Hegel’s Ladder

Hegel’s Ladder (1997) by H.S. Harris is an incomparable intellectual achievement. Explicitly modeled on the great “long commentaries” on Aristotle by Averroes whom I also admire, its nearly 1600 pages comprise the only complete literal commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology in existence. For each paragraph in Miller’s translation of Hegel’s text, he gives a pithy abstract, then discusses the passage in detail. (See numerous articles on Harris’ work on my Hegel contents page.) This monument of scholarship was preceded by Harris’ equally large Hegel’s Development, which seems to be the definitive study of Hegel’s work before the Phenomenology.

Harris’ main contention is that Hegel’s famously difficult and confusing argument actually makes good sense as it stands. He also defends the view that the perspective of the Phenomenology was never abandoned in Hegel’s later work. It is not a transcendental psychology or a transcendental history or some weird hybrid of the two, but in Hegel’s own phrase, a “science of the experience of consciousness”.

None of these three terms means what we might think. “Science” here is basically a coherent rational articulation. “Experience” is cumulative rather than immediate, and fundamentally includes many twists and turns of discovery that could not be anticipated in advance. “Consciousness” is not the universal medium in which everything takes place, but the everyday starting point of ordinary life that is both overturned and fulfilled by the progress of experience.

Hegel’s fundamental contention is that if we follow it far enough in its own movement, experience leads us — by way of what Paul Ricoeur later called a vitally important “long detour”, which I think is also the path of the genuine Platonic and Aristotelian open-ended quest for essence — from naive encounter with objects in the immediacy of individual awareness, to a situated ethical being that is at home in the world and free of what Kant called transcendental illusions. Such a freedom from fundamental transcendental illusion is all that Hegel ever meant to claim for what he called “absolute” knowledge.

Of course my own aphoristic style of commentary is as about as close to diametrically opposite of comprehensive literal commentary as could be, but I nourish the hope others will find highlights I pick out — and emphasis and interpolations I add — to be illuminating and relevant. Meanwhile I tremendously admire thorough and even-handed attention to detail like that of Harris, and find it an excellent cross-check.

Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation

The first part of Memory, History, Forgetting is devoted to the phenomenology of memory.  Husserl’s notion of intentionality – summarized by the dictum that all consciousness is consciousness of something, which Ricoeur here calls “object oriented” and interprets as putting the what before the who – is suggested as a starting point.  “If one wishes to avoid being stymied by a fruitless aporia, then one must hold in abeyance the question of attributing to someone… the act of remembering and begin with the question ‘What?’” (p. 3).  

He notes that Plato bequeathed to posterity an approach to memory (and also imagination) centered on talking about a kind of presence of an absent thing.  Aristotle is credited with clarifying the distinction between this kind of memory and the kind of doing involved in the effort to remember something.  “Memories, by turns found and sought, are… situated at the crossroads of pragmatics and semantics” (p. 4).  It is the pragmatics of recollection that will eventually provide an appropriate transition to the who of memory, but there will also be a difficulty with an inherent potential for a kind of abuse of active recollection, foreshadowed by Plato’s worries about the manipulative discourse of the Sophist.

It will be important to distinguish memory from imagination as having different kinds of objects, and especially to avoid a too-easy assimilation of memories to images (which he elsewhere applies to imagination as well).  Memory is supposed to be concerned with a real past, and although images do seem to play a role in our experience of memory, Ricoeur suggests it will be a secondary one.

He urges that we consider memory first from the point of view of capacities and their “happy” realization, before questions of pathology and error.  “To put it bluntly, we have nothing better than memory to signify that something has taken place” (p. 21).  He also thinks it is possible to at least “sketch a splintered, but not radically dispersed, phenomenology in which the relation to time remains the ultimate and sole guideline” (p. 22).  

There is a problem of the interconnection between preverbal experience and “the work of language that ineluctably places phenomenology on the path of interpretation, hence of hermeneutics” (p. 24).  There is also an extensive problem of the relation between action and representation.  

Memories are essentially plural, and come in varying degrees of distinctness.  We remember diverse kinds of things in diverse ways — singular events, states of affairs, abstract generalities, and facts.  We have practical know-how that closely resembles an acquired habit, and other memory that apparently has no relation to habit.  There is a contrast between memory as evocation and memory as search.  He recalls Bergson’s notion of a dynamic scheme as a kind of direction of effort for the reconstruction of something.  From Husserl, there is a distinction between retention and reproduction.  There is another polarity between reflexivity and worldliness.  From Bergson, there is another distinction between “pure memory” and a secondary “memory-image”.

Ultimately, memory involves a search for truth, an aim of faithfulness.  It will have to be shown how this is related to its practical dimension, concerned with memory’s uses and abuses.  

What Ricoeur terms the abuses of memory include the Renaissance “art of memory” celebrated by Frances Yates, which connected artificial techniques of memorization with magic and Hermetic secrets.   We will “retreat from the magic of memory in the direction of a pedagogy of memory” (p. 67).  Natural memory, too, as Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx pointed out, can be blocked, manipulated, or abusively controlled.  The phenomena associated with ideology are a part of this.  Communities attempt to obligate us to remember things in certain ways, and to forget certain things.

Ricoeur would like to avoid both the radical subjectivism of “methodological individualism” and an immediate sociological holism of a Durkheimian sort.  In this context, he again pleads for a deferral of the question of the “actual subject of the operations of memory” (p. 93).

Ricoeur on Embodiment

I’m still working through the introduction to Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature. Having said a bit about how he intends to adapt Husserlian phenomenology, here I’ll add a few notes on the impact of Ricoeur’s Marcelian concerns.

“[A]s we examine actual practice, the understanding of articulations between the voluntary and the involuntary which we call motivation, motion, conditioning, etc., becomes stymied in an invincible confusion…. The triumph of description is distinction rather than a reuniting leap. Even in the first person, desire is something other than decision, movement is other than an idea, necessity is other than the will which consents to it. The Cogito is broken up within itself ” (pp. 13-14).

Considerations like this are why I think it is actually more precise to speak more loosely of “subjectivity” rather than “a” or “the” subject. Ricoeur draws the consequence that “the Ego must abandon its wish to posit itself, so that it can receive the nourishing and inspiring spontaneity which breaks the sterile circle of the self’s constant return to itself” (p. 14). He then introduces Marcel’s point about the mystery of incarnation as the answer to the question “How can I regain the sense of being alternately given over to my body and also its master… if not by… attempts to identify with the definite experience of existence which is myself in a corporal situation?” (p. 15; emphasis in original). In a more Aristotelian way, I’ve been making a similar point by suggesting that the hylomorphic, form-of-the-body notion of “soul” makes a good top-level model for the subtleties of what I’ve been calling empirical selfhood. (See also Two Kinds of Character; The Ambiguity of “Self”.)

Ricoeur goes on to say “the concepts we use, such as motivation, completion of a project, situation, etc., are indications of a living experience in which we are submerged more than signs of mastery which our intelligence exercises over our human condition. But in turn it is the task of philosophy to clarify existence itself by use of concepts. And this is the function of a descriptive phenomenology: it is the watershed separating romantic effusion and shallow intellectualism” (p. 17). He goes on to identify this “region of rational symptoms of existence” (ibid) with the space of reason as distinct from analytic understanding.

As Aristotle might remind us, “existence” is said in many ways. I have issues with the use of many of them in philosophy, but I take Marcel’s use of this term in a different and much more positive way than those, as mainly emphasizing all the aspects of things that don’t fit into neat schematizations, and that Aristotle would say are not univocally ordered. Aristotle and Ricoeur both take an emphasis like Marcel’s and reinsert it into a broader context that includes a more positive role than Marcel himself found for developments of reason. (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action; Consent?.)


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.)

Negativity in Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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