Teleology After Kant

Kant is responsible for recovering something like the modesty stemming from deep seriousness with which Plato and Aristotle approached claims of knowledge, though I don’t think he realized just how far they were from the dogmatism that broadly characterizes the intervening tradition. Kant indeed often speaks as if all previous philosophy had a dogmatic cast. I don’t think the tradition between the times of Aristotle and Kant was the uniform sea of dogmatic positions that Kant makes it out to be, either, but I agree that a dogmatic cast was dominant.

Kant also goes further than Aristotle or even Plato in positively asserting a principled basis for limiting claims to knowledge. Plato emphasizes sharp distinctions between appearance and reality. Aristotle is more inclined to emphasize that we do after all indirectly encounter something real in and through appearances, but he is in agreement with Plato (and Kant) that there is no magical overleaping of the fact that what we experience directly are only appearances.

For all three of them, knowledge in a strong sense could only be a product of the indirect work of reason reflecting on experience. Aristotle further emphasizes the variability of things in the world, and the large role of ambiguity in experience. Kant on the other hand is still beholden to the early modern assumption that knowledge ought to be subject to a completely univocal account. But his notions of synthesis are a great contribution to the understanding of how experience works — how “immediate” experience is a result of pre-conscious processes of constitution. In a nutshell, this is the additional principled basis for limiting knowledge claims that we owe to Kant.

With extremely broad brush, it could be said that Hegel takes up the Kantian emphasis that experience is a result of processes of synthesis but, unlike Kant, he also wants to emphasize that synthesis is not a self-contained activity of each individual. At the same time, he takes the more Aristotelian perspective that we really do indirectly encounter reality in and through appearances. For Hegel, to deny this would be to deny the possibility of knowledge altogether.

Hegel sees synthesis taking place at the level of what he calls spirit — i.e., the level of the universal community of rational beings across space and time, of shareable thought contents, and of broadly (but not entirely) shared values. But he also recognizes Aristotelian variability and ambiguity. At this extremely high level of generality, Hegel is a Kantian Aristotelian or an Aristotelian Kantian. Spirit for Hegel transcends nature, without being opposed to it.

In the Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel glosses reason as purposeful activity, while sympathetically referring to Aristotle’s view of nature as purposeful activity. In the Science of Logic, he carefully distinguishes the internal kind of teleology Aristotle attributed to nature from the external kind that refers particular events to the will of God. He distinguishes three kinds of determination. Mechanism and “spiritual mechanism” determine things from outside, in ways that are indifferent to their specific character or content. An intermediate form he calls “chemism” determines things from outside in ways that do involve their specific character or content. These are both contrasted to teleology, which according to Hegel is the internal determination of things by what I at least would call their nature or essence.

For Hegel, mechanism and chemism together represent means by which ends are realized. He explicitly identifies these with efficient causes operating in ways ultimately subordinate to final causes. I was unaware of this when I previously glossed the Aristotelian efficient cause as fundamentally a means by which an end is realized, but it is nice to know it has Hegel’s concurrence.

For Hegel, the external determination of things is subordinate to their internal or “self”-determination. Self-determination meanwhile is anything but the result of arbitrary will; it develops out of the concrete detail of the “self-relatedness” in which the very forms of things consist. He treats this as an elaboration of the Phenomenology Preface’s assertion that “substance is also subject”.

The very essence or substance of things is able to act in subject-like ways, because form for Hegel is explainable in terms of self-relatedness. Meanwhile, Science of Logic translator George di Giovanni notes that Hegel’s selbst or “self” has no interpretation in German as a noun. As I would put it, “self” is purely adverbial and relational, and therefore is constituted in what Hegel in the Phenomenology Preface calls otherness. So, for Hegel the primacy of internal determination is perfectly compatible with the logical primacy of otherness. “Self” refers to a constitution in otherness, rather than being opposed to it. From the start, Hegelian otherness is conceived as beyond any naive opposition between a substantive self and what is other than it.

Thus Hegel can be seen as more thoroughly vindicating the content of Aristotelian internal teleology from a Kantian point of view. Kant himself made an important start at this in the Critique of Judgment, but qualified the legitimate application of internal teleology to nature as ultimately only having a heuristic value useful to our understanding, that would not be literally applicable to nature as it is in itself. Hegel in the Science of Logic carefully and at length develops objectivity out of something like what I would call reasonable interpretation, and on this basis recovers a valid notion of internal teleology as something real. This notion of objectivity as something constituted is a further development of another Kantian theme. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity.)