic to unpack the implications of the abstractions embodied in our use of words.

Dialectic Bootstraps Itself

Here is a subtle but vital point. I’ve just reiterated that dialectic assumes no prior truth. Dialectic approaches coherence in an iterative and incremental way, sometimes backing up and trying a new path. As a philosopher in what I take to be the genuine spirit of Plato and Aristotle, I think seriously taking up such a work is the very best we mortals can honestly do to achieve high levels of practical confidence about the things that matter most in life. No, it does not have the precision or definitiveness of mathematics, but mathematics is like Aristotelian demonstration in that all it tells us with certainty is that certain conclusions follow from certain premises, so the conclusions are only as applicable to life as the premises and their assumed mapping to the real world.

The vital point is that dialectic — the development of richer meaning — can make real progress, without ever assuming a foundation. No, we’ll never say the last word, but we can iteratively and incrementally build cumulative results. With iterative and incremental development of coherent articulations of what we care about and an openness to acknowledging error, we can progressively improve interpretive confidence.

I think this is what is behind Hegel’s somewhat mystifying talk about spirit producing itself. (See also Interpretation; Dialogue; Ethical Reason; Practical Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Openness of Reason; Reason, Feeling.)