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.

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.)


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?)