Facts and Incomplete Information

A modern notion of hard-nosed common sense is to appeal exclusively to positive facts. This is also a major basis of simplistic notions of empirical science. Serious scientific methodologies are more indirect, and quite a bit more involved.

From a broadly Kantian point of view that I think Plato and Aristotle would also endorse, all putative facts are really just assertions of facts, made by people. The validity of the corresponding assertions depends on the soundness of the reasons that lead us to believe them. Thus, regardless of whether our concern is ethical or scientific, it is always the quality of reasons that matters in assessing the validity of assertions.

The notion of a fair and objective weighing of evidence for or against an assertion presupposes that we symmetrically consider the pro and con, as Plato emphasized in his discussions of “dialectic”. But the simplistic bias for positive facts results in an inherently asymmetrical treatment any time we have to deal with incomplete information, because what putative facts we currently have in our possession is in part a matter of sheer chance.

In a fact-biased approach, if there happen to be insufficient facts in our possession to adequately support a hypothesis, the hypothesis is likely to be be dismissed out of hand as “speculation”, regardless of how inherently plausible it might otherwise be. We end up assuming something is not true merely because we cannot empirically prove it is true. This is independent of any other prejudice that may also enter into situations involving human judgment.

Once again, I want to recommend a prudent suspension or qualification of belief in cases of incomplete information, rather than active disbelief. (See also Debate on Prehistory.)

McDowell on the Space of Reasons

John McDowell’s paper “Sellars and the Space of Reasons” (2018) provides a useful discussion of this concept. Unlike Brandom, who aims to complete Sellars’ break with empiricism, McDowell ultimately wants to defend “a non-traditional empiricism, uncontaminated by the Myth of the Given” (p. 1).

McDowell begins by quoting Sellars: “in characterizing an episode or a state as that of knowing, we are not giving an empirical description of that episode or state; we are placing it in the logical space of reasons, of justifying and being able to justify what one says” (ibid; emphasis added).

For Sellars, to speak of states of knowing is to talk about “epistemic facts”. A bit later, McDowell says that Sellars’ epistemic facts also include judgments and uses of concepts that might not be considered knowledge. Not only beliefs but also desires end up as a kind of epistemic facts. McDowell uses this to argue that the space of reasons is a version of the concept of knowledge as justified true belief. I want to resist this last claim.

McDowell points out that knowledge for Sellars has a normative character. Sellars also regards the foundationalist claim that epistemic facts can be explained entirely in terms of non-epistemic facts (physiology of perception and so on) as of a piece with the naturalistic fallacy in ethics.

McDowell cites Donald Davidson’s contrast between space-of-reasons intelligibility and the kind of regularity-based intelligibility that applies to a discipline like physics, but does not want to assume there is a single model for all non-space-of-reasons intelligibility.

He notes that Sellars contrasts placing something in the space of reasons with empirical description, but wants to weaken that distinction, allowing epistemic facts to be grounded in experience, and to be themselves subject to empirical description. “Epistemic facts are facts too” (p. 5). I prefer going the other direction, and saying empirical descriptions are judgments too.

The space of reasons is only occupied by speakers. Sellars is quoted saying, “all awareness of sorts, resemblances, facts, etc., in short all awareness of abstract entities — indeed, all awareness even of particulars — is a linguistic affair” (p. 7, emphasis in original). “And when Sellars connects being appropriately positioned in the space of reasons with being able to justify what one says, that is not just a matter of singling out a particularly striking instance of having a justified belief, as if that idea could apply equally well to beings that cannot give linguistic expression to what they know” (ibid).

“‘Inner’ episodes with conceptual content are to be understood on the model of overt performances in which people, for instance, say that things are thus and so” (p. 8). “What Sellars proposes is that the concept of, for instance, perceptual awareness that things are thus and so should be understood on the model of the concept of, for instance, saying that things are thus and so” (p. 10). All good so far.

To be in the space of reasons, “the subject would need to be able to step back from the fact that it is inclined in a certain direction by the circumstance. It would need to be able to raise the question whether it should be so inclined” (pp. 10-11, emphasis in original). But McDowell says — and I agree — that this is without prejudice as to whether there is still a kind of kinship between taking reasons as reasons, on the one hand, and the purposeful behaviors of animals, on the other.

McDowell acknowledges that the idea that epistemic facts can only be justified by other epistemic facts is easy to apply to inferential knowledge, but rather harder to apply to the “observational knowledge” that he claims should also be included in the space of reasons. For McDowell, observational knowledge is subject to a kind of justification by other facts.

McDowell and Brandom both recognize something called “observational knowledge”, but Brandom thinks that it necessarily involves appeal to claimed non-epistemic facts, whereas McDowell wants to broaden the concept of epistemic facts enough to be able to say that observational knowledge can be justified by appealing only to epistemic facts. I would prefer to say, observational judgments are subject to a kind of tentative justification by other judgments.

McDowell says that acquiring knowledge noninferentially is also an exercise of conceptual capacities. This clearly implies a noninferential conception of the conceptual, and seems to me to presuppose a representationalist one instead. This has huge consequences.

He says that the space of reasons must include noninferential relations of justification, which work by appeal to additional facts rather by inference. But where did those facts come from? In light of Kant, I would say that we rational animals never have direct access to facts that just are what they are. Rather, if we are being careful, we should recognize that we can only consider claims and judgments of fact, which may be relatively well-founded or not. But appeal to claims of fact for justification is just passing the buck. Claims of any sort always require justification of their own.

As an example, McDowell discusses claims to know that something is green in color. As non-inferential justification in this context, he says one might say that “This is a good light for telling the colours of things by looking” (p. 18). That is fine as a criterion for relatively well-founded belief, but that is all it is.

A bit later, he adds, “I can tell a green thing when I see one, at least in a good light, viewed head-on, and so forth. A serviceable gloss on that remark is to say that if I claim, in suitable circumstances, that something is green, then it is” (p. 19).

This is to explicitly endorse self-certification of one’s authority. It is therefore ultimately to allow the claim, it’s true because I said so. I think it was a rejection on principle of this kind of self-certification that led Plato to sharply distinguish knowledge from belief.

As Aristotle pointed out in discussing the relation between what he respectively called “demonstration” and “dialectic”, we can apply the same kinds of inference both to things we take as true and to things we are examining hypothetically. We can make only hypothetical inferences (if A, then B) from claims or judgments of A; we can only legitimately make categorical inferences (A, therefore B) from full-fledged knowledge of A — which, to be such, must at minimum not beg the question or pass the buck of justification.

The great majority of our real-world reasoning is ultimately hypothetical rather than categorical, even though we routinely act as if it were categorical. One of Kant’s great contributions was to point out that — contrary to scholastic and early modern tradition — hypothetical judgement is a much better model of judgment in general than categorical judgment is. The general form of judgment is conditional, and not absolute.

I think it’s fine to include beliefs, opinions, and judgments in the space of reasons as McDowell wants to do, provided we recognize their ultimately hypothetical and tentative character. But once we recognize the hypothetical and tentative character of beliefs, I think it follows that all relations within the space of reasons can be construed as inferential.

I don’t think contemporary science has much to do with so-called observational knowledge of the “it is green” variety, either. Rather, it has to do partly with applications of mathematics, and partly with well-controlled experiments, in which the detailed conditions of the controls are far more decisive than the observational component. The prejudice that simple categorical judgments like “it is green” have anything to do with science is a holdover from old foundationalist theories of sense data.

I would also contend that all putative non-space-of-reasons intelligibility ultimately depends on space-of-reasons intelligibility.

Opinion, Belief, Knowledge?

There is an empiricist commonplace that identifies “knowledge” with “justified true belief”. This makes knowledge an especially good kind of belief. I regard that as a flat-out category mistake.

I want to suggest that knowledge is not a kind of belief or opinion at all. As usual, I don’t claim to “know” what I “suggest” with some force as interesting or worthy of consideration, so in particular I do not claim to know that knowledge is not belief or opinion. (I am also not trying to say exactly what knowledge is, only to delimit it somewhat.)

What I am doing is recommending a different use of the word “knowledge”, that at minimum distinguishes it from belief or opinion. This is based on the belief or opinion that the belief or opinion that “knowledge is not belief or opinion” is a well-founded belief or opinion.

I read Plato as very sharply distinguishing “knowledge” properly so-called (epistémé) from any kind of doxa (opinion or belief). This would rule out the identification of knowledge with justified true belief.

It is not uncommon, however, to see claims that Plato himself identified knowledge with justified true belief. I will offer a different interpretation of the main relevant passage here. I apologize for using the old Jowett translation, which is easily accessible online.

“Then when the jurors are rightly persuaded of something one could not actually know except by being present — when they judge it, that is, on hearsay, and yet with a true opinion, they judge it without knowledge; even though, if their decision is sound, their persuasion is correct” (Plato, Theaetetus 201).

Ignoring the particular criterion of knowledge mentioned in the example, the essential is that on reflection, we should all be able to agree that there are cases in which we would say that someone has a true opinion without knowledge. So far, this is agnostic to whether or not knowledge is justified true opinion. It just establishes that true opinion in itself is not knowledge.

“When therefore anyone conceives a true opinion of anything without a reasoned statement, his mind is free from error about it, but does not know it; for the man who cannot give and accept a reasoned statement about anything, has not knowledge of it: but when he adds to his true opinion a reasoned statement, he has in addition all that is required to constitute knowledge” (202).

Here it is very important to distinguish between statements about knowledge and statements about someone who has it. What is argued in the above quotation is that the person who has a true opinion and a reasoned statement has what she needs for knowledge.

I would agree that a person who has knowledge can reasonably be said also to believe what she knows. But it does not follow from this that knowledge itself is any kind of belief, or in particular that knowledge is just true belief accompanied by a reasoned statement. Nothing in the argument excludes the possibility that knowledge itself — as distinct from the person who has both knowledge and belief — is tied only to the reasoned statement, and is in itself independent of the person’s belief.

I think this is already sufficient to disprove the claim that this section of the Theaetetus expresses the view that knowledge is reducible to justified true belief.

If knowledge were tied only to the reasoned statement, it would still be true that the person who also had a true belief would have what she needed for knowledge. Again, I don’t mean to say that “reasoned statement” is sufficient by itself to define knowledge, even though I think it gives an important hint. It is worth noting, however, that Plato’s mention of a reasoned statement is more specific than the simple mention of justification.

Also, “truth” is said in more than one way. The kind of truth that could reasonably be said of a belief or opinion is only a correspondence to facts. The kind of truth of principal interest to Plato was very different from this.

I also think there is a broad category of acquaintance that is extremely important to humans, but is different from knowledge. The kind of experience I find interesting is mainly not ephemeral immediate experience, but the more substantial thing that we mean when we say someone is “experienced”. (See also Imagination, Emotion, Opinion; Consciousness, Personhood; A Criterion for Knowledge?; Everyday Belief; Belief is Different from Faith.)

Ideas Are Not Inert

In the British empiricist tradition, “ideas” are supposed to be inert contents of an active “mind”, and to be either identical with sensible contents or derived from sensory experience. They are supposed to have content that just “is what it is”, but is nonetheless sufficient to serve as a basis for our conclusions and motivations.

I want to argue instead that the only possible basis for our conclusions and motivations is other conclusions and motivations. As individuals we always start in the middle, with some already existing conclusions and motivations that were not necessarily individually ours to begin with. Language and culture and upbringing provide us with a stock of pre-existing conclusions and particularly shaped motivations.

Further, I don’t see ideas as inert. The notion that ideas are completely inert comes from an extreme polarization between active mind and passive idea that results from entirely subordinating this relation to the grammatical model of subject and predicate. Aristotle’s rather minimalist account of these matters effectively treats objects and ideas as having some activity of their own. For Aristotle, “we” do not hold a monopoly on activity. There is also activity in the world that is independent of us, and much of our activity is our particular reflection of the world’s activity. Indeed for Aristotle I take it to be thought rather than an assumed “thinker” that is primarily active.

Hegel has often been criticized for speaking as if “the Idea” had life of its own, independent of us humans. If one holds an empiricist view of ideas, this can only sound like nonsense, or some kind of animism. But with an Aristotelian view of thoughts as a kind of intrinsically active “contents”, that is not the case. If thoughts are intrinsically active, we need not posit a separate mental “subject” distinct from any actual thought or perception or content as the source of all activity, behind thought.

Plato compared the human soul to a city — a kind of unity to be sure, but a weak one consisting of a federated community and relatively specific “culture” of thoughts and perceptions, subject to varying degrees of coherence. Only under the influence of later theology did it come to be assumed that the soul must necessarily have the far stronger unity of a simple substance. A looser unity of the soul is very compatible with a view of thoughts and perceptions as multiple fibers of activity, from which the overall activity we attribute to the soul or mind is constituted.

Ockham on Reference

William of Ockham (1285-1347) is the most famous so-called “nominalist” in Latin medieval philosophy. He sought to explain our practical and theoretical uses of universals entirely in terms of our relations to existing singular things.

Without losing sight of Plato’s emphasis on the value of pure thought, Aristotle had adopted a broader perspective, starting from the generality of human life. In this context, in contrast to Plato he had emphasized the genuine importance, positive role, and irreducibility of singular beings or things that we encounter in life. “For us” singular beings and things come first, even if they do not come first in the order of the cosmos.

Singular beings and things are more concretely “real” than any generalizations about them. But Aristotle simultaneously upheld the “Platonic” view that knowledge in the strong sense can apply only to generalizations of necessary consequences between things, and not to our experiences of singulars. There can be no necessity in our experience of something purely singular. What I would call the extraordinarily productive tension between Aristotle’s fundamental views of reality (putting singulars first) and of knowledge (putting universals first) created an appearance of paradox that later commentators sought to resolve, often by favoring one side at the expense of the other.

Ockham wanted to explain universals entirely in terms of singulars. In the Cambridge Companion to Ockham, Claude Panaccio summarizes that “Ockham’s project is to explicate all semantical and epistemological features — truth values, for instance — in terms of relations between sign-tokens and singular objects in the world” (p. 58).

Ockham built on the work of many less well-known figures. The Latin world had seen lively inquiries about logic and semantics since the 12th century, when Arabic learning first began to be disseminated across Europe. Within this tradition, there is more than one approach to meaning.

The technical notion of “signification” was a development inspired largely by Augustine’s theory of “signs”. Unlike more recent usages (e.g., in Saussurean linguistics), this kind of signification involves a simple relation of correspondence between a thing taken as a “sign” and some other thing.

Ockham and many of his predecessors held that there is such a thing as natural signification, independent of any language. In this sense, smoke is taken to be a “sign” of a fire. This relation of smoke signifying fire is called “natural”, because in our experience smoke only exists where there is fire, and this has to do with how the world is, rather than with us. This is very different from the conventional imposition of the word “fire” to refer to a fire.

At the same time, this notion of signification also seems to have an irreducible “psychological” component. It has something to do with how the world is, but in a more direct sense, it has to do with something like what the British empiricists later called the association of ideas. Our “natural” association of smoke with fire is not arbitrary. As the empiricists would say, it is grounded in experience. As the Latin scholastics would say, the soul “naturally” tends to associate smoke with fire, and this is as much a truth about the soul — or about the soul existing in the world — as it is a truth about the world.

For Ockham, natural signification applies to concepts, which constitute the core of a sort of “mental language” that is in many ways analogous to spoken or written language, but is more original and does not depend on convention. Concepts on this understanding are subject to all the same kinds of syntactical relationships as individual words in speech.

In this tradition, the meaning of concepts is analyzed by analogy with the role of individual words in speech. This presupposes a view that linguistic meaning overall is founded on the meanings of individual words. The individual concepts of “mental language” that apply to individual real-world things are analogously supposed to have pre-given, natural meanings. Logic and semantics are then a sort of mental hygiene with respect to their proper use.

Ockham offers a rich analysis of connotative terms that modify the concepts corresponding to things.

Again building on the work of many authors in the Latin tradition, he develops the theory of logical “supposition”, which contemporary scholars associate with semantic discussions of reference to real-world objects. This has nothing to do with supposition in the sense of hypothesis; rather, it relates etymologically to a notion of something “standing under” something else.

Notably, Ockham and this whole tradition insist that while individual words independently have signification, only in the context of propositions or assertions expressed by whole sentences do words have the kind of reference associated with supposition. I suspect this is ultimately grounded in Aristotle’s thesis that truth and falsity apply only to whole propositions or assertions; “supposition” is to explain not just meaning, but also truth and falsity. This tradition develops a much more explicit theory of reference than Aristotle did, and the kind of reference it develops is tied to contexts of assertion, or true assertion.

The idea that reference to real-world things should be approached at the level of propositions rather than individual words or concepts has much to recommend it. But for Ockham and the tradition he continued, supposition is still fundamentally governed by signification, and signification begins with individual words or concepts. Individual words or concepts are thought to have pre-given meanings, and Ockham attempts to give this a theoretical grounding with his notion of “mental language”.

As Ockham suggests, there is a way in which notions of syntactic relations apply to pure concepts. But I take this to be an abstraction from actual usage in spoken or written language, and I don’t believe in any pre-given meanings.

Ockham’s general strong privileging of individual things over universals has a deep relation to his voluntarist and fideist theology, which owes much to his fellow Franciscan Duns Scotus. In logic, Scotus is considered a defender of “realism” about universals as opposed to nominalism, but in his theology he developed a strong notion of individuation, tied to a very radical notion of divine omnipotence that refused to subordinate it in any way, even to divine goodness (see Aquinas and Scotus on Power; Being and Representation). Essentially, from this point of view, every single thing that happens is a miracle coming directly from God, and all observed regularity in the world pertains only to a sort of divine “habit” that could be contravened at any moment.

Aquinas aimed at a sort of diplomatic compromise between this extreme theistic view that makes everything solely dependent on God, and Aristotle’s unequivocal assertion of the reality of “secondary” causes. Scotus and Ockham applied high levels of logical sophistication in defense of the extreme view.

Ockham also denied the reality of mathematical objects. Together with his extreme view on divine power, this makes very unlikely the view promoted by some scholars that Ockham in particular represented the strand of medieval thought that most helped promote the emergence of modern science. Ockham’s undeniable logical acumen was dedicated to downplaying rather than elaborating the practical importance of order in nature.

It does seem, though, that views like Ockham’s contributed to the shaping of British empiricist philosophy. Here is another chapter in the complex history of notions of reference and representation. Ockham’s very strong notion of reference as directly grounded in singular real-world objects — combined with that of the natural signification or pre-given meaning of concepts in “mental language” — helped lay the ground for what modern empiricism would treat as common sense.

For most of the 20th century, the mainstream of analytic philosophy seemed to be inseparable from a strongly empiricist direction. But Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Brandom, and others have initiated a new questioning of the assumptions of empiricism from within contemporary analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy is no longer nearly so opposed to the history of philosophy or to continental philosophy as it was once assumed to be. It is in this context that we can begin to look at a sort of Foucaultian or de Libera-esque “archaeology” of empiricism, in which Ockham certainly deserves an important place.

Hume on Causes

The great British empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote that “There are no ideas which occur in metaphysics more obscure and uncertain than those of ‘power’, ‘force’, ‘energy’, or ‘necessary connection'” (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Library of Liberal Arts ed., p. 73).

Hume is most famous for his critique of naive or dogmatic assumptions about causality. “[T]here is not, in any particular instance of cause and effect, anything which can suggest the idea of power and necessary connection” (p. 75). To me, it seems to be the idea of an underlying power or force responsible for causality that he is mainly questioning. He has no doubt that we continually experience instances of cause and effect.

“[There is] no such thing as chance in the world” (p. 69). “[T]he conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature” (p. 98). Clearly, then, he did believe in the reality of cause and effect, but only wanted to reject naive claims about our knowledge of the world that purport to link experienced instances of cause and effect to explanations in terms of the operation of underlying powers. What we actually experience in these cases is just lawful regularity.

“It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse…. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present, but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed” (pp. 16-17). But on the other hand, “All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations…. An artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking who, besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions…. However painful soever this inward search or inquiry may appear, it becomes in some manner requisite to those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners…. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other” (p. 19). Clearly, then, Hume’s polemic against scholastic modes of reasoning does not at all mean he simply rejects the values of “accurate and abstruse” philosophy.

Neoplatonizing tendencies in the Aristotelian commentary tradition led to the common Latin scholastic view of causes as metaphysical powers operating behind the scenes that Hume is mainly concerned to criticize. Aristotle himself identified causes more broadly and much less speculatively with every kind of “reasons why” things are as they are and behave as they do. He did so without making extravagant claims to certain knowledge. Whereas scholastic philosophers characteristically debated the pros and cons of accepting various abstract propositions, Aristotle himself was fundamentally concerned with the use of reason to help interpret concrete human experience (see Aristotelian Causes).

Hume is a great philosopher, and so far I have focused on a positive appropriation of his work, having some points in common with themes I have been pursuing about causality and the notion of power. Robert Brandom’s innovative reading of Kant’s response to Hume points out that there are distinct limits to Hume’s approach.

“Kant read Hume’s practical and theoretical philosophies as raising variants of a single question. On the side of practical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of how things are to prescriptions of how they ought to be. How can we rationally justify the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’? On the side of theoretical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of what in fact happens to characterizations of what must happen and what could not happen…. Hume’s predicament is that he finds that even his best understanding of facts doesn’t yield an understanding of either of the two sorts of rules governing and relating those facts, underwriting assessments of which of the things that actually happen (all he thought we can directly experience) ought to happen (are normatively necessary) or must happen (are naturally necessary).”

“Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the situation that Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-factual empirical claims perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (Brandom, Reason in Philosophy, p. 54).

Brandom continues, “To judge, claim, or believe that the cat is on the mat, one must have at least a minimal practical ability to sort material inferences in which that content is involved (as premise or conclusion) into good ones and bad ones, and to discriminate what is from what is not materially incompatible with it. Part of doing that is associating with those inferences ranges of counterfactual robustness…. So, for example, one must have such dispositions as to treat the cat’s being on the mat as compatible with a nearby tree being somewhat nearer, or the temperature a few degrees higher, but not with the sun being as close as the tree or the temperature being thousands of degrees higher. One must know such things as that the cat might chase a mouse or flee from a dog, but that the mat can do neither, and that the mat would remain essentially as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not. It is not that there is any one of the counterfactual inferences I have mentioned that is necessary for understanding what it is for the cat to be on the mat. But if one makes no distinctions of this sort — treats the possibility of the cat’s jumping off the mat or yawning as on a par with is sprouting wings and starting to fly, or suddenly becoming microscopically small; does not at all distinguish between what can and cannot happen to the cat and what can and cannot happen to the mat — then one does not count as understanding the claim well enough to endorse it” (pp. 54-55).

Brandom concludes, “If that is right, then in being able to employ concepts such as cat and mat in ordinary empirical descriptive claims one already knows how to do everything one needs to know how to do in order to deploy concepts such as possible and necessary — albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (p. 55).

I am actually a little more sympathetic to Hume, in that I don’t read him as categorically rejecting the validity of concepts of necessity, only any possibility of certain knowledge of how they apply to the real world. I personally like the position of Leibnitz that necessity is real but always hypothetical, never categorical. But Brandom is right that Hume does not go on to emphasize how essential our fallible understanding of necessity is to our understanding of ordinary experience.

Observing Reason

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The next stop in our odyssey through Hegel’s Phenomenology is a discussion of “Idealism”, which Harris in his commentary associates especially with Fichte. Though Kant is sometimes called a “German Idealist”, he never simply characterized his views as idealist, and often used the term in a negative way. It was Fichte who mainly gave “Idealism” a positive sense. Because of the extreme subject-centeredness of his better known early works he is easy to caricature, but recent scholarship shows him to be a serious and interesting philosopher in spite of that. Paul Ricoeur also saw value in his work.

Hegel says “Now because, in this way, the pure essential being of things, as well as their aspect of difference, belongs to reason, we can, strictly speaking, no longer talk of things at all, i.e. of something which would only be present to consciousness by negatively opposing it” (p. 277). Here the qualification “strictly speaking” is essential.

Without questioning the relevance of the ready-made objects of common sense to everyday life, Kant had already decisively shown the weakness of attempts to treat objects as philosophically foundational. As Hegel put it, Perception in discerning identifiable objects still takes the immediate presentations of Sense Certainty largely for granted.

The most distinctive feature of Fichte’s early work was his concentration on a rational “I”. This already distinguishes him from garden-variety subjectivism, which subordinates everything else to a particular empirical “I”. Kant had contrasted a moral ideal of reason with the effective subjectivism of a particular “I”. Fichte boldly asserted that what really deserves to be called “I” is actually a universal, rational “I” and not the particular “I” of my wants. Fichte’s “I” just is a concretely instantiated reflexivity of pure Reason, to which he claims we all in principle have access.

It is this notion of a concretely instantiated reflexivity of Reason that Hegel takes up here. From Hegel’s point of view, this rational “I” is a big step forward, but still very abstract and in need of further development.

Harris in his commentary contrasts this with the point of view of the Unhappy Consciousness, and suggests that Hegel at least in part wants to suggest that the point of view of “Reason” has a historical connection to the religious perspective of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, as distinct from the Catholic tradition. This is consistent with Hegel’s valorization of Luther elsewhere, which seems to me to reflect a somewhat one-sided charity of interpretation. Hegel contrasts a greater attribution of authority to the Church and its human representatives in the Catholic tradition with a more self-determining direct personal relation to God and the Bible in the Protestant tradition, and wants to connect the latter with what he sees as the self-determining character of Reason. This is not without some validity, but ignores the fact that Luther’s point of view has also been a wellspring of fundamentalisms that have nothing to do with reason or good ethics.

Harris also connects the point of view of “Reason” with the scientific revolution (p. 456). “Hegel is using the terminology of Critical Idealism (Kant and Fichte) for what the consciousness that we are observing expressed in the language of Bacon and Descartes” (p. 455). “From the historical references that Hegel gives, it is clear that ‘Reason’ comes on the scene before ‘Idealism’; and it appears immediately as the certainty of being all reality” (p. 456). This abstract, “dogmatic” Reason has “forgotten” the long previous development we have been following.

“[P]rimitive self-consciousness does not really want any definite object at all; it just wants to get its own way about whatever objective occurs to it…. This self just wants to be master” (p. 457). In contrast, “the Stoic regards those who do not dwell in the light of Reason, as brothers and sisters nonetheless — sparks of the same divine fire…. But their goals are irrational… For the consciousness of ‘Reason’, on the other hand, every goal it can recognize at all, it recognizes as reasonable” (ibid).

“The great critical reasoner, Kant, declared that they are all dogmatists, and that their disagreements must continue forever, until they admit that Reason cannot say what is in any absolute sense” (ibid). But nonetheless “The Phenomenology aims to validate Kant’s hope by showing how the dialectic of Pure Reason [of which those disagreements are a symptom] can be overcome” (p. 459).

“Reflective Reason must begin again with Sense-Certainty, at the extreme of the ‘It is’, and traverse once more the forgotten path to self-possession…. But Fichte’s idealism will reveal itself as an error that turns round into a much higher truth than the philosophy of nature can give us…. ‘Idealism’ is handled almost as sarcastically as Stoicism was, and for the same reason: it has only a formal truth. But that formal truth is the actual concept of Spirit” (p. 460).

“My forgotten history is myself; it is the substance, or foundation, of my subjectivity…. It is the objective self from which self-conscious singular Reason has emerged, because the logical destiny, or the rational Bestimmung [calling] of the Spirit, is to be cognizant of what it has been. In the light of that cognizance we shall finally be able to know the not-self (in which subjective Reason will here strive unsuccessfully to find itself) as the necessary ‘otherness’ of my ‘absolute’ self” (p. 461).

“Reason is ‘all reality and all truth’ in the sense that it is the categorical structure and motion of all experience. In its moving aspect, Reason itself is ‘singular’. There is more to it than purely universal categories, because it is active, it is a principle of change in the world” (p. 464).

“As a ‘schema’ — an intellectual ‘middle’ between ‘thought’ and ‘sense’ — the thinking ego necessarily refers… to the world of experience that is to be comprehended. This ‘referring’ is the reflective (or transcendental) repetition of the naive ‘pointing’… of sense-certainty…. The formal ‘schema’ that Hegel derives from Fichte has a long way to go before its ‘certainty’ will become ‘truth'” (p. 465).

“Hegel fixes our attention here on the way that Fichte took over Locke’s empiricism wholesale” (p. 467). For Locke, “What we can know is only ‘our own ideas’; and our rational certainty is that they are indeed all ours. This is the return of sensible certainty at the level of Reason” (ibid).

“Actual Reason is… bound to abandon this empirical, observational stance, and to move on from its naive expectation that truth is to be discovered or found” (p. 468).


Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom all work with thick, nonprimitive, structured notions of human experience that do not involve treating consciousness as a transparent medium in which ready-made contents are immediately presented. Aristotle emphasized experience as a product of accumulation over time, as when we say someone is “experienced”. Kant emphasized that all experience is a product of preconscious synthesis that involves complex applications of concepts. Hegel developed a radical critique of the supposed positive role of immediacy. Whereas many previous readings tended to water down the impact of Kant and Hegel by explicitly or implicitly assimilating their work to empiricist or existential-phenomenological views that treat experience as something primitive, Brandom has emphasized how Kant and Hegel anticipated Wilfrid Sellars’ critique of the “Myth of the Given”, and developed an innovative “negative” account of the role of immediacy within experience (see Error; Negativity in Experience.)

The bottom line of all of this is that experience cannot be used as an unproblematic beginning point, as if all the difficult issues were separate from it, out there in the world somewhere. There is no such separation; we find ourselves only in and through a process of understanding life and the world. It is the forms brought to light through this process that matter.

Experience can still be a beginning point of sorts, but in the Aristotelian pragmatic sense that gives no privilege to beginnings. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Kant and Foundationalism

According to Kant, all human experience minimally involves the use of empirical concepts. We don’t have access to anything like the raw sense data posited by many early 20th century logical empiricists, and it would not be of much use if we did. In Kantian terms, this would be a form of intuition without concepts, which he famously characterized as necessarily blind, and unable to function on its own.

Foundationalism is the notion that there is certain knowledge that does not depend on any inference. This implies that it somehow comes to us ready-made. But for Kant, all use of empirical concepts involves a kind of synthesis that could not work without low-level inference, so this is impossible.

The idea that any knowledge could come to us ready-made involves what Kant called dogmatism. According to Kant, this should have no place in philosophy. Actual knowledge necessarily is a product of actual work, though some of that work is normally implicit or preconscious. (See also Kantian Discipline; Interpretation; Inferentialism vs Mentalism.)

It also seems to me that foundationalism is incompatible with the Kantian autonomy of reason.