Aristotle on Perception

Real and meaningful analytic distinctions in experience such as activity and passivity need not be grounded in ontological dualities.

It is common to hear Aristotle summarized as asserting a monolithic passivity in processes of perception. This is a considerable simplification. What is true is that in the absence of something perceptible that does not depend on us for its being, Aristotle would say we have a case not of perception but of something else. This does not mean there are not many active dimensions to typical sense perception as well.

One of Aristotle’s deepest principles involves a recognition of profoundly mixed conditions as being more typical of real life than monolithic or homogeneous ones. Plato treats “mixture” as a first-class topic at the heart of what Aristotle would call first philosophy, and not as a mere derivative from “pure” concepts.

Later authors have often tended to downplay Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on mixed cases in experience as normal, and instead to privilege pure “black and white” distinctions. I think we should if anything privilege the mixed cases, and demand evidence when confronted with claims that any real-world cases involve “pure” black-and-white distinctions.

Aristotle’s account of perception in book 2 of On the Soul relies mainly on descriptions expressed in terms of actuality, potentiality, and actualization. While it is true that actuality has a character that is mostly active and potentiality has a character that is mostly not active, it is once again an oversimplification to simply equate actuality with activity and potentiality with passivity.

Aristotle’s description of perception is deliberately abstract, which reduces the need to speculatively fill in missing details. Perhaps the most salient overall aspect of this account is that it involves a multi-leveled layering of actuality and potentiality and of active and passive aspects that may be only analytically distinct. He focuses very generally on the various requirements of the kinds of form involved, and works hard to avoid causal explanations not clearly grounded in evidence.

It is very characteristic that Aristotle treats perception and whatever is perceptible in a single context. For instance, his discussion of light occurs here. He has no theory of the transmission of light, which was only experimentally demonstrated in early modern times. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, he sees light as instantaneously diffused through a medium, and reasons that the medium must therefore play a necessary role in perception. For him, light is “the being-at-work of the transparent as transparent” (On the Soul book 2 ch. 7, Sachs trans., p. 101). “By transparent I mean what is visible but not visible in its own right, to put it simply, but on account of the color of something else…. Light is a sort of color of the transparent, whenever it is at-work-staying-transparent by the action of fire or something of that kind…. What, then, the transparent is, has been said, and what light is, that it is not fire or any body at all, nor anything that flows out of any body…, but the co-presence of fire or any such thing in the transparent” (ibid). “Rather, the color sets a transparent thing, such as air, in motion, and by this, if it is continuous, the sense organ is moved” (p. 103).

It is important to recognize that this is a thoughtful interpretation of ordinary experience, with minimal assumptions. We would say, e.g., that light is transmitted at the speed of light rather than instantaneously diffused, but this can only be justified by complex empirical evidence. We associate colors with particular wavelengths of light, and we think of light as consisting of material waves (or alternatively, particles of a particular kind) that cannot be directly observed, but all this depends on complex evidence and test equipment. By contrast, Aristotle aims mainly to do justice to our ordinary experience of seeing things — a dog, a rose, a landscape, and so on. He seems to think of the air in the presence of light as metaphorically “charged” with sensible forms, such that there is a continuous translation of visible configurations of color through the air along each perspectival line of sight.

He somewhat paradoxically speaks of a “transmission” of “forms without the matter” in perception, and of the soul-as-active-form-of-the-body “receiving” them. The soul, as an entelecheia (in Sachs’ translation “being-at-work-staying-itself”, or more literally “in [itself] end having”) of an organic body, is active at root. Perception is then at top level supposed to be the being-at-work of a receptivity of the primarily active soul. Since the “transmission” of color through the air is said to be without matter, it must be more like a translation of color between the medium and the eye.

Some contemporary writers have claimed that Aristotle’s account of perception is of historic interest only, sheerly on the ground that it focuses on potentiality and actuality rather than physical causes. But as usual, Aristotle is far more interested in interpreting experience in meaningful ways, with as few assumptions as possible.

I think it is better to have a very abstract description that remains descriptive of experience, rather than imaginatively positing physical or physiological explanations. That is to say, it is better to be only abstractly descriptive but faithful to ordinary experience like Aristotle, than it is to have a more physically grounded explanation like the Stoics, at the cost of depending on additional assumptions of fact that turned out to be wrong in light of more detailed empirical investigations.

The Stoic theory — following the general Stoic precept that everything that has being must be some kind of body — seems to involve a kind of subtly material forms of objects invisibly but literally flying through the air as distinct wholes, ancestral to the medieval “sensible species”. This is a logically consistent physical and physiological account, which however makes numerous speculative leaps of the sort Aristotle aimed to minimize.

The mathematicians Euclid and Ptolemy geometrically analysed properties of light rays, but believed light rays were actively emitted by the eye, rather than received by it.

The “father of modern optics” and early contributor to scientific method, Iraqi polymath Ibn al-Haytham (ca. 965-1040 CE), known to Latin readers as Alhazen, was the first to explain that vision occurs when light reflected from objects passes to the eye, and to assert that the brain plays a major (active) role in the process of identifying objects. His work was taken up by Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Huygens, Descartes, and Kepler, among others.

The reception of light in and of itself is passive, but ordinary seeing has a large cognitive and interpretive dimension, whether considered at the level of events in the brain or at the level of an interpretation of meaningful content. Reception of light rays is passive, but even the most minimal identification of objects cannot be entirely passive.

The visible forms of patches of color that are diffused through the transparent medium in Aristotle — just like the reflected light in the modern account — are indeed passively received, but that no more makes the entire process of vision necessarily passive in Aristotle than it does in the modern account.

“But about all sense perception in general, it is necessary to grasp that the sense is receptive of the forms of perceptible things without the material, as wax is receptive of the design of a ring without the iron or gold…; and similarly the sense of each thing is acted upon by the thing that has color or flavor or sound, but not in virtue of that by which each of those things is the kind of thing it is, but in virtue of that by which it has a certain attribute, and according to a ratio” (book 2 ch. 12, p. 118).

Joe Sachs comments in a note that “Some of the difficulty can be avoided if one keeps in mind that, by form, Aristotle does not mean shape or appearance. In the Platonic dialogues, it is always emphasized that the eidos is not the mere look of a thing…. That to which one must look, according to Aristotle, is the being-at-work of the thing. It is, then, no part of the analogy Aristotle intends with the wax impression, that the eyeball, say, becomes shaped and colored like an olive when it looks at one. What it takes on must be some sort of active condition” (p. 118n, emphasis added).

This last point about the active condition, I think, is the import of Aristotle’s phrase in the above quote, “not in virtue of that by which each of those things is the kind of thing it is, but in virtue of that by which it has a certain attribute, and according to a ratio”. We do not directly perceive the kinds of things we perceive, but rather “that by which [things have] a certain attribute, and according to a ratio”. I take this to be a suggestion of what should or should not count as a “perception”.

There is a puzzle here about how “that by which” a thing has an attribute would count as perceptible. I would argue that if this kind of abstraction does count as perceptible in some way, that would be another indication that perception is not entirely passive. Aristotelian “perception” would then be quite rich, including many things I have been calling products of the Kantian synthesis of imagination. But it would still stop short of, say, directly apprehending a complex gestalt or whole “image” as an immediately intelligible unit.

Worries about “passivity”, it seems to me, ought to be directed mainly at the kind of claims of direct apprehension of complex images as meaningful wholes that Aristotle explicitly rules out in this passage.

“But ‘being acted upon’ is not unambiguous either…. For the one who has knowledge comes to be contemplating, and this is either not a process of being altered (since it is a passing over into being oneself, namely into being-at-work-staying-oneself), or is a different class of alteration” (p. 98).

“Being-at-work perceiving is described in the same way as contemplating, but differs in that the things that produce the being-at-work of perceiving are external, the visible and audible things, and similarly with the rest of the senses. The reason is that active perception is of particulars, while knowledge is of universals, which are in some way in the soul itself. Hence thinking is up to oneself, whenever one wishes, but perceiving is not up to oneself, since it is necessary that the thing perceived be present. And similarly too, even the kinds of knowing that deal with perceptible things are not up to oneself, and for the same reason, that the perceptible things are among particular, external things” (book 2 ch. 5, pp. 98-99, emphasis added).

I note first of all the explicit reference to “active perception”. Second, it makes perfect sense that “the kinds of knowing that deal with perceptible things are not up to oneself” — that in some way sensible things are what they are, independent of us, in a way that abstractions and universals are not. Aristotle even seems to think there is an at least abstractly identifiable level at which the particular senses cannot be deceived.

“[T]he means by which we live and perceive is meant two ways, as is the means by which we know (by which is meant in one sense knowledge but in another the soul, since by means of each of these we say we know something)” (book 2 ch. 2, p. 87).

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right, … for sense perception when directed at its proper objects is always truthful, and is present in all animals, but it is possible to think things through falsely, and this is present in no animal in which there is not also speech” (book 3 ch. 3, pp. 133-134).

Here he explicitly bounds the analogy between perception and thought. We have already seen that perception for Aristotle is not entirely passive, so thinking, as something that is more up to us, must be less passive than that.

“And it is certainly not the reasoning part, or intellect in the way that word is used, that causes motion, for the contemplative intellect does not contemplate anything that has to do with action…. And even when the intellect enjoins and the reasoning part declares that something is to be fled or pursued one does not necessarily move, but acts instead in accordance with desire, as does one without self-restraint…. But neither is it desire that governs this sort of motion, since self-restrained people, even when they desire and yearn for something, do not necessarily do those things for which they have the desire, but follow the intellect” (book 3 ch. 9, pp. 152-153).

Later he specifies that the motion mentioned here is motion with respect to place, i.e., bodily movement, not anything directly associated with perception or thought. Comparatively speaking, the earlier “motion” of air in the presence of light was said in a different, more figurative way. We should not assume that the way activity and passivity apply in the one context is the same as in the other.

He continues, “But it is obvious that these two things [together do] cause motion, desire and/or intellect, since many people follow their imaginings contrary to what they know, and in other animals there is no intellectual or reasoning activity, except imagination. Therefore both of these are such as to cause motion with respect to place, intellect and desire, but this is intellect that reasons for the sake of something and is concerned with action, which differs from the contemplative intellect by its end…. So it is reasonable that there seem to be two things causing the motion, desire and practical thinking, since the thing desired causes motion, and on account of this, thinking causes motion, because it is the desired thing that starts it. So it is one thing that causes motion, the potency of desire” (book 3 ch. 10, pp. 153-154, emphasis added).

What Aristotle initially mentions as “obvious” is refined and corrected later in the chapter. This sort of thing is very common in Aristotle. In book 2 chapter 2, he says that “what is clear and more knowable by reason arises out of what is unclear but more obvious” (p. 84).

“[B]ut the potency of desire is not present without imagination, while all imagination is either rational or sensory” (p. 156).

The imagination is identified in Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection as the root of all perception. Here he suggests that it also depends on the particular senses. Both could easily be true if the sense in which imagination is the “root” of perception is teleological, rather than causal in the modern sense.

“For imagination is different both from perceiving [by the particular senses] and from thinking things through, and does not come about without perception, and without it there is no conceiving that something is the case” (book 3 ch. 3, p. 134).

Aristotle is saying that while conceiving that something is the case depends on imagination and imagination ultimately depends on the particular senses, we never directly perceive that something is the case. That something is the case is a practical judgment about particulars, rather than a perception. “Thinking things through” (dianoia) is discussed separately from pure thought or intellect (nous), and is a rational activity of the soul grounded mainly in imagination. To really “occur” in a human, pure thought depends on the activity of thinking things through as its vehicle.

“[F]alsehood is always in an act of putting things together…. What makes each thing be one is intellect” (book 3 ch. 6, p. 144). “[B]ut thinking what something is, in the sense of what it keeps on being in order to be at all, is true, and is not one thing attached to another” (p. 145).

Here he seems to be emphasizing that the idea of what something truly is, in the sense of being-at-work-staying-itself, is not adequately expressible in terms of a simple combination of pre-existing parts or independently defined features. Also, no expression of a “what” by itself forms an assertion that could then be either true or false. A “what” by itself has more of the character of a definition that could be either accepted by hypothesis or considered hypothetically.

If the thought of a being-at-work-staying-itself is simply “true”, it seems to me it must be true in some sense other than correspondence — perhaps a being-true-to-itself through coherence. This use of “true” is also different from the way it is defined in On Interpretation, where truth and falsity are said to apply if and only if we say something about something, which means a “what” taken in isolation would be neither true nor false. Only what is said about the what could be true in that sense, but then it could also be false, depending on what is said. So “true” is being said in a different, special way here.

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time, for all things that come into being have their being from something that is at-work-staying-itself. And… the perceiving thing is not [merely] acted upon nor is it altered. Hence this is a different kind of event from a motion” (book 3 ch. 7, pp. 145-146, brackets in original, emphasis added).

Here he emphasizes a distinction between motion in the primary sense of ordinary bodily motion on the one hand, and the actualization of a potential on the other, identifying perception with the latter.

Hegel’s Union of Kant and Aristotle

Aristotle gets more pages in Hegel’s History of Philosophy than anyone else, and Kant gets the second most. This post will show that that is no accident.

Where I left off in Pippin’s account of Hegel’s Logic, he was still discussing the meaning of Hegel’s claim that now “logic” could take the place of metaphysics.

The idea of a “gap” between thinking and being, with the consequent need for an extensive inference to show that the rational categories of thought are after all applicable to being, had been a major theme of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Hegel ambitiously wants to eliminate that gap, while at the same time preserving and extending Kant’s critique of dogmatism. At first glance this might seem impossible, but as I see it, Hegel’s strategy consists of two moves.

First, Pippin has been arguing that a major theme of Hegel’s Logic is an alternative showing of the applicability of something analogous to the Kantian categories. Hegel’s alternative is inspired by Aristotle’s non-psychological view of the content of thought as shareable rational meaning. From this point of view, there is a no discernible difference (and therefore a strict and literal identity) between a thought and that of which it is the thought. Thought in Aristotle is unaffected by the modern distinction of subject and object in consciousness. This is intimately related to Aristotle’s ambivalence on whether or not thought belongs to a part of the soul.

“As with Aristotle, [the] link between the order of thinking (knowing, judging to be the case) and the order of being is not an inference, does not face a gap that must be closed by an inference. Properly understood, the relation is one of identity” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 60).

The other, complementary part of Hegel’s strategy uses his critique of representation to express the Kantian problem of dogmatism in a different way. For Kant, dogmatism consists in ignoring or leaping over the gap between thinking and being. For Hegel, there is no such gap. Dogmatism consists in adhering to fixed representations and disregarding the real fluidity and liveliness of both thought and being.

Alongside this strategy for dealing with Kantian issues, Hegel revives Aristotle’s ideal of normative, teleological explanation of overall processes of actualization, and of the subordination of explanation by the efficient causes that serve as particular means of actualization (see Aristotle on Explanation). For Hegel as for Aristotle, intelligibility and explanation first and foremost involve a rational “ought”, and other forms of explanation are subordinate to that.

Pippin quotes John McDowell’s contemporary distinction between explanation by rational “ought” and by empirical regularity. McDowell refers to “explanations in which things are made intelligible by being revealed to be, or to approximate to being, as they rationally ought to be. This is to be contrasted with a style of explanation in which one makes things intelligible by representing their coming into being as a particular instance of how things generally tend to happen” (p. 61).

Pippin says that for both Kant and Hegel, logic “states the conditions of possible sense, the distinctions and relations without which sense would not be possible” (ibid). Here he is implicitly recalling Frege’s distinction between sense and reference, and making the point that Kant, Hegel, and Aristotle all see meaning mainly in terms of sense rather than reference. “The Logic is never said to seek a determination of what is ‘really’ real, and in a way like Kant, it also concerns the determination of the possibility, the real possibility, of anything being what it is. Hegel calls this Wirklichkeit, actuality, and distinguishes it often from questions about existence” (p. 62).

Possible sense construes real possibility in terms of explanation by a rational “ought”. Logical concepts for Hegel always embody a context-sensitive rational “ought”, rather than a direct simple determination of what exists. For example, “for Hegel to claim that ‘Life’ is a logical concept is to say not that there could not be a world that did not have living beings in it, but that if there is a world at all, the denial that there is any distinction between mechanically explicable and organically unified beings is self-contradictory” (ibid).

Such a contradiction is something we ought to avoid. The overcoming of contradictions in Hegel is a matter of teleological actualization that may or may not occur. Contrary to old stereotypes, no formal or causal determinism is involved. The overcoming of contradictions is in fact intimately connected with the motif of freedom. Kant and Fichte struggled to articulate a very strong notion of practical freedom that did not depend on a one-sided notion of free will. Hegel makes the explanation of freedom much easier by explicitly adopting the Aristotelian priority of explanation by ends and oughts. For him as for Aristotle, the realization of ends and oughts at the level of factual existence is contingent, and involves multiple possibilities. For him as for Aristotle, being has to do primarily with sense and intelligibility rather than brute factual existence.

“So what Hegel means by saying logic is metaphysics, or that being in and for itself is the concept, can be put this way. Once we understand the role of, say, essence and appearance as necessary for judging objectively, we have thereby made sense of essences and appearances, and therewith, the world in which they are indispensable…. In making sense of this way of sense-making, its presuppositions and implications, we are making sense of what there is, the only sense anything could make” (pp. 63-64).

“The actual Kantian statement of this identity is the highest principle of synthetic judgments, and it invokes the same thought: that the conditions for the possibility of experience are at the same time the conditions for the possibility of objects of experience” (p. 64).

Pippin quotes from Adrian Moore: “To make sense of things at the highest level of generality… is to make sense of things in terms of what it is to make sense of things” (p. 65).

He notes similarities and differences between his and Robert Brandom’s approach to Hegel.

On the one hand, Brandom agrees that the job of distinctively logical concepts is “not to make explicit how the world is (to subserve a function of consciousness) but rather to make explicit the process of making explicit how the world is (to enable and embody a kind of self-consciousness)” (quoted, p. 66).

On the other, Brandom sees the making explicit of the process of making explicit entirely in retrospective terms, whereas Pippin argues that Hegel in the Logic takes a more Kantian, prospective approach. Pippin calls Brandom’s retrospective approach “empirical” because it relies on retrospective insight into concrete occasions of making things explicit.

Elsewhere, Pippin had previously criticized Brandom’s emphasis on “semantic descent” in interpreting Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom himself introduces semantic descent in the following terms: “I believe the best way to understand what [Kant and Hegel] are saying about their preferred topic of concepts operating in a pure, still stratosphere above the busy jostling and haggling of street-level judging and doing is precisely to focus on what those metaconcepts let us say about what is going on below…. If the point of the higher-level concepts is to articulate the use and content of lower-level ones, then the cash value of an account of categorical metaconcepts is what it has to teach us about ordinary ground-level empirical and practical concepts” (A Spirit of Trust, pp. 5-6).

While I don’t care for the rhetoric of “cash value”, which to my ear sounds too reductive in the context of normative sense-making, the idea that meta-level considerations get their relevance from what they teach us about ordinary life seems fundamentally right to me, and of great importance. Moreover, this is clearly presented by Brandom as his interpretive strategy, which he points out is quite different from the way Kant and Hegel usually talk. Brandom’s reading of Hegel is also mainly focused on the Phenomenology; he doesn’t have much to say specifically about the Logic.

The idea of a retrospective reading of the Phenomenology is encouraged by Hegel himself, and there I think it is fair to say that Hegel’s own method is retrospective. On the other hand, I think the text of the Logic clearly supports Pippin’s claim that it takes a more prospective approach, closer to that of a Kantian a priori investigation. This still does not conflict with the suggestion that its ultimate value lies in what its high concepts have to teach us about living our own lives.

“[W]hatever the connections are in the [Science of Logic], they are clearly not truth-functional or deductive. As suggested, they have something to do with the demonstration of dependence relations necessary for conceptual determinacy” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 70).

For Hegel, “concepts can be determinately specified only by their role in judgments, the determinacy of which depends on their roles as premises and conclusions…. And he never tires of noting that the standard subject-predicate logical form is finally inadequate for the expression of ‘speculative truth’…. The basic possibility of sense depends on an act, an act of rendering intelligible or judging” (pp. 71-72).

“In the traditional reading of Kant, it would appear that Kant wants to introduce a step here, as if skeptical about why ‘our’ ways of sorting things should have anything to do with ‘sortal realism’ in the world…. In this picture, there must ‘first’ be sensible receptivity (according to ‘our’ distinct, nonconceptual pure forms of intuition), and ‘then’ there is conceptual articulation/synthesis, which is possible because of the imposition of categorical form” (pp. 73-74).

According to Pippin, Hegel denies this two-step picture, though he “fully realizes the extreme difficulties in stating properly the dual claims of distinguishability and inseparability” of concept and intuition” (p. 75).

“Hegel clearly wants a way of understanding the mutual dependence of each on the other that involves an ‘identity’ even ‘within difference’. In other words, he came to see that the concept-intuition relation was at its heart a logical or conceptual problem, what he would variously call the problem of (how there could be such a thing as) ‘mediated immediacy’, or the inescapably reciprocal and correlated functions of identifying and differentiating. For another, in any apperceptive determination of content, a relation to content has to be understood as a modality of a self-relation….This gets quite complicated because such an apperceptive awareness in the case of perceptual experience… must be distinguished from apperceptive judging…. Neither Kant nor Hegel believes that experience itself consists in judgments” (ibid).

What Pippin here calls apperceptive awareness in the case of perception as distinct from judgment belongs in the same general territory as the “passive synthesis” discussed by Husserl.

“Failing to observe the ‘norms of thinking’ is not… making an error in thinking; it is not thinking at all, not making any sense. The prospect of objects ‘outside’ something like the limits of the thinkable is a nonthought…. But just because it is unthinkable, the strict distinction between a prior, content-free general logic and an a priori transcendental logic, the forms of possible thoughts about objects, can hardly be as hard and fast as Kant wants to make it out to be. Or, put another way, it is an artificial distinction…. For one thing, … the distinction depends on a quite contestable strict separation between the spontaneity of thought (as providing formal unity) and the deliverances of sensibility in experience (as the sole ‘provider of content’). If that is not sustainable, and there is reason to think that even Kant did not hold it to be a matter of strict separability, then the distinction between the forms of thought and the forms of the thought of objects cannot also be a matter of strict separability” (p. 76).

“‘To be is to be intelligible: the founding principle of Greek metaphysics and of philosophy itself…. [T]he formula ‘to be is to be intelligible’ is not, as it might sound, some sort of manifesto, as if willfully ‘banning’ the unknowable from ‘the real’…. ‘What there is is what is knowable’ is an implication of what knowing — all and any knowing — is if it is to be knowing. It is not a first-order claim about all being, as if it could prompt the question: How do we know that all of being is knowable? That is not a coherent question. There may be things we will never know, but that is not to say they are in principle unknowable” (p. 77).

“So those ‘two aspect’ interpretations of Kant’s idealism and his doctrine of the unknowability of things in themselves, those claiming that knowing ‘for us’ is restricted to ‘our epistemic conditions’, leaving it open for us to speculate about what might be knowable but transcends our powers of knowing, cannot be right. The position is internally incoherent. There is no ‘our’ that can be put in front of ‘epistemic conditions’. They would not then be epistemic conditions; the account would not be philosophical but psychological” (ibid).

In place of the Kantian unknowability of things in themselves, Hegel puts the “liveliness” of real things that overflows any particular representation. For Hegel, dogmatism is a disregard for the overflowing character of real meaning and being.

“[I]f we… ask how we can know a priori about nature’s suitability for our cognitive ends…, we have again imported a kind of neo-Kantian version of Kant” (p. 78).

“Yet more care must be exercised here, lest readers get the wrong idea. To say that the forms of ‘thought’ are, must be, the form of objects of thought does not mean that any form of ‘mere thinking’ delineates some ontological realm — as if the forms of the thought of astrological influence are the forms of such influence in the world” (ibid).

“Thought” here clearly does not mean any arbitrary belief. It refers to possible knowledge. Hegel and Pippin are saying only that if and wherever true knowledge is indeed possible, corresponding knowledge of objects must be possible. “It would never occur to us, I assume, to entertain the thought that the form of some piece of empirical knowledge is not the form of the object of knowledge” (ibid).

Pippin points out “what amounts to a kind of operator in Hegel’s Logic on which all the crucial transitions depend, something like ‘would not be fully intelligible, would not be coherently thinkable without…’ What follows the ‘without’ is some more comprehensive concept, a different distinction, and so forth” (p. 79).

This means that Hegelian logic is not about the deduction of consequences from assumptions, but rather aims to be an assumption-free regressive movement from anything at all to a fuller view of the conditions for its intelligibility.

In the introduction to the Encyclopedia, Hegel “notes explicitly that what exists certainly exists contingently and ‘can just as well not be‘, and he refers us to the Logic for the right explication of what is ‘actual’ by contrast with what merely exists. He adds, ‘Who is not smart enough to be able to see around him quite a lot that is not, in fact, how it ought to be?’…. Yet despite Hegel’s waving this huge bright flag inscribed, ‘I believe in contingency!’ one still hears often (even from scholars of German philosophy) that his philosophy is an attempt to deduce the necessity of everything from the Prussian state to Herr Krug’s fountain pen” (p. 87).

Pippin thinks that actuality in Hegel is “congruent with what Kant meant by categoriality” (ibid). I don’t fully understand this particular claim about actuality, unless it is intended as a variant of the Philosophy of Right‘s famous formula about the actual and the rational, which itself makes good sense with a normative or teleological as opposed to factual notion of the actual. I would agree there seems to be a strong “Kantian categorical” component to Hegelian “logic” in general. Pippin agrees that actuality has a normative rather than factual character in both Aristotle and Hegel. However, the generally normative emphasis of Kant’s thought notwithstanding, at this point in my effort to understand Kant, his “deduction” of the categories seems to me to make the categories more like a kind of universal “facts”. I also think of the Aristotelian “ought” as primarily concrete, as when Aristotle says that practical judgment applies to particulars. Kantian normativity by contrast aims to be universal in an unqualified way, which is certainly closer to categoriality. So, there is a question whether Hegelian actuality inherits more from Aristotelian actuality or from Hegel’s incorporation of Kantian universalizing normativity.

If we were talking about Hegelian “concrete universals”, this might provide a basis for reconciling Aristotelian and Kantian perspectives on the “ought” involved in actuality. Do the Hegelian incarnations of Kantian categories in the Logic — called by Hegel a “realm of shadows” — qualify as concrete universals? At this point I am in doubt. I suspect Hegel might say that the concrete universal is reached only at the very end of his development. Maybe the ultimate bearer of categoriality and the place where it unites with actuality will be the “absolute” idea.

“What we know is what we know in exercising reason, what we know in judging” (p. 90). In the Encyclopedia Logic, “Hegel remarks that Kant himself, in formulating reason’s critique of itself, treats forms of cognition as objects of cognition…. He calls this feat ‘dialectic’. Mathematical construction in mathematical proof makes essentially the same point…. And most suggestively for the entire enterprise of the Logic, practical reason can determine the form of a rational will that is also itself a substantive content. The self-legislation of the moral law is not volitional anarchy but practical reason’s knowledge of ‘what’ to legislate. It ‘legislates’ in being practical reasoning about what ought to be done. It legislates because in knowing what ought to be done it is not affected by some object, ‘what is to be done’, about which it judges. It determines, produces, what is to be done. Said more simply, when one makes a promise, one legislates into existence a promise. One is bound only by binding oneself…. Being bound is the concept of being bound, applied to oneself” (ibid).

Pippin is suggesting we look for ethical meaning in Hegel’s logic.

“Thought’s self-determination in the course of the book makes no reference to the Absolute’s self-consciousness in order to explain anything…. Any thinking of a content is inherently reflexive in a way that Hegel thinks will allow him to derive from the possible thought of anything at all notions like something and finitude, and ultimately essence, appearance, even the idea of the good…. Hegel thinks that thought is always already giving itself its own content: itself, where that means, roughly, determining that without which it could not be a thought of an object…. But all this can only count as previews of coming attractions” (pp. 91-92).

This is important. The thought that is self-legislating and one with its object, while it doesn’t include mere belief, is being said to include at least some thought that occurs in ordinary life. According to Pippin, thinking far enough through with any content at all has a self-legislating and category-generating character for Hegel.

“The suggestion is that Hegel thinks of anything’s principle of intelligibility, its conceptual form, as an actualization in the Aristotelian sense, the being-at-work or energeia of the thing’s distinct mode of being, not a separate immaterial metaphysical object. In understanding Hegel on this point, we should take fully on board the form-matter, actuality-potentiality language of Aristotle, and so the most interesting kind of hylomorphism, soul-body hylomorphism, as our way of understanding this nonseparateness claim.” (p. 92).

Here I can only applaud.

“To think that for creatures like us, we must distinguish the sensory manifold from the form that informs it is the great temptation to be avoided for Hegel. The power of the eye to see is not a power ‘added’ to a material eye…. The seeing power is the distinct being-at work of that body. The form-content model central to Hegel’s account of logical formality works the same way” (pp. 92-93).

That seeing is not somehow “added” to the eye is another Aristotelian point. The eye is what it is in virtue of what it is for the sake of. Incidentally, Joe Sachs’ translation of Aristotlian energeia as “being-at-work” appears to have a precedent in Hegel’s German.

Pippin’s identification of a being-at-work or actuality with a power here is novel. “Power” commonly appears in translations of (especially Latin scholastic) discourse about potentiality rather than actuality. Power seems to me to be some kind of capability for efficacious action, whereas potentiality and actuality both belong primarily in the register of ends and “for the sake of”. It does make sense that a capability could follow from an actualization or be attributed to it. Paul Ricoeur makes a nice ethical use of capability, but in general I worry that talk about power privileges efficacious action over the intelligible ought and the “for the sake of”.

Pippin returns again to the unity of thinking and being.

“So it is perfectly appropriate to say such things as that for Hegel reality ‘has a conceptual structure’, or ‘only concepts are truly real’, as long as we realize that we are not talking about entities, but about the ‘actualities’ of beings, their modes or ways of being what determinately and intelligibly they are. To say that ‘any object is the concept of itself’ is to say that what it is in being at work being what it is can be determined, has a logos…. We can say that reality comes to self-consciousness in us, or that the light that illuminates beings in their distinct being-at-work is the same light that illuminates their knowability in us, as long as we do not mean a light emanating from individual minds” (pp. 93-94).

“And here again, Hegel’s model of metaphysics… is Aristotelian. And Aristotle’s metaphysics is not modern dogmatic metaphysics, does not concern a ‘supersensible’ reality knowable only by pure reason. In many respects it is a metaphysics of the ordinary: standard sensible objects, especially organic beings and artifacts. This means that in many respects Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics in effect ‘misses’ it” (p. 94).

“By and large Hegel means to ‘denigrate’ the immediately given, how things seem to common sense…. This has nothing to do with doubting the external reality of tables and molecules…. The point of Hegel’s denying to finite, empirical reality the gold standard badge of true actuality is not to say that it ‘possesses’ a lesser degree of reality in the traditional sense (whatever that might mean). It is to say that finite objects viewed in their finitude, or considered as logical atoms, can never reveal the possibility of their own intelligibility” (pp. 96-97).

This provides a clue to the negative connotations of finitude in Hegel. It has far more positive connotations for me, but I consider the primary meaning of “finitude” to be a dependence on other things, which is as different as could be from logical atomicity. This is another different use of words, not a difference on what is or ought to be. If “finite” is taken to mean “to be treated as a logical atom” as Pippin suggests, the negative connotations are appropriate.


Fichte greatly admired the coherence of the quasi-mathematically structured “system” of Spinoza’s Ethics, even though he strenuously objected to Spinoza’s determinism. In his early work, he announces the objective of constructing a “system of freedom” that would be some sort of inverse of Spinoza’s. Rather than following Spinoza’s quasi-mathematical method of presentation, Fichte proceeded more informally. He was influenced by the early Kant interpreter K. L. Reinhold’s claim that philosophy should be derived from a single principle, and aimed to put this into practice with his notion of the universal “I” as the principle.

Schelling inherited the rhetorical emphasis on a system from Fichte (e.g., one of the works of his early period was entitled Presentation of My Own System), but in general was a less rigorous thinker.

Hegel also inherited the rhetorical emphasis on a system, but aimed to be more rigorous than Fichte. At the same time he expands upon Kant’s criticism of the quasi-mathematical presentation in Spinoza, and explicitly rejects Reinhold’s view that philosophy should be derived from a single principle. So, there is a serious question what “system” really means for Hegel.

It is clear from his explicit remarks that he put an extraordinarily high value on the coherence of philosophical thought. The advance of studies of Hegel, especially since the later 20th century, has confirmed that he largely succeeded in putting this into practice. Both his overall thought and his detailed arguments are increasingly recognized as highly coherent.

The historic negative reception of Hegel has consisted largely in caricatures of his systematic ambitions. I call them caricatures because they rely on attributing to Hegel notions of “system” that were not his.

Hegel’s rhetorical emphasis on system, I want to suggest, is a red herring. What really matters in his thought is not “system” but coherence.

The notion of systems originates in mathematics, and there it has unambiguous meaning. Systems in mathematics do have great utility, because you can’t mathematically prove anything independent of a particular presentation, but this makes mathematical systems intrinsically presentation-dependent. That is to say, the particular terms and order with which the content is developed and presented are essential to making it a system for the same reasons that they are essential to proof. Mathematicians recognize that there may be multiple equivalent formulations, presentations, and systematizations of the “same” content.

I don’t find any of the attempts to present non-mathematical “systems” very helpful or convincing as such. (The common talk about real-world “systems” in engineering and science — which does also have utility — I take to be grounded in a kind of transference from the mathematical concept of a system. It is really the mathematics that describes the things or behavior of interest that may be expressible as a system.)

On the other hand, I want to say that the notion of coherence is more universal than that of a system or systems — systems are presentation-dependent, and coherence is not. The rhetorical stance of the German idealists seems to me to have assumed that the only way to achieve coherence is through the uniform presentation of a system. Certainly it is the most straightforward way, but that does not mean it is the only way.

Coherence in Hegel, I want to suggest, is “development-dependent” but not presentation-dependent. Robert Pippin points out that none of Hegel’s works is structured in a deductive order — rather, they all follow a “developmental” order that more resembles the telling of a story or an account of a history.

Hegel’s notorious idiosyncratic and paradoxical straining of language to talk about “identities” that preserve distinctions is helpfully explainable in terms of the notion of narrative identity developed by Paul Ricoeur. Aristotle’s articulation of things “said in many ways” and his more subtle development of “substance” in the Metaphysics are relevant background for this. (See Aristotelian Identity; Univocity.)

Ricoeur is the main developer to date of a synthesis of Kant and Aristotle independent of Hegel’s. Mediation is as central to his thought as it is to Hegel’s, and he explicitly recognized the convergence. However, he strongly rejected the “system” aspect of Hegel, and his development also doesn’t explicitly include anything resembling the Hegelian absolute, even in the deflationary form in which I think Hegel really meant it.

Logic and Metaphysics

In Emancipatory Logic? I began a walk-through of Robert Pippin’s important Hegel’s Realm of Shadows. This post borrows its title from his second chapter, though it only addresses the first part of it.

According to Pippin, Hegel’s Science of Logic is intended to exhibit the “spontaneous” or “self-generating” actualization of intelligibility. This takes places through the higher-order universals that Kant following Aristotle called “categories”.

Hegel’s “logic” provides his alternative to Kant’s notoriously long and difficult argument for the possibility of a priori knowledge that is not merely analytic, and to Kant’s derivation of the categories. As an exercise in what Aristotle called first philosophy, it is not supposed to depend on anything else.

By his own lights Hegel is extremely concerned with concreteness. He is therefore very conscious that his “logic as first philosophy” only addresses possible actualizations of intelligibility, and doesn’t derive anything real. We might think that the actualization of intelligibility would be a realm of light, but here the concern is with the emergence of light, hence his curious metaphor that “logic” is a realm of shadows.

“Hegel follows Kant’s innovation in his response to the empiricist challenge…. The basic question is, How could there possibly be objectively valid concepts, true of all objects, but not derived from experience? Where could they come from? In Hegel’s terms, this amounts to the question, How do concepts that are the products of thought alone ‘give themselves’ content, where by content we mean something extraconceptual?” (pp. 39-40).

Pippin says that Hegel will want “to determine objects in their thinkability, where that means their suitability not for a finite, subjective power, but for thought as such, that is, objects in their intelligibility, in their being at all intelligibly what they are. Their being what they are is their concept, or their ‘being their concept’, for Hegel. The concepts did not come from anywhere, any more than the thinking power comes from anywhere” (p. 40). Hegel aims for a “logic of the knowable as such” (p. 41).

“[Kant’s] critique concerns the modern tradition stemming from Descartes, embodied in Arnauld’s and Nicole’s Port Royal Logic in 1662, as well as the Leibnizian/Wolffian metaphysical tradition. The former held that clarity about the relations between ideas could lead the mind closer to the bearers of philosophical truth, clear and distinct ideas, known passively by the ‘light of reason’. For the latter, the laws of thought simply are the ‘laws of truth’ (to use Frege’s phrase), or a general logic is just thereby a logic of objects, because all philosophical truth is what Kant would call ‘analytic’, arrived at by logical analysis alone” (pp. 41-42).

Pippin emphasizes that Kant and Hegel both reject the early modern (originally Thomistic) idea of passive illumination by a “natural light” of reason. In the original Thomistic context, the idea of a natural light of reason played what I think was a very positive role as a counter-weight to sectarian tendencies in religion, but in the early modern context it led to a new kind of dogmatism.

“With general logic as it was understood in the Port Royal and the Wolffian traditions, [Hegel] agrees that logical reasoning, understood in that way, does not provide knowledge of objects. He especially agrees with Kant that reason and understanding are activities, not passively ‘illuminated’. As ‘that great foe of immediacy’, in Sellars’ phrase, he does not mention or rely on such receptive or noetic intuition. As such a great foe, Hegel is opposed to any notion of self-standing, atomic conceptual content. As he wants so famously to show in a dialectical logic, determinateness is a function of determination, always an identification ‘through an other’, his formulation for discursivity” (p. 42).

For Hegel, there is no determinateness without a prior activity of determination. That activity is a discursive articulation of otherness in its concreteness by means of language.

Hegel’s Science of Logic is divided into what he calls an “objective” logic, consisting in a “logic of being” and a “logic of essence”, and a “subjective” logic, consisting entirely in a “logic of the concept”.

“The logic of being seems clearly to correspond to the Kantian categories of quality and quantity, what Kant called the mathematical and constitutive categories, and the logic of essence certainly seems to correspond to the categories of relation and modality, or the dynamic and regulative categories. The logic of the Concept makes use of the same syllogistic central to Kant’s conception of the role of such an inferential structure in the activity of reason” (p. 43).

Incidentally, I find it intriguing and highly plausible that Hegelian essence would express relation and modality. As much of an improvement as this is over the early modern notion of essence as a putatively self-contained content, it still does not yet address the fluidity of what would have been essence in development over time.

Pippin notes that in an 1812 letter, Hegel also said the objective logic roughly corresponds to the “ontology” he saw articulated in Aristotle’s logical works. I would add that Hegel’s “logic of the concept” moves beyond the “objective” logic in somewhat the same way that the discussion of “substance” in Aristotle’s Metaphysics moves beyond that in the Categories.

Pippin says “there is no question that Hegel both wholeheartedly agreed with Kant’s critique of substantive metaphysics, and realized that that critique applied only to modern metaphysics and left several possibilities open” (p. 44). He quotes Hegel saying “What Kant generally has in mind here is the state of metaphysics of his time…; he neither paid attention to, nor examined, the genuinely speculative ideas of older philosophers on the concept of spirit” (ibid).

He begins to clarify what Hegel more specifically means by logic.

“[F]or both Kant and Hegel, the unit of significance for any logic is not the proposition or any static formal structure but acts of reasoning and assertion” (ibid).

“Hegel’s logic does not primarily concern relations among, operations upon, propositions, and is instead oriented from a logic of terms. So we don’t see a syntax specified by axioms, a proof theory, and a semantics” (ibid).

In mainstream 20th century logic, the older term logic was regarded as a mere historical relic. But since the late 20th century, type theory has provided a formulation of term logic in higher-order mathematics that subsumes not only first-order but also higher-order predicate logic, so even in strictly mathematical terms, term logic is once again highly relevant.

“But as becomes clearer in the logic of the Concept, conceptual content is not provided by analysis of atomistically conceived concepts. Concepts are understood, as they were in Kant, as ‘predicates of possible judgments’, and the roles they play in possible judgments in various contexts, involving other concepts, and the roles they can and cannot play in such judgments (including the inferential relations among the judgments) are necessary to specify such concepts. This is why Hegel metaphorically speaks of concepts as alive, in movement, and why the logic’s ‘motion’ is the key to the specification of any concept…. Concepts are rules for judgmental unification, and judgmental unifications are always apperceptive” (p. 45).

“So the structure of concepts in use is the structure of the apperceptive ‘I’ (ibid; see also Ideas Are Not Inert).

“The concept of the Concept, the apperceptive understanding of the implications of this apperceptive structure, is what Hegel calls ‘the Absolute'” (ibid).

He compares Hegel’s view of concepts to that of the contemporary philosopher John McDowell in Mind and World.

“[I]n McDowell’s view we can certainly distinguish thinking from what is thought (the world is not a thought-thing; thinking is a discursive activity; the world is not a discursive activity) and still insist that the world ‘is made up of the sort of things one can think. (That discursive activity is, in its unity, the unity of anything that can be known would be expressed on the ‘object side’ by claiming that a determinate object is articulable as a single unity.) Or, for example, the profound-sounding (even Heideggerian) claim that there is no ontological gap between thought and world just comes down to the fact that ‘one can think, for instance, that spring has begun, and that very same thing, that spring has begun, can be the case’. What I think when I know (think truly) that something is the case is simply what is the case. It is thus a truism of sorts that, with the issue posed in a Kantian way, ‘the forms of thought are the forms of things…. The distinction between ‘conditions on the possibility of knowledge of things’ and ‘conditions on the possibility of things themselves’, which some use to characterize Kantian idealism, should be rejected ‘on the ground that the relevant conditions are inseparably both conditions on the thought and conditions on objects, not primarily either the one or the other'” (p. 47).

Frege said a fact is a true thought. The early Wittgenstein identified the world with what is the case. Aristotle said there is no difference between thought in the strong sense (nous or “intellect”) and that of which it thinks. Pippin quotes Hegel’s implicit invocation of Aristotle on this point:

“The older metaphysics had in this respect a higher concept of thinking than now passes for accepted opinion. For it presupposed as its principle that only what is known of things and in things by thought is really true [wahrhaft Wahre] in them, that is, what is known in them not in their immediacy but as first elevated to the form of thinking, as things of thought. This metaphysics held that thinking and the determination of thinking are not something alien to the subject matters, but rather are their essence, or that the things and the thinking of them agree in and for themselves (also our language expresses a kinship between them); that thinking in its immanent determinations, and the true nature of things, are one and the same content” (p. 48; see also Form and Things).

Pippin points out that Hegel does not simply identify facts with propositions. Rather, in the spirit of Kant’s unities of apperception, he is concerned with “thought’s agreeing with itself” (p. 51). “The force of a judgment is judgment’s own force; it is not a natural force or the result of the accumulation of empirical data” (p. 52). In a footnote Pippin adds that “‘I did it because I thought I ought to’ could be appealed to to make the same point” (ibid).

“A wolf is not simply, in itself, what it is to be a wolf but to some degree or other a better or worse exemplification of such a concept ‘for itself’. The object is not just ‘as it is’; it is ‘for’ (here, in the sense of ‘for the sake of’) its concept and hereby itself…. This is all in keeping with Hegel’s general tendency to gloss his use of for-itself with Aristotle’s notion of an actualized potential” (pp. 54-55).

“To say that an object is ‘for its form’ is just to say that there is an intelligible dynamic in its development. (As in Aristotle, the particular kind of unity by which any thing or process or activity is what it distinctively is is the unity by virtue of which it is intelligible.)…. This intelligible dynamic is its concept and is not something that exists separate from or supervening on some physical attributes and efficient causation. It just is the intelligible way a development develops; there is nothing ‘over and above’ the development” (p. 55).

Pippin quotes Hegel’s Encyclopedia logic where Hegel specifically recalls Aristotle’s criticism of Plato for neglecting the actuality of forms.

“Self” and “other” are inseparably related in the Logic, as they are in the discussion of self-consciousness in the Phenomenology. In the Logic, “‘for itself’ and ‘for an other’ will be reciprocally dependent notions” (p. 56).

For Hegel, a being “is what it is and not anything else (it is ‘in itself’), but only by virtue of the properties that can intelligibly distinguish it from its contraries (can determine what it is ‘for itself’)…. Accordingly, everything… turns on the sweeping claim that ‘truth [the truth of being, the determination of what things truly are] is self-consciousness [the forms of self-conscious judgment]…. This does not claim it exists only as conceived, or that the conceiving on which its determinacy depends should be understood as subjective mental episodes” (pp. 56-57).

“Thought can determine its objects, but not by appeal to the light of reason, not ‘immediately’…. Much more will have to be said about this, but it will be very important to Hegel that to consider things in their intelligibility is also and at the same time to consider them in terms of the only beings for whom beings can be intelligible, rational beings” (p. 57).

Pippin says that Hegel rejects Kant’s “distinction between things considered in their possible intelligibility and things considered simply as they are in themselves” (p. 58). He again notes that Hegel is neither simply identifying things with thoughts nor identifying thought’s self-determination with anything like the Absolute’s knowledge of itself.

“[T]he initial, simple point at issue now is that anything’s being at all would be mere indeterminate and indistinguishable being were it not conceptually determinate, articulable — in the simplest sense, an instance of a concept” (p. 59).

“And this raises Hegel’s main question in the Logic: how to account for conceptual content…. The answer to that question will depend on two very difficult elements in Hegel’s project: … that the form of the concept is the form of the self, and that, accordingly, truth is self-consciousness; and the claim that the way to understand this content is to understand these concepts as ‘self-negating’, but in a way that promises a positive result” (ibid).

Form and Things

I use the word “thing” in a very general sense for anything at all — real, ideal, or imaginary; abstract or concrete; including properties, actions, processes, and adverbial characteristics.

Kant controversially wanted to assume that things of all sorts have definite ways that they objectively are “in themselves”, i.e., completely independent of our experience and knowledge of them. But for him, there is inevitably a gap between our knowledge and reality. Every attempt to ignore or overleap that gap he called dogmatism. This was his way of practicing what I have called epistemic modesty, or the ethical virtue of avoiding unfounded knowledge claims. When we don’t know, we go ahead and act based on the best beliefs we have, while in principle remaining open to the possibility that our belief may require revision.

Hegel and others have worried that there is something wrong with Kant’s way of expressing the situation — with this gap between knowledge and reality that is inevitable and even virtuous for Kant. Some of Kant’s remarks make it sound as if reality as it really is and our experience could be two entirely nonoverlapping realms. If this were true, Kant’s position could be seen as leading to skepticism, or the conclusion that genuine knowledge of reality is impossible.

Kant himself would have resisted this conclusion with all his might. He does believe we have genuine knowledge; he just wants us to be very careful about what we claim to know. For Kant, genuine knowledge does not require access to things in themselves; rather, it keeps within the bounds of possible experience. It minimally designates an objectivity toward experience, consisting in the absence of dogmatism and an unceasing effort toward unity of apperception.

Hegel agrees with Kant in opposing dogmatism and emphasizing the effort toward unity of apperception. His strongest opposition to Kant’s talk of things in themselves assumes that “in themselves” means “in isolation”, as it would under the Wolffian view (rejected by both Kant and Hegel) that all knowledge is analytical. Hegel emphasizes that unities of apperception are not just individual but also shared. At the same time, he revives the Aristotelian idea that thoughts should be distinguished as forms or meanings shareable in principle with any rational being, and that as such, they are whatever they are independent of subjective presentation. This makes it quite reasonable for Aristotle and Hegel to claim that the form or meaning that is properly being thought is the very same as the form or meaning that is being thought about.

An analogous identity certainly does not apply to experience or consciousness. To assert that would be dogmatism in Kant’s sense. The thought that Aristotle and Hegel identify with form or meaning is not a kind of consciousness. The most fundamental characteristic of consciousness for Hegel is the separation of subject and object, whereas in thought proper there is no such separation, only a succession of forms. In Hegel, the gap between consciousness and its objects takes the place of the gap between knowledge and reality in Kant, and similarly commends to us a practice of epistemic modesty in life.

Another dimension of epistemic modesty in Aristotle and Hegel has to do with the non-univocal character of form in Aristotle, and with Hegel’s repeated warnings about the “falsity” of all fixed representations. Form is said in several ways in Aristotle, e.g., sensible form, mathematical form, linguistic meaning, and the life or soul of a living being. Of these the first two are univocal, but the last two are not.

From the point of view of form, we take a deflationary view of “things”. Things — like the thing in itself in Kant — are in a strict sense indexes delimiting our ignorance rather than univocal “objects” of knowledge.

The fact that our ignorance is delimited means it is not total. We do have knowledge, but insofar as either proper knowledge or Hegelian spirit has “objects”, those objects lack univocal identity.

Emancipatory Logic?

When it comes to Hegel’s “logic” the first question is, what does it really aim at? What is it even trying to do? Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows (2019) is the best attempt to answer this I have found so far.

“[Hegel] seems to promise something quite extraordinary and, no doubt to contemporary ears, something quite implausible, a treatment of ‘logic’ in some way in service of an emancipatory ideal — an emancipatory logic, of all things” (p. 24).

To briefly anticipate, it will be emancipatory in addressing the Aristotelian actualization of Kantian freedom.

“[T]he most important element in Hegel’s fulfilling such an ambition… is a ‘science of pure thinking’. What any thinking does is to render something intelligible, a task that, as we shall see, has many different dimensions and is inseparable from the giving of reasons. But, as we have also noted, to say what something is, or to explain why something happened, or to understand the point or purpose of anything, is not just to present a picture or grasp a content. It is to judge, something always open to challenge and interrogation” (p. 20).

What Hegel calls pure thinking is concerned with and exhibits the general shape of the space of reasons.

“Eventually… we would need a fully reflective account of the ‘ground of giving grounds’…. In the practical domain, in Kant and the post-Kantians, I am free when I am acting on reasons about what ought to be done. This is a form of self-consciousness that, according to Kant, is paradigmatically embodied when I act wholly on reasons, and not just prudently or instrumentally, as when I act for the sake of ends I have not rationally determined I ought to have” (p. 21).

Put another way, all our reasons ought to trace back to the highest good. When our reasons stop at some partial good, we are not yet free.

“[I]n just the same sense as Hegel will want to treat concept and intuition in experience as distinct but inseparable, he will want to say that so-called ‘material’ issues… are inseparable from forms of self-understanding, as inseparable as such forms are from their material embodiment” (p. 22).

Hegel’s strong emphasis on actuality and actualization leads him to see something like Aristotelian hylomorphism (inseparability of form and matter) in places where Kant tended to see dualities. For Hegel as for Aristotle, our true intent is expressed by what we actually did.

Pippin quotes the Phenomenology Preface’s statement that the task of modernity “consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal by means of the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts” (p. 24).

“Hegel’s unease with [the dominance of fixed representations] is what begat those familiar later claims about the ‘ideological’ nature of bourgeois philosophy, the one-dimensionality of modern societies, the dominance of ‘identity thinking’, the crisis of the European sciences, the colonization of the life-world, and so forth. And while all such critiques can be traced back to Hegel, he does not make the case for such limitations by contrast with a positive or utopian theory, as is the case in many of these examples” (p. 25).

Hegel aims at a purely immanent development of self-critical understanding, in which forms of spirit all on their own eventually exhibit their own incompleteness and one-sidedness, rather than being claimed to fall short of some external ideal.

“Stated in the simplest possible terms, Hegel’s diagnosis of the fix we have gotten ourselves into consists in the claim that we have not properly understood how to understand ourselves and the social and natural world in which we dwell. This is not, though, because we have simply been regularly mistaken, the victim of false philosophies, wrong ideas. It is due to the inevitable partiality and one-sidedness of various ruling concepts (let us say, for shorthand, norms for explanation and justification, the normative structures of the ‘space of reasons’)” (p. 26).

The solution is not a matter of simply substituting more correct first-order beliefs. Of far greater import are our higher-order ways of thinking, judging, and assessing.

“Moreover, the problem is not the contents of our beliefs but the way we have come to collectively regulate what is believable…. Our norms for authoritative explanations and for how we justify ourselves to each other are imbricated in the everyday fabric of a form of life” (p. 28).

“Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Hegel’s basic claim… is that we have not properly understood the ‘grammar’ of spirit (the logic of self-relation, both individual and collective, that makes up spirit), and this is connected with our failure to understand the grammar of possible renderings-intelligible or account-givings in general…. And it would also not be an exaggeration to say that, for Hegel, once we do understand it, we (at least we philosophers) will be freed from the illusion that some particular form of account-giving (like modern Verstand [understanding based on simple fixed predications]) could be taken to be ‘absolute’; the proper relativization (historically and systematically) of different accounts of account-giving will have been made. Or, stated in its most surprising form: Hegelian philosophy has no distinct doctrine of its own; its content is the right understanding of past attempts at account-giving in their limitations and interconnection” (p. 30).

This notion of a “grammar” of spirit is quite fascinating. “Self-relation” is at the heart of Hegel’s often misunderstood talk about the “true infinite”. Hegel wants to say that the ordinary grammar of subject and predicate as fixed terms is not a very good form for expressing thought, because it lacks “life”. Pure thought for Hegel involves moving beyond all fixed terms. Self-relation involves no substantive “self”, only the purely relational character of an always re-emerging unity of apperception. Freedom for Hegel has a kind of grounding in the “true infinite”, but this has nothing to do with an infinite power. What makes self-relatedness “infinite” is its relations-first character, which does not depend on any pre-given fixing of ground-level terms. For Hegel, higher-order form is more primary than first-order form. First-order terms are degenerate cases, not foundational instances.

“Apperceptive spontaneity is not understood as a subjective mental activity, opposed to or addressed to or imposed on what there is…. If we understand this properly, we understand apperceptive spontaneity ‘in its actuality’, as having ‘given itself’ its own actuality, the actuality of the intelligibles, what there is” (p. 35).

What is free in us is not a separate faculty of decision-making, but the open-endedness of the basis of our understanding. For Hegel, there is no gap between understanding and action. What we really understood or didn’t understand is made publicly interpretable by our action. Meanwhile, what there is is inseparable from the intelligibility of that “what”.

Pippin notes that the original context for talk about “spontaneity” in Kant was the latter’s insistence against the tradition that thought is entirely active in character. Thought for Kant includes no moment of passive receptivity, and therefore generates and is responsible for all of its own content. Hegel adopts this perspective.

“Put in terms of the history of philosophy, what all of this will amount to is an attempt by Hegel at a highly unusual synthesis of the Kantian revolution in philosophy, especially the anti-empiricist, self-grounding character of reason (aka ‘the Concept’), and the most important Kantian innovation, the spontaneity of thinking, together with essential elements of Aristotle’s understanding of metaphysics, especially the Aristotelian notions of energeia, which Hegel translates as Wirklichkeit, actuality, the proper object of first philosophy, and, as we have seen, the core of the classical view that ‘nous’ [intellect] rules the world, all in contrast to the rationalist metaphysics of nonsensible objects accessible to pure reason alone. Hegel is no metaphysician in this rationalist sense, but he is most certainly a metaphysician in the Aristotelian sense. That is, at any rate, the thesis of the following book” (ibid).

It is refreshing to see metaphysics treated as something other than an ahistorical lump extending from Parmenides to the present. Later common usage has diverged so far from the meaning of Aristotelian first philosophy that I prefer not to call the latter “metaphysics” at all, but that term loses its objectionable connotations insofar as the reference is tied to something specifically Aristotelian.

I think recognizing that Hegel fundamentally aimed to combine Kantian and Aristotelian insights in a principled way is essential for grasping what he was really about. But to even have the perspective that such an aim makes sense requires work on the interpretation of both Aristotle and Kant; one would never come up with it based on textbook stereotypes.

More than any other commentator, Pippin has developed both the Kantian and the Aristotelian dimensions of Hegel. Later in the current book, he will have more to say specifically about Hegel’s post-Kantian recovery of Aristotelian teleology.

(He says in passing that the earliest precedents for Kant’s view that thought and reason are never purely passive are from the late 16th century. That is not quite right. Alain de Libera has documented that the foremost medieval commentator on Aristotle, Averroes, explicitly interpreted Aristotle as saying that the so-called potential intellect has an “activity” of its own and is not purely passive. In fact, even sense perception is not just passive in Aristotle. Aristotle’s remarks about the synthesizing role of the “common” sense and “inner” sense are unfortunately extremely sketchy, but it seems beyond doubt that they do have a synthesizing role.)

Teleology After Kant

Kant is responsible for recovering something like the modesty stemming from deep seriousness with which Plato and Aristotle approached claims of knowledge, though I don’t think he realized just how far they were from the dogmatism that broadly characterizes the intervening tradition. Kant indeed often speaks as if all previous philosophy had a dogmatic cast. I don’t think the tradition between the times of Aristotle and Kant was the uniform sea of dogmatic positions that Kant makes it out to be, either, but I agree that a dogmatic cast was dominant.

Kant also goes further than Aristotle or even Plato in positively asserting a principled basis for limiting claims to knowledge. Plato emphasizes sharp distinctions between appearance and reality. Aristotle is more inclined to emphasize that we do after all indirectly encounter something real in and through appearances, but he is in agreement with Plato (and Kant) that there is no magical overleaping of the fact that what we experience directly are only appearances.

For all three of them, knowledge in a strong sense could only be a product of the indirect work of reason reflecting on experience. Aristotle further emphasizes the variability of things in the world, and the large role of ambiguity in experience. Kant on the other hand is still beholden to the early modern assumption that knowledge ought to be subject to a completely univocal account. But his notions of synthesis are a great contribution to the understanding of how experience works — how “immediate” experience is a result of pre-conscious processes of constitution. In a nutshell, this is the additional principled basis for limiting knowledge claims that we owe to Kant.

With extremely broad brush, it could be said that Hegel takes up the Kantian emphasis that experience is a result of processes of synthesis but, unlike Kant, he also wants to emphasize that synthesis is not a self-contained activity of each individual. At the same time, he takes the more Aristotelian perspective that we really do indirectly encounter reality in and through appearances. For Hegel, to deny this would be to deny the possibility of knowledge altogether.

Hegel sees synthesis taking place at the level of what he calls spirit — i.e., the level of the universal community of rational beings across space and time, of shareable thought contents, and of broadly (but not entirely) shared values. But he also recognizes Aristotelian variability and ambiguity. At this extremely high level of generality, Hegel is a Kantian Aristotelian or an Aristotelian Kantian. Spirit for Hegel transcends nature, without being opposed to it.

In the Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel glosses reason as purposeful activity, while sympathetically referring to Aristotle’s view of nature as purposeful activity. In the Science of Logic, he carefully distinguishes the internal kind of teleology Aristotle attributed to nature from the external kind that refers particular events to the will of God. He distinguishes three kinds of determination. Mechanism and “spiritual mechanism” determine things from outside, in ways that are indifferent to their specific character or content. An intermediate form he calls “chemism” determines things from outside in ways that do involve their specific character or content. These are both contrasted to teleology, which according to Hegel is the internal determination of things by what I at least would call their nature or essence.

For Hegel, mechanism and chemism together represent means by which ends are realized. He explicitly identifies these with efficient causes operating in ways ultimately subordinate to final causes. I was unaware of this when I previously glossed the Aristotelian efficient cause as fundamentally a means by which an end is realized, but it is nice to know it has Hegel’s concurrence.

For Hegel, the external determination of things is subordinate to their internal or “self”-determination. Self-determination meanwhile is anything but the result of arbitrary will; it develops out of the concrete detail of the “self-relatedness” in which the very forms of things consist. He treats this as an elaboration of the Phenomenology Preface’s assertion that “substance is also subject”.

The very essence or substance of things is able to act in subject-like ways, because form for Hegel is explainable in terms of self-relatedness. Meanwhile, Science of Logic translator George di Giovanni notes that Hegel’s selbst or “self” has no interpretation in German as a noun. As I would put it, “self” is purely adverbial and relational, and therefore is constituted in what Hegel in the Phenomenology Preface calls otherness. So, for Hegel the primacy of internal determination is perfectly compatible with the logical primacy of otherness. “Self” refers to a constitution in otherness, rather than being opposed to it. From the start, Hegelian otherness is conceived as beyond any naive opposition between a substantive self and what is other than it.

Thus Hegel can be seen as more thoroughly vindicating the content of Aristotelian internal teleology from a Kantian point of view. Kant himself made an important start at this in the Critique of Judgment, but qualified the legitimate application of internal teleology to nature as ultimately only having a heuristic value useful to our understanding, that would not be literally applicable to nature as it is in itself. Hegel in the Science of Logic carefully and at length develops objectivity out of something like what I would call reasonable interpretation, and on this basis recovers a valid notion of internal teleology as something real. This notion of objectivity as something constituted is a further development of another Kantian theme. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity.)

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.)

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 Teleology After Kant.)

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.)