Form and Things

I use the word “thing” in a very general sense for anything at all — real, ideal, or imaginary; abstract or concrete; including properties, actions, processes, and adverbial characteristics.

Kant controversially wanted to assume that things of all sorts have definite ways that they objectively are “in themselves”, i.e., completely independent of our experience and knowledge of them. But for him, there is inevitably a gap between our knowledge and reality. Every attempt to ignore or overleap that gap he called dogmatism. This was his way of practicing what I have called epistemic modesty, or the ethical virtue of avoiding unfounded knowledge claims. When we don’t know, we go ahead and act based on the best beliefs we have, while in principle remaining open to the possibility that our belief may require revision.

Hegel and others have worried that there is something wrong with Kant’s way of expressing the situation — with this gap between knowledge and reality that is inevitable and even virtuous for Kant. Some of Kant’s remarks make it sound as if reality as it really is and our experience could be two entirely nonoverlapping realms. If this were true, Kant’s position could be seen as leading to skepticism, or the conclusion that genuine knowledge of reality is impossible.

Kant himself would have resisted this conclusion with all his might. He does believe we have genuine knowledge; he just wants us to be very careful about what we claim to know. For Kant, genuine knowledge does not require access to things in themselves; rather, it keeps within the bounds of possible experience. It minimally designates an objectivity toward experience, consisting in the absence of dogmatism and an unceasing effort toward unity of apperception.

Hegel agrees with Kant in opposing dogmatism and emphasizing the effort toward unity of apperception. His strongest opposition to Kant’s talk of things in themselves assumes that “in themselves” means “in isolation”, as it would under the Wolffian view (rejected by both Kant and Hegel) that all knowledge is analytical. Hegel emphasizes that unities of apperception are not just individual but also shared. At the same time, he revives the Aristotelian idea that thoughts should be distinguished as forms or meanings shareable in principle with any rational being, and that as such, they are whatever they are independent of subjective presentation. This makes it quite reasonable for Aristotle and Hegel to claim that the form or meaning that is properly being thought is the very same as the form or meaning that is being thought about.

An analogous identity certainly does not apply to experience or consciousness. To assert that would be dogmatism in Kant’s sense. The thought that Aristotle and Hegel identify with form or meaning is not a kind of consciousness. The most fundamental characteristic of consciousness for Hegel is the separation of subject and object, whereas in thought proper there is no such separation, only a succession of forms. In Hegel, the gap between consciousness and its objects takes the place of the gap between knowledge and reality in Kant, and similarly commends to us a practice of epistemic modesty in life.

Another dimension of epistemic modesty in Aristotle and Hegel has to do with the non-univocal character of form in Aristotle, and with Hegel’s repeated warnings about the “falsity” of all fixed representations. Form is said in several ways in Aristotle, e.g., sensible form, mathematical form, linguistic meaning, and the life or soul of a living being. Of these the first two are univocal, but the last two are not.

From the point of view of form, we take a deflationary view of “things”. Things — like the thing in itself in Kant — are in a strict sense indexes delimiting our ignorance rather than univocal “objects” of knowledge.

The fact that our ignorance is delimited means it is not total. We do have knowledge, but insofar as either proper knowledge or Hegelian spirit has “objects”, those objects lack univocal identity.