Place of a Preface

The preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology famously maintains that the conventional notion of a preface (e.g., “say what you are going to say”) is inapplicable to serious work in philosophy. There is an air of paradox about this, because in some sense he goes on to do what he just said was impossible. Hegel’s preface does summarize key conclusions of the book, but Hegel wants to make it clear that any such summary can at best be what Kant would call a dogmatic anticipation of real philosophical work yet to be done (in Brandom’s phrase, a “promissory note”).

I would note that this also reflects Hegel’s deep Aristotelianism. The way ideas are developed counts for much more than the way in which they are introduced. Aristotle did not follow the “say what you are going to say” model. Instead, he would begin with broad orienting remarks, a preliminary demarcation of subject matter, and a survey of common or leading views on the subject. Beginnings are the least certain part of a work; real substance emerges — if at all — from extensive development.

Of course it is possible to refer to an extensive development without producing or reproducing it in-line, but the relative soundness of such references depends on the soundness of the development and its applicability.

Simplicity is a pedagogical virtue that helps us on the uptake, but ultimately it cannot be the criterion of clarity. Real clarity comes from manifest interlinkages in a development that can be assessed independent of asserted conclusions (see Aristotelian Demonstration).

In his commentary, Harris says “The most important part here is Hegel’s insistence that the results of a science — whether it be philosophical or empirical — cannot be separated from the process (the Ausf├╝hrung, or ‘execution’) by which they are reached” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 36). One of Hegel’s minor headings in the preface reads: “The principle is not the conclusion — against Formalism” (quoted on p. 48).

“We have a paradox here. The philosophical truth is absolute; but we have to hear it from one who is like ourselves. In this sphere, all particular situations are equally contingent. The philosopher, addressing her peers, will begin with this problem of how someone who accepts the finite human status can claim to say what is absolutely true — because that was precisely the problem that philosophy faced when the Phenomenology of Spirit was conceived. The philosopher and her peers, however, are not ‘in the midst of things’ in the way that the rest of us are. When she writes a book, she must take account of how we, the literate audience, are in medias res [in the midst of things]. Yet neither her situation nor ours is of any concern to philosophy as a systematic Science. For philosophy itself it is only the pure structure of ‘being in the midst of things’ that can be a possible starting point” (pp. 33-34).

Aristotelian Demonstration

Demonstration is literally a showing. For Aristotle, its main purpose is associated with learning and teaching, rather than proof. Its real objective is not Stoic or Cartesian certainty “that” something is true, but the clearest possible understanding of the substantive basis for definite conclusions, based on a grasping of reasons.

Aristotle’s main text dealing with demonstration, the Posterior Analytics, is not about epistemology or foundations of knowledge, although it touches on these topics. Rather, it is about the pragmatics of improving our informal semantic understanding by formal means.

For Aristotle, demonstration uses the same logical forms as dialectic, but unlike dialectic — which does not make assumptions ahead of time whether the hypotheses or opinions it examines are true, but focuses on explicating their inferential meaning — demonstration is about showing reasons and reasoning behind definite conclusions. Dialectic is a kind of conditional forward-looking interpretation based on consequences, while demonstration is a kind of backward-looking interpretation based on premises. Because demonstration’s practical purpose has to do with exhibiting the basis for definite conclusions, it necessarily seeks sound premises, or treats its premises as sound, whereas dialectic is indifferent to the soundness of the premises it analyzes in terms of their consequences.

We are said to know something in Aristotle’s stronger sense when we can clearly explain why it is the case, so demonstration is connected with knowledge. This connection has historically led to much misunderstanding. In the Arabic and Latin commentary traditions, demonstration was interpreted as proof. The Posterior Analytics was redeployed as an epistemological model for “science” based on formal deduction, understood as the paradigm for knowledge, while the role of dialectic and practical judgment in Aristotle was greatly downplayed. (See also Demonstrative “Science”?; Searching for a Middle Term; Plato and Aristotle Were Inferentialists; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Belief; Foundations?; Brandom on Truth.)