Observing Reason

Hegel had suggested that a Fichtean idealism ends up attempting to fill out its extreme abstraction by ad hoc adoption of a complementary Lockean empiricism. He goes on to treat something like Lockean empiricism, under the title of “Observing Reason”. The bulk of Hegel’s discussion ends up focusing on the empirical study of organic nature, with brief remarks on attempts to define psychological “laws of thought” and other psychological “laws”. Then he turns to physical anthropology, polemicizing at length against the old pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology, which purported to make predictions about human character from body types and skull shapes. Here we also reach the end of the first volume of Harris’ commentary on the Phenomenology, subtitled “The Pilgrimage of Reason”. The concluding second volume will be “The Odyssey of Spirit”.

Hegel dwells at length on the concept of organism, taking up Kant’s practical vindication of Aristotelian teleology in biology. The unity of an organism has to do with a pure “purpose” internal to the organism. None of its particular observable characteristics turn out to be essential in themselves; rather, they all have a fundamentally relational character. In Force and Understanding he had argued that mathematical physical law is purely relational; here he treats an organism as a purely relational unity held together by an internal “purpose”. Force and Understanding had been concerned with the formal unity of the physical world; the notion of organism introduces the notion of individuation within a world. Hegel picturesquely says that animals actively individuate themselves — distinguish themselves from the surrounding world — by means of their teeth and claws. By comparison, plants in their “quiescence” have only a minimal kind of individuality. Previously, he had quipped that animals must be unimpressed by the putative separateness of objects, because without ceremony they fall to and gobble them up.

Harris says in his commentary, “Observing Reason is a ‘return’ of Sense-Certainty and Perception together, because it is concerned with the ‘essence’ of real things. It wants to conceptualize them, but it is naive, like the Understanding” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 474).

“Locke’s standpoint differs from that of Sense-Certainty and Perception, both because he insists that the mind can know only its own ideas, and because what he calls the ‘plain historical method’ is a descriptive technique that aims to uncover the universal laws and principles of rational epistemology” (p. 475). The world is “stripped” to the pure concept of “matter or extension” (p. 476). “Here at the beginning we are faced by a Reason that wants to know not itself, but the world of things” (p. 477).

In the context of organic nature, “[Hegel] is now going to show us that the Kantian concept of mathematical schematism (which is a direct descendant of Gailleo’s distinction [between primary and secondary qualities of bodies]) fails completely as a bridge between the observed data and the conceptual structures used by the scientific ‘observers’. The observing consciousness of Reason itself is now going to learn what we learned when we observed the perceptual consciousness. It will learn that the thing is a Hegelian concept, (not a Galilean or Lockean one). The consciousness we are observing will discover that the [Galilean or Lockean “thing”] cannot correspond to Reason because it is essentially and necessarily dead” (p. 478).

(I confess I don’t recognize the reference to Kantian “schematism” as mathematical; I think of Kantian schematism more generally as a mediation between sensible “intuition” and conceptual thought through imagination.)

“Everywhere it observes things; but what it seeks is their Concept, or the law of their behavior…. It will observe first the natural world, then itself (as subjective spirit); and finally it will observe the relation between subjective spirit and its natural embodiment. But because the object of observation must always be a stably inert Gestalt, an observable thing, the results achieved become less satisfactory at every step” (pp. 478-479).

“[T]he ‘immediacy’ of the standpoint means that we are not observing it in the proper way…. Consciousness must first descend ‘into its own depth’. Thinking must discover what it is, as an activity; it must discover the dialectical logic that is its own ‘living spirit'” (p. 479). But this is only a beginning.

“The logical priority of ‘consciousness’ as the ‘own proper shape’ of Reason can only be established by the reductio ad absurdum of the alternate route through ‘things’. It must be established in this way, because the structure of ‘consciousness’ determines that Reason will naturally begin by trying to find itself in ‘things’…. Hence it is part of the object of the present chapter to show that we cannot make a direct descent into the depths of consciousness as subjectivity. If we try to do this (as Kant and Fichte did) what we discover is only an abstract essence of Reason that is perfectly valid, but almost completely useless. Its only real use will be to serve as the guiding light for the subsequent descent into the depths of our cultural world. We have to experience both the quest for the ‘essence of things’ and the quest for the ‘essence of consciousness’ before we can properly embark upon the discovery of the self in its thing-world” (ibid).

Harris develops Hegel’s distinction between inert “representations” of “things” and active thought. “The controlling conception in Hegel’s mind is the self-individuation of the Aristotelian form” (p. 486).

In this context of organic nature, Harris notes Hegel’s general preference for Plato and Aristotle over Newton, and thinks Hegel also takes from Aristotle the less fortunate view that nature has no history. I take Aristotle’s remarks about the “eternity” of species, the motions of the stars, etc., as having the valid pragmatic sense that such things had not been observed to change within living social memory. (I note also that Plato in the Laws already suggested that organic species do in fact come to be and perish.) Hegel defends Aristotelian “internal” teleology, while rejecting both the biological mechanism of Descartes and the “external” teleology of the argument from design used by Newton and others. Purposefulness for Hegel does not presuppose a mind (p. 502).

In spite of his criticisms of philosophical empiricism, Hegel defends the importance of empirical verification of hypotheses. Harris actually calls Hegel a “spiritual empiricist” in both natural science and ethics (p. 490). He says that Hegelian “necessity” is neither physical nor formal, but “logical” in Hegel’s sense. Hegel is much more concerned to criticize the “formalism” of philosophies of nature developed by followers of Schelling than actual scientific work.

In spite of the importance of “Life” in contrast to “dead” things in Hegel’s view, he has no use for vitalism. “Life is not more on the ‘inside’ of the organism than it is on the ‘outside’…. It is the ‘general fluidity’ within which the parts and organs of the body are formed and dissolved…. Observing Reason makes the Newtonian mistake of granting priority to visible stability” (p. 507). Hegel discusses notions of “sensibility” and “irritability” current in the biology of his time, adding in his own notions of “fluidity” and “elasticity”. He is very skeptical about “laws” in biology.

Between remarks on zoology and psychology, Hegel briefly (and dismissively) discusses so-called “laws of thought”. These relate to the early modern tradition of psychologizing in logic. With somewhat different motivation, Hegel anticipates Frege and Husserl’s rejection of such “psychologism”.

He also has no use for early modern psychology. In Harris’ summary, “Observational psychology operates with a mechanical toy that is all in pieces, so that the soul is observed and discussed like a bag full of loose bits” (p. 562). Hegel adds some sympathetic remarks on biography before launching a devastating critique of the now-forgotten pretensions of physiognomy and phrenology to discern purely physical indications of human character. What is important in the last is his general contention that even animal behavior cannot be adequately explained in a purely mechanistic way.

In spite of all of this, the idea of “observing” the objective dimension of a self in its concrete actualization in the world as contrasted with any direct intuition of pure interiority will turn out to have pivotal importance in the development to come. This is in fact how we experience others, and how others experience us. For Hegel it is our shared experience of one another rather than anyone’s private experience that is the basis of ethics. (See also Individuality, Community.)

Biological Diversity

Modern biology provides an abundance of empirical evidence that things like populations and ecosystems need diversity to flourish. Inbreeding leads to all sorts of genetic defects; monoculture crops and other simplified environments are more vulnerable to pests, and generally far less able to recover on their own when disturbed.

In a more reflective, interpretive vein closer to ordinary experience, Aristotle already documented the tremendous variety exhibited in nature. Species are not somehow pre-given, but rather to be discerned and understood in terms of specific ways of meeting very general needs.

The fact that there is a superabundance of such ways in nature is one of the most basic observations we can make. Nature as we concretely experience it is much more characterized by this superabundance and diversity than by univocal necessity of the kind we find in mathematics. For Aristotle, an emphasis on this superabundance and diversity goes hand-in-hand with a perspective that looks to purely natural ends and means as more primary in the order of explanation than mechanical metaphors.

This suggests a broader paradigm of intelligibility, reason, and objectivity than the one grounded in mathematics, univocity, and simple necessity. Emotional reasonableness is a real thing that is not at all reducible to formal logic. Similarly, intelligibility, reason, and objectivity in general have a practical reality that should not be understood as requiring a univocal foundation. (See also Bounty of Nature; Equivocal Determination; Multiple Explanations.)

Hermeneutic Biology?

Aristotle’s biological works are quite fascinating and lively. They contain abundant experiential reports, including some hearsay, intermixed with thoughtful reflection. Ultimately it is the reflective aspect that gives them their enduring value.

Sometimes, the content is surprising. For instance, book 1 of Parts of Animals is the place where he thoroughly criticizes the notion of classification by dichotomy. With concrete illustrations from the animal kingdom, he shows that commonly recognized kinds cannot be arrived at by successive dichotomous distinctions. Aristotelian distinction is n-ary rather than binary, pluralist rather than dualist.

Elsewhere (Metaphysics 982b) he famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. At Parts of Animals 645a, he added, “We therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous: and as Heraclitus, when strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful. Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in natures’s works in the highest degree, and the end for which those works are put together and produced is a form of the beautiful” (Complete Works, revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 1004; see also Natural Ends; Sentience).

Natural Ends

Early modern science sought to banish consideration of ends from the empirical world, in favor of purely mathematical and factual description. Kant recovered a heuristic use of teleology, especially in biology (see Kant’s Recovery of Ends), and numerous more recent biological researchers have followed suit.

It is relatively easy to see that any kind of desire (say on the part of an animal) is a desire for something that is usually more general than a concrete object that satisfies the desire. More broadly, living things can also plausibly be said to have indwelling tendencies of nutrition and reproduction.

The case of inorganic nature is a bit more challenging for us to understand this way, but where modern science sees abstract mathematical-physical laws in operation, the effect of which may be modified by various circumstances, Aristotle saw concrete material tendencies for things to develop in certain ways, subject to similar modifications. At a certain level of abstraction, observable material tendencies can be viewed as “moving” things in a way broadly analogous to desire. The heavy object “wants” to fall. This just refers back to the observed fact that heavy objects have a tendency to fall, when not impeded by something else. At a level of common-sense interpretation of experience, this does not lead to any false conclusions.

There is no reason why the mathematical-law description and the material-tendency description cannot coexist. The predictive power of mathematically formulated laws makes them invaluable for engineering applications. But for ordinary life, what we are usually interested in are qualitative distinctions that have practical significance.

Thus, in addition to rational ends, there seem to be three kinds or degrees of natural ends or endlike things: ends of desire; primitive vital ends; and endlike tendencies associated with Aristotelian matter of various kinds and descriptions. (See also Ends; Aristotelian Matter.)

The Animal’s Leg Joint

In De Motu Animalium, Aristotle says there is an unmoved mover in the animal’s leg joint, and proceeds to a geometrical description of the axis of rotation of the joint. More famously, he says there are unmoved movers in the apparent motion of the fixed stars and planets, and there too associates them with geometrical axes of circular motions. What is going on here? This is a good illustration of several points.

First, Aristotle is perfectly happy to use mathematics in natural science. (He just correctly judged that early Greek arithmetic and geometry generally had little to contribute to the intelligibility of becoming, and wisely objected to the Pythagorean numerology that found a place in the Platonic Academy.)

Second, there is nothing mysterious about what he calls an unmoved mover. In the best-known cases, it refers to something that is in fact not only observable but mathematically describable. (This is not the only way a concept can have value, but that is not the point here.)

Third, he calls the unmoved mover a “mover” in the sense that it is the descriptive law or form of the physical motion in question, not a driving impulse or force. In a similar move, Leibniz famously said God is the law of the series.