Unconditioned Knowledge?

Kant speaks of reason’s dissatisfaction with “conditioned” knowledge, and of a practical necessity for us to posit the existence of some unconditioned knowledge (e.g., about God, the soul, and the world), even though we can only posit it and it remains finally unavailable to us as knowledge.

Hegel, though well aware of the limits of the knowledge we have, wants to decisively reject the idea that “knowledge” could exist that is in principle beyond the capabilities of finite beings. Leibniz had already suggested that if we take the universality of reason seriously, this means there ought to be nothing, even in divine understanding, that would be in principle beyond the ability of finite rational beings to understand. Hegel claims that such a view ought to be compatible with Kant’s critical principles, even though Kant does not seem to think it is.

“In the realm of finite objects, any specification of determinate intelligibility, even if relatively successful, is still limited, or in Kant’s sense ‘conditioned’…. Since any such rendering intelligible must be self-conscious to be such a judging, such conditionedness and limitation are inseparable from determinate intelligibility itself, and so can be said to ‘demand’ completion in an unconditioned…. With this established, however, we seek a higher degree of intelligibility (one not subject to such limitations), indeed the highest. And so the concept itself, or conceptuality itself, the truth of finite objectivity, is now our object. In this sense, pure thinking’s determination of itself, not just qua the truth of objects, but qua itself as its own object, represents, ultimately, Hegel’s unconditioned” (Pippin, Hegel’s Real of Shadows, p. 252).

“Hegel… goes on to note the many Kantian affinities of his project. The concept of the concept, or conceptuality, or conceiving as the truth of being, is the ‘”I” or pure self-consciousness‘… and he notes Kant’s own version of the truth of any object: Kant defined the object as ‘the concept in which the manifold is united’…. Being as such a ‘positedness’, which is nevertheless being-in-and-for-itself, means that the objectivity of any concept is ‘none other than the nature of self-consciousness, has no other moments of determination than the “I” itself'” (p. 253).

We could equally say that for Hegel, it is the concept of the concept — or the self-referentiality in apperceptive judgment — that says “I”.

Objectivity is not a matter of conformity to something given that could serve as a standard. It is ultimately a matter of good judgment that can be recognized as such and shared by others. It is up to us rational beings to work out the detail of what that means.

Hegel’s approach to the unconditioned is enabled by his removal of the qualifications Kant had placed on his revival of Aristotelian teleology in the Critique of Judgment. Implicitly in his works overall and more explicitly in the logic of the concept, Hegel seems to follow the same kind of top-level explanatory strategy as Aristotle, combining teleology and hypothetical necessity.

“[I]f we understand the structure of [Hegel’s] Logic as some kind of ascent or progress, and if we think of that progress as measured by degrees of any rendering intelligible, the former stage always requiring the latter as a condition, then the essential predicative forms we study in the Logic‘s three books will be (i) S is P, (ii) S is essentially P, and (iii) S is a good P. Teleological explanation (for artifacts, actions, and organic beings) is the beginning of wisdom about such a higher degree of intelligibility…. (On this scale the ‘absolutely’ intelligible would be, to use Aryeh Kosman’s phrase for a similar claim in Aristotle, ‘thinking thinking thinking’)” (pp. 254-255).

We should not be put off by the apparent impersonality of “thinking thinking thinking” or the Hegelian “concept”. The very abstractness of the Kantian “I” serves to make it a transparent vehicle for our most deeply held (i.e., most “actual”) values. Aristotle and Kant and Hegel are bypassing the petty foibles and opacity of an empirical ego in order to bring to the fore what I would call our deep ethical essence.

“Hegel tells us that, with the topic of the concept as such, we are entering ‘the realm of subjectivity and freedom’…, a language that has an unmistakable but mysterious practical air…. [H]e moves immediately to explain that metaphor with several other metaphors…. There is, he notes, a textbook understanding of concepts and their roles in judgments and the role of judgments in syllogisms. But he complains that such ‘material’ is not only ‘finished’… and ‘entrenched’… but ‘ossified’…. His task, he says, is to introduce a ‘fluidity’… into such material and to spark or ignite or animate… a living concept in such dead matter…. He then complains about the difficulty of his task, switching metaphors again, and compares his project to building a new city in a ‘devastated’ land…, a task rendered all the more difficult when the land is occupied by an ancient and ‘solidly constructed’ city. One must decide above all, he insists, not to make use of what is already there, ‘not to make use of much otherwise valued stock” (p. 255).

There is a great deal that is perfectly unobjectionable from the point of view of common sense that turns out to be incompatible with the self-determination of reason.

“[B]eing is conceptuality, not a material ‘made’ intelligible by the exercise of a subjective power…. What a thing is, in truth, is its intelligibility…. In the Logic, the question is dual: What is being such that it is intelligible? What is the intelligibility of being? For us, Hegel complains, the question seems to live on only in religion” (p. 257).

“The chief task of philosophy is to account for this conceptuality” (p. 258).

This accounting — a kind of articulation — is key. Philosophy does not make mere assertions.

“[Hegel] will say things like: philosophy (and he seems to be thinking of philosophy as exhibited in the Phenomenology of Spirit) is interested not in a simple factual narrative of what happened but instead in what ‘is true in what happens’, where that seems to mean what, in what happened, reveals something about what it is to be Geist [spirit]” (ibid).

“In [Kant’s] sense a cognitive mental act is neither mere ‘activity’, in the sense in which we might speak of a computer’s processing as its current activity (cognitive activity is norm responsive), nor an intentional action (one does not perceive or believe ‘on purpose’)…. We may intentionally or ‘on purpose’ take up the task of trying to understand why something happened, but as we gather evidence and test hypotheses, we are not — in, say, perceiving, or in judging on the basis of perceiving — intentionally doing something for the sake of something. The power of perceiving or the power of knowing (or their failure) is what it is (has its distinct end) in independence from whatever else we may also be trying to accomplish. According to Aristotle, for example, the actuality of an axe, its formal and final cause, is cutting, the actuality of the eye is seeing. None of this implies that the axe or the eye is purposively acting in its proper actualization. Cognitive activity is an actualization in that sense. But it is also true that the capacities of the eye are for an end, its distinct end as what it is, or qua eye. And in that sense the capacities for knowing are for an end which knowing has, qua knowing. (The spontaneous capacity too has a formal and final causality, not serial or successive, but immanent and simultaneous.)” (p. 259).

Individual perceptions, judgments, and thoughts thus occur in us “spontaneously”, even though at a higher level reason is purposeful. For long I’ve been mystified by Kant’s choice of the term “spontaneity” for our self-conscious doings. (As I am accustomed to using the word, it seems more to apply to something like the pre-conscious syntheses of imagination.) Pippin provides a valuable clue to Kant’s thinking about spontaneity here, when he points out that perceiving and judging are not doing something for the sake of something in the way that ordinary actions are for the sake of something.

“The understanding and reason (and finally, reflective judgment) are manifestations of one capacity, thinking, the spontaneous faculty…. There is understanding, Verstand, or thinking, considered with respect to what is the case, or in terms of the possible objects of thought, in the basic sense of claiming or judging about objects other than thought, objects that must be provided to such thinking, cannot be self-given, all on the one hand; and, on the other, reason, Vernunft, thinking considered without restriction, or thinking in so far as it is purely self-determining, thinking whose object is itself. In this latter sense, one thinks first, of course, of pure practical rationality, self-determining both in the sense that only reason can determine what the exercise of practical reason consists in, and in the sense that to act is to have a maxim one must give oneself, or it is to have a reason for the action that one counts as a reason. But reason in its theoretical use, what Kant calls its ‘hypothetical use’, is also self-determining” (p. 260).

“And in general, reason in this hypothetical use results in descending or ascending specifications…. But understanding… cannot be a distinct object for or to reason, as such objects are normally understood. That would be psychology. Reason’s determination of the unity of the ‘manifold cognitions’ of the understanding is the determination by thought of itself, of its own unity. (This perfectly parallel’s the Analytic’s claim that experience, the possible representation of an object at all, requires a unity that cannot be supplied by experience. Thinking provides this unity for itself, by itself.) Any such higher unity can never be an object of experience, but it is also the case that such postulations are not mere heuristic posits, dispensable or alterable as practical needs dictate. Every exercise of reason qua reason is a necessary self-determination” (p. 261).

Such a necessity of reason is still hypothetical, not categorical — if this, then that, never simply “that” as a conclusion out of the blue.

“All thinking is a spontaneity, an activity, not a perceiving or grasping. This is true for reflective judging as well” (ibid).

“Kant is interested in the Critique of Pure Reason in what he says our ‘cognitive faculty… provides out of itself’…. Hegel will ask why we should not also say that the categorical structure of experience is what reason requires of itself, with no threat of subjectivism if understood properly; why not say that the moral law is what reason requires of itself?” (p. 262).

Hegel is using deeply Kantian principles to question Kant’s conclusions about the inaccessibility of the unconditioned for us.

“Since, according to Kant’s apperception requirement, any judging is also the consciousness of judging (no one can be claiming something without knowing what she is doing), judging must be implicitly a subscription to the requirements of any such judging (thus including a commitment to be able to provide reasons for the judgment, to be denying anything inconsistent with the judgment and so forth, to be able to integrate the judgment in a consistent whole of other beliefs held), and more broadly, any putative act of knowing involves apperceptively a putative realization of what knowing should be. In this sense the attempt to know, as centrally a judging, is also a self-consciously purposive activity, end-directed (it aims at knowledge, unqualifiedly and unconditionally knowledge) and self-constituting (only reason can determine what the removal of such qualifications would amount to). In the case of the understanding, or judging informed by sensible intuition, this means that any instance of judging is an awareness that judgment is a piece of conditioned knowledge, and no such awareness, since it is an awareness of an attempt to know, can avoid in the completion of the pursuit of such an end this ‘need’ to seek the unconditioned. Such an end is inseparable from any pursuit of the end of knowing itself” (pp. 263-264, parenthesized German words omitted).

“[Kant] is suggesting that our relation to these issues is not a relation of knowing in the experiential or empirical sense…. The relation is some sort of practical relation, … which carries with it its own sort of practical necessity, one that can be said to have a priority — again a practical priority — over the capacities and limitations of reason in its theoretical use” (p. 264).

With respect to the strict self-determination of reason and the reality of this practical necessity to seek the unconditioned, Pippin says he cannot see any essential difference between Kant and Hegel. But “Hegel certainly has a different evaluation of the results…. He sees them not as self-imposed limitations on reason, but as constituting the intelligible structures of reality, and there is a radical boldness in his rejection of the idea of a reality or truth beyond any ability of ours to determine what it is” (p. 268).

“If we keep in mind this Kantian context, recall the essentially practical and productive character of the power of reason, recall that the sense-bearing unit of intelligibility for both Kant and Hegel is the judgment, and that judgments are necessarily self-conscious judgments, and so claimable only in the context of some awareness of their finitude or conditioned nature, then claims like these by Hegel look less mysterious” (ibid).

Pippin says the biggest difference between Kant and Hegel in this area is Hegel’s idea that the progress of the self-determination of reason is somehow driven by contradiction. But “the contradiction that Hegel is referring to is always an essentially practical contradiction, an activity’s contradiction of its own end, something that gets clearer, I hope, if we recall Kant’s account of the inherent purposiveness of reflective judgment and the hypothetical use of reason” (ibid; see Reflection and Dialectic).

“[Hegel] will often say things that seem outrageous [, for instance] that philosophy gives the form of necessity to what would otherwise appear merely contingent…. This can sound as if Hegel wants to say that the actual course of that development, philosophy can prove, could not have happened otherwise, as if, in science as well as philosophy (logic), there is a development over time that could not have been otherwise. If that sort of claim is supported by a claim about a self-transforming, underlying metaphysical entity, ‘cosmic spirit’, or ‘God’, developing according to some necessary law of internal teleology, then the claim seems hopeless” (p. 269).

I thoroughly agree that this kind of necessity — a purely deterministic unfolding of events in the world — is as foreign to Hegel as the idea of unlimited free will.

“At a more modest level, though, (and this is very much how I think he wants to be understood), he could mean that a significant transition in art history, or political history, or religious history, a shift in collective ethical commitments, or a development in a speculative logic (that the content of some determinate concept cannot be fixed without reliance on a successor, more comprehensive concept) can all be rendered intelligible by a philosophical account” (ibid).

“This account is based on a form of practical contradiction that introduces a more familiar form of necessity and one different from logical necessity or material necessity, the form appropriate to ‘he who wills the end must will, or necessarily wills, the means’ (otherwise we have evidence that he has not truly willed the end)” (ibid; see Hegel on Willing).

Any kind of historical interpretation — indeed any interpretation whatsoever, insofar as it aims to reach firm conclusions — ultimately faces the “problem” of the unconditioned. Pippin’s previous example of interpreting the actuality of a person’s character helps to bring all this down to earth. Hegel’s argument is that we do this kind of interpretation all the time, so whatever that necessarily presupposes must be possible.