Oneself as Another

Paul Ricoeur’s major ethical work Oneself as Another (1992; French ed. 1990) is a real treasure trove. At top level, it is devoted to distinguishing between separate notions of personal identity and ethical/epistemic transcendental subjectivity, then developing the dialectical relation between them, along with the central importance of relations with others. That could equally well characterize a major aspect of the work I have been pursuing here.

In the introduction, he speaks first of a “primacy of reflective meditation over the immediate positing of the subject, as this is expressed in the first person singular” (p. 1). I think this perspective is shared by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom. Second, he points out the equivocal nature of identity, distinguishing between Latin ipse (self) and idem (same). Selfhood in Ricoeur’s sense — identity in the sense of ipse — “implies no assertion concerning some unchanging core of the personality” (p. 2). Third, he draws attention to a dialectic of self and other. “[T]he selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other” (p. 3). As a result, “autonomy of the self will appear… to be tightly bound up with solicitude for one’s neighbor and with justice for each individual” (p. 18; emphasis in original).

Such a detour by way of analysis “challenges the hypothesis of reflective simplicity without thereby giving in to the vertigo of the disintegration of the self” (p. 19). A “faith that knows itself to be without guarantee” (p. 25) is supported by a “trust greater than any suspicion” (p. 23). This perspective is thus distinguished both from the foundationalist ambitions of “philosophies of the subject” like those of Descartes, Fichte, and Husserl, and from Nietzschean skepticism. Ricoeur also anticipates Alain de Libera’s connection of his work to Michel Foucault’s late “hermeneutics of the subject”, citing the “magnificent title” of Foucault’s book Care of the Self.


Ethical reason can potentially comprehend anything and it can influence things going forward, but it does not make everything or govern events. (See also Fragility of the Good.) Understanding comes late. Reason becomes free or autonomous only by a long, slow process. (See also Iterative Questioning.) Even so-called absolute knowledge — only “absolute” because it is free of the actually self-disruptive presumptions of the false freedom of Mastery — is just this freedom of reason.

There is after all a kind of negative freedom of reason at work here, but it is forever incomplete, and also has nothing to do with any negative freedom of a power, which is a fiction. We negatively free ourselves of unthinking assumptions while positively increasing our ability to make fine distinctions, our sensitivity to subtlety and nuance. This gives us new positive freedom in doing, with our still-finite power. (See also Ethical Reason, Interpretation.)

Potentiality, Actuality

Potentiality and actuality are Aristotle’s indispensable modal tools, providing resources for a variety of sophisticated analyses. Notable applications include a nonreductive, “dialectical” interweaving of is and ought that allows conditional “oughts” to be constructed subsuming applicable details of a contextual “is”. This allows something like structural causality to coexist with something like Kantian freedom.

Modern discourse on the relation of “is” and “ought” has generally oscillated between a reductive ethical naturalism that explains “ought” exclusively in terms of “is” on the one hand, and an unexplainable dualism of “is” and “ought” on the other.

With his explicit distinction between modes of potentiality and actuality, Aristotle had a better way. He also talked about the typical modern modalities of abstract possibility and necessity, but concrete potentiality and actuality are the crown jewels of Aristotle’s modal discourse. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Linguistic Turn

It’s almost comical to me that modern philosophy had to undergo a linguistic “turn”. Modern philosophy began with a somewhat infantile rejection of discursive reasoning in favor of mathematics, intuition, and common sense. (Perhaps related to this history, I note with some chagrin that the first-listed meaning for “discursive” in several dictionaries is a pejorative one. I mean “pertaining to discourse”.) Even Leibniz and Spinoza had little interest in dialectic and meaning.

To me, meaning is the sea that we inhabit, the air that we breathe. Meaning permeates everything for us meaning-oriented creatures, including our experience of physical nature and matter. Meaning always requires interpretation. Aristotle and Kant were right that discursive reasoning is the true vocation of a philosopher. (See also What and Why; Dialogue.)


Contradiction is a kind of logical judgment of error in things said. It applies when things said are either syntactically or semantically incompatible with one another. To be incompatible is to be incapable of “properly” coexisting in a single context or unity of apperception. Aristotle strongly emphasized this normative aspect of the principle of noncontradiction.

In the syntactic case, the concern is with purely formal rules for the well-formedness of expressions. A syntactic contradiction would be something like “A, and also not-A”, where either A and not-A have both been explicitly said, or both are implied by things that have been said. In this case, we need know nothing at all about the meaning of “A”. We are only concerned with generic rules for the application of logical operators like “and” and “not”.

In the semantic case, contradiction involves the specific meanings of concrete expressions, applied together to some one meant reality. Unlike the syntactic case, background knowledge is essential to judging whether or not meanings can compatibly coexist. We may also think we know the whole story when we don’t. New facts or understandings may change our generalizations and schemas of classification. (See also Interpretation; Error.)

Nothing follows from the principle of noncontradiction alone. Given some inputs, we can judge whether or not they are contradictory — by rigorous analysis in the syntactic case, and up to some level of practical confidence in the semantic case.

Hegel sometimes used the word “contradiction” in an idiosyncratic, highly metonymical or metaphorical way, straining language to the breaking point as part of a larger effort to draw out the complexities and subtleties involved in applying logic to concrete meanings and the real world, when no vocabulary existed for many of the subtleties involved. (See also Three Logical Moments.)

Some people, mainly Marxists, have talked about real-world conflict and social injustice as “contradictions” objectively existing in the world. Conflict and injustice are very real, but it is a misunderstanding of Hegelian dialectic and an inappropriate mixing of levels to associate them directly with contradiction. (See also Contradiction vs Polarity.)

Especially since the mid-20th century, many authors have pointed out common errors and issues associated with too-easy assumptions about identity. (See also Aristotelian Identity.) The Žižekian school has developed a sophisticated variant of the old talk about objective contradictions, by explaining it largely in terms of the issues with identity. If this were just a new metonymical or metaphorical usage in the style of Hegel, we could simply note that “contradiction” is being said in a nonstandard way, and move on. But unfortunately, the Žižekians have gone further, and also claimed that the logical principle of noncontradiction ultimately fails to hold, even though this logical (or illogical) claim is not necessary to address the social concerns that according to them need to be addressed, or to explain the things that according to them need to be explained. (See Split Subject, Contradiction.) We have to be very careful in moving back and forth between very different levels of analysis like this.

Just as on an interpersonal level we can reduce conflict by omitting those too-easy assumptions about identity, omitting those assumptions with respect to things said — and thus making more distinctions — also greatly reduces the potential for logical contradiction.

It is a category mistake to talk about contradiction driving events. Actual change does not result in contradiction either. Different things are true at different times, and the explanation for that is not “contradiction” but change.

Why is this important? The simple answer is that denial of the principle of noncontradiction allows someone to argue absolutely anything, including nonsensical and false things, and to sophistically respond to any refutation by simply introducing more inconsistency. This rejection of responsibility effectively ends the possibility of dialogue.

There ought to be no conflict between social criticism and the possibility of dialogue. Social criticism should be based on shareable, rational analysis. It may be unreasonable to suppose that all social issues can be resolved through dialogue (see Stubborn Refusal), but I do think all those concerned with doing something about those issues ought to be able to resolve their differences through dialogue.

I think Brandom has made an epic contribution in this area by finding a new way to simultaneously affirm — as Aristotle implicitly anticipated long ago — both the world’s recalcitrance to mastery and identity and its fundamentally rational, intelligible character. (See also Self-Evidence?)


Once upon a time, mathematical axioms were considered to be statements of self-evident truth. At least since development of the so-called axiomatic method, however, they have mostly been treated more like stipulative definitions chosen for convenience.

Between the respective times of Aristotle and Kant, allegedly self-evident truths found their way into philosophy. Descartes and others pulled principles like rabbits out of a hat, much as many of the scholastics had done earlier. There was a good deal of sound reasoning based on the dubious establishment of principles, but needless to say, the selection of principles drove the results.

Kant tried very hard to do better, and largely succeeded. In the Transcendental Dialectic section of the Critique of Pure Reason, arguments are examined that do seem to appeal to self-evident truths, but invariably, something is found by Kant himself to be wrong with the arguments.

I’ve previously referred to his antinomies as artificially staged. There, contradictory conclusions are derived from conflicting assumptions about self-evident truth, and Reason itself is apparently blamed for the result. Some commentators have thought that the arguments on the non-creationist side actually seem stronger than those on the creationist side, which raises the possibility that the apparently symmetrical presentation was an exercise in diplomacy on these sensitive matters. On the other hand, a counter-argument could be made that Kant had sympathy for both sides. Regardless, both sides of the antinomies appeal to allegedly self-evident truths, and it is the combination of these premises that leads to contradictory conclusions.

In the introduction to the antinomies, Kant himself says that “every transcendental illusion of pure reason rests on dialectical inferences” (Cambridge edition, p. 459). This seems to invoke either the common early modern pejorative sense of “dialectic” used in denunciations of scholasticism, or an actual Aristotelian distinction between dialectic and demonstration, where they are said to use the same inferential structures, but whereas demonstration aims at showing the reasons behind conclusions that are considered to be true, dialectic particularly examines the inferential consequences of using various premises, without assuming their actual truth. In any case, it seems Reason is found guilty of leading to contradiction when it mistakenly treats dialectical premises as if they were pre-existing truths. There is nothing particularly surprising about that. (See also Kantian Discipline; Dialectical Illusion?)

Negativity in Experience

A first collection of critical responses to Brandom’s landmark work on Hegel has recently appeared (Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust, Routledge 2020). Leading Hegel scholar Robert Pippin’s contribution takes issue with Brandom’s methodology of “semantic descent”, and argues that Brandom’s account of negation in Hegel is incomplete.

While Kant and Hegel both focused most of their explicit philosophical attention on very high-level concepts that help explain the meaning of other concepts, I think they nonetheless intended their thought to have practical relevance to life. (Pippin himself wrote a book I cannot recommend too highly, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy.) Brandom goes a step further than Kant and Hegel did, and explicitly claims that the same kinds of considerations they found relevant to the interpretation of what he calls expressive metaconcepts are always already involved in kinds of questions that a philosophically inclined person can see as implicitly arising in ordinary life. I find this thesis of the rich philosophical import of interpretations in ordinary life very appealing, and take it as expansive rather than reductive in intent.

Pippin quotes Brandom to this effect, but somehow still seems to think there is a reduction involved in Brandom’s semantic descent. In a related move, Pippin first commends Brandom’s analysis of Hegelian negation in terms of material inference and modality, but then goes on to argue that this still only addresses the concerns of the first of three parts of Hegel’s Logic — what Hegel called a logic of being, as distinguished from a logic of essence or a logic of the concept.

Very schematically, for Hegel, a logic of being addresses facts about presumed existing things, in this way resembling the approach of standard contemporary formal logic. This turns out to presuppose a logic of essence, which is concerned with higher-level judgments about the natures or ways of being of things, like the inquiries of Plato and Aristotle. This in turn implicitly presupposes a logic of the concept, which leads from something like Kantian synthesis to Hegel’s so-called “Absolute” as a sort of ultimate horizon, under which the context-dependence of the most objectively valid particular determinations is to eventually become explicit.

I think that Brandom’s modal realism already involves what Hegel would call a logic of essence, and that Brandom’s notions of forgiveness, magnanimity, and truth-as-process operate at the level of what Hegel would call a logic of the concept.

Part of the significance of modal realism is as a grounding for concepts of natural law employed by modern science, which do still belong to what Hegel would call a logic of being, as Pippin says. But for Brandom, modal realism also plays the even more important role of grounding Kantian moral necessity. Brandom does not use the term “essence” in his semantics, but I would say that judgments of Kantian moral necessity are concerned with essence rather than mere fact. While it is not quite the same thing, I also think that in a Hegelian context, they belong on the level of a logic of essence.

Whereas I have worried a little about passages in Brandom that exclusively associate truth with truth-as-process — which seems to me not to give enough weight to the positive value Hegel recognized in Understanding, alongside his famous criticism of its limitations — Pippin has an opposite worry, that Brandom ends up reducing Hegelian Reason to Understanding.

Pippin seems to construe what Brandom refers to as “ground-level empirical concepts” in an overly narrow way. Pippin glosses these as “cases of, largely, matters of fact known empirically”, and then refers to “empirical discovery” as the “engine generating incompatible commitments”. While he quotes Brandom’s reference to “ground-level empirical and practical concepts” [emphasis added], he ignores the “practical” part of Brandom’s formula, which presumably refers to concepts used in concrete ethical judgments. It is true that Brandom uses “red” as his canonical example of a ground-level empirical concept, but I think this choice is only meant to provide opportunities to point out the already inferential character of the use of such an apparently simple perceptual term, rather than in any way to undo his explicit inclusion of ground-level practical concepts.

Surprisingly, Pippin also seems to blur together talk about Kantian empirical concepts; talk about Kantian empirical intuition, to which Brandom attributes a key “negative” role providing occasions for recognition of error; and talk about matters of empirical fact. This results in what I think is an unfair characterization of Brandom’s interpretation as reducing Hegelian good negativity to matters of empirical discovery, external to Reason.

To say, as Brandom effectively does, that the main role of the element of immediacy or Kantian intuition in experience is “negative” rather than “positive”, while also in a different context saying that ground-level empirical and practical concepts always already involve the kinds of complexity and nuance associated with expressive metaconcepts, does not imply that Brandom’s strategy of semantic descent reduces Hegelian negativity to anything empirical. I strongly believe that for Brandom, critical thought and dialogue provide additional sources for the good kind of “negativity” of Reason that Hegel thematized in contrast to the “positivity” of things merely taken as given.

Pippin wants to emphasize that Hegelian negativity is an internal feature of Hegelian Reason, not something that comes to it only from an external empirical source. So far, I agree, and I think Brandom would as well. But then, to my surprise, Pippin seems to take up an old-school, very literal reading of Hegel’s metonymies of logical “motion” and an associated “life” of the negative. To me, the better reading is to take these rather obvious metonymies as metonymies. Logic in itself does not move, and negativity in itself is not a form of life. It is we who move and are alive. (Who we are is another complicated story; see under Subjectivity in the menu.)

What and Why

I want to say that questions of what and why of the sort asked by Plato and Aristotle are of vital importance for all ethically concerned people. These are questions of interpretation, and of what I have been broadly calling meaning. For the moment, I’m leaving aside obvious questions of what to do, in favor of these broader questions that implicitly inform them.

What something is and why it is the way it is — or should be the way it should be — are deeply intertwined. Aristotle provides many good illustrations of this. Also, at any given moment, our thinking about why depends on many assumptions about what we are concerned with that may call for review. Conversely, our thinking about each what implicitly depends on many more detailed judgments of why.

It is not practical to question everything at once, so we do it serially as the need arises, striving to be deeply honest with ourselves in our assessments of the relative levels of such needs. We seek the appropriate best balance of considerations, as well as a good balance between thoroughness of questioning on the one hand, and practical responsiveness or needed decisiveness on the other. (See also Context.)

The question why is quite open-ended. It asks for reasons or causes — and then potentially for more reasons or causes behind those — sincerely seeking to explain or justify, in the spirit of Hegel’s notion of a faith in reasonableness without presupposed truths. It arises in ethical deliberation, in general dialogue, and in many other practical circumstances, as well as in more broadly philosophical considerations. It always involves a dimension of explicit or implicit judgments of value and importance, and often interrelates with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. We should pursue it in a spirit of mutual recognition and expansive agency. Brandom’s normative pragmatics provides a good outer frame for why questions, and valuable technical tools for addressing them. (See also “Why” by Normative Pragmatics.)

The question what honestly faces the provisional character of our implicit and explicit classifications and identifications of things. As Kant might remind us, the what-it-is that we “immediately” apprehend depends upon complex processes of synthesis. Every what encapsulates many judgments and inferences. That does not mean our apprehensions are necessarily wrong — far from it — but it opens another huge space of questions an ethically concerned person should be aware of as possibly relevant, and should monitor for potential warning flags. As with why, questions of what also interrelate with questions of fact or interpretation of fact. Brandom’s inferential semantics provides a good outer frame and technical apparatus for approaching what questions. (See also “What” by Inferential Semantics.)

Abstract and Concrete

In contrast to later traditional “metaphysics”, Aristotle recommended we start with the concrete, but then aim to dialectically rise to higher understanding, which is still of the concrete. In any inquiry, we should begin with the things closer to us, but as Wittgenstein said in a different context, we should ultimately aim to kick away the ladder upon which we climbed.

What Aristotle would have us eventually kick away is by no means the concrete itself, but only our preliminary understanding of it as a subject of immediate, simple reference. Beginnings are tentative, not certain. We reach more solid, richer understanding through development.

Aristotle’s discussion of “primary” substance in Categories has often been turned into a claim that individuals are ontologically more primary than form. This is to misunderstand what Categories is talking about. Aristotle explicitly says Categories will be about “things said without combination” [emphasis added], i.e., about what is expressed by kinds of apparently atomic sayings that are used in larger sayings.

The initial definition of substance in the strict or “primary” sense — which he will eventually kick away in the Metaphysics — is of a thing (said) “which is neither said of something underlying nor in something underlying”. (Aristotle often deliberately leaves it open whether he is talking about a referencing word or a referenced thing — or says one and implies the other — because in both cases, the primary concern is the inferential meaning of the reference.)

This initial definition is a negative one that suffices to distinguish substance from the other categories. By implication, it refers to something that is said simply of something, in the way that a proper name is. As examples, he gives (namings of) an individual human, or an individual horse.

“Socrates” would be said simply of Socrates, and would thus “be” — or refer to — a primary substance in this sense. The naming of Socrates is an apparently simple reference to what we might call an object. As Brandom has noted, this picks out a distinctive semantic and inferential role that applies only to references to singular things.

Aristotle then says that more universal namings or named things like “human” and “horse” are also “substances” — i.e., can also refer to singular objects — in a secondary sense, as in “that horse”. Then substance in general is further distinguished, by saying it is something A such that when something else B is said of it, both the naming and the “what-it-is” of B are said of the primary or secondary substance A. (See also Form; Things in Themselves; Definition.)

If a horse as such “is” a mammal of a certain description, then that horse must be a mammal of that description. If a mammal as such “is” warm-blooded, then that horse “is” warm-blooded.

These are neither factual nor ontological claims, but consequences of a rule of interpretation telling us what it means to say these kinds of things. Whether or not something is a substance in this sense is surely a key distinction, for it determines the validity or invalidity of a large class of inferences.

Based on the classification of A as an object reference and B as something said of A, we can make valid inferences about A from B.

When something else C is said of the non-substance B, by contrast, we still have a “naming” of B, but the “what-it-is” or substantive meaning of C does not apply to B itself, but only modifies it, because B is not an object reference. Applying the substantive meaning of C to B — i.e., making inferences about B from the meaning of C — would be invalid in this case.

Just because, say, warm-blooded as such “is” a quality, there is no valid inference that mammals “are” qualities, or that that horse “is” a quality. The concern here is with validity of a certain kind of inference and interpretation, not ontology (or epistemology, either).

In the Metaphysics, the initial referential notion of substance as something underlying is explicitly superseded through a far more elaborate development of “what it was to have been” a thing that emphasizes form, and ultimately actuality and potentiality. The appearance of what might be mistaken for a sort of referential foundationalism is removed. (See also Aristotelian Dialectic.)

I also think he wanted to suggest that practically, a kind of preliminary grasp of some actuality has to come first in understanding. Actuality is always concrete and particular, and said to be more primary. But potentiality too plays an irreducible role, in underwriting the relative persistence of something as the “same” something through change, which motivated the earlier talk about something underlying. The persistence of relatively stable identities of things depends on their counterfactual potentiality, which can only be apprehended in an inferential way. (See also Aristotelian Demonstration.)

It does make sense to say that things like actuality and substance inhere more in the individual than in the species, but that is due to the meanings of actuality and substance, not to an ontological status.

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.)