Apperceptive Judgment

What Hegel calls “the concept” is not a simple content to be grasped, as if it were already completely formed as what it will turn out to be, and all of that in advance of and independent of the activity of judgment. Rather, it emerges out of the activity of judgment in the space of reasons. It also turns out to have an inherently normative character.

Pippin quotes Kant: “I find that a judgment is nothing other than the way to bring given cognitions to the objective unity of apperception…. I do not mean to say that these representations necessarily belong to one another in the empirical intuition, but rather that they belong to one another in virtue of the necessary unity of the apperception in the synthesis of intuitions” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 102).

As a first approximation, “apperception” here means something like apprehension of intelligible meaning. For Kant, “the basic feature” of the “general or content-less logic as rules for valid judgings and inferrings” is that “judging is apperceptive” (p. 103).

The significance of this will become a bit clearer further below. Hegel will go further than Kant in construing apperception in a purely “logical” (as opposed to psychological) way.

“Kant was well aware that with this notion of apperceptive judging he was breaking with the rationalist (and Lockean) notion of reflection as inner perception, and as we shall see, Hegel’s language is everywhere carefully Kantian in this respect” (p. 112).

(Aristotle too carefully distinguished thought from inner sense, rather than identifying them in the style of Descartes and Locke.)

Pippin quotes Hegel: “It is one of the profoundest and truest insights to be found in the Critique of Pure Reason that the unity which constitutes the essence of the concept is recognized as the original synthetic unity of apperception, the unity of the ‘I think’, or of self-consciousness” (ibid).

This suggests a three-way mutual explication of the essence of the concept, unity of apperception, and self-consciousness. Self-consciousness for Hegel turns out to be not a separate substantive “subject” distinct from its “object”, but rather an essential adverbial property of self-reference that is intrinsic to the thinking of every concept (see The Ambiguity of “Self”).

From Hegel’s perspective “it is quite misleading for Kant to formulate the point by saying that the ‘I think’ must ‘accompany’ (begleiten) all my representations…. Representing objects is not representing objects, a claiming to be so, unless apperceptive…. And that has to mean, in a very peculiar sense that is important to Hegel and that will take some time to unpack, that such judgings are necessarily and inherently reflexive, and so at the very least are self-referential, even if such a reflected content is not substantive, does not refer to a subject’s focusing on her judging activity as if it were a second consciousness…. Virtually everything in the Logic of significance descends in one way or another from the proper understanding of this claim” (ibid).

Judgings as activities are “necessarily and inherently… self-referential”. The suggestion seems to be that apperception and self-consciousness consist in complex self-referential judgings, rather than anything resembling perceptive receptivity or simple consciousness. “Reflexivity” for Hegel is an elemental property of judgments as judgments, not a global property of consciousness. To assert the inherent self-referentiality of judging activity is quite different from asserting the sort of inherent reflexivity of consciousness that Descartes and Locke presuppose.

“[W]e have to be clear that this has nothing to do with inner perception or the mind observing itself” (p. 105).

“There must be some way of saying that the self-conscious dimension of thought and action is a matter of the way a claim is made or an action undertaken. To adopt the formulations used by Ryle in accounting for many similar phenomena, they are accomplished ‘self-consciously’, rather than accompanied by or even identical with another act of consciousness” (p. 106).

“There is a self-referential component in any judgment or action too (‘I think this, I act thus’), but it can be misleading to think that this is the same problem as ‘how does the first-person pronoun have sense, and thereby pick me uniquely out’. As we shall see, it is misleading because it suggests a punctuated moment of awareness” (p. 107).

“Finally, there is little doubt that Hegel realized that apperception was not a kind of consciousness” (ibid).

In support of this he quotes Hegel: “[I]n this original deed there is not yet the representation of the ‘I’…. [T]his objectifying deed, liberated from the opposition of consciousness [between subject and object], is closer to what may be taken simply as thinking as such. But this deed should no longer be called consciousness; for consciousness holds within itself the opposition of the ‘I’ and its intended object which is not to be found in that original deed” (ibid).

Apperception thus implicitly becomes the middle term of a syllogism: self-consciousness is apperception; apperception is not a kind of consciousness; therefore (contrary to what the formation of the word suggests) self-consciousness is not a kind of consciousness, but something “else”.

I take consciousness to be a form of presentation in what Aristotle called imagination, and self-consciousness to be the form of the self-referential character of judgment or apperception. Outside the context of the Logic (e.g., in the Phenomenology), self-consciousness has an inherently social or intersubjective dimension; in both the Phenomenology and the Logic it has a normative dimension. Human as opposed to purely animal experience is always a mixture of “consciousness” and “self-consciousness”.

“I know what I am doing not by identifying myself with the one acting, but by being the one acting. So how can such a Two also be One? We are in the middle of everything of significance in Hegel’s Logic, not to mention Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Schelling’s early idealism…. This unusual identity is constitutive of ‘theoretical thought’ as such” (pp. 108-109).

“This too is important to state carefully. Hegel scholars often assume that Hegel inherits ‘identity philosophy’ from Schelling, and that it means ‘the identity of subject and object’. They then formulate various implausible versions of such an identity, such as that true reality is divine thought thinking itself, that objects are moments of this thought’s ‘intellectual intuition of itself’. But the Logic is not committed to anything remotely like this” (p. 109).

Rather, the identity Hegel is principally interested in is that “the thought (belief, assertion) of some content… is at the same time the thought of the reasons that are required for such an ‘answer'” (p. 110, emphasis added). This what it means to say that thought is inherently self-referential.

This helps to explain why it is true that “It is a condition of use of a concept that the use is subject to a norm of correct and incorrect use, and that norm is internal to the concept…. Such capacities as judgment and self-consciousness are called into play in a way that can be redeemed if challenged, for example” (p. 106).

Pippin elaborates, “being committed to the truth of a proposition, I am just thereby committed to the denial of everything inconsistent with it. The latter is not a separate inference I draw, on the basis of my first commitment. It is a dimension of the content of my first commitment. This is not to say I must be conscious of these implications and incompatibilities, but just that I could not be thinking of that content were I not able to be responsive to such considerations. This is all so just as someone’s believing something and her thought that it is something right to believe ‘are the same reality‘” (p. 112).

The idea that a proposition should be identified with the distinctions and entailments that it presupposes and that follow from it — rather than with a simple Boolean value of true or false, as in mainstream 20th century logic — has been developed with extraordinary thoroughness by Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit, which Richard Rorty credited with ushering in a new “Hegelian” stage of analytic philosophy.

“[N]o one could be said to ‘just’ assert, or just believe, or just act. Any such undertaking, if self-conscious, must be potentially responsive to the question of ‘Why?’; that is, to reasons. (An assertion is such a responsiveness; the latter is not a secondary or even distinct dimension of the former.)” (ibid).

This formulation that an assertion is such a responsiveness — which relies on the essential self-referentiality of judgment that Pippin is arguing for here — seems in a way more radical than the way Brandom puts it. For Brandom and Brandom’s Hegel, the concomittant commitments are material inferences, and there is a sort of Kantian imperative that we ought to show such responsiveness to everything with a material-inferential connection to our assertions. According to Pippin’s Hegel, the concommitant commitments are not inferences at all but integral to the true identity of the assertion, and we would not really have made an assertion at all if we did not show responsiveness to them. But they ultimately agree that we ought to show such responsiveness — that addressing the concomittant commitments of our assertions is not something we could legitimately choose to ignore — and that this has something to do with the very nature of assertion-making.

“And it is at least plausible to say that the greater the extent of such potential responsiveness (or said another way, the greater the self-understanding), the ‘freer’ the activity, the more I can be said to redeem the action as genuinely mine, back it, stand behind it. We thus have formulated what [Sebastian] Rödl rightly identifies as the heart of German Idealism, the principle ‘that self-consciousness, freedom and reason are one'” (pp. 113-114).

Statements like “self-consciousness, freedom and reason are one” used to give me no end of trouble, because I assumed they were meant to assert the sovereignty of a Subject (i.e., in this case that the Subject is self-conscious; the Subject has free will; and the Subject is the seat of reason). What I eventually realized through the closer study of Kant and Hegel is that I was assuming dictionary meanings of self-consciousness and freedom that are not applicable, and that Hegel and even Kant are much less “subject-centered” than common readings make them out to be. A strong concern for subjectivity need not be identified with the assumption of a sovereign Subject.

Because what Hegel means by “concept” is so fundamental to understanding the Logic and so far from the way it is commonly understood, Pippin repeats an earlier message in different words:

“[C]oncepts are determinate only by virtue of their roles in judgment, the ‘bringing to the objective unity of apperception’, in Kant’s definition” (p. 115).

“So a concept like ‘essence’, for example, can be said to be delimitable as just that concept by virtue of its possible uses in various contrasts to ‘appearance’ or by virtue of its negation (in the grand structure of the [Science of Logic]) of the concept ‘being’, or its role in distinguishing accidental from essential predicates. These are all roles in judgments (and are thereby tied to judgmental roles in inferences). Any of these uses, though, involves any such claim in a network of justifications, a normative order. The application of any such concept in judgment, since apperceptive, self-consciously applied, must be, just thereby, responsive to its possible misapplication, and the question of the general contours of its correct use implicates any one notion in the normative proprieties governing many others. Hence, as we shall see, the course of the ‘movement’ of the logic” (ibid).

“A proper understanding of the self’s relation to itself in thinking, the form of any conceiving and thereby any concept, and thereby any inferential relation, is also the core meaning of what Hegel calls the ‘infinity’ treated by speculative philosophy” (p. 118).

“This is yet again not an easy thought: some sort of self-relation that is not a two-place relation, but something like a circular structure, in which the self’s self-relation never terminates in a distinct object or determinate posit, but in so attending, returns to itself as a relating…. This is ‘infinity’ in the proper sense, Hegel tells us frequently, and… ‘Self-consciousness is thus the nearest example of the presence of infinity'” (p. 119).

I need to study this part of the Logic more closely. My current impression is that what Hegel calls the “good” infinite has something to do with what I would tentatively call relational structures with cyclic dependencies, and he thinks we can and do implicitly use something like this in life, without getting stuck in what could be a mathematically infinite cyclic traversal of the structure. (That something like this is at least conceivable is anecdotally supported by the existence of computable and hence in that sense “finite” implementations of infinitely extensible data structures.) The more usual notion of infinity — at root mathematical, a paradoxical “value greater than any definite value” — Hegel derides as “bad” infinity, regardless of whether it is potential or actual (which was a key distinction for Aristotle).

Hegel in effect seems to ask us to suspend the assumption that standard mathematical infinity is what infinity is, and to step back to the more general idea of the non-definite. Further, he identifies the contrasting term of finitude specifically with a non-relational view of things, as being whatever they are even in complete isolation from one another, so his condemnations of finitude are not at all condemnations of the view of things as finite in the sense of depending on other things. Pippin earlier even suggested that some kind of notion of things depending on other things for their intelligibility is the main source of the famous and difficult-to-understand “motion” in Hegelian logic.

“Discriminating what belongs together with what, what is connected to what in a temporal order, knowing that the successive perceptions of a house do not count as the perception of a succession in the world, requires an apperceptive unity; it does not just happen to consciousness” (p. 121).

“Without this ability to distinguish how things are from how they seem to me, there would be as many ‘I’s’ as associated seemings, and no unity of self-consciousness. Or, achieving the unity of self-consciousness is differentiating seeming from being” (p. 122).

Pippin returns to his larger argument about the Kantian basis of what Hegel is doing.

“The attempt has been to understand the Kantian claim about apperception as a logical, not psychological claim, and this goes some way toward understanding the link between this reflexive character of judging as the essence of intelligibility and ‘the intelligibles’. If it is possible to establish that certain a priori judgments have… objectivity, but without Kant’s limitation thesis, restricting that thesis to possible objects of sense experience (phenomena, not noumena), we will have a way into Hegel’s claim that logic can be understood as metaphysics. Our claim about Kant was that even for him, this relation to objects is not established by the imposition of subjective form onto received sensory material. Kant’s position is not ‘impositionist’ in this sense, and both he and Hegel are following the nonimpositionist, more Aristotelian (hylomorphic) line” (p. 125).

He includes several more quotes from Kant and one from Beatrice Longuenesse that offer hints in this more Aristotelian direction, then says, “We need only remember that for Hegel this is the core of Kant’s own position once we give up any notion of separable contributions from sensibility and understanding, and give up referring to pure forms of intuition as species-specific…. If we do, we get the careful statements about the identity within difference of concept and being in and for itself with which we began” (p. 126).

He returns to the more basic point that “There is no indication that Hegel thinks that being or God has an apperceptive discursive intellect and that we are manifestations of it. We are manifestations of the finitude of Verstand [understanding] and the possibility inherent in Verstand of the transcendence of such self-imposed finitude” (ibid).

In referring to “self-imposed” finitude, I think Pippin means the viewing of concepts as independent, isolated objects or fixed representations, rather than as pure moments in the traversal of the relational network of the space of reasons.

“[W]e need a kind of stereoscopic vision to keep in mind two aspects of this issue that Hegel keeps stressing…. The first is that conceiving is an activity and concepts are ‘moments’ of this activity. This is something stressed in a different way when Hegel tells us that concepts are not things, objects. The second is that… such activities are not actions, doings, and that Kant’s position, when properly understood (and so not as Kant understood it), should not be taken as a part of a two-step or impositionist account of such activity” (p. 127).

That activity is not reducible to punctual actions is a thesis I have been pursuing in an Aristotelian context.

“Hegel says that (Kant’s) objective or transcendental logic ‘replaces’… general metaphysics or ontology. Logic so construed also takes account of and replaces special metaphysics, the a priori doctrines of the soul, the world, and God” (p. 128).

Once again, Hegel’s “logical” alternative to rationalist metaphysics and psychology does not presuppose any fixed concepts. Pippin returns to this to avoid misunderstanding, because he has been emphasizing the non-psychological character of apperceptive judgment for Hegel.

“If we think, as some do, of Hegel’s Denkbestimmungen [thought determinations] as something like Fregean thoughts, objective in a Platonic sense, as abstract entities, then what I am quoting [to the effect that the “objective” part of Hegel’s logic is the true critique of such determinations] is very puzzling. Hegel certainly knows that Kant’s transcendental logic is in some sense or other a logic of subjectivity” (p. 129).

The distinction that is beginning to be made explicit here is between subjectivity in general and specifically psychological subjectivity. This will allow Hegel to develop a “subjective” logic that has nothing to do with psychology.

By analogy, Pippin notes that “Frege interpreters argue that there is no reason to go as far as the historical Frege did (a form of Platonism) to differentiate objective thought from mental episodes, private associations, etc.” (ibid).

“In a claim we shall have to return to and investigate, [Hegel] repeats often that the true critical question is not whether subjective forms of thought have any objective purchase, but whether the concepts of a logic ‘in and for themselves’ provide what they are supposed to provide: what is required for successful conceptual determination…. Kant did not sufficiently investigate what these pure concepts are; he did not pursue the question of their ‘nature’ and their very possibility” (p. 130).

Broadly speaking, the answer will be that concepts are not Platonic forms but get their meaning from their uses, as normatively evaluated in the space of reasons.

“Commentators are sometimes so eager to observe the spirit of this sort of critique of Kantian ‘subjectivism’ that they assume that the Logic is something like the ‘pure’ manifestation of the objective dependence and implication relations among ‘pure essentialities’, thoughts in the objective sense, logical entities that are in those relations in ways that have nothing to do with anyone ‘thinking them'” (p. 131).

The delicate point here is that we can take the activity of thinking into account by treating it as its own “subject”, rather than attributing it to a separate Subject.

“But the apperceptive or inherently reflexive determination of conceptual content… is no more external than the ‘I think’ is external to a content thought. Judgment and the consciousness of judgment are one act. No content represents anything except as thought/judged” (ibid).

Recalling the syllogism I constructed above from Hegel’s statements — which concluded that what he calls self-consciousness is not a kind of consciousness — I think Pippin should have said “self-consciousness” rather than “consciousness” in the above. “Self-consciousness” for Hegel is normative and non-psychological. What he calls “consciousness” (the aspect of immediacy and of presentation in the form of objects) does have a psychological character. In real life, we encounter mixtures of the two.

“The movement of pure thought is like the movement in a proof, on the assumption that the moves are inferences a thinker, on pain of contradiction, must make, and not merely formal-structural functions, as in a symbolic logic” (p. 132).

A proof involves not just a sequence of propositions but a sequence of judgments or assertions. Frege explained this difference in terms of an additional dimension of “assertoric force” alongside his Platonic view of concepts and propositions. For Pippin and Brandom, the consideration of assertoric force is where normativity enters into logic.

“[I]t is also question-begging to assume that anyone who makes the assertoric force inseparable from the logical structure of a unit of meaning (as Hegel unquestionably does) is thereby guilty of psychologism, or of relying on some ‘experiential’ standard of adequacy. Even Frege was willing to make the question of assertoric force a part of ‘logic’ in his own terms” (ibid).

Hegel takes assertoric force into account by treating it normatively rather than psychologically. Meanwhile, the movement of judging activity that is the bearer of Hegel’s notion of truth must also be distinct from the mere inspection of logical structure.

[O]bjects moving about [in Hegel’s Logic]… is a mystification. At any rate, I have no idea what it would be to ‘observe’ one thought-object developing into another. (We don’t observe what happens when one step in a proof ‘becomes’ another; the inference has to be drawn, and drawn for a reason.) Such an objectivism makes it almost impossible to understand what Hegel calls the Logic‘s inner ‘drive’…, and it especially does not take account of the claim that conceptual form is itself apperceptive, that ‘the truth is self-consciousness’ (pp. 133-134).

“Essentialities do not move or establish relations with other essentialities…. A proposition cannot be the bearer of truth, does not even represent any state of affairs, except as judged, and therewith the identity of the acts of thinking involve[s] a wide variety of other commitments at the same time…. (I mean such things as being committed to the denial of all judgments inconsistent with the one that one asserts as true, and this not as a second act of thought.) By contrast, the basic unit of intelligibility for Hegel is not an internally complex object, even if in relations with other objects, but as he says in many ways and many different times, a result, the accomplishment of the ‘active universal’, which activity is judging…. The mode of logical connection is inseparable from the mode of connecting. They are co-constituting” (pp. 134-135).

Objective “thoughts” in Hegel’s sense are not just pure Platonic essentialities but judgments that have a shareable meaning and that inherently invite normative evaluation.

“Said another way, a strong way of insisting that Hegel’s new ‘metaphysics’ is a logic, none of this has anything to do with what anything is made of, consists in, with the furniture of the universe. What we want to know… about these concepts is their ‘logic’, how they function with account-givings governed by the norms of explanatory satisfactoriness and truth” (p. 137).

“This means that any concept of thinking and of the content of thought involves normative proprieties, exclusions, and implications, without which any thinking a thought could not be the thinking and the thought that it is. These normative commitments are independent of what a thinker might herself be able to acknowledge, but they cannot be denied on being noticed, on pain of incoherence, of not thinking anything at all” (ibid).

Thus apperception — or what we might call “pure” as opposed to empirical subjectivity, which need not be tied to an assumed separate Subject, but only to some judging activity — for Hegel is purely “logical” (having to do with the determination of meaning). It is independent of anything psychological, and at the same time it is inherently normative.

Hegel’s Union of Kant and Aristotle

Aristotle gets more pages in Hegel’s History of Philosophy than anyone else, and Kant gets the second most. This post will show that that is no accident.

Where I left off in Pippin’s account of Hegel’s Logic, he was still discussing the meaning of Hegel’s claim that now “logic” could take the place of metaphysics.

The idea of a “gap” between thinking and being, with the consequent need for an extensive inference to show that the rational categories of thought are after all applicable to being, had been a major theme of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Hegel ambitiously wants to eliminate that gap, while at the same time preserving and extending Kant’s critique of dogmatism. At first glance this might seem impossible, but as I see it, Hegel’s strategy consists of two moves.

First, Pippin has been arguing that a major theme of Hegel’s Logic is an alternative showing of the applicability of something analogous to the Kantian categories. Hegel’s alternative is inspired by Aristotle’s non-psychological view of the content of thought as shareable rational meaning. From this point of view, there is a no discernible difference (and therefore a strict and literal identity) between a thought and that of which it is the thought. Thought in Aristotle is unaffected by the modern distinction of subject and object in consciousness. This is intimately related to Aristotle’s ambivalence on whether or not thought belongs to a part of the soul.

“As with Aristotle, [the] link between the order of thinking (knowing, judging to be the case) and the order of being is not an inference, does not face a gap that must be closed by an inference. Properly understood, the relation is one of identity” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 60).

The other, complementary part of Hegel’s strategy uses his critique of representation to express the Kantian problem of dogmatism in a different way. For Kant, dogmatism consists in ignoring or leaping over the gap between thinking and being. For Hegel, there is no such gap. Dogmatism consists in adhering to fixed representations and disregarding the real fluidity and liveliness of both thought and being.

Alongside this strategy for dealing with Kantian issues, Hegel revives Aristotle’s ideal of normative, teleological explanation of overall processes of actualization, and of the subordination of explanation by the efficient causes that serve as particular means of actualization (see Aristotle on Explanation). For Hegel as for Aristotle, intelligibility and explanation first and foremost involve a rational “ought”, and other forms of explanation are subordinate to that.

Pippin quotes John McDowell’s contemporary distinction between explanation by rational “ought” and by empirical regularity. McDowell refers to “explanations in which things are made intelligible by being revealed to be, or to approximate to being, as they rationally ought to be. This is to be contrasted with a style of explanation in which one makes things intelligible by representing their coming into being as a particular instance of how things generally tend to happen” (p. 61).

Pippin says that for both Kant and Hegel, logic “states the conditions of possible sense, the distinctions and relations without which sense would not be possible” (ibid). Here he is implicitly recalling Frege’s distinction between sense and reference, and making the point that Kant, Hegel, and Aristotle all see meaning mainly in terms of sense rather than reference. “The Logic is never said to seek a determination of what is ‘really’ real, and in a way like Kant, it also concerns the determination of the possibility, the real possibility, of anything being what it is. Hegel calls this Wirklichkeit, actuality, and distinguishes it often from questions about existence” (p. 62).

Possible sense construes real possibility in terms of explanation by a rational “ought”. Logical concepts for Hegel always embody a context-sensitive rational “ought”, rather than a direct simple determination of what exists. For example, “for Hegel to claim that ‘Life’ is a logical concept is to say not that there could not be a world that did not have living beings in it, but that if there is a world at all, the denial that there is any distinction between mechanically explicable and organically unified beings is self-contradictory” (ibid).

Such a contradiction is something we ought to avoid. The overcoming of contradictions in Hegel is a matter of teleological actualization that may or may not occur. Contrary to old stereotypes, no formal or causal determinism is involved. The overcoming of contradictions is in fact intimately connected with the motif of freedom. Kant and Fichte struggled to articulate a very strong notion of practical freedom that did not depend on a one-sided notion of free will. Hegel makes the explanation of freedom much easier by explicitly adopting the Aristotelian priority of explanation by ends and oughts. For him as for Aristotle, the realization of ends and oughts at the level of factual existence is contingent, and involves multiple possibilities. For him as for Aristotle, being has to do primarily with sense and intelligibility rather than brute factual existence.

“So what Hegel means by saying logic is metaphysics, or that being in and for itself is the concept, can be put this way. Once we understand the role of, say, essence and appearance as necessary for judging objectively, we have thereby made sense of essences and appearances, and therewith, the world in which they are indispensable…. In making sense of this way of sense-making, its presuppositions and implications, we are making sense of what there is, the only sense anything could make” (pp. 63-64).

“The actual Kantian statement of this identity is the highest principle of synthetic judgments, and it invokes the same thought: that the conditions for the possibility of experience are at the same time the conditions for the possibility of objects of experience” (p. 64).

Pippin quotes from Adrian Moore: “To make sense of things at the highest level of generality… is to make sense of things in terms of what it is to make sense of things” (p. 65).

He notes similarities and differences between his and Robert Brandom’s approach to Hegel.

On the one hand, Brandom agrees that the job of distinctively logical concepts is “not to make explicit how the world is (to subserve a function of consciousness) but rather to make explicit the process of making explicit how the world is (to enable and embody a kind of self-consciousness)” (quoted, p. 66).

On the other, Brandom sees the making explicit of the process of making explicit entirely in retrospective terms, whereas Pippin argues that Hegel in the Logic takes a more Kantian, prospective approach. Pippin calls Brandom’s retrospective approach “empirical” because it relies on retrospective insight into concrete occasions of making things explicit.

Elsewhere, Pippin had previously criticized Brandom’s emphasis on “semantic descent” in interpreting Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom himself introduces semantic descent in the following terms: “I believe the best way to understand what [Kant and Hegel] are saying about their preferred topic of concepts operating in a pure, still stratosphere above the busy jostling and haggling of street-level judging and doing is precisely to focus on what those metaconcepts let us say about what is going on below…. If the point of the higher-level concepts is to articulate the use and content of lower-level ones, then the cash value of an account of categorical metaconcepts is what it has to teach us about ordinary ground-level empirical and practical concepts” (A Spirit of Trust, pp. 5-6).

While I don’t care for the rhetoric of “cash value”, which to my ear sounds too reductive in the context of normative sense-making, the idea that meta-level considerations get their relevance from what they teach us about ordinary life seems fundamentally right to me, and of great importance. Moreover, this is clearly presented by Brandom as his interpretive strategy, which he points out is quite different from the way Kant and Hegel usually talk. Brandom’s reading of Hegel is also mainly focused on the Phenomenology; he doesn’t have much to say specifically about the Logic.

The idea of a retrospective reading of the Phenomenology is encouraged by Hegel himself, and there I think it is fair to say that Hegel’s own method is retrospective. On the other hand, I think the text of the Logic clearly supports Pippin’s claim that it takes a more prospective approach, closer to that of a Kantian a priori investigation. This still does not conflict with the suggestion that its ultimate value lies in what its high concepts have to teach us about living our own lives.

“[W]hatever the connections are in the [Science of Logic], they are clearly not truth-functional or deductive. As suggested, they have something to do with the demonstration of dependence relations necessary for conceptual determinacy” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 70).

For Hegel, “concepts can be determinately specified only by their role in judgments, the determinacy of which depends on their roles as premises and conclusions…. And he never tires of noting that the standard subject-predicate logical form is finally inadequate for the expression of ‘speculative truth’…. The basic possibility of sense depends on an act, an act of rendering intelligible or judging” (pp. 71-72).

“In the traditional reading of Kant, it would appear that Kant wants to introduce a step here, as if skeptical about why ‘our’ ways of sorting things should have anything to do with ‘sortal realism’ in the world…. In this picture, there must ‘first’ be sensible receptivity (according to ‘our’ distinct, nonconceptual pure forms of intuition), and ‘then’ there is conceptual articulation/synthesis, which is possible because of the imposition of categorical form” (pp. 73-74).

According to Pippin, Hegel denies this two-step picture, though he “fully realizes the extreme difficulties in stating properly the dual claims of distinguishability and inseparability” of concept and intuition” (p. 75).

“Hegel clearly wants a way of understanding the mutual dependence of each on the other that involves an ‘identity’ even ‘within difference’. In other words, he came to see that the concept-intuition relation was at its heart a logical or conceptual problem, what he would variously call the problem of (how there could be such a thing as) ‘mediated immediacy’, or the inescapably reciprocal and correlated functions of identifying and differentiating. For another, in any apperceptive determination of content, a relation to content has to be understood as a modality of a self-relation….This gets quite complicated because such an apperceptive awareness in the case of perceptual experience… must be distinguished from apperceptive judging…. Neither Kant nor Hegel believes that experience itself consists in judgments” (ibid).

What Pippin here calls apperceptive awareness in the case of perception as distinct from judgment belongs in the same general territory as the “passive synthesis” discussed by Husserl.

“Failing to observe the ‘norms of thinking’ is not… making an error in thinking; it is not thinking at all, not making any sense. The prospect of objects ‘outside’ something like the limits of the thinkable is a nonthought…. But just because it is unthinkable, the strict distinction between a prior, content-free general logic and an a priori transcendental logic, the forms of possible thoughts about objects, can hardly be as hard and fast as Kant wants to make it out to be. Or, put another way, it is an artificial distinction…. For one thing, … the distinction depends on a quite contestable strict separation between the spontaneity of thought (as providing formal unity) and the deliverances of sensibility in experience (as the sole ‘provider of content’). If that is not sustainable, and there is reason to think that even Kant did not hold it to be a matter of strict separability, then the distinction between the forms of thought and the forms of the thought of objects cannot also be a matter of strict separability” (p. 76).

“‘To be is to be intelligible: the founding principle of Greek metaphysics and of philosophy itself…. [T]he formula ‘to be is to be intelligible’ is not, as it might sound, some sort of manifesto, as if willfully ‘banning’ the unknowable from ‘the real’…. ‘What there is is what is knowable’ is an implication of what knowing — all and any knowing — is if it is to be knowing. It is not a first-order claim about all being, as if it could prompt the question: How do we know that all of being is knowable? That is not a coherent question. There may be things we will never know, but that is not to say they are in principle unknowable” (p. 77).

“So those ‘two aspect’ interpretations of Kant’s idealism and his doctrine of the unknowability of things in themselves, those claiming that knowing ‘for us’ is restricted to ‘our epistemic conditions’, leaving it open for us to speculate about what might be knowable but transcends our powers of knowing, cannot be right. The position is internally incoherent. There is no ‘our’ that can be put in front of ‘epistemic conditions’. They would not then be epistemic conditions; the account would not be philosophical but psychological” (ibid).

In place of the Kantian unknowability of things in themselves, Hegel puts the “liveliness” of real things that overflows any particular representation. For Hegel, dogmatism is a disregard for the overflowing character of real meaning and being.

“[I]f we… ask how we can know a priori about nature’s suitability for our cognitive ends…, we have again imported a kind of neo-Kantian version of Kant” (p. 78).

“Yet more care must be exercised here, lest readers get the wrong idea. To say that the forms of ‘thought’ are, must be, the form of objects of thought does not mean that any form of ‘mere thinking’ delineates some ontological realm — as if the forms of the thought of astrological influence are the forms of such influence in the world” (ibid).

“Thought” here clearly does not mean any arbitrary belief. It refers to possible knowledge. Hegel and Pippin are saying only that if and wherever true knowledge is indeed possible, corresponding knowledge of objects must be possible. “It would never occur to us, I assume, to entertain the thought that the form of some piece of empirical knowledge is not the form of the object of knowledge” (ibid).

Pippin points out “what amounts to a kind of operator in Hegel’s Logic on which all the crucial transitions depend, something like ‘would not be fully intelligible, would not be coherently thinkable without…’ What follows the ‘without’ is some more comprehensive concept, a different distinction, and so forth” (p. 79).

This means that Hegelian logic is not about the deduction of consequences from assumptions, but rather aims to be an assumption-free regressive movement from anything at all to a fuller view of the conditions for its intelligibility.

In the introduction to the Encyclopedia, Hegel “notes explicitly that what exists certainly exists contingently and ‘can just as well not be‘, and he refers us to the Logic for the right explication of what is ‘actual’ by contrast with what merely exists. He adds, ‘Who is not smart enough to be able to see around him quite a lot that is not, in fact, how it ought to be?’…. Yet despite Hegel’s waving this huge bright flag inscribed, ‘I believe in contingency!’ one still hears often (even from scholars of German philosophy) that his philosophy is an attempt to deduce the necessity of everything from the Prussian state to Herr Krug’s fountain pen” (p. 87).

Pippin thinks that actuality in Hegel is “congruent with what Kant meant by categoriality” (ibid). I don’t fully understand this particular claim about actuality, unless it is intended as a variant of the Philosophy of Right‘s famous formula about the actual and the rational, which itself makes good sense with a normative or teleological as opposed to factual notion of the actual. I would agree there seems to be a strong “Kantian categorical” component to Hegelian “logic” in general. Pippin agrees that actuality has a normative rather than factual character in both Aristotle and Hegel. However, the generally normative emphasis of Kant’s thought notwithstanding, at this point in my effort to understand Kant, his “deduction” of the categories seems to me to make the categories more like a kind of universal “facts”. I also think of the Aristotelian “ought” as primarily concrete, as when Aristotle says that practical judgment applies to particulars. Kantian normativity by contrast aims to be universal in an unqualified way, which is certainly closer to categoriality. So, there is a question whether Hegelian actuality inherits more from Aristotelian actuality or from Hegel’s incorporation of Kantian universalizing normativity.

If we were talking about Hegelian “concrete universals”, this might provide a basis for reconciling Aristotelian and Kantian perspectives on the “ought” involved in actuality. Do the Hegelian incarnations of Kantian categories in the Logic — called by Hegel a “realm of shadows” — qualify as concrete universals? At this point I am in doubt. I suspect Hegel might say that the concrete universal is reached only at the very end of his development. Maybe the ultimate bearer of categoriality and the place where it unites with actuality will be the “absolute” idea.

“What we know is what we know in exercising reason, what we know in judging” (p. 90). In the Encyclopedia Logic, “Hegel remarks that Kant himself, in formulating reason’s critique of itself, treats forms of cognition as objects of cognition…. He calls this feat ‘dialectic’. Mathematical construction in mathematical proof makes essentially the same point…. And most suggestively for the entire enterprise of the Logic, practical reason can determine the form of a rational will that is also itself a substantive content. The self-legislation of the moral law is not volitional anarchy but practical reason’s knowledge of ‘what’ to legislate. It ‘legislates’ in being practical reasoning about what ought to be done. It legislates because in knowing what ought to be done it is not affected by some object, ‘what is to be done’, about which it judges. It determines, produces, what is to be done. Said more simply, when one makes a promise, one legislates into existence a promise. One is bound only by binding oneself…. Being bound is the concept of being bound, applied to oneself” (ibid).

Pippin is suggesting we look for ethical meaning in Hegel’s logic.

“Thought’s self-determination in the course of the book makes no reference to the Absolute’s self-consciousness in order to explain anything…. Any thinking of a content is inherently reflexive in a way that Hegel thinks will allow him to derive from the possible thought of anything at all notions like something and finitude, and ultimately essence, appearance, even the idea of the good…. Hegel thinks that thought is always already giving itself its own content: itself, where that means, roughly, determining that without which it could not be a thought of an object…. But all this can only count as previews of coming attractions” (pp. 91-92).

This is important. The thought that is self-legislating and one with its object, while it doesn’t include mere belief, is being said to include at least some thought that occurs in ordinary life. According to Pippin, thinking far enough through with any content at all has a self-legislating and category-generating character for Hegel.

“The suggestion is that Hegel thinks of anything’s principle of intelligibility, its conceptual form, as an actualization in the Aristotelian sense, the being-at-work or energeia of the thing’s distinct mode of being, not a separate immaterial metaphysical object. In understanding Hegel on this point, we should take fully on board the form-matter, actuality-potentiality language of Aristotle, and so the most interesting kind of hylomorphism, soul-body hylomorphism, as our way of understanding this nonseparateness claim.” (p. 92).

Here I can only applaud.

“To think that for creatures like us, we must distinguish the sensory manifold from the form that informs it is the great temptation to be avoided for Hegel. The power of the eye to see is not a power ‘added’ to a material eye…. The seeing power is the distinct being-at work of that body. The form-content model central to Hegel’s account of logical formality works the same way” (pp. 92-93).

That seeing is not somehow “added” to the eye is another Aristotelian point. The eye is what it is in virtue of what it is for the sake of. Incidentally, Joe Sachs’ translation of Aristotlian energeia as “being-at-work” appears to have a precedent in Hegel’s German.

Pippin’s identification of a being-at-work or actuality with a power here is novel. “Power” commonly appears in translations of (especially Latin scholastic) discourse about potentiality rather than actuality. Power seems to me to be some kind of capability for efficacious action, whereas potentiality and actuality both belong primarily in the register of ends and “for the sake of”. It does make sense that a capability could follow from an actualization or be attributed to it. Paul Ricoeur makes a nice ethical use of capability, but in general I worry that talk about power privileges efficacious action over the intelligible ought and the “for the sake of”.

Pippin returns again to the unity of thinking and being.

“So it is perfectly appropriate to say such things as that for Hegel reality ‘has a conceptual structure’, or ‘only concepts are truly real’, as long as we realize that we are not talking about entities, but about the ‘actualities’ of beings, their modes or ways of being what determinately and intelligibly they are. To say that ‘any object is the concept of itself’ is to say that what it is in being at work being what it is can be determined, has a logos…. We can say that reality comes to self-consciousness in us, or that the light that illuminates beings in their distinct being-at-work is the same light that illuminates their knowability in us, as long as we do not mean a light emanating from individual minds” (pp. 93-94).

“And here again, Hegel’s model of metaphysics… is Aristotelian. And Aristotle’s metaphysics is not modern dogmatic metaphysics, does not concern a ‘supersensible’ reality knowable only by pure reason. In many respects it is a metaphysics of the ordinary: standard sensible objects, especially organic beings and artifacts. This means that in many respects Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics in effect ‘misses’ it” (p. 94).

“By and large Hegel means to ‘denigrate’ the immediately given, how things seem to common sense…. This has nothing to do with doubting the external reality of tables and molecules…. The point of Hegel’s denying to finite, empirical reality the gold standard badge of true actuality is not to say that it ‘possesses’ a lesser degree of reality in the traditional sense (whatever that might mean). It is to say that finite objects viewed in their finitude, or considered as logical atoms, can never reveal the possibility of their own intelligibility” (pp. 96-97).

This provides a clue to the negative connotations of finitude in Hegel. It has far more positive connotations for me, but I consider the primary meaning of “finitude” to be a dependence on other things, which is as different as could be from logical atomicity. This is another different use of words, not a difference on what is or ought to be. If “finite” is taken to mean “to be treated as a logical atom” as Pippin suggests, the negative connotations are appropriate.

Generalizing About the World

When I speak of things like “the goodness of the actual world”, this refers to life in general. It is not, for example, intended as an endorsement of the details of the social status quo.

Similarly, when I talk about finitude, I don’t have in mind some specific existing configuration of things, but rather the general principle that existing things are definite, while we are neither omniscient nor omnipotent.

Moral Faith Is Not Dualism

Leading Kant scholar Allen Wood argues in the front matter to his early work Kant’s Moral Religion (1970) that previous mainstream interpretation of Kant was mistaken in treating his views on religion as a weak point of his philosophy. This post is limited to Wood’s valuable orienting remarks in the preface and introduction, so it won’t get to the core of what Kantian moral faith is supposed to be.

According to Wood, Kant’s own concern with very detailed argument has led interpreters to focus on these details to the detriment of a broad view of the outlines of his philosophy as a whole, in which the as yet unelaborated notion of “moral faith” will be of fundamental importance. He aims to recover such a broad view.

(It was Brandom’s original synoptic suggestion of similarly broad outlines cutting across the theoretical and practical parts of Kant’s philosophy that first led me to radically re-assess my previous very negative view of Kant, which had been based on negative remarks in Hegel and Nietzsche and my own earlier lost-in-the-details reading of Kant himself. See Kantian Intentionality; Kantian Freedom.)

For Wood, Kant’s philosophy is at root a philosophy of human self-knowledge in the Socratic tradition. He disagrees with those who have found an irreconcilable (and untenable) dualism at the heart of Kant’s thought.

“The ‘dualism’ in Kant’s view of human nature arises because human activity in all its forms is at once subject to the necessary principles of man’s reason and to the inevitable limitations of his finitude. Humanity for Kant is not composed of ‘two irreconcilable natures’, but there does appear throughout the critical philosophy a kind of irreconcilable tension between man’s rational destination and the finitude within which his reason is destined to operate. This tension, in Kant’s view, is the destiny of man as such, and defines the problems which confront human existence” (Kant’s Moral Religion, p. 3).

To be finite for Kant, according to Wood, is to be subject to the conditions of sensibility. Sensibility constrains the kind of intuitions that we can possibly have. What are called the conditions of sensibility are not just empirical facts, but have to do with the kind of beings we are. Kant asserts that we are beings that have a “blind” sensory intuition of being affected in this or that way, but do not have any infallible “intellectual intuition” that could legitimately give us immediate truths.

Noting that Kant’s epistemology has often been characterized as “empiricist” because of its emphasis on experience, Wood says it is actually founded on a view of the finitude of human nature as a whole, and not on an epistemological dogma that all knowledge must be grounded in immediate sensation. (Like Hegel, I would note) Kant operates with an extremely broad notion of human experience.

Kant famously defends naturalism in science, while simultaneously rejecting what analytic philosophers have called ethical naturalism, or the idea that ethics can be reduced to naturalistic explanations. The thrust of Wood’s argument is that this rejection and Kant’s strong rhetoric about freedom should not be taken to imply a dualism (which latter, as it seems to me, would introduce a supernaturalism about human persons alongside a naturalism about all else).

The logical claim as I reconstruct it is that one can consistently be a naturalist in matters of natural science, but not an ethical naturalist, and at the same time not a dualist and therefore not a supernaturalist about persons either. This seems possible, but more needs to be said. Where is the Aristotelian mean that avoids all the associated dilemmas? As a first indication, it seems to me to characterize a space that includes the ethics of Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel.

“Man’s finite and hence sensibly affected will is a condition for the possibility of moral life, in Kant’s view. If man were not subject to inclinations (if he possessed a divine holy will), obligation would not be the necessary feature of moral life that it is. The very concept of a holy being excludes the possibility of obligation, for such a being would by its own inner nature follow the law, and would not need the constraint which the concept of obligation presupposes. A holy being could not be ‘autonomous’, since an ‘autocracy’ of reason would necessarily govern all its willing. Such a being would no longer be subject even to moral imperatives. Human sensibility is thus a condition for the possibility of our moral life, as well as of our empirical knowledge” (p. 4).

The hypothetical “human holy will” to which Kant contrasts the actual sensibly affected will would be perfect, in the sense of being a perfectly good will such as we might attribute to God.

Such a posited perfection of goodness, I would note, is independent of questions of power or efficacy. Traditional theological views have sometimes attributed total counterfactual omnipotence — an ability to do absolutely any arbitrary thing — to God, but that is a logically separate move. There is an old counter-argument that the state of the world suggests God must not be both all-good and all-powerful. Gwenaëlle Aubry in her outstanding Dieu sans la puissance: dunamis et energeia chez Aristote et Plotin (2006) argues that for Aristotle himself as distinct from the commentary tradition following Plotinus, the notion of God as pure act makes questions of power inapplicable.

While speaking in language that is deferential to tradition, Kant stresses divine goodness over divine power, and moral faith over faith in miracles.

Wood says in effect that a hypothetical perfect human will could not even be autonomous in Kant’s sense. Presumably this kind of perfection would render ethics irrelevant, because everything would already be decided for it. I don’t consider it the job of philosophy to speculate about impossible what ifs, but this is interesting for shedding further light on the nature of Kantian autonomy as requiring finitude.

Here I find a further argument that leads to the same conclusion as Wood’s. Autonomy in the Kant I want to read presupposes activities like Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, which presuppose that we have less-than-perfect understanding. Therefore, on my own view that will is not really distinct from our reason and feeling but just a different way of talking about them, a less-than-perfect “will” is necessarily a prerequisite for Kantian autonomy.

Wood says that for Kant, reason inevitably suggests the idea of something unconditioned, which is always at least thinkable even if we can never experience it. This makes it tempting to just assume it also has reality. This takes me a step closer to a sympathetic reading of the Antinomies of Pure Reason, which I still have a hard time with.

Contrary to Kant, I still think the Antinomies are due to conflicting assumptions that should not be blamed on any dialectical illusion inherent to reason itself, since I don’t think Reason itself immediately gives us anything at all, be it truth or illusion. Conclusions follow not from Reason alone, but only in combination with particular premises. Therefore I think the direct opposite of what Wood quotes Kant saying, to the effect that dialectical illusions “are sophistries not of men but of pure reason itself” (p. 7).

But the broader Kantian point that Wood makes is that independent of that detail, reason does at least suggest the idea of something unconditioned, which precisely as he says must necessarily be in tension with our finitude. “The tension, the problematical condition in which man finds himself, is thus a result not of ‘two irreconcilable natures’ in man but of the natural conflict between man’s finite limitations and his rational tendency to overcome them. Critical self-knowledge thus reveals human nature not as ‘dualistic’ but as dialectical” (pp. 6-7). Here Wood seems to take Kant’s thought toward a more positive connotation of “dialectic”.

“The dialectic which leads to moral faith is a dialectic not of theoretical but of practical reason. It results not from our limitations as regards knowledge, but rather from our limitations in the pursuit of our unconditional and final moral end” (p. 7).

“The critical philosophy, then, views it as essential to the human condition for man to be concerned with the awesomeness and nobility of his rational destiny, and yet to be aware of his finitude, his inability ever to gain a firm hold on that which reason proposes as his destiny” (p. 8).

Here I prefer to bend Kant in the direction of Hegel, while simultaneously bending Hegel in the direction of Kant in a way that I think Hegel himself suggests. There is more to getting a hold on that which reason proposes as our destiny than a simple on/off state. We do get as far as a firm hold, but that firm hold is still never final or complete.

“Socratic self-knowledge does not end, of course, with a mere recognition of man’s situation, but rather functions as part of man’s higher aspirations themselves…. [It] involves also an appropriate response of a rational and active being…. Moral faith is for Kant the rational response of the finite being to the dialectical perplexities which belong essentially to the pursuit of the highest purpose of his existence” (ibid).

Hegelian Finitude

Hegel has usually been considered to be anything but a thinker of finitude. However, the two previous philosophers to whom he devoted the most pages — Aristotle and Kant — are in their own very different ways perhaps the two most emblematic philosophers of finitude. If we start with Hegel’s ethics rather than his supposed metaphysics of Geist as a sort of divine immanence and his supposed doctrine of “absolute knowledge”, a deep resonance between his thought and Aristotle and Kant’s themes of finitude becomes evident.

Hegel is in fact extremely concerned to point out that we are not masters in life, and that error is inevitable. Further, more so than Kant — and arguably even more than Aristotle — he puts an overtly positive, optimistic face on this finite condition.

In his logical works, Hegel distinguished between a “good” and a “bad” infinity. Similarly, it could be said that he implicitly makes a very sharp distinction between “good” and “bad” finitude. Bad finitude is associated with what he called the Unhappy Consciousness. With the advent of monotheism in the West, one common extreme view held that before the infinity of God, we and all finite beings are as nothing. In this view, finite being is a mainly a burden to be overcome in the hereafter, and has no intrinsic value of its own.

“Good” finitude is what emerges from Hegel’s own view. As completely as Nietzsche but in a more balanced way, Hegel rejected the idea of finitude as a burden. For Hegel, finitude is an opportunity, not a curse. Error is an invitation to learning, and non-mastery is the path to reality. (See also Brandom on Postmodernity; Back to Ethical Being; Infinity, Finitude; Respect for All Beings; Affirmation; Truth, Beauty; Secondary Causes).

Infinity, Finitude

Here is another area where I find myself with mixed sympathies.

Plato seems to have regarded infinity — or what he called the Unlimited — as something bad. Aristotle argued that infinity exists only in potentiality and not in actuality, a view I find highly attractive. I think I encounter a world of seemingly infinite structure but only finite actualization.

Some time in the later Hellenistic period, notions of a radical spiritual infinity seem to have appeared in the West for the first time, associated with the rise of monotheism and the various trends now commonly called Gnostic. This kind of intensive rather than extensive infinity sometimes seems to be folded back on itself, evoking infinities of infinities and more. The most sophisticated development of a positive theological infinite in later Western antiquity occurred in the more religious rethinking of Greek philosophy by neoplatonists like Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.

In 14th century CE Latin Europe, Duns Scotus developed an influential theology that made infinity the principal attribute of God, in contrast to the pure Being favored by Aquinas. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, was a bombastic early defender of Copernican astronomy and notorious critic of established religion who espoused a curious hybrid of Lucretian atomistic materialism, neoplatonism, and magic. He proclaimed the physical existence of an infinity of worlds like our Earth.

Mathematical applications of infinity are a later development, mainly associated with Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz in particular enthusiastically endorsed a speculative reversal of Aristotle’s negative verdict on “actual infinity”. Nineteenth century mathematicians were embarrassed by this, and developed more rigorous reformulations of the calculus based on limits rather than actual infinity. The limit-based formulation is what is generally taught today. Cantor seemingly went in the opposite direction, developing infinities of infinities in pure mathematics. I believe there has been another reformulation of analysis using category theory that claims to equal the rigor of 19th century analysis while recovering an approach closer to that of Leibniz, which might be taken to refute an argument against infinity based solely on lack of rigor according to the standards of contemporary professional mathematicians. One might accept this and still prefer an Aristotelian interpretation of infinity as not applicable to actual things, though it is important to recall that for Aristotle, the actual is not all there is.

The philosophy of Spinoza and even more so Leibniz is permeated with a positive view of the infinite — both mathematical and theological — that in a more measured way was later also taken up by Hegel, who distinguished between a “bad” infinite that seems to have been an “actual” mathematical infinite having the form of an infinite regress, and a “good” infinite that I would gloss as having to do with the interpretation of life and all within it. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return seems to involve an infinite folding back on itself of a world of finite beings. (See also Bounty of Nature; Reason, Nature; Echoes of the Deed; Poetry and Mathematics.)

On the side of the finite, I am tremendously impressed with Aristotle’s affirmative development of what also in a more Kantian style might be termed a multi-faceted “dignity” of finite beings. While infinity may be inspiring or even intoxicating, I think we should be wary of the possibility that immoderate embrace of infinity may lead — even if unwittingly — to a devaluation of finite being, and ultimately of life. I also believe notions of infinite or unconditional power (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Arbitrariness, Inflation) are prone to abuse. In any case, ethics is mainly concerned with finite things.

Meditation on Death?

I’m preparing to write something about Ricoeur’s treatment of the Freudian “death instinct”, but first wanted to separately express some views of my own. I disapprove of attempts to make death into a philosophical theme. Our finitude has plenty of other more illuminating and ethically relevant aspects, and I think the living should focus on life. Spinoza’s “The philosopher thinks of nothing less than of death” seems right to me. In cherishing the memory of lost loved ones, it is the loved ones who are important.

I don’t like early Heidegger’s melodramatic talk about “being toward death”. I don’t even like Plato’s literary representation of what I would call Socrates’ excessive acceptance of his impending execution. Even though it is counterbalanced by more life-affirming passages in other places, the suggestion that the philosopher should welcome death goes too far.

I thoroughly approve of Brandom’s reinterpretation of the Hegelian myth of a “struggle to the death” between competing would-be Masters as a melodramatic extreme illustration of an underlying much more general concept of risk-taking. The importance of risk-taking is the real essence there and the message to carry forward, not struggle against others and not death. (Apart from this, Hegel’s Master serves as an extreme negative example of attitudes that exist but should be overcome.)


Ethical reason can potentially comprehend anything and it can influence things going forward, but it does not make everything or govern events. (See also Fragility of the Good.) Understanding comes late. Reason becomes free or autonomous only by a long, slow process. (See also Iterative Questioning.) Even so-called absolute knowledge — only “absolute” because it is free of the actually self-disruptive presumptions of the false freedom of Mastery — is just this freedom of reason.

There is after all a kind of negative freedom of reason at work here, but it is forever incomplete, and also has nothing to do with any negative freedom of a power, which is a fiction. We negatively free ourselves of unthinking assumptions while positively increasing our ability to make fine distinctions, our sensitivity to subtlety and nuance. This gives us new positive freedom in doing, with our still-finite power. (See also Ethical Reason, Interpretation.)

Pure Negativity?

I’m still hoping to arrive at a more constructive engagement with the Žižek school of contemporary Hegel interpretation. Žižek’s reading is more “metaphysical” than the Aristotle-and-Brandom-inspired one I’ve been developing here, and I’m not fond of his penchant for showmanship, but there is a broad proximity of concerns. I’m looking now at Sbriglia and Žižek, Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism (2020). The unusual “materialism” at issue here is openly proclaimed to be a development of German idealism. The contributors seek to distinguish themselves from other recent currents of so-called “cultural materialism”, “new historicism”, “new materialism”, and “object-oriented ontology”. I’ve briefly reviewed one of the representative works from which the Žižekians want to distinguish themselves.

Common to all these trends, the Žižek school, and the work pursued here is a rejection of a classic Cartesian Subject. As against the others, the Žižek school and I both also want to nonetheless affirm the importance of subjectivity. While I am not a Lacanian, I also think Lacan deserves serious engagement, and the Žižek school is pursuing that.

Sbriglia and Žižek write that “the self-limitation of the phenomenal that renders matter un-whole, the fact that the phenomenal field is in itself never ‘all’, never a complete, consistent whole, is strictly correlative to subjectivity as such” (p. 10, emphasis in original). Mladen Dolar in his contribution writes, “Subject is rather the very impossibility of substance to be substance” (p. 38). Žižek in his contribution adds, “when Kant asserts the limitation of our knowledge, Hegel does not answer him by claiming he can overcome the Kantian gap…. the Kantian gap already is the solution: Being itself is incomplete…. This dimension gets lost in Fichte and Schelling, who both assert intellectual intuition” (pp. 107-108, emphasis in original). This seems exactly right.

I would add that for similar reasons having to do with criteria of identity, there is an impossibility like Dolar’s (developed by Aristotle himself in the central books of the Metaphysics) for Aristotelian “what it was to have been” a thing to just be the kind of quasi-grammatical substrate that came to be commonly understood by Latin substantia. The above-quoted formulations are a big advance over notions of mere epistemic incompleteness due to the inexhaustibility of a naively conceived in-itself. In my more Aristotelian language, not only do we rational animals never have a completely univocal perspective on the whole, but we should not be afraid to speak of equivocal determination in the real. Equivocal determination is still determination, but it is incomplete.

My only caveat to Sbriglia and Žižek’s formulation would be on the Schellingian sound of “self-limitation of the phenomenal”. It seems to me the Žižek school sometimes wants to put a Schellingian spin on Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” claim, which would be an unfortunate regression. I think Hegel not only wanted to sharply distinguish his perspective from that of Schellingian identity philosophy, but succeeded in doing so.

Sbriglia and Žižek use the picturesque Lacanian language of a “hole in reality” as a defining characteristic of subjectivity, commenting that “the inaccessibility of the transcendent In-itself… is a result of the inscription of the perceiving subject into reality” (ibid). I prefer to minimize implicit identity claims, and thus to say (some) subjectivity rather than “the” subject. In some contexts, I think this is merely a terminological difference. Insofar as they just mean a decentered subjectivity with roots in the unconscious, the formulation seems fine, provided “perceiving” is taken as referring to something like Hegelian “Perception” and higher levels of the Phenomenology, not to something like his intended-to-be-discarded starting point of putative empirical “Sense Certainty”.

I get less comfortable with their talk about “the” subject as an abyss of pure negativity. Here I hear echoes of Sartre. While this is neither a substantial Cartesian-medieval intellectual soul nor even a Husserlian transcendental Ego, talk about “pure” negativity or an “abyss” seems to imply a kind of immanent infinity, albeit stripped of traditional theological associations. Sartre used this kind of metaphysics of negativity to bolster an extreme voluntarist anthropology, ironically transferring claims from old bad theology to the service of a strident atheism. Alain Badiou, who is a significant influence on the Žižek school, began as a Sartrean, and is perhaps the most outspoken extreme voluntarist today. I think it is a disservice to bring Sartre and Badiou into the reading of Hegel. Voluntarism is at root a naked expression of the attitude of one-sided Mastery, and should have no place in a discourse that aims at emancipation. Emancipation cannot come from an imposition of will. It comes rather from the increase of justice through processes furthering concrete realization of the autonomy of reason and mutual recognition. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Claims of immanent infinity may get a bit of added credibility these days, due to circulating complaints against Kantian “finitude”. It is easy to superficially enlist quotes from Hegel that appear to support such complaints. Here I want to explicitly defend the Kantian perspective of the essential finitude of human reality, relating it back to the happily rather than unhappily finite perspective of Aristotle, and supporting that by an Aristotelian-Brandomian reading of Hegel. A perspective of human finitude can also draw on charitable understandings of much traditional wisdom.

I do also think there is an inherently good but distinctly inhuman Hegelian “negative infinity” that can be anonymously intimate to our finite reality and the formation of our values, through the mediation of second nature, without actually being “us” or “ours” or immanent in us. Even if that negative infinity is to be identified with the “pure Self” Sbriglia and Žižek mention from Hegel’s 1805-06 lectures, it should not be identified with any empirical or existentialist or common-sense self. The Žižek school’s way of expressing this is to speak of a “split subject” or a split in the subject. Various strands of traditional wisdom can be seen in retrospect to have bearing on such a distinction as well. Members of the Žižek school would probably eschew any favorable reference to “traditional wisdom” of the kind I am making here as incompatible with academic-leftist credentials important to them, but Hegel himself often showed an irenic and even valorizing attitude on matters of this sort. (See also Acts in Brandom and Žižek; Self, Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)