The Ladder Metaphor

Hegel’s figure of a “ladder”, adopted by H.S. Harris in the title of his commentary on the Phenomenology, stands in contrast to the notion of a metaphorically life-risking intuitive leap of faith or salto mortale that had been popularized by the fideistic proto-existentialist German literary figure F. H. Jacobi. Harris has not said it yet and I don’t recall whether he will, but it seems clear to me that the ladder is a metaphor for dialectic.

He emphasizes that for Hegel, except in his very early period, “knowledge is actual only as system” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 63) and “Only a community of knowers can constitute the presence of the Spirit to itself as science” (p. 64).

What will turn out to be essential to Hegel’s notions of “system” and “Science” is neither a foundationalist construction nor some kind of closure, but the much more modest idea that (as Brandom might say) meaning has its basis in mutual recognition and shareable inferential articulation.

Harris’ abstract of paragraph 26 reads in part, “The element of Wissen [knowledge] is self-cognition in otherness. This conceptual soil is the substance of spirit. So Science presupposes that we self-consciously exist in this element; but we have a good right to ask for the ladder by which to get into heaven where it is” (ibid).

He comments that “from 1797 onwards, Hegel was explicating the religious experience of ‘love’…. [H]e expounded religion philosophically because he regarded the intuitive leap to the awareness of living, moving, and having one’s being in God as the sin qua non of all speculative insight…. It was through long meditation upon Greek religion, and upon the experience of the religious founders Moses and Jesus, that Hegel’s concept of philosophic science was shaped. But from about the middle of 1803 onwards, he had begun to believe that the leap could be replaced by a ladder of explanatory discourse” (p. 65). For the mature Hegel, religion gives an accessible imaginative representation to what philosophy develops in thought.

In the course of this exposition, Harris notes that “The ‘antithesis’ between consciousness and its objects arises from the concern with controlling or being controlled; no matter how much ‘self-control’ we have, or how much control we are consequently able to exercise over our environment, what we desire and what we fear controls us. ‘Science’ transcends this relationship; it inverts control into freedom. When Jesus claimed identity with ‘the Father’…, he was not claiming to control anything. He was not even claiming to control his own thinking…. Rather, he was adopting a noncontrolling attitude towards experience; and in so doing he ceased to be controlled by it in any practical sense” (ibid).

Schelling

F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) is my least favorite of the major German idealists. He is the one most strongly associated with Romanticism, and has been considered a precursor of existentialism, which does not seem to me like a recommendation. He lacked Hegel’s grounding in Aristotle and more serious engagement with Kant. Even Schelling’s admirers don’t claim much for his rather undisciplined attempt at a Romantic philosophy of nature. He castigated Hegel for his rationalism, while reviving metaphysical use of the pretentious claim of intellectual intuition that Kant and Hegel fought against.

Like Fichte whom he at first followed, Schelling expressed himself in simpler and more approachable terms than Kant or Hegel, but at the cost of sacrificing the multidimensional richness Kant and Hegel both achieved. Like Fichte, he erred in making self-consciousness an immediate intellectual intuition rather than a dialectical development, but unlike Fichte, he also revived general use of intellectual intuition in metaphysics. Fichte is largely antithetical to me due to his hyper-strong subject-centeredness, but he was principled and had a razor-sharp intellect. Schelling is superficially more balanced, but what he balanced his Fichteanism with was a shallow Romantic pseudo-neoplatonism. Having spent a few years in close study of the real Greek neoplatonists, I am very unimpressed by Schelling’s heavy-handed forays into this territory.

Schelling is the one who really does ignore Kant’s warnings about unbridled speculation. Armed with intellectual intuition, he simply leaps into a (pseudo-neoplatonic rather than Hegelian) Absolute. Among his criticisms of Hegel was that Hegel made the Absolute a result attained from a finite starting point. Schelling said this was impossible, since the Absolute is infinite. This reflects a complete failure to understand the misleadingly named Hegelian Absolute, which was precisely not a humanly unachievable theological infinite, but carefully developed in terms that made it an Aristotelian perfection after a kind achievable in an understandable way by a finite rational being without intellectual intuition. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?; Kantian Discipline; Copernican.)

Schelling in his “Identity philosophy” naively propounded the broadly neoplatonic theme of an original self-division of an infinite Absolute, without all the nuances developed by the Greek neoplatonists that made their version more interesting. (For both Aristotle and Hegel, in contrast to Schelling and the neoplatonists, the “first” principle is really an attractor and an end, not the metaphysical-theological origin of everything. I would not say “just” an end, because for both Aristotle and Hegel, ends are more important than origins.)

The late Schelling’s “Positive” philosophy again pitted intellectual intuition against reason, while also appealing to religious revelation. Early in his career, he had been influenced by the fideist F. H. Jacobi’s proto-Kierkegaardian idea that there is an uncrossable gap between “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned”, requiring a leap of faith. But at least after Jacobi publicly attacked him, Schelling distinguished his view from Jacobi’s more extreme anti-rationalism. (See also Being, Consciousness.)

In profound contrast to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, across his career Schelling seems to have had no real interest in ethics. His Romantic reliance on intellectual intuition rather than dialectic also means that although he shares some core vocabulary with Hegel, the same terms have very different meanings. (See also Pure Thinking?)