A Logic of Being?

We’ve reached part 2 of Robert Pippin’s important Hegel’s Realm of Shadows. Despite recently mentioned peripheral caveats, I’m enormously impressed with the way he makes sense of Hegel’s Science of Logic, possibly the most difficult philosophical work ever written.

He now begins a high-level survey of the three separate “logics” Hegel develops. It is essential to Hegel’s scheme that the first two will be regarded as failures in the explanation of what is involved in making things intelligible. For Hegel, failures of thought play an essential, irreducible role in the attainment of new insights. The perspectives achieved by thought are not “refuted” by other perspectives external to those achieved; instead, the achieved perspectives metaphorically “discover” their own inability to solve their own problems.

We’ve already seen the first move of the first of these failed accounts of what it is to be intelligible, the logic of being.

Hegel uses the further development of this account as a vehicle for discussing the Kantian categories of quantity and quality. If his first point was that being qua being is utterly sterile because intelligibility depends on the ability to make definite determinations, the elaboration begins to show the relational character of all determination, and at the same time the failure of any simple assertion of properties of things (“judgment”, in the severely truncated early modern form that reduces it to predication) to adequately make those things intelligible.

Pippin does not go into detail on Hegel’s lengthy discussion of quantity and quality, so for instance there is no more mention of the issue about good and bad infinity, though this is where Hegel treats it. Pippin reserves the most space for the final logic of the concept that is supposed to be successful, and gives the least to the logic of being, which according to Hegel is the least adequate.

In discussing the logic of being, Pippin is mainly concerned to extract takeaway points relevant to understanding the high-level “movement” of Hegel’s logic as a whole. I have been highlighting his suggestion that this notorious “logical motion” is teleological in a genuinely Aristotelian sense, rather than being either deductive, or somehow univocally driven forward by contradiction. It is all oriented toward the merely hypothetical necessity of what is required if we aim to reach a deeper truth. Pippin is at pains to point out that for Hegel as for Aristotle, every teleological actualization involves contingency.

“The idea is to begin with the thought of anything at all, in its immediate indeterminacy, simply being, Sein. But the thought of anything at all is not the thought of anything…. Nothing is excluded, so nothing is included…. It is a failed thought, not the thought of this failure or even just the enactment of the failure. This is the beginning of everything of significance in the Logic; it (the thought of Sein being nothing other than Nichts [nothing]) is the reflective relation to what is being thought that is inseparable from anything possibly being thought. It is thought’s apperceptive moment…. Just thereby, thinking is thinking its failure to be thinking, not thinking of a strange object, Nichts. It is only in this sense that the first moment has a second moment, a realization of what thinking must be to be thinking of anything” (p. 186).

“Such a reflective determination reveals both that such putative immediate indeterminacy must itself already be a determination, and that such a putative content, anything at all in its immediate indeterminacy, has not been transformed, has not ‘become’ Nichts, but that it always already was” (p. 187).

“Hegel here is doing something like making a case for, or at least in some way showing us, the apperceptively discursive nature of any possible discursive intelligibility. This also means that in judging anything, I am always also implicitly holding open the possibility of the self-correcting of judging…. Or, any judgment always implicitly applies, is implicitly applying, the concept of judgment to itself” (p. 189).

That apperceptive judgment always implicitly applies the concept of judgment to itself follows from its apperceptive, reflective nature. To be apperceptively reflective is to be self-referential, Pippin has been saying.

“As Kant insisted, in any such case I must be able to ‘stand above’ what I judged and what I now judge correctly and take the latter to be a correction of the former in order for it to be that, a correction. Otherwise, there is just a succession of episodes. This is why he could say that the understanding, the power of claiming, is the synthetic unity of apperception (in the same way, I am ultimately claiming in this book, Hegel is claiming that what he calls the concept is the synthetic unity of apperception)” (ibid).

“This also means, as we have been stressing, that given certain concepts of the power of knowing — say, a knowing that must be indeterminate and immediate, a ‘resolve’ to begin with such a notion — we already have thereby the concept of the object of such pure knowing, Being. If we are talking about a case of knowing, as we are, the two are, must be, inseparable…. There is no question, here or anywhere in the Logic, of the need to ‘move’ from the order of knowing to the order of being. If that were claimed to be necessary, how would we have begun with a case of knowing?” (pp. 189-190).

This intimate connection between the form of knowing and the object of knowing is Hegel’s alternative to the difficult “transcendental deduction” by which Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason aims to establish that the categories of thought really are relevant to experience. Pippin suggests that Hegel generally reinterprets Kantian dualities as cases of Aristotelian hylomorphism, and notes that even Kant occasionally makes remarks tending in this direction. In this particular case, reinterpreting the duality as a hylomorphism eliminates the “gap” between thought and being that in Kant creates the need for the transcendental deduction.

I confess, though, that it was not obvious to me that we had begun with a case of knowing. I have trouble identifying any kind of failed thought or thought that fails to have a content with knowing; I am not used to recognizing the possibility of an empty “knowing”.

But we are at least implicitly talking about an instance of thought here, even if it is a degenerate instance. Pippin is arguing that even that failed, empty thought must still be self-referential, just in being a case of thought in Hegel’s sense at all. By virtue of its form as thought or apperceptive judgment, it is already reflectively turned back on itself. I think Pippin is suggesting that that turning back on itself counts as a kind of knowing at the meta level, even though the thought failed at ground level.

“[T]here is no objection in Kant or among the relevant post-Kantians, in their denial that thinking is a kind of perceiving or primarily receptive, to the general form of such claims as ‘I know it because I saw it’, especially because that is the invitation to establishing that it can be seen by anyone…. But for thinking as such, there is nothing like: ‘I know that is the essence because I had an essence-intuition…'” (p. 190).

I am more reserved about claims like “I know it because I saw it”. Plato would not accept this as an instance of knowledge, and I am inclined to follow suit. I would say, “I believe it with confidence because I saw it”. But Pippin makes a good point here about the implicit invitation to treat this as the claim that it could be seen by anyone.

As I have noted before, what I prefer to call belief and others call a form of immediate, noninferential empirical “knowledge” are not just arbitrary assertions. Though we arrive at such beliefs “spontaneously” (in the ordinary sense, which is nearly the inverse of the Kantian sense), after the fact it is always possible to ask about the reasons for them.

I am claiming that after the fact, it should always be possible to express something of why we believe what we do. “Because I saw it” is not a reason, but a reiteration that it appeared that way to me. Intrinsically, it has no more value than “because I said so”. The kind of reasons that can be provided in this case will be persuasive (or, in Aristotle’s usage, “probable”) to some degree or other, but also potentially refutable. Typically they will take the form of more detailed claims about what we saw.

“Fichte insists on the same point that is made in the first move in the Logic… by pointing out the difference logically between ‘A’ and ‘A = A’. For the latter, we need… an ‘I’ that is ‘= I’…. But this identification is something done, a Tat [deed], the equivalent here of ‘bringing contents to the unity of apperception’ in Kant’s account, an active unifying necessary for the I to be continuously that I in experience” (p. 191).

As Aristotle pointed out, merely saying something (“A”, “Being”, or whatever) is not yet saying something about something, which turns out to be the minimal condition for truth or falsity. This formulation points to some kind of self-relatedness in the attitude toward content that seems to be a minimal condition for any kind of assertion. This self-relatedness in the content of assertions seems to be related to the inherent self-referentiality of thought for which Pippin is arguing, as if the one were a sort of hylomorphic reflection of the other.

I used to misunderstand the above argument of Fichte as additionally requiring the existence of an “I” like a rabbit out of a hat, but again we are only dealing with hypothetical necessity here. If I want to be able to conclude “A = A”, then I need to be able to apply the same identification “A” twice within the context of one judgment. That the two identifications of “A” must be combined within the context of one judgment is the sole import of Fichte’s “I = I”. If there is any existence of an I involved here, it is by hypothesis.

Pippin stresses that although Hegel speaks of logical “movement” in temporal metaphors, each part of the “movement” has always already occurred. Once again, Hegel is not talking about what drives the course of events, but something like the conditions of possibility of the constitution of intelligibility and normativity.

He goes on to discuss more problems related to immediacy, and the transition to the logic of essence, each of which I’ll address separately.

Anything at All

I was surprised to see the way that Pippin talks about “the thought of anything at all”. For him “anything at all” is apparently the unique failed thought of the utterly indeterminate, taken as a single abstract pseudo-thing with no characteristics.

What I thought of first on seeing this phrase was rather the indefinitely vast multitude of different things of all sorts that could be thought of. “Anything at all” could be idea of the good, or Hegel’s left shoelace, or absolutely any other “thing” in the broadest possible sense, but in each case I would want to say that it is something. The one (pseudo) thing I think “anything at all” excludes is the symbolic term “nothing” and its analogues.

As Hegel points out, the thought of “the indeterminate immediate” is in reality the thought of nothing at all. I think he is right that without distinction there is no intelligibility, and that the abolition of all distinction in Parmenidean Being makes it inferentially and thus “logically” equivalent to Nothing. No consequences could follow from anything that has no characteristics.

The utterly indeterminate is already equivalent to Nothing, independent of the mention of immediacy. Things are equivalent or not based on the equivalence of their characteristics, so all nominal or pseudo “things” with no characteristics are equivalent to one another. Parmenidean Being falls to Hegel’s critique because Parmenides denies that it is determined in any way whatoever.

Although I agree with Hegel that the utterly indeterminate is nothing, I don’t at all want to identify the phrases “anything at all” and “nothing at all”, which is the direction in which Pippin’s usage of “anything at all” seems to me to tend. I take “nothing at all” to name the one case that “anything at all” (i.e., any thing at all, i.e., anything that can be distinguished) excludes.

What Pippin really meant was “the thought of ‘anything at all'”. Adding explicit scare quotes around “anything at all” makes it clear that it is intended as an “immediate” concept, rather than invitation to substitute what we please. The thought of “anything at all” is equivalent to the thought of nothing at all. This is a very specific point about terminological clarity that has little to do with the important and valuable main argument of Hegel’s Realm of Shadows.

I mention this only because I seriously misunderstood the first reference Pippin made to “the thought of anything at all”, before he explicitly connected it to Hegel’s thesis of the nullity of Parmenidean Being. He said something like, “For Hegel, logic begins with the thought of anything at all”, and I initially took that to refer to any of the vast multitude of possible thoughts. I mistook the message to be that what we begin with is of little import; what matters much more is the form of the course of development and actualization and making explicit. That is true also, but in the passage, it turns out that Pippin was referring forward to the material I covered in the last post.

Parmenides

The late 6th or early 5th century BCE poet Parmenides of Elea was commonly regarded in the Greek tradition as a philosopher. Apparently his only work was a poem of 800 or so verses in epic hexameter form, of which about 160 are known from quotations in later authors, principally the commentary by the neoplatonist Simplicius on Aristotle’s Physics.

Parmenides may have been the first person to make strong claims purportedly grounded in nothing but pure reason. At the same time, he drew a sharp distinction between appearance and reality. He achieved notoriety among his fellow Greeks because his claims contradicted all experience. His disciple Zeno used Parmenidean principles to “prove” that arrows cannot fly, and that the speedy Achilles could never overtake a tortoise that had a head start.

According to Parmenides, we can “neither know, or attain to, or express, non-being”. He concluded from this that all distinction, becoming, and motion were mere appearances of “the way of error in which the ignorant and double-minded mortals wander. Perplexity of mind sways the erring sense. Those who believe Being and non-being to be the same, and then again not the same, are like deaf and blind men surprised, like hordes confusedly driven”.

“But the truth is only the ‘is’; this is neither begotten of anything else, nor transient, entire, alone in its class, unmoved and without end; it neither was, nor will be, but is at once the all. For what birth wouldst thou seek for it? How and whence should it be augmented? That it should be from that which is not, I shall allow thee neither to say nor to think, for neither can it be said or thought that the ‘is’ is not. What necessity had either later or earlier made it begin from the nothing? Thus must it throughout only be or not be; nor will any force of conviction ever make something else arise out of that which is not. Thus origination has disappeared, and decease is incredible. Being is not separable, for it is entirely like itself; it is nowhere more, else would it not hold together, nor is it less, for everything is full of Being. The all is one coherent whole, for Being flows into unison with Being: it is unchangeable and rests securely in itself; the force of necessity holds it within the bounds of limitation. It cannot hence be said that it is imperfect; for it is without defect, while non-existence is wanting in all” (quoted in Hegel, History of Philosophy vol. 1, Haldane trans., pp. 252-253).

Plato treats Parmenides with considerable respect, but fundamentally rejects his blunt teaching about being and non-being, replacing it with far subtler views, e.g., in The Sophist.

Aristotle says that Plato (and the atomist Democritus, whose writings are lost) were the first practitioners of extended philosophical argument, and I consider that the true beginning of philosophy; it seems to me Parmenides only made assertions and claimed they were grounded in pure reason. In his poem, the key claims are presented as revelations from a goddess. Much later, Kant would argue that nothing follows from pure reason alone.

According to Hegel’s History of Philosophy lectures, “This beginning is certainly still dim and indefinite, and we cannot say much of what it involves; but to take up this position certainly is to develop Philosophy proper, which has not hitherto existed”. Hegel says Spinoza tells us correctly that all determination is based on negation, but “Parmenides says, whatever form the negation may take, it does not exist at all” (p. 254). Spinoza scholars have criticized the claim about Spinoza, but in this context that is a side issue.

Hegel’s association of Parmenides with the beginning of philosophy needs to be understood in terms of his insistence on the inherent defectiveness of beginnings and the positive, provocative role of failures of thought. In differing degrees, Hegel also actually recognizes two other beginnings of philosophy as well — in the figurative thought of the world’s various religious traditions before Parmenides (who appears only halfway through volume 1 of Hegel’s History), and in the dialogues of Plato, with whom Hegel’s second volume begins. For Hegel, Parmenides’ bare thought of Being and denial of the basis of all determination represent an absolute failure of thought and an impossibility, but he nonetheless credits that failure and impossibility as having defined a problem that provoked all later development.

I consider it quite possible that Aristotle’s brief remarks about “being qua being” in two books of the Metaphysics were a kind of response to the Parmenidean problem. Traditionally, this has been claimed to be the subject matter of the Metaphysics, but both times Aristotle raises the problem explicitly, his discussion is limited to arguing for the moral necessity of the principle of noncontradiction, against the Sophists. In effect, he says that serious people must by definition take their commitments seriously, and therefore they do not contradict their own commitments.

Noncontradiction has a great importance for integrity in ethics, which was to be taken up anew by Kant and Hegel, with their emphasis on unity of apperception. But as Hegel points out explicitly in the Logic, pure being by itself is logically empty and sterile. In first philosophy, nothing follows from being qua being. (See also Hegel on Being.)

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.

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).

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.)

Cause

Aristotle flourished before the great flowering of Greek mathematics that gave us Euclid, Ptolemy, Apollonius, and Aristarchus. In his day, mathematics amounted to just arithmetic and simple geometry. In spite of the famous Pythagorean theorem that the square constructed from the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal in area to the sum of the squares constructed from the other two sides, the historic reality of the Pythagorean movement had more to do with number mysticism, other superstitions, and curious injunctions like “don’t eat beans” than it did with real mathematics.

I think Aristotle was entirely right to conclude that arithmetic and simple geometry were of little use for explaining change in the natural world. I’ve characterized his physics as grounded in a kind of semantic inquiry that Aristotle pioneered. We are not used to thinking about science this way, as fundamentally involved with a very human inquiry about the meaning of experience in life, rather than predictive calculation. For Aristotle, the gap between natural science and thoughtful reflection about ordinary experience was much smaller than it is for us.

Aristotle invented the notion of cause as a semantic tool for expressing the reasons why changes occur. Aristotle’s notion is far more abstract than the metaphor of impulse or something pushing on something else that guided early modern mechanism. Even though the notion of cause was originally developed in a text included in Aristotle’s Physics, the “semantic” grounding of Aristotelian physics places it closer to logic than to modern physical inquiries.

I think the discussion of the kinds of causes could equally well have been grouped among his “logical” works. In fact, the form in which we have Aristotle’s works today is the result of the efforts of multiple ancient editors, who sometimes stitched together separate manuscripts, so there is room for a legitimate question whether the discussion of causes was originally a separate treatise. We tend to assume that there must be something inherently “physical” about the discussion of causes, but this is ultimately due to a circular argument from the fact that the more detailed version of it came down to us as part of the Physics (there is another, briefer one that came down to us as part of the Metaphysics).

Since Hume and especially since the later 19th century, many authors have debated about the role of causes in science. Bertrand Russell argued in the early 20th century that modern science does not in fact depend on what I have called the modern notion of cause.

More recently, Robert Brandom has argued that the purpose of logic is “to make explicit the inferential relations that articulate the semantic contents of the concepts expressed by the use of ordinary, nonlogical vocabulary”. I see Aristotelian causes in this light.

I want to recommend a return to a notion of causes in general as explanatory reasons rather than things that exert force. This can include all the mathematics used in modern science, as well as a broader range of reasons relevant to life. (See also Aristotelian Causes; Mechanical Metaphors; Causes: Real, Heuristic?; Effective vs “Driving”; Secondary Causes.)

Russell on Causality

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was one of the founders of analytic philosophy. His contributions to mathematical logic, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of language were highly influential, and he wrote on a host of other topics as well. In a famous 1912 essay “On the Notion of Cause”, he addressed the common prejudice that I have been referring to vaguely as “causality in the modern sense”, and argued that modern science does not in fact rely on it. I support this conclusion.

According to Russell, “the word ’cause’ is so inextricably bound up with misleading associations as to make its complete extrusion from the philosophical vocabulary desirable” (Mysticism and Logic, p.180). “In spite of these difficulties, it must, of course, be admitted that many fairly dependable regularities of sequence occur in daily life” (p. 187).

The idea of the supposed “law of causality” is that the same causes always produce the same effects. Russell points out that the alleged necessity with which one “event” is said to follow another depends on an abstracted notion of repeatable “events”, but every concrete event implicitly involves such a vast amount of individualizing detail as to be essentially unrepeatable.

“What I deny is that science assumes the existence of invariable uniformities of sequence of this kind, or that it aims at discovering them. All such uniformities, as we saw, depend upon a certain vagueness in the definition of the ‘events’…. In short, every advance in a science takes us farther away from the crude uniformities which are first observed” (p. 188, emphasis added).

Behind such presumptions of uniformity lies the prejudice that a cause somehow compels a particular effect. “What I want to make clear at present is that compulsion is a very complex notion, involving thwarted desire. So long as a person does what he wishes to do, there is no compulsion, however much his wishes may be calculable by the help of earlier events. And where desire does not come in, there can be no question of compulsion. Hence it is, in general, misleading to regard the cause as compelling the effect” (p. 190, emphasis added). “A volition ‘operates’ when what it wills takes place; but nothing can operate except a volition. The belief that causes ‘operate’ results from assimilating them, consciously or unconsciously, to volitions” (p. 191).

“[A]ny causal sequence which we may have observed may at any moment be falsified without a falsification of any laws of the kind that the more advanced sciences aim at establishing” (p. 194). “The uniformity of nature does not assert the trivial principle, ‘same cause, same effect’, but the principle of the permanence of laws” (p. 196). “In all science we have to distinguish two sorts of laws: first, those that are empirically verifiable but probably only approximate; secondly, those that are not verifiable, but may be exact” (p. 197).

“We cannot say that every law which has held hitherto must hold in the future, because past facts which obey one law will also obey others, hitherto indistinguishable but diverging in future. Hence there must, at every moment, be laws hitherto unbroken that are now broken for the first time. What science does, in fact, is to select the simplest formula that will fit the facts. But this, quite obviously, is merely a methodological precept, not a law of Nature” (p. 204, emphasis in original).

“We found first that the law of causality, as usually stated by philosophers, is false, and is not employed in science. We then considered the nature of scientific laws, and found that, instead of stating that one event A is always followed by another event B, they stated functional relations between certain events at certain times, which we called determinants, and other events at earlier or later times or at the same time…. We found that a system with one set of determinants may very likely have other sets of a quite different kind, that, for example, a mechanically determined system may also be teleologically or volitionally determined” (pp. 207-208, emphasis added).

I have suggested that scientific laws expressed in terms of equations are a specific kind of what Aristotle called formal “causes” (or better, formal “reasons why”). They are the kind that is expressible in mathematics. But natural or physical causes are still commonly conceived as efficient causes in the sense that this term acquired in late scholasticism, and it is this prejudice that Russell was addressing here.

The diverse compilation Aristotle’s early editors called Metaphysics (“after the Physics“) includes a summary of the four causes discussed in the Physics. Unlike other parts of the Metaphysics that, for example, discuss the term commonly translated as “substance” in far greater depth than in the Categories, the summary of efficient cause in the Metaphysics is less sophisticated than the discussion in the Physics. Thomistic and late scholastic notions of efficient cause seem to be based on the more simplistic account given in the Metaphysics, where the efficient cause is treated as more narrowly concerned with motion.

The Physics says very explicitly that the art of building, not the carpenter or the carpenter’s action, is most properly the “efficient cause” of the building of a house. The building of a house is implicitly considered as an end, not as a concrete motion. The art of building is the primary means by which this end can be successfully accomplished. This suggests to me that just as the “material cause” in Aristotle is hylomorphically paired with the “formal cause”, the “efficient cause” is related to the “final cause” as means are related to ends. Efficient cause as the means by which an end is realized is quite a bit different than, and more general than, the efficient cause as cause of motion that is the basis of the Thomistic and late scholastic concepts, as well as of the “modern” prejudice addressed by Russell.

Potentiality and Ends

Perfection for Aristotle is an attractor and not a driver. To be an unmoved mover and to be an efficient cause in the “driving” way this was commonly interpreted in the later tradition are mutually exclusive. Pure act does not act in the normal sense of the word. I am reminded of Lao Tzu, that other great minimalist teacher of unmoved moving.

Plotinus and the later neoplatonic schools reworked the notion of unmoved moving, from Aristotle’s modest notion of the attraction of potentialities to the good, to a principle of overflowing, superabundant positive power that spontaneously generates beings and effects, as a necessary consequence of its very superabundance. Aristotle’s “first cause” affects everything, but only through the collaboration of secondary causes. Though developing nuanced accounts of the grand cycle of procession from the One and ultimate return, the neoplatonists tended to reduce secondary causes to mere effects of the One.

Authors like Aquinas engaged in a tricky balancing act, wanting to assert the supremacy of God while simultaneously recognizing the ethical and epistemological value of Aristotle’s emphasis on the reality of secondary causes. But according to Gwenaëlle Aubry, the theological voluntarism of Duns Scotus and others annulled what I take to be that good Aristotelian concern of Aquinas, completely subordinating nature, truth, and the good to the arbitrary will of God.

This whole historical discussion is greatly complicated by the very different ways in which the same key terms have been interpreted. For example, it makes a great difference whether we consider the art of building or the hammer’s blow to be a better model of the efficient cause. The art of building could be a sort of derived unmoved mover, but the hammer’s blow is a moved mover.

Previously, I have emphasized an interpretation of potentiality in terms of Brandom’s talk about robust counterfactual conditions on the one hand, and a loosely structuralist notion of structure on the other. I read Hegel as recognizing the essential role of this kind of potentiality in any formation of a determinate view of things.

This may sound remote from Aubry’s emphasis on potentiality as a tendency to be attracted by an end, but there is actually a deep connection. Hegel emphasizes the role of potentiality in determination, whereas Aubry emphasizes the role of potentiality as contingency. But Brandom’s counterfactual conditions (an interpretation of Hegelian potentiality) just are contingencies; they are not univocally determined to occur. From the ground up, a kind of pluralism of multiple concrete possibilities is built into the determination of determination.

As Leibniz said, all necessity is of a hypothetical, if-then form. As Kant and Hegel also reminded us, judgments of determination always involve interpretation, and ultimately have a normative form. Brandom makes a similar Kantian point that causality in the modern sense is a product of judgments and inference. These are far from arbitrary; they are subject to a kind of objectivity grounded in counterfactual robustness and mutual recognition. But that objectivity is itself ultimately a normative concept. As Abelard said, the good comes first. (See also Form as Value; Aristotelian Causes.)

Secondary Causes

One of the many things I like Aristotle for is his clear concern for what are sometimes called “secondary” causes. As usual with Aristotle, “cause” means any kind of explanation or determining reason; explanation is in general not univocal; and things are the way they are due to the combination of many causes. Secondary causes for Aristotle play an irreducible role in the overall determination of things. This is part of what I recently called the dignity of finite beings.

The way in which secondary causes operate is pluralistic; there is no single, seamless matrix of causality in the world. Instead we have a superabundance of meaning. Determination is always grounded in actuality, but actuality is never the whole story. We get a better grasp on things by taking counterfactual potentiality into account.

Secondary causes may be either “moved” or “unmoved”. If the form of an animal’s leg joint counts as an unmoved mover, the number of unmoved movers in the world is truly vast. There are also a vast number of moved movers.

Even though there is a great deal of practically meaningful determination in the world, neither God nor physics comes anywhere near completely determining human reality. The world has both real determination and real play in it. See also What and Why; Interpretation).