Zambrana on Actualization

Building on the interpretations of Pipppin and Brandom, Rocío Zambrana in Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility (2015) argues that Hegel’s logic is based around the same notion of actualization that orients his ethics, and that actualization is none other than Hegel’s reformulation of Kantian synthesis. This is a fascinating complement to my previous focus on the Aristotelian background of Hegelian actualization. She argues that the main significance of the theory of the “absolute” idea in the Science of Logic is to make intelligibility a function of normativity.

She begins, “To be is to be intelligible, according to Hegel” (p. 3). Plato and Aristotle would concur.

Zambrana agrees with Pippin that Hegel defends the complete autonomy of reason, thus radicalizing Kant’s critical project. “For Kant, the sensible given and the postulates of practical reason (freedom, God, the immortality of the soul) are touchstones of knowledge, morality, faith. For Hegel, the only legitimate touchstone of a thoroughgoing critical philosophy is reason itself” (p. 4).

She suggests that intelligibility and normativity for Hegel are a matter of binding between ideality and reality that is always subject to renegotiation.

“In the Logic, Hegel pursues an immanent critique of classical ontology, philosophies of reflection, and transcendental idealism that allows him to elaborate his distinctive view of determinacy as a matter of the dialectical relation between ideality and reality” (p. 6).

“In what is perhaps the most puzzling passage of the Logic, Hegel describes the absolute idea as personality (Persönlichkeit). While puzzling, this passage is not mystifying. It is in fact key. It helps us specify the status of the absolute idea as the concept that elaborates the view that intelligibility is a matter of normative authority. It indicates that binding is the structure of intelligibility” (pp. 5-6; see also Substance and Subject).

“Hegel argues that form is nothing but negation(ibid).

That form is negation for Hegel seems clear. But I constantly struggle to clarify the real meaning of negation in Hegel. For sure, it is not classical negation. But what exactly is it? To me, many of Hegel’s usages of negation and related terms seem metaphorical. Ordinarily, people use concrete metaphors to circuitously express more abstract things, but Hegel often uses the extreme abstraction of negation or negativity as a metaphor for various more concrete things or conditions. Negativity in Hegel therefore doesn’t seem to me to have a single fixed meaning. This ought not to be surprising, given Hegel’s strong opposition to single fixed meanings in general.

I sometimes think Hegel goes too far in this direction. Good definitions retain value for clarity of thought, even if they are always provisional and context-bounded. Hegel himself seems to recognize something like this when he emphasizes that understanding, despite its limitations, plays an essential role. I prefer Aristotle’s style of approaching things as “said in many ways” — where each of the ways is potentially definable, but there may be real question which is applicable in any given case — over unspecified generalized fluidity.

“Negation is necessarily a negation of something — whether a logical category, a philosophical position, a historically specific identity or institution. Form thus requires content in order to be negation. The central claim of Hegel’s theory of determinacy, then, concerns the negativity of form and the necessity of content” (ibid).

I am also very sympathetic to the importance of content, but a bit in doubt about the argument that negation in and of itself straightforwardly requires content to which it is applied. That would be true for negation in a formal sense that is not Hegel’s, but Hegel does not put much stock in fixed definitions, and he often speaks of a pure negativity that doesn’t seem to depend on anything else or refer to anything external to it. This I take to be part of what he calls the “inverted” perspective of otherness.

“Negativity is the inner determination of the way in which intelligibility is articulated within practices and institutions” (p. 7).

“Inner determination” here would be the purely “logical” aspect, as distinct from the social and historical.

“[N]egativity calls into question the assumption that the content of any normative commitment retains authority or stability within a historically specific form of life…. [Concrete forms of intelligibility] are subject not only to reversals of meanings and effects but also to coextensive positive and negative meanings and effects. For these reasons, no determination can be understood as final or fully stable” (ibid).

She seems to think this latter point is implicit but insufficiently emphasized in the readings of Pippin and Brandom. I think they already make it explicit. How much relative emphasis to give to determination versus fluidity is a delicate matter subject to considerations of context.

“[T]he key to Hegel’s idealism and its emphasis on negativity is his treatment of the Kantian problem of synthesis” (p. 12).

“Hegel follows Fichte’s reading of Kantian autonomy [as positing], yet he stresses that positing is a matter of actualization, which he understands in terms of normative authority. The activity of reason is a matter of distinction-making” (p. 37).

Provocatively, she suggests that Hegel makes a three-way identification of reason, imagination, and synthesis.

“Recall that Hegel suggests [in his early work Faith and Knowledge] that the transcendental unity of apperception and the figurative synthesis are one and the same synthetic unity. Hegel calls this one and the same synthetic unity ‘reason’. In fact, he argues that ‘the imagination is nothing but reason itself’…. Reason for Hegel, I want to suggest, is neither an epistemic faculty nor an ontological principle. It is the work of synthesis” (p. 40).

My instinct is still to distinguish reason from imagination, thinking of reasoning as mainly conscious and deliberate and imagination as mainly pre-conscious. Similarly, I am doubtful about early Hegel’s identification of Kantian unity of apperception and figurative synthesis. Both are forms of synthesis, but following Brandom I take the unity of apperception to be a kind of moral imperative, whereas I take the figurative synthesis of imagination to be something that happens pre-consciously. This seems like an important difference.

That the activity of reason in general is one of synthesis, however, is an excellent point.

“A totality of relations of negation is gathered together by inferential patterns that thereby institute a concrete determination of reason. Reason can thus be thought of as concrete forms, figures, or shapes of rationality articulated by a process of actualization” (ibid).

“A logic of actualization indicates that intelligibility is not only historically specific but also precarious and ambivalent” (p. 41).

She points out that for Kant, an individual concept is not itself a product of synthesis, whereas for Hegel it is.

“That a thing, event, idea is always already outside of itself… is not to the detriment of the thing. Rather, it is the thing’s way of becoming what it is” (p. 42).

She recognizes that Hegel’s teleology is Aristotelian rather than “classical” in form, and that teleology for both Aristotle and Hegel is inherently subject to contingency in its actualization. In neither Aristotle nor Hegel is the working out of teleology underwritten by an omnipotent power.

“Hegel does not articulate reason’s purposiveness in terms of a goal that is unambiguously realized, thereby affirming a classical teleology of reason. Hegel argues that reason is purposive ‘in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive activity'” (ibid).

She recognizes that the import of Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” is not an assertion of some cosmic mind, but rather is intended at a much more elemental level.

“The ‘tremendous power of the negative’ is accordingly the capacity of things to unfold in and through conditions that exceed them…. The actualization of reason is the subjectivity of things themselves” (p. 43).

The “subjectivity of things themselves” testifies that we have here moved beyond the opposition of subject and object that Hegel attributes to ordinary consciousness.

“Establishing the objectivity of subjectivity requires action (Handeln)…. Hegel’s appeal to action introduces the thought that Kant’s signature problem of objectivity is in effect a problem of normative authority” (p. 118; see also Hegel on Willing).

I would prefer to say activity rather than action, but in this context that is a nuance.