Essence and Explanation

Hegel’s Logic comprises what Robert Pippin calls three separate “logics” — a logic of being, a logic of essence, and a logic of the concept. The first of these, the logic of being, was characterized by Pippin as an out-and-out failure that Hegel deliberately embarks on in order to make an indirect point. Broadly speaking, that failure consists in attempting to explain things or make them intelligible solely by means of simple assertions. The logic of being also shows the impossibility of grounding philosophical explanation in a simple immediacy of sense-certainty or intuition, or in any notion of pure Being or being qua being. It seems to me that what these results have in common is the impossibility of explaining any definiteness or determinacy in terms of what is indeterminate.

So far, there is no indication that the logic of essence will ever be regarded by Hegel or Pippin as a failure like the logic of being. It will be further enriched by the logic of the concept, and we have yet to see the detail of this. But now we have at least reached the beginning of a true beginning, after having completed extensive due diligence toward claims of an easier, more direct kind of beginning that did not pan out. At the same time, the subject matter has changed from mere isolated assertions to what Kant in the Critique of Judgment called reflective judgments.

I have characterized the indirect positive outcome of the logic of being in terms of the primacy of relation and relatedness over discrete “things”. Pippin says that the logic of being also showed the impossibility of a completely presuppositionless beginning. Hegel’s reworking of Kantian reflective judgment now takes the primacy of relatedness as a starting point.

The logic of essence will thus effectively take the constitutive priority of intelligible relations over their respective “things” as its starting point. Relations will constitute things, at least to a greater degree than vice versa. This is what the Preface to the Phenomenology calls the perspective of “otherness”, and what Hegel also, in a special polymorphic sense that has been very badly misunderstood, calls “negativity”.

Rather than futilely trying to explain something determinate from something completely indeterminate, we have now turned to examining the conditions of the constitution of any possible determinacy. Additional normative considerations will be made explicit in the logic of the concept.

Essence is a Latin term that is read backwards into Greek philosophy, due mainly to its use as a translation of Aristotle’s “what it was to be” a thing. As treated by mainstream scholasticism, however, it had a meaning closer to that of Platonic form (see Platonic Truth). Platonic form is eternal, whereas form for Aristotle and Hegel has an irreducible dependency on manifestation and development in time. But Plato in his dialogues treats “essence” or what a thing eternally is as a matter of dialectical discovery subject to a kind of perpetual renewal, whereas the scholastics generally (and Leibniz) held it to be already finally established by God in the act of creation.

I think of human character as a sort of privileged example of Aristotle’s “what it was to be” some particular one. Pippin has given this an excellent development (see Toward Essence; Hegel on Willing). What makes human character a “privileged” example for me is that it makes many nuances visible that are not so applicable to “what it was to be” that chair, for instance. The nuances of interest here concern relations between essence and appearance, which form the main subject matter of the logic of essence.

Here we also have an instance of the Aristotelian and Hegelian point that we gain the most insight from considering the richest examples of anything, rather than the simplest ones.

The moderns learned from Descartes to privilege simple cases, and to aim to systematically reduce complex cases to simple cases. That is an admirable procedure in mathematics, with many applications. But in life more generally, there is no good reason for assuming that richer cases can be explained with no more resources than it takes to explain simpler ones. In mathematics, if we have a proof that some specific class of rich cases can be reduced to some set of simple cases without remainder, then we can make that sort of “reductionist” claim for that particular class of cases. Outside of mathematics, it seems to me that reductionist claims usually turn out to be mere assertions.

What Hegel calls the “problem of indifference” — how are we to judge which particular appearances show aspects of the “essence” or deeper truth of people or things and which do not — is brought to the fore here.

“We can be said to know the ‘what it was to be’ of a thing, neither by direct intellectual intuition (its being-at-work is a process, a way of being, not graspable punctually as itself some object) nor by just observing, say, the life of a living thing or the uses of an artifact” (Pippin, Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 227).

As Pippin puts it, “if essence is to explain anything, it must be the ground of what immediately ‘shines’ or appears. Those seemings must be its own, and they are made sense of by reference to their essence” (ibid).

“In some sense, and it is the task of the logic of essence to explain in what sense, the thing’s actuality is both not its mere seemings, and yet nothing other than those seemings, rightly understood” (p. 228).

This is another very Aristotelian point.

“Determinate specification of something essential in an appearance requires essential predication or specification of some sort — some predicates, not others. But we know which predicates are essential only by already knowing what essence is. This is a problem that assumes different forms but is basically the same, whether posed in the language of classical essentialism and manifestations, or selecting from a large set of ‘grounding’ causal factors the genuinely explanatory one or ones” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, pp. 226-227).

Hegel develops the terms “ground” and “grounding” for discussing the generalization from essence to any sort of explanation.

Pippin notes that “Plato, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, and others can all be cited in various ways as expressive of the reflective logic of the appearances of essence, the manifestation of something substantial that is nevertheless not manifest as it is in itself” (p. 231).

He quotes Hegel: “On the one hand, the ground is ground as the immediately reflected content determination of the determinate being [Dasein] which it grounds; on the other, it is that which is posited. It is that on the basis of which that determinate being [Dasein] is supposed to be understood; but, conversely, it is inferred from the latter and is understood from it. The main business of this reflection thus consists in gleaning the ground from a determinate being [Dasein], that is, in converting the immediate determinate being [Dasein] into the form of reflected being; consequently the ground, instead of being self-subsisting in and for itself, is rather that which is positive and derived” (pp. 227-228, Pippin’s emphasis).

Once again, I would note a convergence with Aristotle. Aristotle says that in order to possibly know how things are in and for themselves, we should and do start with how things are “for us”, not with how they supposedly are, full stop. Hegel will eventually amplify this into what he calls the “subjective” (though anything but merely subjective) logic of the concept.

Aristotle and Hegel both want to say that the basis of knowledge and explanation is a partial overlap between how things are initially for us and how they really are. This notion of a partial overlap between essence and appearance is a sort of Aristotelian mean that eliminates the roots of the twin evils of “all is illusion” skepticism, and of foundationalism, or the claim of a certain starting point for knowledge.

“[Hegel] is in effect saying that a putative logic of being is, has shown itself to be, mere seeming, Schein [literally, “shine”]. As [Michael] Theunissen points out, this means that Hegel is actually invoking the notion of Schein in three different senses. There is the unacknowledged Schein that a logic of being has turned out to be. There is the Schein of the mere appearance that the skeptic and idealists claim are all we are able to know. And there is the result of the analysis, that this purported limitation of knowledge to mere Schein is itself Schein, unable to account for itself; what seemed to be mere Schein turns out to be the Schein of essence or Erscheinung [Hegel’s technical term for appearance that is more than just mere appearance]” (p. 229, emphasis in original).

That all appearance is only mere appearance must be itself only a mere appearance, if there is to be any knowledge or meaningful explanation at all.

“In other words, the illusion of any possible absolute presuppositionlessness is what has been demonstrated by showing that Sein [being] must be understood as Wesen [essence], just in order to be understood as Sein. ([Hegel says] ‘Being is as such only the becoming of essence’…)…. Wesen will show itself (and itself as the truth of Sein) as always already conceptually mediated determinacy” (p. 230, emphasis in original).

The brute “things” of mere assertion depend on the richer, subtler “things” considered by reflective judgment for any truth they may have. This is an archetypal Hegelian move.

Pippin points out that the logic of essence gives a new sense to Hegel’s very nonstandard notion of negation. Whereas before, “negation” served to express the dependency of meaningful relational distinction on what else something rules out in order to express what it is, now “Essence’s seemings are its own…, even though no seeming or set of appearances express in their immediacy what that essence really is” (ibid).

He quotes Hegel, “In the becoming of being, it is being which lies at the foundation of determinateness, and determinateness is reference to an other. Reflective movement is by contrast the other as negation in itself, a negation which has being only as self-referring” (p. 231, Pippin’s emphasis).

Rather than addressing an external other, in reflective judgment Hegelian “negation” is now turned on itself — seeking further clarification first and foremost through questioning itself and its own formulations. (See also Hegel on Reflection.)