Things in Themselves

I never understood why people would object to Kant’s thesis of “things in themselves”, or find it inconsistent with his epistemological scruples. I take this just to mean that there are ways that things are. This is an entirely separate question from whether we have perfect and certain knowledge of those ways. All that is ruled out by Kant’s Critical perspective is claims that we have knowledge of things just as they are in themselves. This just calls for a kind of epistemic modesty.

People who rejected things in themselves included Fichte and the important early 20th century English translator and interpreter of Kant, Norman Kemp Smith, who was sympathetic to the phenomenalism then fashionable among empiricists (see brief discussion under Empiricism).

Hegel too was very critical of the phrase “things in themselves”, mainly because he thought the wording implied a kind of artificial isolation, but he by no means wanted to throw out the realist moment that Kant always wanted to affirm — quite the opposite. Discussions about realism and idealism get rather complicated, especially where Kant and Hegel are concerned, but Kant repeatedly affirmed a kind of empirical realism. I take this to have been a sort of pragmatic vindication of common sense with respect to ordinary experience, coupled with respect for Newtonian science. What Kant and Hegel both objected to — each in their own different terms — were strong traditional metaphysical claims. Whatever their other many differences, commentators are basically unanimous in taking Hegel to have wanted to be at least as “realist” as Kant.


Having just mentioned Johan Gottlieb Fichte (1762 – 1814) again, I owe him a dedicated note. Along with Karl Reinhold (1757 – 1823), Fichte played a major role in promoting the philosophy of Kant, and helped shape the further development of German idealism, but Kant studiously avoided endorsing his interpretation. Recent scholarship has greatly enriched the historical picture of Fichte’s development.

In the early works for which he is best known, Fichte strove to simplify and systematize the Critical philosophy. In so doing, he made a number of important changes that have affected the reception of Kant ever since. For one thing, influenced by Reinhold, he wanted to derive everything from a single, simple principle. For Fichte, this was a transcendental Subject or “I” endowed with very strong unity and infinite freedom. Contrary to Kant, he suggested there could be a limited kind of intellectual intuition, applying only to the Subject. For another, he denied the reality of the “thing in itself” that Kant always insisted on. He also presented himself as a sort of polar opposite of Spinoza.

These moves gave him a reputation for extreme subjectivism, but recent scholarship has shown that Fichte at least worked very hard to avoid this sort of consequence. His “I” was supposed to be universal and to incorporate all sorts of epistemological scruples, and in spite of rejecting a thing-in-itself, he also wrote extensively about a “not-I” that the “I” was supposed to recognize. He partly anticipated Hegel’s later notion of mutual recognition, but Hegel also famously criticized any simple opposition of “I” and “not-I”.

Assuming that Fichte successfully avoided crude subjectivism, he still stands as an archetype of a subject-centered philosopher, very far from the vision pursued here of doing full justice to subjectivity without postulating a foundational Subject.

Redding on Morals and Modality

A recent web draft by Australian philosopher Paul Redding — author of a nice introductory book on analytic readings of Hegel — makes quite a few interesting points about Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, J.N. Findley, and modal logic. Findley was an important 20th century philosopher with analytic training who developed a very this-worldly but still metaphysical reading of Hegel, with strong influence from Wittgenstein. Findley’s student Arthur Prior apparently developed an “actualist” alternative to the more common possible worlds approach to modal logic, which latter is usually said to have an antecdent in Leibniz. Redding argues that there is a similarity between Prior’s criticism of modal possible worlds and Hegel’s criticism of Kantian formalism in ethics.

I take the assertions of Leibniz in a more tentative way than Redding seems to, and sharply distinguish between Leibniz and his Wolffian semi-followers. Leibniz’s thought on possible worlds, though, is one of the parts of his work I agree is less attractive, even though I am sympathetic to its motivation as an alternative to theological voluntarism. It seems to me like a beautiful but very extravagant speculation, related to his thoughts on infinity. Leibniz’s youthful co-discovery of the calculus was but one aspect of a lifelong fascination with the new idea of a mathematical infinity. Explicit reliance on the assumption of this kind of “actual infinity” is removed from later presentations of mathematical analysis, which instead carefully talk about differentials and integrals in terms of limits. For what it’s worth, Aristotle argued against any actual infinity, and Hegel called it “bad infinity”.

Redding attributes to Findley criticism of an ethics of rules in favor of an ethics of values. I like this very much in general, but I make a big distinction between rules that would supposedly just tell us what to do (which I find hideous) and higher-order rules like Kant’s categorical imperative, which merely requires that we aim at universality, without presuming to tell us exactly what we should do. While taking Hegel’s criticism of Kantian formalism a bit more literally than I would, Redding nonetheless concludes that Hegel’s position is an extension of Kant’s.

Redding notes Hegel’s complaint against Kant’s advocacy at one point of “duty for duty’s sake”. I find this formula as unappealing as the categorical imperative is salutary. But it turns out that Kantian “duty” is really a stand-in for the kind of absence of material inconsistency that characterizes a unity of apperception. Redding correctly points out that this is hardly the law of non-contradiction in the usual sense, so Kant’s argument is not really like the Wolffians’ attempt to derive a whole metaphysics from that logical law. Redding then attributes to Hegel an emphasis on “actualized Sittlichkeit” as opposed to empty formalism. Hegel may have said the words, but I think this is way too simple. It sounds like some actually existing set of norms just taken at face value. I’d take empty formalism over that any day. (See discussion on Pippin’s concern about positivity in Mutual Recognition.) Unfortunately, Redding also moves from unity of apperception to a Fichtean self-identity of a Subject (“I = I”), from which I want to sharply separate Kant and Hegel.

The idea of building logical modality into the actual world rather talking about quantification over possible worlds seems appealing to me, but I would not want to go so far as to deny potentiality, as Kant seemed to in his more Newtonian moments, to which Redding alludes. I think Hegel went a long way toward recovering something like potentiality.

Rational or Ecstatic?

Reason takes us outside of ourselves, which is the literal meaning of “ecstatic”. Obviously I have in mind here more than just logical operations. It is going outside of our narrower selves into the field of values and entering into the inclusive universal community of mutual recognition that makes us fully human. The universal community only has a virtual existence, so it is up to us to help make it real through our actions and way of life. We can do this in part by treating others in our lives as part of that community, and in part through our own internal dialogue. The less inner noise and turbulence we have, the easier this will be.

The indwelling in us of ethos or Hegelian Spirit is an infinite journey. The journey itself is the goal.

Two Kinds of Character

Again from the top, still thinking about what makes a human being, it seems to me there are two main layers, each relatively autonomous and constituted on its own terms, but each also having a different sort of dependency on the other. I want to say that our emotional character — acquired, accumulated, and modified over time — is what defines us as common-sense individuals with personal identity. I also want to say that the values we live by constitute an ethical character that is very different from common-sense personal identity. Emotional character gives us an empirical “me”. Ethical character gives us a rational or ecstatic “I that is a We”.

Aristotelian Subjectivity

If we want to find an analogue in Aristotle for the notion of (transcendental) subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel, the best place to look is in the concept of ethos, rather than in something like soul or intellect, which for Aristotle have more specialized roles. Then, going in the other direction, this Aristotelian point of view centered on ethos helps to clarify and consolidate many of the points Brandom has wanted to make about the mainly normative or ethical import of subjectivity in Kant and Hegel.

Philosophical interest in subjectivity applies especially to the transcendental kind. Traditionally, this has been situated between what was called metaphysics and something like the “rational psychology” classically criticized by Kant. With inspiration from Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I’ve been proposing that the constitution of transcendental subjectivity is instead ethical at root. This seems much more helpful than the traditional version for addressing the human condition and questions of who and what we are. The values we actually live by are far more important for this than claims about the existence of some abstract entity like a personal Subject. Meanwhile, personal identity is better left outside the transcendental sphere, and located instead in our concrete emotional constitution. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Two Kinds of Character; Substance Also Subject.)

Dialectic, Semantics

Aristotle’s potent combination of dialectic with semantics guides his interpretations of things throughout his work. (Metaphysics applies this general approach especially to higher-order cases.) His core concepts are mainly either tools for this — like form, matter or circumstance, ends, means, actuality, potentiality, hylomorphism, difference, univocity and equivocity, and substance — or they are the results of applying such an approach in particular contexts. (See also Material Inference; Practical Judgment.)