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.

Di Giovanni on Hegel’s Logic

“The subject matter of the Logic is not the ‘thing-in-itself’ or its phenomenal manifestations, whether one conceives the ‘in-itself’ as a substance or as freedom, but is discourse itself…. The Logic itself is a discourse about discourse” (George di Giovanni, translator’s introduction to Hegel, The Science of Logic, p. xxxv).

Writing about Hegel’s development, di Giovanni says that by 1803/04, “Consciousness is where organic nature acquires its highest point of concentration by reflecting upon itself and where nature as such becomes spirit. When this consciousness develops into language, and language in turn becomes the language of a people, the social character of spirit is then revealed” (ibid, p. xix).

“[W]hile in 1803/04 Hegel provided a smoother transition from nature to spirit by introducing the factor of consciousness and thus adding to nature, so to speak, a new dimension of depth, [in 1805/06/07] he adds to it yet another dimension by conceiving spirit as the place where nature becomes conscious of its being conscious, that is to say, the place where it becomes deliberate about itself or, again, where it becomes a product of spirit” (p. xxi).

“[Kant’s] notorious ‘thing-in-itself’, instead of being understood as an ideal term of reference that generates a universal space of reason… could be taken instead — as it in fact was by many contemporaries — as a sort of hyper-physical entity…. In a critical context, however, any appeal to causality… would have to fall on the side of a physiological pre-history of experience” (p. xxx).

“It was to remedy this failure that Fichte undertook his thought experiment [with pure freedom], asking his auditors to simply think for the sake of thinking and to reflect on the result…. The net result is that the whole of experience becomes colored with a moral tinge, exactly what Fichte had of course intended from the start. Experience is a call to transform the otherwise merely brute facts of experience…. The idea of construing objects of experience by applying categories to a presupposed given content loses all its meaning…. One must rather interpret experience” (pp. xxxi-xxxii).

(It always seemed to me that even the “application” of pre-existing categories to the sensible manifold implicitly requires interpretation in order to judge which categories are applicable in each specific context of the manifold, and how they are applicable in each case. To my knowledge Kant does not speak of this explicitly, but I don’t think he ever explicitly assumes specific contents in the manifold either. What would then be “given” for Kant ought to be just the manifold as a potentially differentiable lump. Following the principle of charitable interpretation, then, I read Kant as a bit closer to Fichte on this point. The implicit interpretation I want to attribute to Kant would probably operate via the pre-conscious figurative synthesis of imagination though, whereas I think Fichte has a more conscious process of interpretation in mind.)

“On Hegel’s analysis of both Kant and Fichte, the problem is that the ‘I’ that figures so prominently in their theories is too abstract a product…. Therefore, according to Hegel, it lets the content of experience… escape from it and fall, so to speak, on the side of a beyond from which it is retrievable only by means of such non-conceptual means as intuition…. And if Hegel did not want to travel the way of Schelling, which would have taken him to a pre-Kantian Spinozism, then the only avenue open to him was to comprehend facticity discursively, without intuition or myth-making” (pp. xxxiii-xxxiv).

“I have been deliberately using ‘discourse’ and ‘discursiveness’ instead of ‘dialectic’ (a term, incidentally, that Hegel uses sparsely in the Logic) in an attempt to demystify the latter term. But it should be clear that the meaning is the same” (p. xxxix).

“[W]e do not have anything that would amount to McTaggart’s Absolute Idea from which, allegedly, every minute detail of reality can in principle be deduced. This is a position that Hegel unequivocally rejected and even found infuriating…. As for Hegel, the strength of his Logic lies in that it finds a ground for this contingency in the indeterminacy necessarily inherent in the structure of things that are in becoming” (p. lviii).

Hegel takes us beyond sterile debates about freedom versus determinism by means of a novel account of determinacy itself as including built-in indeterminacy. Aristotle of course preceded him in this, albeit with a different account of determination-including-indeterminism.

“[I]t is nature which in the abstract medium of logical discourse attains the self-comprehension, and the efficacy, which we attribute to spirit. Nature is for Hegel, just as it was for Schelling, the ‘pre-self’ of the ‘self’, not just the ‘other-than-self’ of Fichte” (p. lix).

Incidentally, di Giovanni dedicates his 2010 translation of the Science of Logic to his “mentor and friend” H. S. Harris, whose unique literal commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology I previously treated at length.

Ricoeur on Foucault

I still vividly recall the moment over 40 years ago when the sharp questioning of unities of all kinds in the preface and first chapter of Michel Foucault’s 1969 work The Archaeology of Knowledge very suddenly awoke me from erstwhile slumber in neoplatonic dreams about the One. Today I would say Foucault like many others was terribly wrong in his reading of Hegel, but I still look on that text as a sort of manifesto of historical method. As Aristotle too might remind us, distinctions are essential to intelligibility and understanding.

Just this year, the work of Paul Ricoeur has become very significant to me. Ricoeur expressed admiration for Foucault’s late work The Care of the Self, but in both volume 3 of Time and Narrative and his late work Memory, History, Forgetting, he criticized The Archaeology of Knowledge rather severely.

Ricoeur did not object to Foucault’s emphasis on discontinuities in (the field Foucault did not want to call) the history of ideas, but rather to Foucault’s closely related polemic against the subordination of such discontinuities to an encompassing continuity of historical “consciousness”, and to his further association of the idea of an encompassing continuity of consciousness with the would-be mastery of meaning by a putatively purely constitutive Subject. Ricoeur as much as Foucault objected to such notions of Mastery, but he still wanted to articulate a kind of narrative continuity of what he still wanted to call consciousness.

Ricoeur scholar Johann Michel in his book Ricoeur and the Post-Structuralists agrees that “the subject” for Ricoeur is far from purely constitutive, and “in reality, is not a subject in the substantialist sense” (p. 107). Rather, it is mediate, and only understandable via a long detour through cultural objectifications. As Ricoeur says, consciousness is “affected by the efficacity of history” (Time and Narrative vol. 3, p. 217). “We are only the agents of history insofar as we also suffer it” (ibid, p. 216). Ricoeur’s suffering-as-well-as-acting “subject” gives very different meaning to this highly ambiguous term from the kind of voluntaristic agency attributed to the Cogito by Descartes, and Ricoeur’s “consciousness” is very far from the notion of immediate “consciousness” classically formulated by Locke. I prefer to avoid confusion by using different vocabulary, but agree that the notions Ricoeur wanted to defend are quite different from those Foucault wanted to criticize.

This leaves the question of the relative priority of continuity and discontinuity. Foucault in his Archaeology phase advocated a method grounded in the conceptual priority of discontinuities of meaning, while Ricoeur wanted to give discontinuity an important subordinate role in an approach dedicated to recovering a continuity of consciousness. In my own current Aristotelian phase, I want to emphasize a view that is reconciling like Ricoeur’s, but still puts the accent on discontinuity like Foucault’s. My historiographical notes both tell stories and offer explanations somewhat in the way that Ricoeur advocated, and emphasize the differences and discontinuities favored by Foucault.

Ricoeur also seems to have been troubled by Foucault’s disinterest in what Ricoeur calls the “first-order entities” (p. 218) of history — actual communities, nations, civilizations, etc. (I would note that he is not using “first order” in the logical sense, which is a purely syntactic criterion; he just wants to suggest that these kinds of things are more methodologically primitive for historical inquiry.) I actually think apprehension of something like form comes before apprehension of any substantialized “things”, so my sympathy is more with Foucault on this point. Undoubtedly Ricoeur would say these have a narrative identity rather than a substantial one, which seems fine in itself, but I think any narrative identity must be a tentative result and not a methodological primitive.

Ultimately, I think Ricoeur was motivated by an ethical desire to put people first — a concern Foucault did not make clear he actually shared until The Care of the Self. Ricoeur would also agree, though, that historiography is not simply reducible to ethics, but has largely independent concerns of its own. He seems to have wanted to say that the history of ideas is fundamentally a history of people. I’m a pluralist, so I have no objection to this sort of account as one alternative, but I think people’s commitments tell us who they are more than who holds a commitment tells us about the commitment. I also think higher-order things come before first-order things, and that people are better thought of as singular higher-order trajectories of ways of being throughout a life than as first-order entities. Ricoeur, I believe, was reaching for something like this with his notion of narrative (as opposed to substantial) identity, which I would rather call something other than identity.