Pure Reason?

Hegel’s “logic” takes what Kant calls pure reason as its subject matter. Hegel regards Kantian pure reason as a world-changing revolution, because in contrast to early modern views, it seeks not to imitate the formal character of mathematical reasoning, but rather to achieve the discipline of a kind of self-sufficiency that does not appeal to anything external to it. Kant and Hegel differ on the scope of this self-sufficiency, but that is a different matter.

Early modern views of the world generally rely on many substantive assumptions. There is strong motivation for them to do so, because in order to yield any substantive conclusions, reasoning of a broadly formal kind requires substantive assumptions. The assumptions are typically of a sort analogous to those that Aquinas regards as grounded in the natural light of reason, which is not itself reason, but a kind of originating intuition of truth given to us by God. Descartes, for example, explicitly appeals to a variant of the Thomistic doctrine of natural light.

(The strong Thomistic notion of the natural light of reason and of reason’s relative autonomy from the simple dictates of authority is itself a development of almost inestimable importance, compared to completely authority-bound views of religion such as present-day fundamentalism. Indeed, something like the natural light of reason was never completely absent from the earlier medieval tradition either.)

But for Kant, reason is purely discursive, and cannot appeal to any intuitive source of truth like a natural light. Pure reason is nonetheless supposed to be able to stand on its own. In Kant’s language, it is “autonomous” (see also Kant’s Groundwork; Self-Legislation?). Kant’s critique of dogmatism especially targets assumptions that are naively realistic in the sense of claiming direct knowledge of external or inner objects, but it is broader than that.

Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason is most directly responding to empiricist views broadly associated with Locke, which were dominant in England and France, and popular in Germany in his day; but even more so to the rationalist system of Christian Wolff (1679-1754), which then dominated German academic teaching. (Wolff was an accomplished mathematician who had corresponded with Leibniz, and greatly contributed to popularizing the part of Leibniz’s philosophy that Leibniz had published in his own lifetime. Like Leibniz, he is associated with moderate Enlightenment, while at the same time showing a degree of sympathy for scholastic philosophy.)

Kantian pure reason effectively aims to be free of unnecessary assumptions, especially those of the Wolffian system, but also those of the empiricists. Kant also criticizes Wolff’s and Spinoza’s idea that philosophical reasoning should as much as possible resemble mathematical reasoning. What makes it possible for Kant to avoid assumptions beyond the famous “God, freedom, and immortality” (and for Hegel to avoid any assumptions at all) is a move away from the early modern ideal of reason as formal.

Without ever explicitly saying so, Kant in fact takes up and works with a notion of reason that is close to aspects of Plato and Aristotle that were generally neglected in the intervening tradition. Reason in Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel is not limited to formal reasoning. It includes what in more recent times Sellars and Brandom have elaborated under the name of material inference.

Formal reasoning is called formal because it is supposed to apply to all things, independent of any analysis of meaning. But this makes it dependent on assumptions in order to yield conclusions. Material inference — which was also present as a minor theme in scholastic logic — is on the contrary grounded in the interpretation of meaning. It is this reflective grounding that can enable reason to be autonomous and “pure”, with no reliance on anything external to it.

Sellars illustrates material inference with examples like “there are dark rain clouds in the sky, so I should take my umbrella when I go out”. Brandom elaborates with an account of how such judgments may be successively refined based on additional information. In general, if I strike a match correctly, it will light. But under certain conditions, it will not light. But under yet more specific additional conditions, it will in fact still light.

Both Sellars and Brandom — working within the tradition of contemporary analytic philosophy — tend to reach for examples that involve empirical facts, and relations of cause and effect in the broad modern sense. But material inference is more general than that. It is grounded in meaning as we encounter it in real life. Its scope is not limited to any particular kind of meaning, nor does it assume any particular theory of meaning.

Pure reason, then — far from excluding meaning, as formal logic does — is concerned with the progressive self-clarification of meaning — or Kantian “taking as”, or judgment — in a reflective context.

For Hegel, “logic is to be understood as the system of pure reason, as the realm of pure thought” (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., introduction, p. 29). This is what he calls the “concept of science”, and also “absolute knowledge” (p. 28). As I’ve pointed out before, in Hegel these terms have specialized meanings that are far from their ordinary connotations in English. Science need not be empirical, and “absolute” in this context just means the same thing as “pure” or “autonomous” — that reflective judgment need presuppose nothing outside itself.

For Hegel, the standpoint of pure reason (or “science”, or “absolute” knowing) is that of reflective judgment. The whole effort of the Phenomenology of Spirit is required to reach this point, which he then uses as a starting point in the Logic.

“Pure science thus presupposes the liberation from the opposition of consciousness [between itself and its object]…. As science, truth is pure self-consciousness as it develops itself and has the shape of a self, so that that which exists in and for itself is the conscious concept and the concept as such is that which exists in and for itself” (p. 29, emphasis in original).

The reflective concept has the shape of a “self” — a reflexivity — that is not to be identified with our empirical self, but rather is related to the reflective character of self-consciousness, which overcomes the simple opposition between consciousness and its object.

“This objective thinking is thus the content of pure science. Consequently, far from being formal, far from lacking the matter for an actual and true cognition, it is the content which alone has absolute truth” (ibid).

He calls reflective judgment objective thinking, precisely because it begins only after the separation of consciousness from its object ends. Reflective judgment and self-consciousness will not be separated from “the concept” in which they are embodied. Rather, we have here a case of the Aristotelian identity of pure thinking with what it thinks.

“Logic has nothing to do with a thought about something which stands outside by itself as the base of thought; nor does it have to do with forms meant to provide mere markings of the truth; rather, the necessary forms of thinking, and its specific determinations, are the content and the ultimate forms of truth itself.”

“To get at least some inkling of this, one must put aside the notion that truth must be something tangible. Such tangibility, for example, is carried over even into the ideas of Plato which are in God’s thought, as if they were, so to speak, things that exist but in another world or region, and a world of actuality were to be found outside them which has a substantiality distinct from those ideas and is real only because of this distinctness” (pp. 29-30).

Truths are not objects, and they are not given to us in the way that ordinary consciousness takes objects to be. For Hegel, moreover, spiritual values do not have to do with turning away from this world in favor of another one. They are intended to guide us in life.

“There will always be the possibility that someone else will adduce a case, an instance, in which something more and different must be understood by some term or other” (p. 28).

Reflection and interpretation are inherently open-ended.

“How could I possibly pretend that the method that I follow in this system of logic, or rather the method that the system itself follows within, would not be capable of greater perfection, of greater elaboration of detail? Yet I know that it is the one true method. This is made obvious by the fact that this method is not something distinct from its subject matter and content — for it is the content in itself, the dialectic which it possesses within itself, which moves the subject matter forward. It is clear that no expositions can be accepted as scientifically valid that do not follow the progression of this method and are not in tune with its simple rhythm, for it is the course of the fact [Sache] itself” (p. 33).

Translator di Giovanni comments in his glossary, “In non-technical contexts, [Sache] can and should be translated in a variety of ways, such as ‘substance’, or even ‘thing’. As category, however, ‘fact’ seems to be the best rendering. Sache, like ‘fact’, denotes a thing or a situation which we understand to implicitly contain all the factors required for an explanation of its existence. Its presence therefore cannot be doubted even when those factors have yet to be made explicit. The related word, Tatsache, was first coined… in order to translate the English term ‘matter of fact'” (pp. lxxi-lxxii).

To me, these sound like reasons for calling Hegel’s Sache something other than “fact”. Especially in a work of “logic” that invokes “science”, the English word “fact” would most commonly be taken taken to mean an unambiguous empirical truth. Both what I think Hegel means and the explanation di Giovanni gives of it seem better suited by the more open connotations of an English phrase like “the concrete case” or “the matter at hand”. The Sache is something objective, but it is objective in the indefinite sense of a Gegenstand [“object” in the sense of something standing over and against us, but whose nature has yet to be determined].

I used to think that reason that would be applicable to life (or to anything like Hegel’s Sache) could not possibly be pure. I now think that with the inclusive character of reflective judgment and material inference, it can be pure.