Toward Essence

What does it mean to really explain something, as opposed to just making claims about it? According to Robert Pippin, this question underlies what he calls the key transition of Hegel’s Logic, between the “logic of being” addressed in several recent posts and what Hegel calls the “logic of essence”.

The logic of essence will itself eventually be superseded by the logic of the concept. With very broad brush, it seems to me one might expect that the logic of essence will be a representation of important insights Hegel attributes to Aristotle, whereas the logic of the concept is supposed to be a representation of what he claims as his own (and Kant’s).

“[Hegel’s] general approach [is] to begin with the least ‘mediated’, least theoretically committed determination and argue for the further determinations, further theoretical commitments, without which even these relatively simpler determinations would not be possible” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 211).

Hegel assimilates all simple predications or assertions to the logic of being, the inadequacy of which we have seen in some detail. Every word, phrase, or assertion taken in strict isolation reduces to meaningless noise, just like the attempt to “say” indeterminate Being. Only taken together and in some sort of context do words and assertions begin to mean something.

According to Pippin, “a mere list of contingent properties and quantitative measures cannot count as having determined any subject of those determinations as such” (ibid). Hegel “summarizes this problem by calling it the problem of indifference” (ibid). We still lack any even quasi-stable things to talk about.

An explanation is more than just a generalization. Explanation requires distinguishing the essential from the nonessential.

Hegel thinks that even something as sophisticated as the use of Newton’s inverse square law to account for the elliptical shape of planetary orbits is still only a compact way of making a complex assertion about relational properties, and does not give us a reason. This corresponds to the level of the “force and understanding” chapter of the Phenomenology, which reaches a purely relational point of view on mathematical physics, but still lacks the features Hegel associates with self-consciousness.

“[A] distinction between what is truly real or essential and what appears, or that way of thinking, is now on the Logic‘s agenda…. A practice exists, and we want to know not merely what happens or whether it exists but whether the practice is actually a religious practice. Or a computer wins at chess, but is it actually thinking? Something is displayed in a gallery, but is it actually art?” (p. 218).

“These questions are just examples. The Logic is not concerned with them, and, we should say, is concerned with actuality as such, the possible actuality of anything intelligible” (ibid). “These example questions… depend on ‘the logic of actuality’ as such, which simply means: how we think about what anything ‘really is’. As we have seen, the determinations of such conceptuality cannot be empirical; they must be understood, according to Hegel, as ‘products’ of thought’s self-determination of itself, a process that continually realizes thought’s apperceptive nature. Or: the concept gives itself its own actuality. Hegelian conceptuality has this subjective dimension (‘thought’s autonomy‘), even while also being the articulation of the conceptual structure of reality. This has nothing to do with spinning every actual, contingent species-form out of thought’s self-examination. The topic… is logical or categorical formality as such, not ‘what are the existing species-forms?’ ” pp. 218-219).

“The very title of a ‘logic of essence’ suggests (yet again) immediately the philosopher whom Hegel seems most to admire, Aristotle” (p. 219). “We found in the logic of being that, according to Hegel, it was not possible to specify a thing’s ‘actual’ being by qualitative and quantitative markers…. Since Hegel accepts the Aristotelian premise that actually to be is to be a this-such, where that means it is identifiable by being an instance of a kind, this means we have failed with respect to the question of actuality. We are thereby compelled, in the prosecution of the original task, to consider that, ‘actually’, a thing is not how it simply appears, looks, sensibly manifests itself, however regular or predictable. We have to say that in some way, what a thing actually is lies hidden, must be uncovered, posited, a product of thought, not a simple empirical apprehension as such” (p. 220).

The “original task” is the determination of meaning, which didn’t get very far in the logic of being, even though in the parts Pippin has skipped over, Hegel did develop resources for making broad classes of simple assertions or claims about appearance.

“What we will need is a comprehension of the difference… between the ‘essential’ and the ‘unessential’, and the basis for this differentiation” (p. 221). “[W]hatever seemings are, (in not ‘actually’ being), they exist and are determinate, a determinacy inexplicable, Hegel claims, by the ‘skeptics and idealists’ who claim that the distinction cannot be made, and therefore say, ‘everything is illusory'” (ibid).

Whoever claims that “everything is only mere appearance” turns out to have no basis for making any distinctions within the so-called appearance.

“Someone who had understood everything said onstage, the plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the basic motivations of the characters, as those characters and others voice them, and had understood only that, would not, we feel entitled to say, have understood ‘the play’. Put in the simplest possible way, to understand the play, one has to do more than listen to it; one must think about it, or we can say, using the word most important for Hegel, ‘reflect’ on it, understand what lies ‘beneath’… these facts about plots and characters…. There is no such thing as a hidden meaning in King Lear; there are just the words spoken or found on the page. How we get from this clumsy metaphor to the ‘concept’ of King Lear in itself is the underlying story of the logic of essence” (pp. 223-224).

All meaning that is worth talking about has this same kind of non-thing-like character. It is constituted from relations of connection and disconnection.

“It would be a mistake to sum a person up, attempt to ‘understand’ her in the distinct way persons should be understood, simply by adding up or listing everything she did, from what she had for breakfast to volunteering for a dangerous mission. A person would not be properly understood by attention to such ‘immediacy’ alone (or her qualitative/quantitative/measured appearances, as in the logic of being). We need to understand her deeds as ‘mediated’ by what Hegel calls her ‘inwardness’…, something (and now in the most important difference with the logic of being) that we cannot see, that does not simply present itself” (p. 224).

The relations that constitute meaning do not themselves directly appear. This applies as much to things in general as to human character.

It is certainly ubiquitous that people and things also respond differentially to direct appearances, without anything deeper than a qualitative or quantitative appearance being involved. Mid-20th century behaviorism claimed that was all there is, that the meaning at issue here was a mere figment or conceit.

Pippin continues his previous example, “For example, we can’t really understand what she did except by some attention to her own formulation of the act description and to her avowed motive (her ‘intention’). Sometimes what happens should not count as a deed because there is not the proper connection of inner and outer. An accident happens. Something prevents her from realizing her intention; that is, something happens to her. She does not do something. What happens is not an expression of her character. On the other hand, as Hegel states the central claim of the entire logic of essence in a phrase, we must concede that any such inner self-construal can ‘prove itself’… only in what manifests that outwardly, in the deeds. (It is immediately important that this ‘test’ can fail.) Too radical a separation and we have someone trying to disown what she in fact did, to fabricate excuses. (‘Mistakes were made’; ‘It was never my intention to deceive/hurt/offend anyone’, etc.) We need this distinction, but we can’t establish which deeds are true manifestations of essence and which are merely aberrations by any statistical analysis of frequency, any simple inspection of what happens. We need to understand how ‘what shows’, ‘what manifests itself’ (Schein), can be said to reflect these deeds’ essence when it does (if it does, then as Erscheinung, appearance), even if, as appearance, no one deed is ever a manifestation or simple representation of essence as such ” (pp. 224-225).

It was this sort of point about the ethical meaning and use of actuality in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy that initially greatly impressed me in Pippin’s work (see especially Hegel on Willing). According to Pippin, this kind of question about the relation of actuality to appearances is just what Hegel’s “logic of essence” is all about.

Unexpectedly for me at least, this now provides the occasion for Pippin to tell us more specifically what he thinks “mediated immediacy” means in Hegel. As I mentioned before, I have always thought first of things like the experience of riding a bicycle or recognizing an object, which properly speaking are examples of “immediatized mediation”, bridging the gap between the intrinsic emptiness of immediacy in itself and our undoubtedly non-empty “immediate” uptake of things in ordinary experience. In other words, my attention was drawn to the way in which complex results of some previous synthesis can be pre-consciously associated to what we experience “immediately” in a new synthesis of imagination.

Hitherto, in thinking about the term “mediated immediacy”, I have focused on ordinary appearances of meaning, in contexts that according to Hegel are not adequate to “immediately” support the constitution of that apparent meaning. This is admittedly to disregard the surface grammar of the phrase.

Pippin here starts to give “mediated immediacy” a sense that is aligned with the surface grammar, and is also closely aligned with what he has just said the logic of essence is all about.

He continues, “Understanding this relation properly is what Hegel thinks allows him to speak of a mediated immediacy. The appearances are not denied as unreal. They ‘shine’ in their immediacy. But they can be understood in their determinate immediacy only as the manifestation of the thing that they are appearances of, and so are always mediated…. We can’t derive the appearances from a mediated (‘posited’, ‘reflected’, ‘thought-over’) essence. That would be a denial of their immediacy. But we don’t apprehend such appearances on their own, in pure immediacy, and then infer what appears. What appears is appearing in what manifests itself…. What a person does is tied to that person’s character, whatever it is. And understanding that character is nothing other than rightly understanding what that person has done. With respect to all the reflected dualisms introduced in the logic of essence, this thought in various forms remains the kernel of that logic throughout” (p. 225).

This is Hegel’s recovery of something like Aristotle’s qualified common-sense realism about experience. We say that we experience not just phenomena but also things, even if we are wrong about them sometimes. At the simplest level, though not itself thing-like, essence is what enables the distinction of things from arbitrary collections of appearances.

“This is also why essence is a retrospective reflection of what has been made manifest, why it is rooted in gewesen, the past participle of sein [to be] or ‘what has been’, a feature somewhat counterintuitive in an account of action. It is also why Hegel is happy to accept the Wesen/gewesen suggestion of temporality. It links his account with one he admired, Aristotle’s, whose term for what has often been translated as essence is to ti en einai, something like ‘the what it was to be’ of a thing” (p. 226).

Essence, I would suggest, subsists independent of time once constituted, but the constitution of essence for both Aristotle and Hegel has a dependency on appearances in time. It therefore could not be pre-given. We have to actively discover or construct it, often taking into account long sequences of appearances in time. These may wander in various directions or sharply reverse our previous expectation. Parts of them we will judge to be irrelevant. This is only the beginning of the story of essence, not the end.

“Ultimately on Hegel’s account, if we want to know whether this lie reveals a person to be a ‘liar’, what we need is not to have deeper insight into some thinglike essence, but to observe what else the person does over time and to understand the relation among these deeds, to interpret them or ‘think them over’ in their relation to each other. This will be a crucial point throughout the logic of essence, and it obviously raises the question of how to make, what guides us in making, this relational connection.”

It is relatively easy to express the openness of Aristotelian practical judgment. But we still have to do the work of judgment in each case, and due to the openness we will have committed to with Aristotle, there could not be a precise roadmap telling us how to do the work. But Kant already argued that at least at a sufficiently high level of abstraction, universals can meaningfully guide practical judgment, so perhaps something more could be achieved. Any such progress on how to judge what is essential would be priceless indeed.

“Finally, it is important to stress that this topic is being introduced very broadly. No particular theory of ‘essentialism’ is being entertained, and as already noted, making the general distinction just discussed could be achieved even by an account of the difference between transcendental and empirical subjectivity, or between categories and empirical concepts” (ibid).

Essence as such need not be taken as a specific “ontological commitment”. It means what is reasonably, reflectively judged to be important. That is part of the hermeneutics of things and of life, which we encounter as soon as we begin asking if someone or something is really or actually something-or-other. (See also Essence and Explanation; Hegel on Reflection.)