Independent Things

Having just posted notes on Aristotle’s Metaphysics book Zeta (VII), I wanted to pause for some personal reflections. The hands-on engagement of putting together a textual commentary like that with extensive quotes always gives me a quality of insight into the material that I don’t get from just reading or re-reading a text.

One of the ways Aristotle stands out as a philosopher — to speak a bit figuratively — is his philosophically generous attitude toward not only living, “independent” beings, but ordinary “things” of all sorts. This carries over into his ethics.

Engagement in the world, approached the right way, need be no distraction from our essential concerns. Rather, for Aristotle it is a fulfillment of the “purpose” of the kind of beings that we are. He encourages us to cultivate a feeling of being fundamentally at home in life in the world, a feeling strong enough to remain ultimately unshaken by our emotional responses to events and circumstances. By contrast, Plotinus, for instance, though appreciative of beauty in all its forms, ultimately directs our attention both spiritually and philosophically away from the world and toward the One. Modern philosophers tend to view the world as inert matter for us to manipulate, not something with which we would feel kinship and a sense of belonging.

Hegel criticizes Kant for being “too tender” toward objects, but I feel that this and some other remarks are a bit lacking in interpretive charity, even though Hegel is deeply Kantian in many ways. In particular, I have a lot more sympathy for Kant’s notion of “things in themselves” than Hegel did.

Kantian things in themselves don’t exactly align with either Aristotle’s notion of independent things or with the what-it-is of those things, but they have relations to both, which may suggest an alternate way out of the Kantian “impasse” that troubles Hegel. What Hegel regards as an unresolved impasse in Kant in this area is the irreducible gap Kant sets up between knowledge and things in themselves. But Aristotle also says we do not have knowledge of independent things or their what-it-is.

We may have knowledge of their articulations, but articulations are only expressible in terms of universals (words with posited meanings that are applicable to multiple things), while independent things and their what-it-is are particulars. Therefore, for Aristotle too there will be a sort of Kantian gap between knowledge and independent things. I have praised this as a kind of “epistemic modesty”.

We have only experience and acquaintance with independent things, not knowledge. We may also dialectically inquire, interpret, and make judgments about them, thus reaching relatively well-founded belief, but we cannot know them, because they are particulars independent of us, while all knowledge (episteme) is discursive.

When it comes to the what-it-is of things as distinct from the independent things themselves, we have no experience or acquaintance either, but only the “long detour” of dialectic, interpretation, and judgment. This, it seems to me, is what Hegel’s logic of essence addresses. In the logic of essence, Hegel speaks to Aristotelian considerations, and I would now say more specifically that Hegel’s logic of essence explores more or less the same dialectical level as Metaphysics book Zeta.

Kant’s things in themselves seem utterly remote and mysterious to nearly everyone — I dare say much more so than the Aristotelian what-it-is. A historical reason for this is not far to seek. Kant’s intellectual formation was in the milieu of the Wolffian school, within which the small fraction of the works of Leibniz published in his lifetime played a leading role.

Leibniz developed the highly original notion of the “complete essence” of a thing, corresponding to the way God would know it — as including every true statement about a thing, including all the empirical facts applicable to its past, present, and future. Leibniz’ God is concerned with the totality of logical truth about a thing.

From the point of view of Aristotle or Hegel, this turn to the totality of logical and factual truth abolishes the distinction between essence and what is not essence. It thus effectively abolishes the more specific concept of essence and a “deeper truth”. An emphasis on complete essence also foregrounds something we could not possibly experience over the sensible independent things with articulable properties that we do experience.

For Leibniz, naturally enough, only God knows complete essences. Humans could not possibly know them. What I want to suggest here is that the reason the Kantian thing-in-itself is inherently unknowable by us is that it basically is a Leibnizian complete essence.

Because a complete essence is no longer a proper what-it-is that can potentially be distinguished from the many incidental facts about a thing, it is far less tractable to Aristotelian or Hegelian dialectic than a what-it-is that at least potentially can be so distinguished. A complete essence poses head-on what Hegel calls the “problem of indifference”, which plagued early modern philosophy. Among all the true statements about a thing, there is no clear way to pick out which would be more relevant to what Aristotle would call the articulation of what-it-is.

While Aristotelian independent things and their what-it-is are unknowable because they are particulars, they remain relatively tractable to dialectical inquiry, and are therefore not radically unknowable to humans in the way a complete essence or thing in itself would be. Certainly Aristotle seems to say more about them that is meaningful than Kant is able to say about things in themselves.

Hegel wants to abolish things “in themselves” — not at all because he wants to abolish Aristotelian independent things or their what-it-is, but because he objects both to the Hermetic isolation of complete essences from one another and to the problem of indifference that complete essences pose. He in effect goes back to Aristotle on this.

It is important to emphasize that the independence of an Aristotelian independent thing means it cannot be just an object of consciousness. It is supposed to be a reality in its own right. While this is not the only point of view we may adopt, the kind of deeper truth that Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel all seek is not to be found by fleeing the world and leaving such realities behind.

If we accept an Aristotelian revision of the Kantian gap between knowledge and what is, the gap no longer brings inquiry to a halt. Then the broadly Kantian view that there is a gap and the broadly Hegelian view that we can go a long way toward overcoming it can both be sustained. (See also Practical Wisdom.)