At Home in Otherness

This is part 3 of my direct walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology. It seems that the phrase “being at home in otherness” originated in my own notes on H.S. Harris’ commentary, and literally occurs neither in Hegel nor in Harris. Nonetheless, I still want to suggest that the underlying idea is central to the perspective Hegel wants to recommend. Hegel speaks at length about what might be called thinking in the element of otherness, and provocatively ties it to the overcoming of alienation, thereby seeking to transform our pre-existing notions of what that might mean.

More conventionally, the overcoming of alienation has been represented as the recovery of a lost possession or lost innocence that we originally had, like a figurative return to the garden of Eden. The German Romantics of Hegel’s time had popularized this sort of comfortable and reassuring notion. Hegel wants to give it an altogether different and much more challenging meaning.

He points out the inherent weakness of all isolated theses and unelaborated statements of principle.

“[A]ny further so-called fundamental proposition or first principle of philosophy, if it is true, is for this reason alone also false just because it is a fundamental proposition or principle. — It is consequently very easily refuted. Its refutation consist in demonstrating its defects; however, it is defective because it is only the universal, or, only a principle, or, it is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, then it is derived from and developed out of that fundamental proposition or principle itself — the refutation is not pulled off by bringing in counter-assertions and impressions external to the principle. Such a refutation would thus genuinely be the development of the fundamental proposition itself” (Pinkard trans., p. 15).

No matter how good the principle, a shallow statement of it will be “false”.

“Conversely, the genuinely positive working out of the beginning is at the same time just as much a negative posture toward its beginning; namely, a negative posture toward its one-sided form, which is to be at first only immediately” (p. 16).

Everything that Hegel would recognize as genuine development and improvement begins with thoughtful criticism of what went before.

“[Spirit] must be, to itself, an object, but it must likewise immediately be a mediated object, which is to say, it must be a sublated object reflected into itself” (ibid).

“To sublate” translates German aufheben, a famous Hegelian term that means simultaneously to absorb and to transform (literally, “to on-lift”).

“Pure self-knowing in absolute otherness, this ether as such, is the very ground and soil of science, or knowing in its universality. The beginning of philosophy presupposes or demands that consciousness is situated in this element. However, this element itself has its culmination and its transparency only through the movement of its coming-to-be. It is pure spirituality, or, the universal in the mode of simple immediacy. Because it is the immediacy of spirit, because it is the substance of spirit, it is transfigured essentiality, reflection that is itself simple, or, is immediacy; it is being that is a reflective turn into itself” (pp. 16-17).

In a very characteristic gesture, he begins to point out that in human life, even mediation and immediacy don’t just stand alongside each other as statically independent opposites. Rather, we end up with all sorts of mixed forms of “mediated immediacy” and “immediatized mediation”. This interweaving is especially typical of what he calls “spirit”.

By “science”, once again, he means mediated rational understanding. “Absolute otherness” is the antithesis of the identity-oriented simplicity and rigidity of the point of view of ordinary consciousness. What we mainly encounter in life are mixtures of these two, with a tilt toward the ordinary. I’m inclined to think there could be no human experience at all without some admixture of otherness. A stronger otherness disturbs our complacency and takes us out of our comfort zone, but Hegel wants to gently suggest that this can be a good thing.

“However much the standpoint of consciousness, which is to say, the standpoint of knowing objective things to be opposed to itself and knowing itself to be opposed to them, counts as the other to science — the other, in which consciousness is at one with itself, counts instead as the loss of spirit — still, in comparison, the element of science possesses for consciousness an other-worldly remoteness in which consciousness is no longer in possession of itself. Each of these two parts seems to the other to be an inversion of the truth” (p. 17).

Here he acknowledges that what he is recommending must seem incredibly strange from the perspective of ordinary consciousness.

He continues, “For the natural consciousness to entrust itself immediately to science would be to make an attempt, induced by it knows not what, to walk upside down all of a sudden. The compulsion to accept this unaccustomed attitude and to transport itself in that way would be, so it would seem, a violence imposed on it with neither any advance preparation nor with any necessity. — Science may be in its own self what it will, but in its relationship to immediate self-consciousness, it presents itself as an inversion of the latter…. Lacking actuality, science is the in-itself, the purpose, which at the start is still something inner, at first not as spirit but only as spiritual substance. It has to express itself and become for itself, and this means nothing else than that it has to posit self-consciousness as being at one with itself” (ibid).

Hegel’s own favored attitudes, like rationality or “science”, are not exempt from the general requirement of development. To simply try to foist “science” or our favored view of rationality or the value of otherness on the public as ready-made conclusions differs little from attempts to socially impose any arbitrary prejudice. It is a means not at all suited to the ends of philosophy.

In speaking of “immediate self-consciousness”, he applies another paradoxical mixed form. The very essence of self-consciousness for Hegel is mediation, or the opposite of immediacy. But even the most highly mediated form can also be named, pointed at, presented, represented, or recalled in a more immediate way. Every level of development has its own characteristic reflection in relative immediacy.

He continues, “This coming-to-be of science itself, or, of knowing, is what is presented in this phenomenology of spirit” (ibid).

“Knowing, as it is at first, or, as immediate spirit, is devoid of spirit, is sensuous consciousness. In order to become genuine knowing, or, in order to beget the element of science which is its pure concept, immediate spirit must laboriously travel down a long path…. In any case, it is something very different from the inspiration which begins immediately, like a shot from a pistol, with absolute knowledge, and which has already finished with all other standpoints simply by declaring that it will take no notice of them” (pp. 17-18).

Immediate spirit is devoid of spirit in the deeper sense that travels down a long path. But still it contains a beginning.

“The aim is spirit’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience demands the impossible, which is to say, to achieve the end without the means. On the one hand, the length of the path has to be endured, for each moment is necessary — but on the other hand, one must linger at every stage along the way, for each stage is itself an entire individual shape” (p. 19).

Rational understanding has to grow organically — to be actively taken up and worked over by its participants — to realize its value. Once again, it is never enough to just present summary conclusions and expect the world to agree, no matter how right they are. A long, patient working out is essential to achieving the goal he has in mind.

“In this movement… what still remains is the representation of and the familiarity with the forms” (ibid).

“The element thus still has the same character of uncomprehended immediacy, or, of unmoved indifference as existence itself, or, it has only passed over into representational thought. — As a result, it is at the same time familiar to us, or, it is the sort of thing that spirit has finished with, in which spirit has no more activity, and, as a result, in which spirit has no further interest” (ibid).

Familiarity is an issue because it leads us to take things for granted and become inattentive. Hegel contrasts all forms of static representation of knowledge with the kind of active coming-to-be of knowing he is aiming at.

He continues, “However much the activity, which is finished with existence, is itself the immediate, or however much it is the existing mediation and thereby the movement only of the particular spirit which is not comprehending itself, still in contrast knowing is directed against the representational thought which has come about through this immediacy, is directed against this familiarity, and it is thus the doing of the universal self and the interest of thinking” (ibid).

In more Aristotelian language, once an understanding is acquired, it becomes passively available for easy use. The mode of this availability and easiness is a kind of habit. Habits have a great utility for action and responding to the world, but in exercising a habit we are not learning anything new. The active becoming of knowing, on the other hand, demands continuous learning.

“What is familiar and well-known as such is not really known for the very reason that it is familiar and well-known. In the case of cognition, the most common form of self-deception and deception of others is when one presupposes something as well known and then makes one’s peace with it. In that kind of back-and-forth chatter about pros and cons, such knowing, without knowing how it happens to it, never really gets anywhere. Subject and object, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are, as is well known, all unquestioningly laid as foundation stones which constitute fixed points from which to start and to which to return…. Thus, for a person to grasp and to examine matters consists only in seeing whether he finds everything said by everybody else to match up with his own idea of the matter, or with whether it seems that way to him and whether or not it is something with which he is familiar” (p. 20).

“To break up a representation into its original elements is to return to its moments, which at least do not have the form of a representation which one has merely stumbled across, but which instead constitute the immediate possession of the self. To be sure, this analysis would only arrive at thoughts which are themselves familiar and fixed…. However, what is separated, the non-actual itself, is itself an essential moment, for the concrete is self-moving only because it divides itself and turns itself into the non-actual” (ibid).

Actualization as a process is not just the tranquil extension of what is already actual. The emergence of new actuality essentially depends on what is currently non-actual.

He continues, “The activity of separating is the force and labor of understanding, the most astonishing and the greatest of all the powers, or rather, which is the absolute power” (ibid).

Hegel is better known as a sharp critic of the limits of the understanding that divides and sees only fixed things. But here, against the Romantics he defends analytical understanding’s creatively disruptive role in unsettling our complacency.

He continues, “The circle, which, enclosed within itself, is at rest and which, as substance, sustains its moments, is the immediate and is, for that reason, an unsurprising relationship. However, the accidental, separated from its surroundings, attains an isolated freedom and its own proper existence only in its being bound to other actualities and only as existing in their context; as such, it is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thinking, of the pure I” (ibid).

Just as new actualization depends on what is non-actual, the complacency of substantial existence is only spurred to new learning by what first appears as accident.

“Spirit only wins its truth by finding its feet in its absolute disruption” (p. 21).

To “find its feet in absolute disruption” is to be at home in otherness.

He continues, “Spirit is not this power which, as the positive, avoids looking at the negative, as is the case when we say of something that it is nothing, or that it is false, and then, being done with it, go off on our own way on to something else. No, spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face and lingering with it” (ibid).

“Negation” for Hegel is not the simple thing that it is in Boolean logic. Boolean negation is purely formal, and yields the exact opposite of its input. For Hegel, every manifestation of otherness is a sort of “negation”. Personally, I prefer the language of otherness. Thus I would say, “looking otherness in the face and lingering with it”. This involves looking beyond fixed thoughts and everything that has the form of givenness.

“[I]n modern times, the individual finds the abstract ready-made…. Nowadays the task before us consists not so much in purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate and in making him into a thinking substance… It consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal through the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts. However, it is much more difficult to set fixed thoughts into fluid motion than it is to bring sensuous existence into such fluidity” (ibid).

Ready-made abstractions are the bane of deeper understanding. It is far easier to announce that we ought to overcome them than to actually succeed in doing so.

“Thoughts become fluid by pure thinking, this inner immediacy, recognizing itself as a moment, or, by pure self-certainty abstracting itself from itself — it does not consist in only omitting itself, or, setting itself off to one side. Rather, it consists in giving up the fixity of its self-positing as well as the fixity of the purely concrete…. Through this movement, pure thoughts become concepts, and are for the first time what they are in truth: self-moving movements” (pp. 21-22).

In Hegel’s usage, a “concept” is not a fixed thought but an active rational disposition. Further, he suggests that real immersion in active thought implicitly involves letting go of a fixed presupposed self separate from the activity of thinking. At the same time thoughts, instead of being identified with inert fixed contents, become “self-moving movements” (see Ideas Are Not Inert).

“[I]t ceases to be the type of philosophizing which seeks to ground the truth in only clever argumentation about pros and cons or in inferences based on fully determinate thoughts and the consequences following from them. Instead, through the movement of the concept, this path will encompass the complete worldliness of consciousness in its necessity” (p. 22).

The “complete worldliness” of consciousness is the overcoming of the habitual duality of consciousness and object in which consciousness “sets itself off to one side” from everything else.

“Consciousness knows and comprehends nothing but what is in experience, for what is in experience is just spiritual substance, namely, as the object of its own self. However, spirit becomes the object, for it is this movement of becoming an other to itself…. And experience is the name of this very movement in which the immediate, the non-experienced, i.e., the abstract (whether the abstract is that of sensuous being or of ‘a simple’ which has only been thought about) alienates itself and then comes around to itself out of this alienation” (pp. 22-23).

“The inequality which takes place in consciousness between the I and the substance which is its object is their difference, the negative itself. It can be viewed as the defect of the two, but it is their very soul or is what moves them” (p. 23).

Here inequality manifests otherness. Notably he refers to it “taking place” rather than simply existing.

Even the core defect of the standpoint of ordinary consciousness — its duality, in which consciousness stands “off to one side” of its objects — in its capacity as a source of unrest already points beyond itself, kicking off the whole long movement that the Phenomenology aims to characterize.

“However much this negative now initially appears as the inequality between the I and the object, still it is just as much the inequality of the substance with itself. What seems to take place outside of the substance, to be an activity directed against it, is its own doing, and substance shows that it is essentially subject” (ibid).

Unqualified “substance” in Hegel’s sense really encompasses everything there is, even though we imagine that we are somewhere off to the side. Thus the apparent duality between us and substance that we think about turns out to be internal to substance itself. What seemed to be “our” separate activity turns out to be equally the activity of substance that is no longer “just” substance. The substance that is thought of loses its fixity and becomes an active thought.

“Why bother with the false at all?…. Ordinary ideas on this subject especially obstruct the entrance to the truth…. To be sure, we can know falsely. For something to be known falsely means that knowing is unequal to its substance. Yet this very inequality is the differentiating per se, the essential moment. It is indeed out of this differentiation that its equality comes to be, and this equality, which has come to be, is truth. However, it is not truth in the sense that would just discard inequality, like discarding the slag from pure metal, nor even is it truth in the way that a finished vessel bears no trace of the instruments that shaped it. Rather, as the negative, inequality is still itself immediately present, just as the self in the true as such is itself present” (pp. 23-24).

Hegel’s usage of “knowing” is much more inclusive than the strict Platonic or Kantian sense that I have been recommending here.

Here we reach another delicate point. What is false, he is saying, is not purely and simply false, because it also creates the unrest that is the impetus for further development. But this is very easily misunderstood, and can lead to complete nonsense.

To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, he continues, “For that reason, it cannot be said that the false constitutes a moment or even a constitutive part of the true. Take the saying that ‘In every falsehood, there is something true’ — in this expression both of them are regarded as oil and water, which cannot mix and are only externally combined. It is precisely for the sake of pointing out the significance of the moment of complete otherness that their expression must no longer be employed in the instances where their otherness has been sublated. Just as the expressions, ‘unity of subject and object’ or of ‘the finite and the infinite’, or of ‘being and thinking’, etc., have a certain type of clumsiness to them in that subject and object, etc., mean what they are outside of their unity, and therefore in their unity, they are not meant in the way that their expression states them, so too the false as the false is no longer a moment of truth” (pp. 24-25).

Here he is employing an Aristotelian “said in many ways” distinction to avoid confusion and nonsense. It remains the case that everything for Hegel being more than it “just” is requires a great wakefulness on the part of the reader, to avoid slipping into just the kind of nonsense he is warning about.

Incidentally, he suggests that “otherness” is a better alternative to talk about the unity of subject and object, finite and infinite, being and thinking, etc.

Wrapping up this part of the argument, he continues, “The dogmatism of the way of thinking, in both the knowing of philosophy and the study of it, is nothing but the opinion that truth consists either in a proposition which is a fixed result or else in a proposition which is immediately known…. [E]ven bare truths… do not exist without the movement of self-consciousness…. Even in the case of immediate intuition, acquaintance with them is linked to the reasons behind it” (p. 25).

Substance and Subject

This is part 2 of my walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. We’ve reached the point where he says “In my view, which must be justified by the exposition of the system itself, everything hangs on grasping and expressing the true not just as substance but just as much as subject” (Pinkard trans., p. 12).

I’ve previously written two posts (Substance Also Subject; Subject and Substance, Again) that try to bring this aspect of Hegel as close as possible to the deeper sense that Aristotle gives to “substance” in the Metaphysics. I still think this fits well with Hegel’s larger perspective, but here I want to deal with the text as it stands.

Just two sentences after the one quoted above, there is an unmistakable reference to Spinoza’s controversial view that God is the only substance there is. Spinoza defines substance as “what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e., that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed” (Ethics book 1 definition 3; Collected Works, Curley trans., vol. 1 p. 408). The sentences in which Hegel literally speaks of substance in the Preface appear to be consistent with this. In general, Hegel most often speaks of “substance” as something whose main attributes are self-containedness and immediate identity with itself. This is very far indeed from the Metaphysics-based notion of substance I have been concerned to develop here. But as we will see, Hegel makes up for this in other ways.

A “subject” for Hegel is always a conscious or self-conscious being. But consciousness for Hegel always comes paired with an object. Self-consciousness eventually overcomes the duality of consciousness and object, but it is constituted in irreducible relation with other rational beings.

So when Hegel says “substance is also subject”, it is a paradoxical expression saying that what is self-contained “also” has irreducible relations to objects or other beings. Language is here strained to the breaking point. Perhaps he wants to imply that the very thing that the Schellingians claimed was entirely self-contained is in reality essentially embedded in otherness.

Overall, Hegel stresses irreducible relations far more than self-containedness. In the opening quote, he just told us that in his discourse, we should not expect to find a “substance” that is only substance and nothing more. In Hegel, even the absolute is never “just” absolute. Everything for Hegel is more than it “just” is.

When he speaks of ethical substance or spiritual substance, what he seems to really want to convey is just that these have an aspect of self-containedness or simple immediacy, not that they are strictly reducible to it.

“The true is not an original unity as such, or, not an immediate unity as such. It is the coming-to-be of itself, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal and has its end for its beginning, and which is actual only through this accomplishment and its end” (pp. 12-13).

The circular relation here is importantly different from that by which Plotinus strictly identifies the end of all things with the origin of all things (for him, the One is both of these). In Hegel, the circle explicitly involves actualization of the end via coming-to-be, which escapes strict identity, whereas in Plotinus the circle is supposed to be eternal and to figuratively represent a simple identity. Directly contrary to Hegel, Plotinus would tell us that the true is both an original unity and an immediate unity.

Hegel expands his previous statement as follows:

“However much the form is said to be the same as the essence, still it is for that very reason a bald misunderstanding to suppose that cognition can be content with the in-itself, or, the essence, but can do without the form — that the absolute principle, or absolute intuition, can make do without working out the former or without the development of the latter. Precisely because the form is as essential to the essence as the essence is to itself, the essence must not be grasped as mere essence, which is to say, as immediate substance or as the pure self-intuition of the divine. Rather, it must likewise be grasped as form in the entire richness of the developed form, and only thereby is it grasped and expressed as the actual.”

“The true is the whole. However, the whole is only the essence completing itself through its own development. This much can be said of the absolute: It is essentially a result, and only at the end is it what it is in truth. Its nature consists just in this: to be actual, to be subject, or, to be the becoming-of-itself. As contradictory as it might seem, namely, that the absolute is to be comprehended essentially as a result, even a little reflection will put this mere semblance of contradiction in its rightful place. The beginning, the principle, or, the absolute as it is at first, or, as it is immediately expressed, is only the universal. But just as my saying ‘all animals’ can hardly count as an expression of zoology, it is likewise obvious that the words, ‘absolute’, ‘divine’, ‘eternal’, and so on, do not express what is contained in them; — and it is only such words which in fact express intuition as the immediate. Whatever is more than such a word, even the mere transition to a proposition, is a becoming-other which must be redeemed, or, it is a mediation” (p. 13).

“Hence, reason is misunderstood if reflection is excluded from the truth and is not taken to be a positive moment of the absolute. Reflection is what makes truth into the result, but it is likewise what sublates the opposition between the result and its coming-to-be” (p. 14).

As with “substance”, Hegel gives essence a much more restrictive meaning than I have been developing here. On the other hand, he has a lively Aristotelian notion of form that is quite unusual among modern writers.

To pay attention to mediation is to “be at home in otherness”. Here I think we are much closer to Aristotle again, perhaps in spite of what I find to be the awkward earlier words about substance and subject. Hegel seems to confirm this by explicitly comparing what he has just said to the larger scheme of Aristotelian teleology, just as I had hoped before (see Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity; Hegel’s Preface). Now that the ground is clear, I’ll apply this to the earlier point about Kant and Aristotle in a future post.

“What has just been said can also be expressed by saying that reason is purposive doing. Both the exaltation of a nature supposedly above and beyond thinking, and especially the banishment of external purposiveness have brought the form of purpose completely into disrepute. Yet, in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive doing, purpose is the immediate, the motionless, which is self-moving, or, is subject…. For that reason, the result is the same as the beginning because the beginning is purpose — that is, the actual is the same as its concept only because the immediate, as purpose, has the self, or, pure actuality, within itself. The purpose which has been worked out, or, existing actuality, is movement and unfolded coming-to-be” (ibid).

As an added bonus, he puts an explicit caveat on the previous talk about the subject. What really matters is the actuality of the concept as self-moving, not the putative fixed point of the subject. I like this vocabulary much better.

“The subject is accepted as a fixed point on which the predicates are attached for their support through a movement belonging to what it is that can be said to know this subject and which itself is also not to be viewed as belonging to the point itself, but it is solely through this movement that the content would be portrayed as the subject. Because of the way this movement is constituted, it cannot belong to the point, but after the point has been presupposed, this movement cannot be constituted in any other way, and it can only be external. Thus, not only is the former anticipation that the absolute is subject not the actuality of the concept, but it even makes that actuality impossible, for it posits the concept as a point wholly at rest, whereas the concept is self-movement” (p. 15).

Not only does he emphasize the movement of the concept, but he even mentions the content being “portrayed” as the subject. (See also Ideas Are Not Inert.)

Hegel’s Preface

In Nature, Ends, Normativity I raised the question of what happens to Aristotelian teleology when we look at it through a Kantian critical lens, then made a preliminary gesture toward its resolution by invoking Hegel’s challenge and admonition to us in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit to make ourselves at home in otherness. Just how making ourselves at home in otherness helps with the question about Aristotle and Kant may not be at all clear yet. For now it’s just a thought to keep in mind.

First I want to try to explore Hegel’s larger point in the Preface that I risked reducing to the phrase “make ourselves at home in otherness”, and let that lead where it may. This post won’t get to the point where the phrase is introduced. It’s even possible that I’m remembering it from a paraphrase in H. S. Harris’ outstanding commentary. I’ll walk through the Preface over the course of several posts, using Terry Pinkard’s translation published in 2018.

Hegel’s Preface is an extremely dense text that seems to very deliberately follow a non-linear order. It does have a development, but it doesn’t just proceed from beginning to middle to end. Rather, it seems to repeatedly circle around several key insights, adding a little more each time. Famously, he begins by rejecting the very idea that philosophical truth is the kind of thing that could be “introduced” or made easily digestible by a conventional preface.

He goes on to repeatedly criticize two chief ways in which philosophy is made digestible and shallow — one that treats truth as something merely formal, and one that claims to leap into absolute knowledge by means of intellectual intuition. Especially in some of the later parts, Hegel gives a number of valuable hints at what he thinks serious philosophy ought to look like.

“[C]onventional opinion holds that the opposition between the true and the false is itself fixed and set…. It does not comprehend the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive development of truth as much as it sees only contradiction in that diversity…. However, at the same time their fluid nature makes them into moments of an organic unity in which they are not only not in conflict with each other, but rather, one is equally as necessary as the other” (p. 4).

Hegel is not at all advocating some trite relativism or erasure of distinctions here. He is objecting to the artificially “fixed and set” way in which what he calls formalism sees the truth of propositions taken in isolation. More positively, he seems to be suggesting that we view the great philosophers as participants in a common, mutually enriching dialogue rather than as competitors.

“[T]he subject matter [of philosophy] is not exhausted in its aims; rather, it is exhaustively treated when it is worked out. Nor is the result which is reached the actual whole itself; rather, the whole is the result together with the way the result comes to be…. [T]he unadorned result is just the corpse that has left the tendency behind…. The easiest thing of all is to pass judgment on what is substantial and meaningful. It is much more difficult to get a real grip on it, and what is the most difficult of all is both to grasp what unites each of them and to give a full exposition of what that is” (p. 5).

Here Hegel makes a very Aristotelian point about the essential role of actualization. What he is directly applying it to is philosophical accounts of things. We should be interested not just in philosophy’s ostensible conclusions, but in how they were arrived at. (But an analogous point could be made about the actual working out of Aristotelian teleology in the world. What is relevant to this is not just pure ends by themselves, but the whole process by which ends are actualized by means of concrete tendencies.)

“In positing that the true shape of truth lies in its scientific rigor — or, what is the same thing, in asserting that truth has the element of its existence solely in concepts — I do know that this seems to contradict an idea (along with all that follows from it), whose pretentiousness is matched only by its pervasiveness in the convictions of the present age. It thus does not seem completely gratuitous to offer an explanation of this contradiction even though at this stage such an explanation can amount to little more than the same kind of dogmatic assurance which it opposes” (p. 6).

By “scientific” he basically means rational. Hegel here aligns himself with Kant’s emphasis on the conceptual and discursive character of rationality, and with Kant’s closely related rejection of claims to immediate knowledge by intellectual intuition. He is particularly alluding to claims of intellectual intuition in the philosophy of nature by followers of Schelling, as well as to the religiosity of immediate feeling promoted by followers of the German literary figure F. H. Jacobi, from whom Kierkegaard borrowed the image of the leap of faith.

The “true shape of truth” Hegel contrasts these with lies in conceptual elaboration — interpretation and explanation, not just asserted conclusions. The measure of truth is the insight and understanding it gives us. He also notes a difficulty that I often feel in attempting to summarize the results of a substantial development: summaries always run the risk of shallowness and dogmatism.

Hegel continues ironically that for his contemporary opponents, “The absolute is not supposed to be conceptually grasped but rather to be felt and intuited” (ibid).

“There was a time when people had a heaven adorned with a comprehensive wealth of thoughts and images. The meaning of all existence lay in the thread of light by which it was bound to heaven and instead of lingering in this present, people’s view followed that thread upwards towards the divine essence; their view directed itself, if one may put it this way, to an other-worldly present. It was only under duress that spirit’s eyes had to be turned back to what is earthly and kept fixed there, and a long time was needed to introduce clarity into the dullness and confusion lying in the meaning of things in this world, a kind of clarity which only heavenly things used to have; a long time was needed both to draw attention to the present as such, an attention that was called experience, and to make it interesting and to make it matter. — Now it seems that there is the need for the opposite, that our sense of things is so deeply rooted in the earthly that an equal power is required to elevate it above all that. Spirit has shown itself to be so impoverished that it seems to yearn for its refreshment only in the meager feeling of divinity, very much like the wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple drink of water. That it now takes so little to satisfy spirit’s needs is the full measure of the magnitude of its loss” (pp. 7-8).

Hegel was critical of traditional Augustinian other-worldliness, but saved his special disdain for followers of Schelling and Jacobi.

“The force of spirit is only as great as its expression, and its depth goes only as deep as it trusts itself to disperse itself and to lose itself in its explication of itself. — At the same time, if this substantial knowing, itself so totally devoid of the concept, pretends to have immersed the very ownness of the self in the essence and to philosophize in all holiness and truth, then what it is really doing is just concealing from itself the fact that instead of devoting itself to God, it has, by spurning all moderation and determinateness, instead simply given itself free rein within itself to the contingency of that content and then, within that content, given free rein to its own arbitrariness” (ibid).

It is not enough just to have a concept like the absolute Idea.

“However, just as little of a building is finished when the foundation is laid, so too reaching the concept of the whole is equally as little the whole itself. When we wish to see an oak tree with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn. In the same way, science, the crowning glory of a spiritual world, is not completed in its initial stages. The beginning of a new spirit is the outcome of a widespread revolution in the diversity of forms of cultural formation; it is both the prize at the end of a winding path as it is the prize won through much struggle and effort” (p. 9).

He implicitly recalls Aristotle’s argument that the oak tree is logically prior to the acorn, and cautions against assuming perfection in beginnings.

“Only what is completely determinate is at the same time exoteric, comprehensible, and capable of being learned and possessed by everybody. The intelligible form of science is the path offered to everyone and equally available to all” (p. 10).

When the Idea is kept vague, it becomes the province of claims of esoteric knowledge and special genius. Here he links the idea of rational “science” to a democratic tendency. But we should also beware of premature claims.

“At its debut, where science has been wrought neither to completeness of detail nor to perfection of form, it is open to reproach” (ibid).

He goes on at length about the formalism of the Schellingians’ insistence that all is one. The rhetoric is strong, but he is standing up for the importance of difference and distinction, which I completely support.

To condense a good deal, “when what is demanded is for the shapes to originate their richness and determine their differences from out of themselves, this other view instead consists in only a monochrome formalism which only arrives at the differences in its material because the material itself has already been prepared for it and is something well known…. [N]owadays we see the universal Idea in this form of non-actuality get all value attributed to it, and we see that what counts as the speculative way of considering things turns out to be the dissolution of the distinct and determinate, or, instead turns out to be simply the casting of what is distinct and determinate into the abyss of the void…. To oppose this one bit of knowledge, namely, that in the absolute everything is the same, to the knowing which makes distinctions… that is, to pass off its absolute as the night in which all cows are black — is an utterly vacuous naivete in cognition” (pp. 11-12). (See also Substance and Subject.)

Nature, Ends, Normativity

From an Aristotelian point of view, the works of nature result from an ordering of ends. In modern terms, nature for Aristotle is not “value free”, and I take this to be a good thing. But from a strict Kantian point of view, we are the bearers of value, and the attribution of ends to nature independent of us is only a kind of beneficial heuristic projection. But if we radicalize the Kantian primacy of practical reason in the way that Brandom sees Hegel as doing, then all our theoretical accounts of nature, including those commonly regarded as value-free — and everything else we think, feel, and do — ultimately have a dependency on our inquiries into value and normativity.

From a Kantian point of view, our only access to objective nature is through our rational, discursive understanding. The very objectivity we attribute to nature depends on the objectivity of our understanding of it. Objectivity itself is a normative attitude. I think Kant and Aristotle ultimately agree in recognizing that we don’t have direct access to how things are in themselves, and that how things are in themselves is always a matter of discursive inference, in which the last word is never said.

Hegel emphasizes that the objectivity of understanding we achieve in this way is not a private possession, but something larger than us in which we participate. (See also Hegels’ Preface; Indistinct Cows, Pistol Shot; Adverbial Otherness; Time and Eternity in Hegel; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True.)

Thoughts on Teleology

Teleology is another subject on which my perspective has changed drastically over the years.

After a youthful fascination with Plotinus, my main interest turned toward the diverse group of writers loosely associated with French “structuralism”, several of whom were very interested in Spinoza. For some years, Spinoza became the great philosopher I identified with most. I had not explicitly thought much about teleology before, but Spinoza’s very sharp critique in the appendix to book 1 of the Ethics impressed me greatly. At the time, I did not trouble myself over whether it was fair to the historic Aristotle. I defended without reservation the strong determinism of Spinoza and the Stoics, emphasizing an understanding of the causes of things as the main path to enlightenment. At this time also, some contemporary writers on mathematical “chaos theory” were proposing what they called a superdeterminism, which would allow for deterministic explanation of all sorts of nonlinear phenomena, by an innovative separation of the notion of determinism from its traditional connotations of predictability. I had not yet begun to question what I have been referring to here as the “modern notion” of causality. My great preoccupation was with defending the possibility of ethics within a deterministic context.

My deeper engagement with Aristotle began initially with problems of things “said in many ways”. In my professional work as a data modeler, I was very concerned with the ambiguities of common-sense apprehensions of things, which I wanted to overcome in Platonic fashion. The univocity that Aristotle treats in a balanced way I initially saw more one-sidedly as an ideal to aim for in the quest for knowledge, though without underestimating the difficulty of attempting to treat everything in a univocal manner, or as comprehended by a single grand, consistent theory. Meanwhile, my personal interests were focused on questions of the interpretation of the history of human cultural development.

Gradually, I became more and more impressed with the importance of what I came to call “objective ambiguity” in history — the idea that this was not just a defect of our understanding or interpretation, but that the most objective reality of the concrete world may often reflect mixed or “in between” states of things. Eventually, I came to recognize that Aristotle, perhaps more than any other of the great philosophers, deeply thought about this and took it into account. I became aware of the arguments of Leibniz that all necessity is hypothetical, then realized Aristotle had already said that all necessity in generated things is hypothetical.

As Spinoza said, strict causal necessity rules out the “play” in things that leaves room for teleological explanation. But I have become convinced that that “play” in things is not something to be explained away as a mere appearance. Hypothetical necessity respects both the element of (conditional) necessity in things and this inherent “play”. It now appears to me as a priceless Aristotelian mean, and a kind of Hegelian synthesis of determination and play or flexibility.

The way Aristotle applies hypothetical necessity to determination by ends removes the mystery from final causes. Aristotle emphasizes the alternative that Spinoza ignored — that teleology need not be the product of conscious aims of a supernatural being or beings “intervening” in the natural order. In Aristotle’s non-reductionist view of the intelligibility of nature, natural things are shaped by inherent “tendencies” to seek certain states that are nonetheless not strictly determining. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Ends; Equivocal Determination; Free Will and Determinism.)

Aristotle on Explanation

Book 1 chapter 1 of Parts of Animals provides an overview of Aristotle’s perspective on explanation in general. It is a nice synthetic text that brings together many of Aristotle’s core concerns, and shows his vision of how natural science ought to fit in with broader philosophy.

He begins by distinguishing between mere acquaintance with an area of study and being educated in it. “For an educated [person] should be able to form a fair judgment as to the goodness or badness of an exposition” (Complete Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 994). This seems to apply to any subject whatsoever.

Next he raises the more specific question of method. “It is plain then that, in the science which inquires into nature, there must be certain canons, by reference to which a hearer shall be able to criticize the method of a professed exposition, quite independently of the question whether the statements made be true or false” (ibid).

Continuing to emphasize the critical thinking that is the mark of an educated person, he makes it explicit that some of the most important questions about a subject are what I would call second-order questions, having to do with how we ought to approach the matter at hand. The educated person will give due emphasis to these, rather than naively rushing to deliver judgments on questions of fact.

“Ought we, for example (to give an illustration of what I mean) to begin by discussing each separate substance — man, lion, ox, and the like — taking each kind in hand independently of the rest, or ought we rather to lay down the attributes which they have in common in virtue of some common element of their nature? For genera that are quite distinct present many identical phenomena, sleep, for instance, respiration, growth, decay, death, and other similar affections and conditions…. Now it is plain that if we deal with each species independently of the rest, we shall frequently be obliged to repeat ourselves over and over again; for horse and dog and man present every one of the phenomena just enumerated” (ibid).

The educated person looks for explanations, not just facts or correspondences. The specific “dogginess” of a dog, for example, does not explain its sleeping, breathing, and so on. Instead these activities, which it shares with many other animals, are explained by natures common to all of them.

Further, the kind of method Aristotle commends to us is not a matter of following recipes by rote. Instead, it is a thinking approach that involves persistently following the thread of explanations wherever it leads.

“So also there is a like uncertainty as to another point now to be mentioned. Ought the student of nature follow the plan adopted by the mathematicians in their astronomical demonstrations, and after considering the phenomena presented by animals, and their several parts, proceed subsequently to treat of the causes and the reason why; or ought he to follow some other method? Furthermore, the causes concerned in natural generation are, as we see, more than one. There is the cause for the sake of which, and the cause whence the beginning of motion comes. Now we must decide which of these two causes comes first, which second. Plainly, however, that cause is the first which we call that for the sake of which. For this is the account of the thing, and the account forms the starting-point, alike in the works of art and in works of nature. For the doctor and the builder define health or house, either by the intellect or by perception, and then proceed to give the accounts and the causes of each of the things they do and of why they should do it thus” (p. 995).

He raises the question of which kind of cause comes first, because he wants to suggest a different answer from that of the pre-Socratic “physicists” who attempted to explain everything by properties of different kinds of matter. Elsewhere he says that Plato and the atomist Democritus (whose writings are lost) did better than others at following the thread of explanation, but he considers the elaborated account of ends or “that for the sake of which” to be one of his own most important contributions.

Notably he only mentions two kinds of cause here, rather than the classic four. Similarly, there are passages in other texts where he lists a different number of categories than the canonical ten from the Categories. Later authors often viewed things like causes and categories in a reified, univocal way, as susceptible to exact enumeration. But for Aristotle, these are abstractions from a concrete reality that comes first, to be wielded in a context-sensitive way, so the canonical enumerations are not absolute.

Aristotle’s understanding of the “beginning of motion” is different from that promoted by early modern physics. Conventionally in the reading of Aristotle, the “beginning of motion” is associated with the efficient cause, and these two terms are understood in a somewhat circular way, which is really informed by some broadly intuitive sense of what a “beginning” of motion is. Early modern writers assumed that this “beginning” must be some kind of immediate impulse or force. Aquinas associated it with God’s act of creation and with the free acts of created beings. For Aristotle himself it is neither of these.

My best reading of efficient cause is that it is the means by which an end is realized. In many cases the end is realized not by just one means but by a hierarchy of means (e.g., art of building, carpenter, carpenter’s hammer, hammer’s blow). Aristotle and the scholastics emphasized the top of such hierarchies (e.g., the art of building for Aristotle; God or some metaphysical principle for the scholastics), whereas the early moderns emphasized the bottom (e.g., the hammer’s blow), akin to the proximate cause of concern to liability lawyers. For Aristotle, the art of building and not the hammer’s blow is the true “beginning” of the motion of house construction, because it provides the guiding thread of explanation for the whole process of building the house. But even the art of building is still just a means that gets its meaning from the reasons why we would want to build a house in the first place.

He continues, “Now in the works of nature the good and that for the sake of which is still more dominant than in works of art, nor is necessity a factor with the same significance in them all; though almost all writers try to refer their accounts to this, failing to distinguish the several ways in which necessity is spoken of. For there is absolute necessity, manifested in eternal phenomena; and there is hypothetical necessity, manifested in everything that is generated as in everything that is produced by art, be it a house or what it may. For if a house or other such final object is to be realized, it is necessary that first this and then that shall be produced and set in motion, and so on in continuous succession, until the end is reached, for the sake of which each prior thing is produced and exists. So also is it with the productions of nature. The mode of necessity, however, and the mode of demonstration are different in natural science from what they are in the theoretical sciences [e.g., mathematics]…. For in the latter the starting-point is that which is; in the former that which is to be. For since health, or a man, is of such and such a character, it is necessary for this or that to exist or be produced; it is not the case that, since this or that exists or has been produced, that of necessity exists or will exist. Nor is it possible to trace back the necessity of demonstrations of this sort to a starting-point, of which you can say that, since this exists, that exists [as one might do in mathematics]” (ibid).

In Aristotle’s usage, “nature” applies to terrestrial things that are observably subject to generation and corruption. He earlier referred to astronomical phenomena like the apparent motions of the stars and planets as “eternal” because on a human scale of time, these are not observably subject to generation and corruption. For Aristotle, absolute necessity could only apply to things that are absolutely unchanging. We may have a different perspective on astronomy, but that does not affect the logical distinction Aristotle is making. His key point here is that things subject to generation are not subject to absolute necessity. Leibniz took this a step further and argued that hypothetical necessity is the only kind there is. Kant, in arguing that hypothetical and disjunctive judgment (“if A then B” and “not both A and B“) are more fundamental than categorical judgment (“A is B“), made a related move.

Hypothetical necessity has a particular form that is worth noting. As Aristotle points out in the quote above, under hypothetical necessity “it is not the case that, since this or that exists or has been produced, that of necessity exists or will exist”. To give a positive example, hypothetical necessity says that to continue living, we must eat. But it does not in any way dictate a particular series of motions that is the only way this can be accomplished, let alone the whole series of eating-related actions throughout one’s life. Neither does it dictate that we will eat in any particular instance.

How we meet a particular need is up to us. The reality of this flexibility built into nature is all we need to explain freedom of action. Humans can also affirmatively embrace commitments and act on them; that too is up to us. Freedom is not an arbitrary or supernatural power; it simply consists in the fact that nature is flexible, and many things are up to us.

Aristotle contrasts the way a thing is naturally generated with the way it is. “The best course appears to be that we follow the method already mentioned — begin with the phenomena presented by each group of animals, and, when this is done, proceed afterwards to state the causes of those phenomena — in the case of generation too. For in house building too, these things come about because the form of the house is such and such, rather than its being the case that the house is such and such because it comes about thus…. Art indeed consists in the account of the product without its matter. So too with chance products; for they are produced in the same way as products of art” (pp. 995-996).

“The fittest mode, then, of treatment is to say, a man has such and such parts, because the essence of man is such and such, and because they are necessarily conditions of his existence, or, if we cannot quite say this then the next thing to it, namely, that it is either quite impossible for a man to exist without them, or, at any rate, that it is good that they should be there. And this follows: because man is such and such the process of his development is necessarily such as it is; and therefore this part is formed first, that next; and after a like fashion should we explain the generation of all other works of nature” (p. 996).

This way of reasoning backwards from an essence to its prerequisites is complemented by the fact that for Aristotle (and Plato) essences themselves are a prime subject of investigation, and not something assumed. “Begin with the phenomena”, he says.

Many 20th century philosophers have objected to presumptuous talk about the “essence of man”, and to any explanation in terms of essence. But these objections presuppose that the essence is something assumed, rather than being an object of investigation as it clearly was for Plato and Aristotle. Here also it is needful to distinguish between what we might call the distinguishing essence of humanity used to pick out humans — e.g., “rational/talking animal” — and what Leibniz later called the complete essence of each individual. Clearly also, the parts of the human body do not follow directly from “rational/talking animal”, but from many other attributes “presented in the phenomena”. It turns out that humans share these attributes with other animals, and they can therefore be conceptualized as attributes of common genera to which we and those other animals belong.

Because essences themselves are a prime subject of investigation and are ultimately inferred from phenomena, the kind of teleological reasoning Aristotle recommends always has a contingent character, which is how it naturally accounts for what the moderns call freedom. This contingency is built into in the “hypothetical” character of hypothetical necessity.

“Does, then, configuration and color constitute the essence of the various animals and their several parts? For if so, what Democritus says will be correct…. And yet a dead body has exactly the same configuration as a living one; but for all that it is not a man. So also no hand of bronze or wood or constituted in any but the appropriate way can possibly be a hand in more than name. For like a physician in a painting, or like a flute in a sculpture, it will be unable to perform its function” (p. 997).

Aristotle was the historic pioneer of “functional” explanation. Here he insists that the essences of living beings and their parts must be understood in terms of their characteristic activities. This development for the sake of biology parallels the deeper development of the meaning of “substance” in the Metaphysics as “what it was to be” a thing, and as actuality and potentiality.

“If now the form of the living being is the soul, or part of the soul, or something that without the soul cannot exist; as would seem to be the case, seeing at any rate that when the soul departs, what is left is no longer an animal, and that none of the parts remain what they were before, excepting in mere configuration, like the animals that in the fable are turned into stone; if, I say, this is so, then it will come within the province of the natural scientist to inform himself concerning the soul, and to treat of it, either in its entirety, or, at any rate, of that part of it which constitutes the essential character of an animal; and it will be his duty to say what a soul or this part of a soul is” (ibid).

Here it is important that we consider soul in the “phenomena first” way that Aristotle develops it.

“What has been said suggests the question, whether it is the whole soul or only some part of it, the consideration of which comes within the province of natural science. Now if it be of the whole soul that this should treat, then there is no place for any philosophy beside it…. But perhaps it is not the whole soul, nor all of its parts collectively, that constitutes the source of motion; but there may be one part, identical with that in plants, which is the source of growth, another, namely the sensory part, which is the source of change of quality, while still another, and this is not the intellectual part, is the source of locomotion. For other animals than man have the power of locomotion, but in none but him is there intellect. Thus it is plain that it is not of the whole soul that we have to treat. For it is not the whole soul that constitutes the animal nature, but only some part or parts of it” (p. 998).

Aristotle’s opposition to treating the soul as a single lump reflects his overall functional, activity-oriented, and phenomena-first approach.

“Again, whenever there is plainly some final end, to which a motion tends should nothing stand in its way, we always say that the one is for the sake of the other; and from this it is evident that there must be something of the kind, corresponding to what we call nature” (ibid).

Overall teleology always has to do with tendencies, not absolute determinations. He begins to wrap up this introduction by giving another example of the hypothetical necessity whose concept he pioneered.

“For if a piece of wood is to be split with an axe, the axe must of necessity be hard; and, if hard, must of necessity be made of bronze or iron. Now in exactly the same way the body, since it is an instrument — for both the body as a whole and its several parts individually are for the sake of something — if it is to do its work, must of necessity be of such and such a character, and made of such and such materials.”

“It is plain then that there are two modes of causation, and that both of these must, so far as possible, be taken into account, or at any rate an attempt must be made to include them both; and that those who fail in this tell us in reality nothing about nature” (p. 999).

Again, the two modes here are “that for the sake of which” and the phenomena associated with generation. Considering either of these in isolation yields an incomplete understanding, as we see respectively in bad scholasticism and bad empiricism.

“The reason why our predecessors failed to hit on this method of treatment was, that they were not in possession of the notion of essence, nor of any definition of substance. The first who came near it was Democritus, and he was far from adopting it as a necessary method in natural science, but was merely brought to it by constraint of facts. In the time of Socrates a nearer approach was made to the method. But at this period men gave up inquiring into nature, and philosophers diverted their attention to political science and to the virtues that benefit mankind” (ibid).

Socrates and Plato initially pioneered the notion of “that for the sake of which”, but in turning away from the phenomena of generation and becoming, they gave it a somewhat one-sided character.

The subtle way in which Aristotle wields the concept of essence avoids treating it as an absolute, or as something strictly univocal. In any given context, there is a clear relative distinction between essence and accident, but the distinction is not the same across all contexts. Hypothetical necessity provides the mechanism by which what is “accident” at one level of analysis can be incorporated into “essence” at another level. (See also Hermeneutic Biology?; Aristotelian Causes; Secondary Causes; Aristotle’s Critique of Dichotomy; Classification.)

Aristotle’s Critique of Dichotomy

Chapter 3 of the extraordinarily rich book 1 of Aristotle’s Parts of Animals contains a strong critique of the notion of classification by dichotomy, with implications reaching far beyond its original context. The idea that he criticizes is Platonic division into As and not-As, which is intended to result in a binary tree structure (i.e., a tree-shape in which all the branches are binary).

Platonic division was perhaps inspired by the two-sided character of Platonic dialectic, which was concerned with impartially examining the implications of both sides of some disputable question, particularly in the form of arguments for and against some thesis or other. Aristotle’s own dialectic has a more general form that is not bound to arguments for and against, but rather is simply concerned with an impartial examination of the consequences of hypotheses.

But in any case, classification in a world is a different problem from that of impartially examining a single hypothesis.

Ignoring Aristotle’s lesson, and strongly influenced by the more general impoverished notion of logical judgment as grammatical predication, early modern writers on natural history attempted to follow an a priori theory of univocal classification. But for Aristotle, there is no a priori theory of classification. Instead, the starting point is what Kant would call the implicitly schematized manifold of a concrete world.

Aristotle points out that if classification were reducible to the assignment of predicates, then to consistently classify a world or any given collection, there would have to be some one order in which we divide things by one predicate, then another, and so on. By examples he illustrates the fact that by this method, it is impossible to arrive at the division of animal species that we recognize in nature.

He also makes the more general argument that half of the classifying terms in any classification by sequential predication will be negatives, and that negative terms cannot be properly subdivided.

“Again, privative [negative] terms inevitably form one branch of dichotomous division, as we see in the proposed dichotomies. But privative terms in their character of privatives admit of no subdivision. For there can be no specific forms of a negation, of Featherless for instance or of Footless, as there are of Feathered and of Footed. Yet a generic differentia must be subdivisible; for otherwise what is there that makes it generic rather than specific? There are to be found generic, that is to say specifically subdivisible, differentiae; Feathered for instance and Footed. For feathers are divisible into Barbed and Unbarbed, and feet into Manycleft, and Twocleft, like those of animals with bifid hoofs, and Uncleft or Undivided, like those of animals with solid hoofs. Now even with the differentiae capable of this specific subdivision it is difficult enough so to make the classification that each animal shall be comprehended in some one subdivision and not in more than one (e.g. winged and wingless; for some are both — e.g. ants, glowworms, and some others); but far more difficult, impossible, is it to do this, if we start with a dichotomy into two contradictories. For each differentia must be presented by some species. There must be some species, therefore, under the privative heading. Now specifically distinct animals cannot present in their substance a common undifferentiated element, but any apparently common element must really be differentiated. (Bird and Man for instance are both Two-footed, but their two-footedness is diverse and differentiated. And if they are sanguineous they must have some difference in their blood, if blood is part of their substance.) From this it follows that one differentia will belong to two species; and if that is so, it is plain that a privative cannot be a differentia.” (Complete Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 1000).

Aristotle’s positive conclusion is as as follows:

“We must attempt to recognize the natural groups, following the indications afforded by the instincts of mankind, which led them for instance to form the class of Birds and the class of Fishes, each of which groups combines a multitude of differentiae, and is not defined by a single one as in dichotomy. The method of dichotomy is either impossible (for it would put a single group under different divisions or contrary groups under the same division), or it only furnishes a single differentia for each species…. As we said then, we must define at the outset by a multiplicity of differentiae. If we do so, privative terms will be available, which are unavailable to the dichotomist” (pp. 1001-1002, emphasis added).

This is consistent with Plato’s more general advice that classifiers, like butchers, should “cut at the joints”, i.e., look for natural distinctions rather than imposing artificial ones. Dipping back again to the negative argument, Aristotle adds:

“Now if man was nothing more than a Cleft-footed animal, this single differentia would duly represent his essence. But seeing that this is not the case, more differentiae than this one will necessarily be required to define him; and these cannot come under one division; for each single branch of a dichotomy end in a single differentia, and cannot possibly include several differentiae belonging to one and the same animal.”

“It is impossible then to reach any of the ultimate animal forms by dichotomous division” (p. 1002; see also Classification; Hermeneutic Biology?.)

Life Is Non-Boolean

George Boole (1815-1864) invented what we now call Boolean logic, which effectively assumes that all propositions are classifiable as either “true” or “false”, with no gradations of evidence or undecided cases. This provided the basis for formally defining logical operators in terms of how they transform what are called truth values, which are just the Boolean values of “true” and “false”. The use of so-called truth tables to define logical operators by cases is characteristic of what is today called “classical” logic.

Though it certainly has its uses in technical contexts, this kind of approach has been criticized as tacitly presupposing what has been called logical omniscience or the assumption of a closed world. For example, in computer science Boolean data types are used to represent things that are stipulated to have one of exactly two values. Then if we can rule out one, we can simply assume the other. This creates a closed world. “Omniscience” is implied by this kind of assumption.

The great developer of mathematical logic Gottlob Frege (1848-1925), at least at one point in his career, went so far as to argue that there are really only two distinct logical propositions: “true” and “false”. Depending one’s point of view, what I call real-world meanings are either reduced to nothing by this or are irrelevant to it.

From the point of view of “constructive” logic, on the other hand, there are infinitely many distinct propositions, distinguishable by the combination of what they presuppose and what they imply. It begins to be possible to reconstruct real-world meanings within logic instead of only outside of it.

In real life there are countless distinctions that are relevant and meaningful, and countless things that we simply don’t know. (See also Logic for People.)

Facts and Incomplete Information

A modern notion of hard-nosed common sense is to appeal exclusively to positive facts. This is also a major basis of simplistic notions of empirical science. Serious scientific methodologies are more indirect, and quite a bit more involved.

From a broadly Kantian point of view that I think Plato and Aristotle would also endorse, all putative facts are really just assertions of facts, made by people. The validity of the corresponding assertions depends on the soundness of the reasons that lead us to believe them. Thus, regardless of whether our concern is ethical or scientific, it is always the quality of reasons that matters in assessing the validity of assertions.

The notion of a fair and objective weighing of evidence for or against an assertion presupposes that we symmetrically consider the pro and con, as Plato emphasized in his discussions of “dialectic”. But the simplistic bias for positive facts results in an inherently asymmetrical treatment any time we have to deal with incomplete information, because what putative facts we currently have in our possession is in part a matter of sheer chance.

In a fact-biased approach, if there happen to be insufficient facts in our possession to adequately support a hypothesis, the hypothesis is likely to be be dismissed out of hand as “speculation”, regardless of how inherently plausible it might otherwise be. We end up assuming something is not true merely because we cannot empirically prove it is true. This is independent of any other prejudice that may also enter into situations involving human judgment.

Once again, I want to recommend a prudent suspension or qualification of belief in cases of incomplete information, rather than active disbelief. (See also Debate on Prehistory.)

Debate on Prehistory

This is a bit of a tangent from the usual topics here, but recently I’ve been dwelling on the distinctions between knowledge, well-founded belief, and not-so-well-founded belief, and I’m taking that as the point of departure. It should be no insult to science (and I certainly mean none) to suggest that empirical science aims only at what I’ve been calling well-founded belief, though received views are commonly taken for simple knowledge. The difference is that well-founded beliefs can still potentially be invalidated by new arguments or information, whereas real knowledge ought to be unconditionally valid.

I’ve been fascinated with prehistory since childhood, and in recent decades especially with the emergence of rich human cultures. Much has changed in this field during my lifetime, as relatively well-founded beliefs were replaced by better-founded ones. For example, it is now generally accepted that modern birds are surviving members of the theropod group of the dinosaur family that included raptors and T. rex, and that the extinction of the (other) dinosaurs was caused by a massive asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico ca. 65 million years ago.

Similarly, it is now widely accepted that biologically modern humans emerged in Africa two to three hundred thousand years ago, rather than in Europe only 40,000 years ago. Humans crossed the open sea from Southeast Asia to Australia over 50,000 years ago. If the previously known cave paintings from the late-glacial Magdalenian culture in southwest Europe were not already amazing enough testaments to the human spirit, the Chauvet cave (subject of the wonderful documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog) was discovered in 1994 to have equally magnificent paintings that turned out to be twice as old (from around 36,000 BP). Gobekli Tepe in Turkey has multi-ton megaliths dating from 9500 BCE, a little before the earliest evidence of agriculture in that region.

Agriculture is now believed to have independently originated in at least 11 different parts of the Old and New Worlds. Wikipedia now mentions small-scale cultivation of edible grasses by the Sea of Galilee from 21,000 BCE. Sickles apparently used for intensive harvesting of wild grains have been found in the Nile valley from at least 18,000 BCE. The Middle Eastern Natufian culture (ca. 15,000-11,500 BP) was previously thought to have had the world’s oldest agriculture, and still boasts the earliest evidence of baked bread (14,400 BP). Some Natufian portable art bears a striking stylistic resemblance to similar artifacts from Magdalenian Europe at roughly the same time. Numerous archaeologists and anthropologists have suggested that agriculture may have had a very long prehistory, beginning with deliberate efforts to promote the growth of particular wild plants that humans valued.

Currently, there is a big ongoing controversy over the cause of dramatic climate changes that occurred around 12,850 BP, at the beginning of the 1200-year period known as the Younger Dryas. The most recent ice age had begun to recede by around 20,000 BP, and the world had been getting gradually warmer. But then, suddenly, in perhaps only a single year’s time, temperatures fell by an astonishing 9 to 14 degrees centigrade. Then, in somewhere between a few years and a few decades, temperatures apparently rose again by 5 to 10 degrees centigrade. Several massive glacial lakes seem to have suddenly been emptied into the ocean, cooling it down, and there is evidence of gargantuan flooding. On a larger time scale of several thousand years including the Younger Dryas, worldwide sea levels are generally accepted to have risen around 400 feet. Many submerged archaeological sites have already been found, but this could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Due to human-induced climate change, we are currently facing a sea level rise of around 50 feet from melting of the remaining ice caps, which is expected to be catastrophic. Four hundred feet dwarfs that. Today the great majority of the world’s population lives in or near coastal areas, and this may well have been true during the ice age too. Around the time of the Younger Dryas, there is evidence of intensive fishing by cultures like the Jomon of Japan — who also produced pottery older than any known from the Middle East — and the Magdalenians in Europe (not to mention many fresh-water fishing villages spread across what is now the Sahara desert).

By this time, humans would have been biologically modern for over 200,000 years, and had been at least occasionally producing magnificent art for at least 20,000 years. Stone and bone tools with amazing elegance and sophistication had been in use equally long. All hunter-gatherer cultures known to modern anthropology have complex culture, language, and spiritual beliefs. But somehow, we still have the prejudice that hunter-gatherers and “cave people” must have been extremely primitive.

The controversy I mentioned concerns evidence that like the dinosaur extinction, the Younger Dryas was caused by a cataclysm from space. Since 2007 the “Younger Dryas impact theory” has been hotly debated, but it now appears to be gaining ground. I have no particular stake in what really caused the Younger Dryas; I’m really more interested in its effects on humans. But the controversy potentially provides an interesting case study in how highly intelligent, educated people can effectively confuse apparently well-founded belief with “knowledge” that would supposedly be beyond doubt.

It also happens to be the case that Plato in the Critias gives a date for the sinking of the mythical Atlantis at around the time of the Younger Dryas. I don’t assume there is any accuracy in the details of the story — the island with the circular city and so forth — but I think archaeology already provides the basis for an extremely well-founded belief that late-glacial stone age cultures had already reached very high levels of sophistication, and that much more evidence may be hidden at as yet undiscovered underwater sites. This doesn’t mean people back then were flying around in spaceships or anything, or had magical powers, or even that they produced metal. Our standards for what represents “advanced” culture are highly distorted by our own obsessions with technology and money.

Incidentally, Plato in the Laws also casually suggests that animal and plant species come into being and pass away, as well as something like the succession of human material culture from stone to soft metals to iron. The Critias story is attributed to the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who supposedly heard it from an Egyptian priest during his travels there, but no source is given for the apparently accurate speculations about prehistory in the Laws.

All the modern fringe speculation around the Atlantis myth — and around “historical” readings of mythology in general — has given this stuff a bad name. We ought to suspend belief in things for which the evidence is shaky. But a suspension of belief need not — and should not — necessarily imply active disbelief. Our active disbeliefs ought to be well-founded up to the same standard as our active beliefs, and ought not to fall to the level of prejudice.