Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity

Robert Pippin recounts how in writing what became the Critique of Judgment, Kant developed a new notion of reflection, which transformed his whole philosophy from the inside:

“In early 1789 Kant began to formulate the new problem of reflective judgment, as well as a new a priori principle for such a faculty, the purposiveness of nature. What is important to notice for our purposes is that with that development, the shape of the entire critical project began to change dramatically” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 290).

“Kant had realized that something like the deep structure of judgments like ‘this rose is beautiful’ actually contravened its own surface structure, that the predicate ‘beautiful’ was not really functioning as a standard predicate, as it appeared to. It referred to no objective property or mere secondary quality. Instead, he concluded, it involved a nonconceptually guided reflective activity on the part of the subject of the experience, whose novel logic required notions like a free play of the faculties, purposiveness without a purpose, disinterested pleasure, a commonsense and universal subjective validity” (pp. 290-291).

“The realization of the distinct features of this reflective activity was only the beginning of a series of more strikingly novel claims of interest to us…. [T]he reflective judging that resulted in aesthetic judgments, also constituted the basic structure of teleological judgments, and so could account for the unique intelligibility of organic beings” (p. 291).

“And then a number of other issues seem to be thrown into the same reflective judgment pot. The formulation of scientific theories not fixed or determined by empirical generalizations involved this activity and its logic, as did the systematizing of empirical laws necessary for genuine scientific knowledge. Finally, even the determination of ordinary empirical concepts now seemed to require this newly formulated reflective capacity…. So reflective judging and its a priori principle were now necessary not only for explaining the possibility and validity of aesthetic judgments, but in accounting for the necessary distinction between organic and nonorganic nature, the formation of empirical concepts, the proper integration of genera and species, the general unification of empirical laws into systems of scientific law, theory formation itself, and the right way to understand the attribution of a kind of necessity to all such principles, judgments, concepts, laws, and systems” (ibid).

Much of the discussion of judgment in the Critique of Pure Reason sounds like it is a simple matter of “applying” pre-existing concepts to things. But in reality, applying even pre-existing concepts is not a simple matter at all, if we care about the soundness of the application (as Kant certainly did), or about how anyone preliminarily judges what concepts might be applicable in a given case. This is what Kant began to consider in more detail with his new notions of reflection and reflective judgment.

Reflection is characterized above by Pippin as “nonconceptually guided”. I don’t think this means at all that reflection is nonconceptual, but rather only that it is fundamentally guided by something other than the kind of pre-existing concepts that Hegel would call “fixed”. Reflection involves the formation and interpretation of concepts that are not treated as already fixed. That is why it does not presuppose particular fixed concepts.

I want to relate this back to the Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment (phronesis) that are concerned with particulars as such. The significance of addressing particulars as such is that we do not assume in advance what universals (i.e., Kantian concepts) apply to them, but rather let the particulars “speak” for themselves, and thoughtfully consider what they might mean or be in their own right. By particulars I mean in an Aristotelian way independent or non-independent “things”, not putative raw phenomena.

Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, I want to say, involve a “free play of the faculties” of the sort that Kant associates with reflection. Aristotle’s commonly cited conclusion that practical judgment is inferior to contemplative wisdom is entirely tied to the fact that he considers practical judgment’s outcome to be an action. I think the term practical judgment ought to apply just as much or more to the activity of interpreting particulars, without prejudice as to how the interpretation is used.

Kantian reflection seems to me to have the great virtue of uniting Aristotelian theoria (contemplation) and sophia (contemplative wisdom) with deliberation, thinking things through (dianoia), and practical judgment (phronesis). Kant also explicitly argues for the primacy of practical reason, which ultimately involves the reflective normative evaluation of particulars, even though he foregrounds a separate effort to articulate ethical universals. An Aristotelian sense for the Kantian primacy of practical reason would start from the interpretation of particulars mentioned above.

Kantian reflection also has an important relation to the Critique of Pure Reason‘s key term of apperception. The term “apperception” was coined by Leibniz, originally to imply a kind of “higher order” perception — a perception of perception. Kant gives it a more explicitly discursive character. If we add a Hegelian dimension, the dialectical character of discourse makes discourse inherently reflective in Kant’s sense. By virtue of their common reflective, discursive character, apperception in Kant is closely related to what is called “self-consciousness” in Hegel.

Kant famously speaks of the effort to maintain a unity of apperception. Here is where I think phronesis comes to the aid of theoria and sophia. Contrary to what both Kant and Aristotle sometimes suggest, it seems to me that the interpretation of particulars is actually prior to and more governing than the articulation of universals, although there is much interplay between the two. It is the interpretation of particulars that mainly provides occasions for the articulation of pertinent universals. This comes back to Aristotle’s other point that universals do not have independent reality in their own right, and to Kant’s other point about the primacy of practical reason.

The effort to maintain a unity of apperception is the effort to maintain a unity of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is not simple “consciousness” of a pre-existing “self”, as if the latter were a discrete, pre-existing object. Rather, self-consciousness is grounded in reflection that has potentially indefinite extent. I think a similar grounding in reflection is what makes intellect “something divine in us” — and more than just a part of the soul — in Aristotle.

Aristotle speaks of thought thinking itself as contemplation. He tends to emphasize that thought thinking itself is an identity. But with any kind of identity, we must consider the way in which it is said.

What then could constitute any persistent identity for a unity of apperception? Here we come to the problems that Paul Ricoeur discussed under the more general rubric of narrative identity. Strictly speaking, any particular unity of apperception is a concrete constellation of what Aristotle would call particular relations that hold at a given moment. It is something like the totality of what we are currently committed to. Insofar as we speak of it as existing in fact, its unity and coherence are relative. Only as a kind of ideal or ethical goal can its unity be considered to be unqualified.

Insofar as we want to speak of the relative persistent identity of a unity of apperception — or anything like the unity of a person — we also need the Aristotelian concept of entelechy. The narrative identity of a unity of apperception is a kind of entelechy in which the thing whose identity is maintained is itself a work in progress, as all living beings are. We only have the final form of a life when it is over (see Happiness).

The narrative identity of a unity of apperception, then, is a kind of entelechy of apperception. More generally, Aristotelian entelechy is the narrative identity of a unity, or just is a kind of narrative identity. An entelechy of apperception is the entelechy of a process of reflection. (See also More on Contemplation; Hegel on Reflection; Apperceptive Judgment.)