Pure Thinking?

Another recent article by Adrian Johnston continues his polemic against Robert Pippin — as well as Brandom — on the reading of Hegel, addressing Pippin’s 2019 book on Hegel’s Logic and his review of Slovoj Žižek’s book on Hegel, Less than Nothing. Among other things, Johnston takes aim at Pippin’s talk about “pure thinking”, claiming that any such emphasis must necessarily reflect a subjective idealism, like that which Johnston attributes to Kant and Fichte.

Johnston takes Pippin and Brandom’s appeals to unity of apperception in a Hegelian context as prima facie evidence of subjective idealism. This does not follow at all. He objects to Pippin’s emphasis on intelligibility as opposed to sheer “being”. Here I have to agree with Pippin — real philosophers have always been more concerned with intelligibility, and there is nothing subjective about that, either. Intelligibility is the basis of objectivity.

I don’t think Kant’s concern with subjectivity was at all subjectivist. Even Fichte, despite his tendency to ontologize a transcendental Subject, was no garden-variety subjectivist. Johnston rightly points out that Fichte talked about an “I” that “cannot be gone behind”, and that Hegel regarded this as a very one-sided point of view. He is right that the young Hegel briefly aligned himself with Schelling against Fichte. But as much as I find Fichte’s subject-centeredness antithetical, and in spite of a few interesting bits in Schelling, Schelling’s metaphysics of a self-dividing Absolute seems to me but a shallow imitation of neoplatonism, much less worthy of philosophical attention than either the original neoplatonists or Fichte’s objectionably subject-centered point of view. Žižek and Johnston, however, want to use a valorized Schelling to help prop up a metaphysical Hegel.

Johnston claims that Pippin and Brandom end up with a dualism of reasons and causes, and argues that their defense of a kind of modified naturalism is not strong enough to prevent a lapse into subjective idealism. For Johnston, it seems the only way to avoid this would be a direct causal derivation of the “space of reasons” from something physical. I occasionally worry myself that some of Pippin and Brandom’s remarks on naturalism dwell too much on a very narrow if influential kind of naturalism that wants to reduce everything to physical causes. I also want to go a bit further than they do in affirming a nonreductive naturalism. Johnston says he wants to be nonreductive, but many of his remarks (e.g., about reasons vs. causes) seem reductive to me.

I see causes in the modern narrow sense as just one kind of reasons why (see Free Will and Determinism; Aristotelian Causes; Why by Normative Pragmatics). Through the diffuse influence of early modern mechanism, modern people have become conditioned to thinking of causation in what are really just metaphors of some kind of impulse. But in modern physics, serious discussions of causality have much more to do with mathematical law. Mathematical law is a specific kind of reason. So to me, the requirement to explain reasons in terms of causes has things somewhat backwards.

Ultimately, Johnston and Žižek are interested in the emancipatory potential of a kind of materialism broad enough to take in Hegel along with neuroscience or quantum mechanics. At this very generic level I have no issue, but it seems to me that the kind of examination of material conditions that has the most emancipatory potential is directed at things historical, social, and cultural, rather than physiological or physical. Also, it is broadly hermeneutic rather than merely concerned with facts. Overall, Žižek’s prodigous output reflects this, but Johnston’s texts seem curiously removed from such considerations.

Johnston objects that Pippin narrows Hegel’s focus to ethics and epistemology. I’m actually content with just ethics, as it seems to me that already indirectly includes everything else (see Practical Reason). (See also Johnston’s Pippin; Weak Nature Alone.)