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.)

Idealism?

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).

Experience

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.

Aristotle, Empiricist?

In contrast with Plato, Aristotle made major contributions to early natural science, and was concerned mainly to interpret human experience of the world. I previously noted with some sympathy John Herman Randall Jr.’s argument that Italian Renaissance Aristotelianism played a much greater role in the development of early modern science than is commonly recognized. I cannot, however, follow Leibniz and Kant’s superficial association of British Empiricist philosophy with Aristotle.

Locke, Berkeley, and Hume were all much closer to Descartes than to Aristotle on key questions related to subjectivity. For all of them, immediate presence to the mind played a foundational role. (See also Empiricism; Aristotelian Subjectivity; Mind Without Mentalism.)

(Locke, Berkeley, and Hume all argued with rather more subtlety and sophistication than Descartes. Unlike Descartes, Locke and Hume did not treat the human soul as a substance, and all three of the great British Empiricists produced detailed accounts of aspects of human cognition that are of lasting value, potentially somewhat independent of the mentalist framework in which they were originally developed.)

Locke and Hume did extensively and systematically develop the notion — commonly attributed to Aristotle in the middle ages — that everything in intellect originates in sense perception. As far as Aristotle is concerned, this seems an overstatement.

Aristotle characteristically looked for multiple “causes”, or reasons why, for a given state of affairs. What I think he really meant to assert, in the brief passage in his treatise on the soul that is taken to support this typically empiricist position, was the more modest thesis that broadly speaking, sense perception provides the event-based occasions that drive occasions of thought. That does not mean that all the content (or form, as Aristotle would call it) of thought has its most direct source in sensation, although significant parts of it clearly do.

Consider something like language. Most concrete instances of language clearly have a sensible component, and those that don’t (such as when we silently talk to ourselves) arguably could not occur if they were not preceded by other instances that did have a sensible component. Without sensation, there could be no language. But that hardly means that linguistic meaning has its primary source in sensation. One could argue that sensation is always depended upon somehow even in considerations of meaning, but it does not seem to be the primary concern. Sensation by itself is a necessary — but not sufficient — basis for an adequate account of thought.

Historiography, Inferentialism

Having laid out some preliminaries, I’ve begun to circle back to more questions of historical detail related to the development here, and it seems fitting to summarize the motivations driving these more historical notes. History is all about the details, but in any inquiry, what are actually higher-order questions about methodology ought to inform primary investigations. We never just have data; it always has to be interpreted, and this involves questions about methodology. With history, this often involves critical examination of the applicability of categories that may tend to be taken for granted. Thus, I am adding notes about the application of various categories or concepts in particular historical settings, and about historical details that seem to have larger methodological significance.

I’m looking back at the history of philosophy (and, to some extent, broader cultural developments) from a point of view inspired by the “inferentialism” of Brandom (taking this as a general name for his point of view), as well as by my own ideas for a revitalized Aristotelianism. In Tales of the Mighty Dead and elsewhere, Brandom himself has effectively placed the historical roots of his development in the broad tradition of early modern philosophical rationalism, including the work of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. I find standard connotations of the term “rationalism” rather problematic, and want to separate Descartes — of whom I am much more sharply critical than Brandom seems to be — from Spinoza and Leibniz, for whom I find additional reasons to be sympathetic. Brandom has contributed to a new understanding of Kant, and has developed a landmark reading of Hegel. I want to help support the broad thrust of these with historical considerations, while reconnecting them with fresh readings of Aristotle, Plato, and other historical philosophers. With some caveats and in spite of Brandom’s own brief comments, I also want to suggest a possible rapprochement with key insights of 20th century French “structuralism”.

A key point common to most of the tendencies mentioned above is an emphasis on the role of difference in making things intelligible. In the context of philosophical arguments, this means that critical distinctions are as important as positive assertions. Contrasts not only greatly facilitate but largely shape understanding. Brandom himself has developed the contrast between inferentialism and the representationalism of Descartes and Locke. He has made large use of Wilfrid Sellars’ critique of a “Myth of the Given” associated with most varieties of empiricism, and has also referenced the critique of psychologism developed by Frege and others in a logical context.

I have been using the term “mentalism” for a privileging of contents that are supposed to be immediately present to a personal “mind” that is itself conceived mainly in terms of immediate awareness. It seems to me that Descartes and Locke’s version of this was a historically specific combination of all the above notions from which an inferentialism would seek to distinguish itself — representationalism, the Myth of the Given, and psychologism. I have been concerned to point out not only that Cartesian-Lockean mentalism has historically specific antecedents that long predate modernity (going back to Augustine, with some foreshadowing in Plotinus), but also that a proto-inferentialist countertrend is actually even older, going back to Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on the primacy of reason and reasoned development.

In A Spirit of Trust, Brandom has among many other things expanded on Hegel’s critique of Mastery. I find this to be of tremendous importance for ethics, and consonant with my structuralist sympathies. I have been concerned to point out how extreme claims of mastery are implicit in the various historical kinds of voluntarism, which all want to put some notion of arbitrary will — or authority attributed one-sidedly to such a will — ahead of consideration of what is reasonable and good.

Usual generalization caveats apply to statements about “isms”. In any particular case where the terms seem to apply, we need to look at relevant details, and be alert to the possibility that all aspects of a generalized argument may not apply straightforwardly. (See also Historiography; History of Philosophy.)

Empiricism

Already in the 1950s, analytic philosophers began to seriously question empiricism. Quine’s “Two Dogmas of Empiricism” (1951), Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (1954), and Sellars’ “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind” (1956) all contributed to this.

Brandom explicates Sellars’ pivotal critique of the empiricist “Myth of the Given” as belief in a kind of awareness that counts as a kind of knowledge but does not involve any concepts. (If knowledge is distinguished by the ability to explain, as Aristotle suggested, then any claim to knowledge without concepts is incoherent out of the starting gate.) Building on Sellars’ work, Brandom’s Making It Explicit (1994) finally offered a full-fledged inferentialist alternative. He has rounded this out with a magisterial new reading of Hegel.

The terms “empiricism” and “rationalism” originally referred to schools of Greek medicine, not philosophy. The original empirical school denied the relevance of theory altogether, arguing that medical practice should be based exclusively on observation and experience.

Locke famously began his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689) with an argument that there are no innate ideas. I take him to have successfully established this. Unfortunately, he goes on to argue that what are in effect already contentful “ideas” become immediately present to us in sensible intuition. This founding move of British empiricism seems naive compared to what I take Aristotle to have meant. At any rate, I take it to have been decisively refuted by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason (1781; 2nd ed. 1787). Experience in Kant is highly mediated. “Intuitions without concepts are blind.” (See also Ricoeur on Locke on Personal Identity; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

In the early 20th century, however, there was a great flourishing of phenomenalism, or the view that all knowledge is strictly reducible to sensation understood as immediate awareness. Kant himself was often read as an inconsistent phenomenalist who should be corrected in the direction of consistent phenomenalism. Logical empiricism was a diverse movement with many interesting developments, but sense data theories were widely accepted. Broadly speaking, sense data were supposed to be mind-dependent things of which we are directly aware in perception, and that have the properties they appear to have in perception. They were a recognizable descendent of Cartesian incorrigible appearances and Lockean sensible intuition. (Brandom points out that sense data theory is only one of many varieties of the Myth of the Given; it seems to me that Husserlian phenomenology and its derivatives form another family of examples.)

Quine, Wittgenstein, and Sellars each pointed out serious issues with this sort of empiricism or phenomenalism. Brandom’s colleague John McDowell in Mind and World (1994) defended a very different sort of empiricism that seems to be a kind of conceptually articulated realism. In fact, there is nothing about the practice of empirical science that demands a thin, phenomenalist theory of knowledge. A thicker, more genuinely Kantian notion of experience as always-already conceptual and thus inseparable from thought actually works better anyway.

Thought and intuition are as hylomorphically inseparable in real instances of Kantian experience as form and matter are in Aristotle. A positive role for Kantian intuition as providing neither knowledge nor understanding, but crucial instances for the recognition of error leading to the improvement of understanding, is preserved in Brandom’s A Spirit of Trust. (See also Radical Empiricism?; Primacy of Perception?; Aristotle, Empiricist?)