Aristotle on Explanation

Book 1 chapter 1 of Parts of Animals provides an overview of Aristotle’s perspective on explanation in general. It is a nice synthetic text that brings together many of Aristotle’s core concerns, and shows his vision of how natural science ought to fit in with broader philosophy.

He begins by distinguishing between mere acquaintance with an area of study and being educated in it. “For an educated [person] should be able to form a fair judgment as to the goodness or badness of an exposition” (Complete Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 994). This seems to apply to any subject whatsoever.

Next he raises the more specific question of method. “It is plain then that, in the science which inquires into nature, there must be certain canons, by reference to which a hearer shall be able to criticize the method of a professed exposition, quite independently of the question whether the statements made be true or false” (ibid).

Continuing to emphasize the critical thinking that is the mark of an educated person, he makes it explicit that some of the most important questions about a subject are what I would call second-order questions, having to do with how we ought to approach the matter at hand. The educated person will give due emphasis to these, rather than naively rushing to deliver judgments on questions of fact.

“Ought we, for example (to give an illustration of what I mean) to begin by discussing each separate substance — man, lion, ox, and the like — taking each kind in hand independently of the rest, or ought we rather to lay down the attributes which they have in common in virtue of some common element of their nature? For genera that are quite distinct present many identical phenomena, sleep, for instance, respiration, growth, decay, death, and other similar affections and conditions…. Now it is plain that if we deal with each species independently of the rest, we shall frequently be obliged to repeat ourselves over and over again; for horse and dog and man present every one of the phenomena just enumerated” (ibid).

The educated person looks for explanations, not just facts or correspondences. The specific “dogginess” of a dog, for example, does not explain its sleeping, breathing, and so on. Instead these activities, which it shares with many other animals, are explained by natures common to all of them.

Further, the kind of method Aristotle commends to us is not a matter of following recipes by rote. Instead, it is a thinking approach that involves persistently following the thread of explanations wherever it leads.

“So also there is a like uncertainty as to another point now to be mentioned. Ought the student of nature follow the plan adopted by the mathematicians in their astronomical demonstrations, and after considering the phenomena presented by animals, and their several parts, proceed subsequently to treat of the causes and the reason why; or ought he to follow some other method? Furthermore, the causes concerned in natural generation are, as we see, more than one. There is the cause for the sake of which, and the cause whence the beginning of motion comes. Now we must decide which of these two causes comes first, which second. Plainly, however, that cause is the first which we call that for the sake of which. For this is the account of the thing, and the account forms the starting-point, alike in the works of art and in works of nature. For the doctor and the builder define health or house, either by the intellect or by perception, and then proceed to give the accounts and the causes of each of the things they do and of why they should do it thus” (p. 995).

He raises the question of which kind of cause comes first, because he wants to suggest a different answer from that of the pre-Socratic “physicists” who attempted to explain everything by properties of different kinds of matter. Elsewhere he says that Plato and the atomist Democritus (whose writings are lost) did better than others at following the thread of explanation, but he considers the elaborated account of ends or “that for the sake of which” to be one of his own most important contributions.

Notably he only mentions two kinds of cause here, rather than the classic four. Similarly, there are passages in other texts where he lists a different number of categories than the canonical ten from the Categories. Later authors often viewed things like causes and categories in a reified, univocal way, as susceptible to exact enumeration. But for Aristotle, these are abstractions from a concrete reality that comes first, to be wielded in a context-sensitive way, so the canonical enumerations are not absolute.

Aristotle’s understanding of the “beginning of motion” is different from that promoted by early modern physics. Conventionally in the reading of Aristotle, the “beginning of motion” is associated with the efficient cause, and these two terms are understood in a somewhat circular way, which is really informed by some broadly intuitive sense of what a “beginning” of motion is. Early modern writers assumed that this “beginning” must be some kind of immediate impulse or force. Aquinas associated it with God’s act of creation and with the free acts of created beings. For Aristotle himself it is neither of these.

My best reading of efficient cause is that it is the means by which an end is realized. In many cases the end is realized not by just one means but by a hierarchy of means (e.g., art of building, carpenter, carpenter’s hammer, hammer’s blow). Aristotle and the scholastics emphasized the top of such hierarchies (e.g., the art of building for Aristotle; God or some metaphysical principle for the scholastics), whereas the early moderns emphasized the bottom (e.g., the hammer’s blow), akin to the proximate cause of concern to liability lawyers. For Aristotle, the art of building and not the hammer’s blow is the true “beginning” of the motion of house construction, because it provides the guiding thread of explanation for the whole process of building the house. But even the art of building is still just a means that gets its meaning from the reasons why we would want to build a house in the first place.

He continues, “Now in the works of nature the good and that for the sake of which is still more dominant than in works of art, nor is necessity a factor with the same significance in them all; though almost all writers try to refer their accounts to this, failing to distinguish the several ways in which necessity is spoken of. For there is absolute necessity, manifested in eternal phenomena; and there is hypothetical necessity, manifested in everything that is generated as in everything that is produced by art, be it a house or what it may. For if a house or other such final object is to be realized, it is necessary that first this and then that shall be produced and set in motion, and so on in continuous succession, until the end is reached, for the sake of which each prior thing is produced and exists. So also is it with the productions of nature. The mode of necessity, however, and the mode of demonstration are different in natural science from what they are in the theoretical sciences [e.g., mathematics]…. For in the latter the starting-point is that which is; in the former that which is to be. For since health, or a man, is of such and such a character, it is necessary for this or that to exist or be produced; it is not the case that, since this or that exists or has been produced, that of necessity exists or will exist. Nor is it possible to trace back the necessity of demonstrations of this sort to a starting-point, of which you can say that, since this exists, that exists [as one might do in mathematics]” (ibid).

In Aristotle’s usage, “nature” applies to terrestrial things that are observably subject to generation and corruption. He earlier referred to astronomical phenomena like the apparent motions of the stars and planets as “eternal” because on a human scale of time, these are not observably subject to generation and corruption. For Aristotle, absolute necessity could only apply to things that are absolutely unchanging. We may have a different perspective on astronomy, but that does not affect the logical distinction Aristotle is making. His key point here is that things subject to generation are not subject to absolute necessity. Leibniz took this a step further and argued that hypothetical necessity is the only kind there is. Kant, in arguing that hypothetical and disjunctive judgment (“if A then B” and “not both A and B“) are more fundamental than categorical judgment (“A is B“), made a related move.

Hypothetical necessity has a particular form that is worth noting. As Aristotle points out in the quote above, under hypothetical necessity “it is not the case that, since this or that exists or has been produced, that of necessity exists or will exist”. To give a positive example, hypothetical necessity says that to continue living, we must eat. But it does not in any way dictate a particular series of motions that is the only way this can be accomplished, let alone the whole series of eating-related actions throughout one’s life. Neither does it dictate that we will eat in any particular instance.

How we meet a particular need is up to us. The reality of this flexibility built into nature is all we need to explain freedom of action. Humans can also affirmatively embrace commitments and act on them; that too is up to us. Freedom is not an arbitrary or supernatural power; it simply consists in the fact that nature is flexible, and many things are up to us.

Aristotle contrasts the way a thing is naturally generated with the way it is. “The best course appears to be that we follow the method already mentioned — begin with the phenomena presented by each group of animals, and, when this is done, proceed afterwards to state the causes of those phenomena — in the case of generation too. For in house building too, these things come about because the form of the house is such and such, rather than its being the case that the house is such and such because it comes about thus…. Art indeed consists in the account of the product without its matter. So too with chance products; for they are produced in the same way as products of art” (pp. 995-996).

“The fittest mode, then, of treatment is to say, a man has such and such parts, because the essence of man is such and such, and because they are necessarily conditions of his existence, or, if we cannot quite say this then the next thing to it, namely, that it is either quite impossible for a man to exist without them, or, at any rate, that it is good that they should be there. And this follows: because man is such and such the process of his development is necessarily such as it is; and therefore this part is formed first, that next; and after a like fashion should we explain the generation of all other works of nature” (p. 996).

This way of reasoning backwards from an essence to its prerequisites is complemented by the fact that for Aristotle (and Plato) essences themselves are a prime subject of investigation, and not something assumed. “Begin with the phenomena”, he says.

Many 20th century philosophers have objected to presumptuous talk about the “essence of man”, and to any explanation in terms of essence. But these objections presuppose that the essence is something assumed, rather than being an object of investigation as it clearly was for Plato and Aristotle. Here also it is needful to distinguish between what we might call the distinguishing essence of humanity used to pick out humans — e.g., “rational/talking animal” — and what Leibniz later called the complete essence of each individual. Clearly also, the parts of the human body do not follow directly from “rational/talking animal”, but from many other attributes “presented in the phenomena”. It turns out that humans share these attributes with other animals, and they can therefore be conceptualized as attributes of common genera to which we and those other animals belong.

Because essences themselves are a prime subject of investigation and are ultimately inferred from phenomena, the kind of teleological reasoning Aristotle recommends always has a contingent character, which is how it naturally accounts for what the moderns call freedom. This contingency is built into in the “hypothetical” character of hypothetical necessity.

“Does, then, configuration and color constitute the essence of the various animals and their several parts? For if so, what Democritus says will be correct…. And yet a dead body has exactly the same configuration as a living one; but for all that it is not a man. So also no hand of bronze or wood or constituted in any but the appropriate way can possibly be a hand in more than name. For like a physician in a painting, or like a flute in a sculpture, it will be unable to perform its function” (p. 997).

Aristotle was the historic pioneer of “functional” explanation. Here he insists that the essences of living beings and their parts must be understood in terms of their characteristic activities. This development for the sake of biology parallels the deeper development of the meaning of “substance” in the Metaphysics as “what it was to be” a thing, and as actuality and potentiality.

“If now the form of the living being is the soul, or part of the soul, or something that without the soul cannot exist; as would seem to be the case, seeing at any rate that when the soul departs, what is left is no longer an animal, and that none of the parts remain what they were before, excepting in mere configuration, like the animals that in the fable are turned into stone; if, I say, this is so, then it will come within the province of the natural scientist to inform himself concerning the soul, and to treat of it, either in its entirety, or, at any rate, of that part of it which constitutes the essential character of an animal; and it will be his duty to say what a soul or this part of a soul is” (ibid).

Here it is important that we consider soul in the “phenomena first” way that Aristotle develops it.

“What has been said suggests the question, whether it is the whole soul or only some part of it, the consideration of which comes within the province of natural science. Now if it be of the whole soul that this should treat, then there is no place for any philosophy beside it…. But perhaps it is not the whole soul, nor all of its parts collectively, that constitutes the source of motion; but there may be one part, identical with that in plants, which is the source of growth, another, namely the sensory part, which is the source of change of quality, while still another, and this is not the intellectual part, is the source of locomotion. For other animals than man have the power of locomotion, but in none but him is there intellect. Thus it is plain that it is not of the whole soul that we have to treat. For it is not the whole soul that constitutes the animal nature, but only some part or parts of it” (p. 998).

Aristotle’s opposition to treating the soul as a single lump reflects his overall functional, activity-oriented, and phenomena-first approach.

“Again, whenever there is plainly some final end, to which a motion tends should nothing stand in its way, we always say that the one is for the sake of the other; and from this it is evident that there must be something of the kind, corresponding to what we call nature” (ibid).

Overall teleology always has to do with tendencies, not absolute determinations. He begins to wrap up this introduction by giving another example of the hypothetical necessity whose concept he pioneered.

“For if a piece of wood is to be split with an axe, the axe must of necessity be hard; and, if hard, must of necessity be made of bronze or iron. Now in exactly the same way the body, since it is an instrument — for both the body as a whole and its several parts individually are for the sake of something — if it is to do its work, must of necessity be of such and such a character, and made of such and such materials.”

“It is plain then that there are two modes of causation, and that both of these must, so far as possible, be taken into account, or at any rate an attempt must be made to include them both; and that those who fail in this tell us in reality nothing about nature” (p. 999).

Again, the two modes here are “that for the sake of which” and the phenomena associated with generation. Considering either of these in isolation yields an incomplete understanding, as we see respectively in bad scholasticism and bad empiricism.

“The reason why our predecessors failed to hit on this method of treatment was, that they were not in possession of the notion of essence, nor of any definition of substance. The first who came near it was Democritus, and he was far from adopting it as a necessary method in natural science, but was merely brought to it by constraint of facts. In the time of Socrates a nearer approach was made to the method. But at this period men gave up inquiring into nature, and philosophers diverted their attention to political science and to the virtues that benefit mankind” (ibid).

Socrates and Plato initially pioneered the notion of “that for the sake of which”, but in turning away from the phenomena of generation and becoming, they gave it a somewhat one-sided character.

The subtle way in which Aristotle wields the concept of essence avoids treating it as an absolute, or as something strictly univocal. In any given context, there is a clear relative distinction between essence and accident, but the distinction is not the same across all contexts. Hypothetical necessity provides the mechanism by which what is “accident” at one level of analysis can be incorporated into “essence” at another level. (See also Hermeneutic Biology?; Aristotelian Causes; Secondary Causes; Aristotle’s Critique of Dichotomy; Classification.)

Spontaneity

Spontaneity has a technical meaning in Kant and Husserl that is at odds with common usage. In ordinary speech, we are said to do something “spontaneously” when we do it on the spur of the moment, without a previous plan. But Kant and Husserl call everything guided by reason “spontaneous”, even though reason is involved with conscious deliberation and thinking things through.

According to an older usage, things in nature were said by some to occur “spontaneously” when they had no discernible cause. In the scholastic tradition, others argued that “nothing comes from nothing”, and rejected the assumption that things with no discernible cause really happen without a cause, as was purported to occur in what was called “spontaneous generation”.

Leibniz embraced and codified the “nothing from nothing” argument as the principle of sufficient reason. The principle of sufficient reason does not itself imply the kind of particular providence associated with the popular expression “everything happens for a reason”. It just says that everything has some kind of reasonable explanation, not that what we subjectively perceive as cosmic injustice is part of a divine plan, even though Leibniz separately argued for that as well.

Of course, it matters a lot what kinds of causes or reasonable explanations we recognize. In Leibniz’s time, the notion of cause had already been greatly contracted by early modern writers, who further transformed the late scholastic notion of efficient cause in a mechanistic direction, while accentuating the late scholastic tendency to reduce all other causes to efficient causes. Leibniz himself recommended the use of only mechanistic explanations in natural science, but did not see natural science as all-encompassing, and defended the use of teleological explanation in broader philosophy. He compensated for the narrowness of mechanistic causality by speaking of sufficient reason rather than sufficient cause, and kept a place for form and ends as reasons.

Kant ultimately also defended a kind of teleology, especially in biology and in his account of beauty, but he was much more reserved about using it in general explanation than Leibniz, due to his scruples about grounding all “theoretical” explanation in experience. However, he assigned all ethical matters to a separate “practical” domain, which he wanted to exempt from the kind of narrow causal explanation that he considered the norm for physics, and he argued that for us humans, “practical” reason is more fundamental.

Human action for Kant belongs to the practical domain, which he famously argued is governed by “spontaneity” and “freedom”. I now think “spontaneous” and “free” for Kant simply mean not subject to mechanistic explanation. Thus insofar as we are positively motivated by moral imperatives or values, he would say we act spontaneously and freely. I think he also believed that all human thinking is ultimately motivated by ultimate ends, and therefore called it spontaneous and free.

Kant confused generations of scholars by borrowing voluntaristic rhetoric, which he did with the aim of emphasizing that human thought and action are not reducible to mechanistic physics. But freedom and spontaneity in Kant do not mean arbitrariness, as they effectively do for defenders of voluntarism. Rather, they are meant to allow room for positive motivation by moral imperatives or values.

Another confusing move Kant made was to argue for a special “causality of freedom” that he never explained adequately. Due to its contrast with physical causality, it sounded at times like a kind of supernatural break in the natural order he otherwise recognized. Many commentators thought Kant contradicted himself in arguing both that the natural order is self-contained and that there is a separate causality of freedom. I think these problems are ultimately explained by the narrowness of the mechanical concept of causality in nature. The “causality of freedom”, I want to say, simply means motivation by moral imperatives or values rather than by impulse. Kant considered impulse to be within the realm of natural-scientific causality, and therefore opposed it to spontaneity, whereas contemporary common usage associates “spontaneity” with acting on impulse.

(Aristotle, with his much broader notion of cause that essentially identifies causes with any kinds of “reasons why”, would treat values and moral imperatives as one kind of final causes, or what I have been calling “ends”.)

Husserl’s way of speaking about these matters is to contrast human motivation with causality. For him, “causality” is exclusively the causality of modern physical science, but human thought and action are to be explained by “motivation” rather than causality. Husserl’s use of “spontaneity” is related to that of Kant, and applies to everything that he explains in terms of motivation. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Allison on Kant on Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?.)

Roots of Action

Returning again to Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject, de Libera had characterized a typical modern view of human subjectivity in terms of a “subject-agent” that combines the notion of a grammatical subject with that of a cause associated with a kind of “intentions” that are considered to be both mental acts and representations. This is a very specific cultural construct that makes many assumptions. It has acquired a kind of common-sense status, but treating human subjectivity in this way is very far from universally valid.

The common cliché is to call this the “Cartesian subject”, but de Libera’s project is to show that the groundwork for it was actually laid within the Latin scholastic tradition.

My treatment of de Libera’s work has been and will be a sort of journey of discovery; I don’t know in advance exactly where it will end up.

I had begun to look at his treatment of the particular place of Thomas Aquinas in this development. Previously, I have approached Aquinas mainly in terms of his admirable recovery and defense of what I consider to be good Aristotelian principles, and what I take to be his simultaneous divergence from or confusion of some of these that I regard as highly important. So, I felt the need to consult a few sympathetic secondary sources for a view of Aquinas more on his own terms. Now I feel a little better equipped to resume this thread.

It was a commonplace of 20th century Thomism to recommend itself as an alternative to broadly Cartesian views of what it is to be a human being. The contrasting picture de Libera paints is far more intricate and ambivalent. As well as recovering Aristotelian insights, Aquinas took some new steps in a “modern” direction, but many of these were only consolidated by the systematizing efforts of later Thomists. Part of the reason I felt the need to dwell a little on Aquinas was to be better prepared to understand distinctions between Aquinas himself and later Thomistic developments.

“The semantic field of action is nonetheless more complex, its frontiers more porous, when one considers effective usage, the real implementation of the principles mentioned, or when one analyses more finely the lexicon of the authors” (Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1, p. 312; my translation).

To begin with, leading 20th century Thomist scholar Bernard Lonergan concluded that a simple distinction between immanent and transitive action is “too rigid” (ibid). Lonergan is quoted (ibid) saying it was later authors who considered it metaphysically irreducible. For Aquinas, agere (to act) has a strong moral sense related to what de Libera calls a “subject of imputation”. In medieval Latin, actio (action) is used to translate both Greek praxis (glossed as moral conduct) and poieisis (glossed as production). Lonergan says Aquinas uses actio sometimes in a general sense that includes both of these, and sometimes more specifically for moral conduct. By contrast, action affecting external matter is more properly called factio.

For Aquinas, actio in the moral sense, according to de Libera’s summary of Lonergan, is associated with “free beings who are masters of their acts” (p. 313). I (and I think Aristotle as well) would say instead ethical beings who are responsible for their acts. Freedom and mastery are here implicitly defined in terms of one another, and ethical being and responsibility are also defined in terms of one another.

As I understand it, Aquinas regarded the will as a function of intellect rather than a separate faculty, so he would not be a voluntarist in the technical sense formulated that way. Nonetheless, as I understand it, he insisted that humans have the equivalent of arbitrary freedom.

I say that responsibility does not involve mastery, nor does ethical being involve freedom to act arbitrarily. This issue is independent of questions connecting action with efficient causality.

Mastery and arbitrary freedom (medieval Latin libertas, or the liberty of the lord to do whatever) are (mis)applications of something analogous to omnipotence on a moral or social level. Early modern apologists for absolute monarchy were strongly committed to an analogy between absolute monarchy and theologies stressing divine omnipotence. For Plato and Leibniz, this was the formula of tyranny. (See also Euthyphro.)

Spinoza on Teleology

“All the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end” (Spinoza, Collected Works vol. I, Curley trans., p. 439).

“[I]t follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]. It follows, secondly, that men always act on account of an end, viz. on account of their advantage, which they want. Hence they seek to know only the final causes of what has been done, and when they have heard them, they are satisfied, because they have no reason to doubt further” (p. 440).

“Hence, they consider all natural things as means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means that they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and had made all things for their use” (pp. 440-441).

The famous appendix to book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics, from which the above is excerpted, is a sort of psychological exposé of the superstition-like attitude behind the kind of “external” teleology that sees everything in terms of ends, but treats all ends as resulting from the conscious aims or will of a supernatural being or beings, more or less on the model of what theologians have called “particular providence”.

But though he explicitly refers only to this kind of conscious providence that implies ongoing supernatural intervention in the ordinary workings of the world, he nonetheless in an unqualified way dismisses all explanation in terms of ends. At the same time, the notion of determination or causality that he does acknowledge as genuine is too narrow and rigid (too univocal). (See also Thoughts on Teleology.)

Most of the historic criticisms of Spinoza have been extremely unfair; this includes remarks by Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Spinoza rightly pointed out that we tend to overrate the role of conscious intentions in human affairs and the workings of the world. But Leibniz rightly pointed out that Spinoza’s exclusive emphasis on unconditional divine power or omnipotence (as contrasted with goodness) — which reduces everything to efficient causes — has undesirable consequences.

Allison on Kant on Freedom

Eminent Kant scholar Henry Allison writes in the introduction to his Kant’s Theory of Freedom (1990), “Kant’s theory of freedom is the most difficult aspect of his philosophy to interpret, let alone defend. To begin with,… we are confronted with the bewildering number of ways in which Kant characterizes freedom and the variety of distinctions he draws between various kinds or senses of freedom” (p. 1).

Kant advocates “not only a strict determinism at the empirical level but also a psychological determinism” (p. 31) at the level of desires and beliefs. Nonetheless he also famously argues for the pure spontaneity of reason at a transcendental level, and wants to link this to a distinctive “causality of reason” entirely separate from empirical causality. As I’ve said before, I think Kant often presents both the determinist part of this and the indeterminist part in terms that are too strong.

Kant intensifies this difficulty by apparently arguing that the very same human reason that is transcendentally utterly free also has an empirical character that is completely determined. According to Allison, Kant distinguishes between empirical and intelligible “character” (considered as general ways of being, not implying personality) in two different ways. Empirical character is sometimes presented as merely the phenomenal effect of intelligible character, but at other times as the sensible schema of intelligible character. The latter version is interpreted by Allison as implying that “empirical character involves not simply a disposition to behave in certain predictable ways in given situations but a disposition to act on the basis of certain maxims, to pursue certain ends, and to select certain means for the realization of those ends…. Clearly, the causality of reason, even at the empirical level, is inherently purposive. Consequently, explanations of its activity must be teleological rather than mechanistic in nature” (p. 33).

Allison argues that for Kant, not only moral but also prudential judgments exhibit a teleological causality of reason. An end understood in a context generates a moral or prudential “ought”. Allison says that acting on the basis of an ought is for Kant (at least in the first Critique) the defining characteristic of free agency.

“A helpful way of explicating what Kant means by the spontaneity of the understanding in its judgmental activity (epistemic spontaneity) is to consider judgment as the activity of ‘taking as’ or, more precisely, of taking something as a such and such” (p. 37). “[E]ven desire-based or… ‘heteronomous’ action involves the self-determination of the subject and, therefore, a ‘moment’ of spontaneity” (p. 39). “[T]he sensible inclination, which from the point of view of the action’s (and the agent’s) empirical character is viewed straightforwardly as cause, is, from the standpoint of this model, seen as of itself insufficient to determine the will. Moreover, this insufficiency is not of the sort that can be made up for by introducing further empirically accessible causal factors. The missing ingredient is the spontaneity of the agent, the act of taking as or self-determination. Since this can be conceived but not experienced, it is once again something merely intelligible” (ibid).

The association of spontaneity with “taking as” (which is Kant’s independent reinvention of Aristotelian practical judgment) rather than some kind of arbitrariness is a breath of fresh air. (See also Freedom Through Deliberation?)

For Aristotle, there could be no contradiction between determination by ends and a complementary determination by “efficient causes” or means. But for Kant, ends are noumenal or intelligible, while means are phenomenal or empirical.

But in his previous work Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Allison argued that Kant wanted to distinguish between phenomenal and noumenal interpretations rather than to assert the literal existence of ontologically separate phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The noumenal or the intelligible is not otherworldly, but a different way of interpreting the same world we experience.

Fichte’s Ethics

Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798) has been called the most important work of moral philosophy between Kant and Hegel. Unavailable in English till 2005, it is apparently a source for some key themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology. It also shows the more nuanced side of Fichte that impressed Paul Ricoeur. Fichte was an unusually powerful speaker, reportedly electrifying audiences with his intensity and bold rhetorical strokes. His thought greatly influenced German Romanticism.

Fichte begins by asking, “how can something objective ever become something subjective; how can a being for itself ever become something represented (vorgestellt)?” (p. 7). He continues, “No one will ever explain how this remarkable transformation takes place without finding a point where the objective and the subjective are not at all distinct from one another…. The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason, or whatever one wishes to call it.”

“This absolute identity of the subject and the object in the I can only be inferred; it cannot be demonstrated, so to speak, ‘immediately’, as a fact of actual consciousness. As soon as any actual consciousness occurs, even if it is only the consciousness of ourselves, the separation [between subject and object] ensues…. The entire mechanism of consciousness rests on the various aspects of this separation of what is subjective from what is objective, and, in turn, on the unification of the two” (ibid; brackets and emphasis in original).

Fichte revives an explicit appeal to “intellectual intuition” that Kant had proscribed and I find untenable, but carefully limits its scope, mainly using it for the existence of “the I”. Importantly, as the above quote shows, he does not claim to have a direct intuition of the identity of subject and object.

Next he asks, “how we ever come to take some of our representations to be the ground of a being” (p. 8), and answers, “I find myself to be acting efficaciously in the world of sense” (ibid).

This seems like a good pragmatist insight. Here and above, he asks questions about the status of representation and how it comes to be that anticipate aspects of Brandom’s work in this area.

“Insofar as I know anything at all I know that I am active” (p. 9). “I posit myself as active” (p. 10). Hegel criticized Fichte’s reliance on “positing” or postulation of various key notions.

Fichte goes on to specify that “I ascribe to myself a determinate activity, precisely this one and not another” (p. 11), and determinate activity implies resistance. “Wherever and whenever you see activity, you see resistance as well, for otherwise you see no activity” (p. 12). “[F]reedom can never be posited as able to do anything whatsoever about this situation, since otherwise freedom itself, along with all consciousness and all being, would fall away” (p. 13).

Throughout his career, while picking up and intensifying Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric and even aiming to build a system around it, Fichte made things more interesting and complicated by emphasizing that objectivity always involves a resistance to free action. Fichte goes on to specify that activity involves a kind of agility — i.e., ways of acting successfully in spite of the the object’s or the world’s resistance. Here we find ourselves on the threshold at least of the territory more fully explored by Ricoeur in Freedom and Nature (see Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action).

“I posit myself as free insofar as I explain a sensible acting, or being, as arising from my concept, which is then called the ‘concept of an end'” (p. 14). “[T]he concept of an end, as it is called, is not itself determined in turn by something objective but is determined absolutely by itself” (p. 15).

Freedom here is acting in accordance with concepts or ends. While Kant and Fichte both tended to identify this with a kind of exemption from the natural order, this second move is separable from the first. The need to treat freedom as an exemption presupposes a view of natural causality as completely rigid. But more fluid “tendencies” also exhibit the resistance that Fichte makes characteristic of objectivity.

He then claims in effect that the resistance we encounter in the world of sense is actually nothing but an appearance. “[N]othing is absolute but pure activity…. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency” (p. 17). I think Hegel and Ricoeur would each in their own way regard formulations like this as one-sided, and as a step back from his previous acknowledgement of resistance to our action as a basic fact of life, but that is in part because Hegel and Ricoeur both in a sense vindicate appearance itself as being something more than mere appearance.

Fichte is not actually contradicting himself or going back on a promise here, but moving to a different level. I think his point is that objects as separate are ultimately always a matter of appearance. I would agree as far as strictly separate objects are concerned, but I see objectivity in the first instance as a resistant but non-rigid sea of non-separate relations, tendencies, and currents that is not just an appearance, and is only secondarily divided into separate objects that insofar as they are separate are just appearances.

He comes a bit closer to Hegel again when he says “it is the character of the I that the acting subject and that upon which it acts are one and the same” (p. 28; emphasis in original).

But a few pages later he concludes that “all willing is absolute” and that the will is “absolute indeterminability through anything outside itself” (p. 33). “As an absolute force with consciousness, the I tears itself away — away from the I as a given absolute, lacking force and consciousness” (p. 37). One of Hegel’s main concerns in the Phenomenology was to show the inadequacy and undesirability of this ideal of total “independence”. I take “absolute force” as a kind of poetic language in Fichte’s rhetorical style that I would not adopt.

He repeats Kant’s claim that the will has “the power of causality by means of mere concepts” (p. 41). I agree that concepts can have a kind of efficacy in the world, though I would not call it causality in the narrow modern sense. On the other hand, I think talk about will as if it were a separate power not encompassed by the union of feeling and reason is misguided. I don’t think there is any will-talk that doesn’t have a better analogue in feeling-and-reason talk. So the question of the will’s causality does not even come up for me.

“According to Kant, freedom is the power to begin a state [Zustand] (a being and subsistence) absolutely” (p. 41). I don’t consider formulations like this to be typical of Kant’s thought as a whole. It rhetorically recalls voluntarist views in the Latin medieval tradition that saw human freedom as a sort of microcosmic analogue of creation from nothing. The notion of literal creation from nothing, though it achieved wide circulation in the monotheistic traditions, is actually an extreme view in theology whose main use has been to support radically supernaturalist claims of all sorts that are entirely separable from the broader spiritual purport of the world’s religions. Scholars have pointed out that creation from nothing is not inherent to the Old Testament text, and only emerged as an interpretation in the Hellenistic period with figures like Philo of Alexandria. One of Kant’s great contributions was actually to have developed other ways of talking about freedom that do not presuppose any of this kind of strong supernaturalism. (I adhere to the view commonly attributed to Aristotle in the Latin tradition that nothing comes from nothing in any literal sense.) Fichte of course was not at all a supernaturalist like Philo; but like Kant and even more so, in relation to freedom he nonetheless used some of the same rhetorical strategies originally developed to “rationalize” supernaturalism. (And if nature already participates in divinity, supernaturalism is superfluous.)

Fichte improves things by specifying, “It is not the case that the state that is begun absolutely is simply connected to nothing at all, for a finite rational being thinks only by means of mediation and connections. The connection in question, however, is not a connection to another being, but to a thinking” (ibid).

Much as I welcome this emphasis on mediation and connections, it is important to mention that he earlier strongly relied on the claim of a limited kind of direct intellectual self-intuition (pp. 25ff). Fichte was honest enough to acknowledge that he did not have inferential grounds for his strong notion of “I-hood”. The texture of his thought is a unique hybrid of a sort of inferentialism about things in general with an intuitionism about self. The points at which he relies on intuition are the same places where he applies the bold rhetorical strokes for which he initially became famous and popular with the Romantics. But in the long run, it is his emphasis on mediation — both in the form of inference and in the form of resistance to our projects — that holds the greatest value.

In a somewhat Kantian style that seems both more abstract and more simple and direct than that of Kant himself, Fichte sets out to “deduce” first the principle of morality, then the reality and applicability of the principle. For Fichte, the single principle of morality is the “absolute autonomy of reason” (p. 60). Reason is finite, but depends on nothing outside itself. Consciousness is always limited and in that sense determined by the objects it “finds”, but in conscience there is a pure identity of subject and object. Here again we can see how Hegel was in part taking up Fichtean ways of speaking.

Unlike Hegel, though, for Fichte “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness. Conscience is itself the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself” (p. 165).

From this it seems clear that Fichte recognizes no standpoint higher than that of Conscience. He identifies morality with good will (p. 149). Hegel on the other hand regards mutual recognition as a higher standpoint than that of the autonomy of Conscience. Although Fichte briefly refers to the concept of mutual recognition he had developed in Foundations of Natural Right (1797), the System of Ethics revolves mainly around a version of Kantian autonomy: “the formal law of morals [Sitten] is…. do what you can now regard with conviction as a duty, and do it solely because you have convinced yourself that it is a duty” (p. 155).

Surprisingly, he says “all free actions are predestined through reason for all eternity” (p. 216), and claims to have reconciled freedom with predestination. This provides a noteworthy additional perspective on his earlier love-hate relation with Spinoza.

“The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it,…. This process of drawing nearer to my final end is my finite end.”

“The fact that nature placed me at one point or another and that nature instead of me took the first step, as it were, on this path to infinity does not infringe upon my freedom” (pp. 217-218). This theme of “drawing nearer” and the “path to infinity” was sharply criticized by Hegel, but I rather like it.

I worry a bit when he says “The necessary goal of all virtuous people is therefore unanimous agreement [and] uniformity of acting” (p. 224). He did however also say that “anyone who acts on authority necessarily acts unconscionably” (p. 167; emphasis in original).

“I possess absolute freedom of thought… freedom before my own conscience…. [I]t is unconscionable for me to make the way in which I tend to the preservation of my body dependent on the opinions of others” (p. 225).

“What lies outside my body, and hence the entire sensible world, is a common good or possession” (ibid). “[I]n communal matters, I ought to act only in accordance with the presumptive general will” (p. 228). “I should… act in such a way that things have to become better. This is purely and simply a duty” (ibid). “As a means for bringing about the rational state, I have to take into account the present condition of the makeshift state” (ibid). In the case of unjust tyranny and oppression, “every honorable person could then in good conscience endeavor to overthrow this [makeshift] state entirely, but only if he has ascertained the common will” (ibid; emphasis in original).

“How then can one become aware of that upon which everyone agrees? This is not something one could learn simply by asking around; hence it must be possible to presuppose something that can be viewed as the creed of the community or as its symbol.”

“It is implicit in the concept of such a symbol or creed that it presents something not in a very precise or determinate manner, but only in a general way…. Moreover,… the symbol is supposed to be appropriate for everyone…. [T]he symbol does not consist in abstract propositions but rather in sensory presentations of the latter. The sensible presentation is merely the costume; what is properly symbolic is the concept. That precisely this presentation had to be chosen is something that was dictated by need… because they were not yet capable of distinguishing the costume that the concept had received by chance from the essence of the concept” (p. 230).

“[W]hat is most essential about every possible symbol or creed is expressed in the proposition, ‘there is something or other that is supersensible and elevated above all nature’…. What this supersensible something may be, the identity of this truly holy and sanctifying spirit, the character of the truly moral way of thinking: it is precisely concerning these points that the community seeks to determine and to unify itself more and more, by mutual interaction” (pp. 230-231).

Here we see some anticipation of Hegel’s account of religion in the Phenomenology.

“Not only am I permitted to have my own private conviction concerning the constitution of the state and the system of the church, I am even obliged by my conscience to develop this same conviction just as self-sufficiently and as broadly as I can.”

“Such development… is possible, however, only by means of reciprocal communication with others.” (p. 233).

Like Hegel, he makes mutual recognition a foundation of religion.

“The distinguishing and characteristic feature of the learned public is absolute freedom and independence of thinking” (p. 238). “Since scholarly inquiry is absolutely free, so must access to it be open to everyone” (p. 239).

“No earthly power has the right to issue commands regarding matters of conscience…. The state and the church must tolerate scholars” (ibid).

“All of a person’s efficacious acting within society has the following goal: all human beings are supposed to be in agreement; but the only matters that all human beings can agree on are those that are purely rational, for this is all they have in common” (p. 241).

“Kant has asserted that every human being is himself an end, and this assertion has received universal assent” (p. 244).

“The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of being perfected and remaining so, and this same law absolutely prohibits us from treating human beings in the opposite manner” (p. 229). Fichte argues at some length that this last point would be true no matter how dismal we might judge actual history to be.

Unfortunately, Fichte retained some of the prejudices of his time and place. He thought women should be subordinate to men, and his contribution to early German nationalism was not without a chauvinistic side.

Hegel on Skepticism

The next shape of self-consciousness after “Stoicism” in Hegel’s Phenomenology is “Skepticism”. H. S. Harris in his commentary thinks some of Hegel’s remarks apply specifically to Carneades, perhaps the best known “Academic” Skeptic, who shocked the Romans by arguing for opposite theses on alternating days, as an exercise on Platonic dialectic. Carneades also wrote a work arguing in detail against the great early Stoic Chryssipus. Although I like to stress the less textually obvious role of Aristotelian dialectic in Hegel’s work, Hegel’s explicit remarks emphasize a kind of Platonic dialectic with Skeptical inflections (see Three Logical Moments).

For Hegel, neither pure Understanding — which excels in clarity, utility, and systematic development but tends toward dogmatism — nor a skeptically inclined Dialectic, whose movement undoes everything that is apparently solid — is adequate to characterize what he wants to call Thought. Thought ought to involve a sort of Aristotelian mean that combines the insights of both.

Hegel writes, “Skepticism is the realization of that of which Stoicism is merely the notion, and is the actual experience of what freedom of thought is…. [I]ndependent existence or permanent determinateness has, in contrast to that reflexion, dropped as a matter of fact out of the infinitude of thought” (Baillie trans., p. 246). “Skeptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self…. [This] consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this melée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved…. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an entirely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder” (pp. 248-249).

Harris comments, “[T]he Stoics had to be taught by the Sceptics that no Vorstellung [representation] (not even that of the great cosmic cycle) could comprehend Erscheinung [appearance]” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 393). “[Skepticism] knows that ‘language is truer’… than the simple assumption that truth is the name of an extralinguistic Sache [thing or content]” (ibid).

“The Sceptic ideal is to be untroubled in the face of the sensory flux. Sceptical reason tells us not to worry about what we cannot help” (ibid). But “Far from behaving like one who is undisturbed, [Carneades] enjoys being an active disturber; and on the practical side his life has to be controlled by the felt motive actually present at a given moment” (p. 394). “Achieving ‘suspension of judgment’, by setting whatever contingent arguments one can discern in the whirl against those that someone else offers, is a cheat. The Sceptic lives in the world, and allows himself to be guided by senses which he says we ought not to trust” (ibid).

“Every effort the Stoic makes to realize his freedom is tantamount to a serf’s fantasy that he really owns the land” (p. 395). “The Sceptic is a laughing sage because he has the Stoic to laugh at. We laugh at both of them” (ibid).

“[The Skeptic] has not recognized that the [self] he identifies with is only a formal ideal by which the concretely actual self can measure itself. Nobody is that ideal self. No finite consciousness can be that self (by definition). There is no Lord walking the earth: not the one that the serf fears; not the Stoic who thinks he is free; and not the Sceptic who knows what thinking is, and what it is not” (p. 396).

Freedom of Self-Consciousness?

“[Stoicism] is a freedom which can come on the scene as a general form of the world’s spirit only in a time of universal fear and bondage, a time, too, when mental cultivation is universal, and has elevated culture to the level of thought” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 245).

Why is it that the Phenomenology talks about Stoicism and Skepticism but not about Plato and Aristotle, whom Hegel regarded as “humanity’s greatest teachers”? The Phenomenology is a quite different undertaking from Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy, where he made the latter remark. Although it partly follows a development in time, it is mainly concerned with a backward-looking perspective on stages leading to the formation of a new shape of spirit Hegel optimistically sees emerging.

Spirit for Hegel belongs to all of us, not just great philosophers. He is aiming to talk about social development, particularly of his own culture. Modern Europe grew up from the ashes of the Roman empire, already far removed from the world of the Greek city-states. The Roman empire was indeed a “time of universal fear and bondage”. In relation to the emperor, everyone else was like a serf.

Stoicism was actually the first Western philosophy to have widespread social influence. Hegel implicitly connects the Stoic emphasis on reason and reasonableness with the development of Understanding he discussed earlier. Stoicism historically propounded a theory of complete determination in the world, alternating between physicalistic accounts and appeals to the will and reason of a supreme deity.

Hegel’s treatment of Stoicism here is very brief, very abstract, and expressed in something closer to the language of Fichte than to that of the Stoics themselves. “Stoicism” is said to realize a kind of Freedom, but it is only an “abstract” freedom of Understanding in relation to its representations, not affecting life. The Stoic sage aimed to achieve a kind of indifference to pain and adversity through detachment from worldly concerns and identification with the completeness of God’s plan. Unlike Hegel’s serf, the Stoic is supposed to have no fear of death.

“The freedom of self-consciousness [here] is indifferent toward natural existence…. [T]his lacks the concrete filling of life. It is, therefore, merely the notion of freedom, not living freedom itself” (ibid). Hegel is not wrong to associate this indifference with an abstract kind of freedom.

The figure of “Stoicism” stands for a perspective that is like that of the serf in its relation to life and the world, but like that of the lord in the separate interiority of its own thought. Hegel regards this split perspective as a kind of alienation.

Here he also suggests a notion of Thought as concerned with pure distinction that is basically unrelated to historical Stoicism.

Harris in his commentary writes, “For the [Stoic] Sage organic life is a servitude, towards which she should be indifferent. If that indifference is threatened, if the freedom of thought is physically denied to her, she can herself deny nature and die freely. She is the lord’s consciousness in the serf’s situation” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 385). “When she is asked for the criterion of truth and virtue she can produce nothing but analytically true statements: ‘The True is the Divine Reason’, ‘Virtue is living according to Reason’, ‘Happiness is living in accordance with Nature’. So the Stoic wisdom never makes us any wiser, but we do get bored” (p. 387).

Nonetheless “Something begins with Stoicism that comes to its climax in the Phenomenology. The Stoic logos, the spark of divine Reason recognizable in each of us, is an individuality which must both display itself as living in its action (Handeln) and grasp (fassen) the world as a system of thought…. Only the advent of the Gospel will provide the requisite account in thought itself for the ‘expansion’ (Ausbreitung) of individuality as alive in action, and comprehensive of the living world as a system in its thinking” (ibid).

To comprehend the living world as a “system” (i.e., to interpret the actual world as a coherent but unfinished whole) is vastly different from simply asserting or propounding a world-view that is “systematic” in some abstract sense.

I would emphasize that Aristotle already closely approached Hegel’s ideal of a living unity here, and greatly influenced his formulation of it. The difference is that Stoicism, Christianity, and Hegel all put more emphasis on what might be called our abstract equality before God. Aristotle too recognized that all “rational animals” have the same abstract potential for reason and ethical being, but his ethics put great emphasis on distinguishing different degrees of actualization, or what we practically succeed in doing with our potential and our values. Hegel combines an Aristotelian emphasis on concrete actualization as a criterion in value judgments with Kant’s stronger universalization of Aristotelian friendship-like respect for other rational beings, which has a historically Christian source.

Toward Self-Consciousness

The Force and Understanding chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology concludes with two sections I find particularly difficult.

In the first, the supersensible in comparison with the world of appearances is treated as a sort of “inverted world” where negation and universality rather than concrete form play the main role in intelligibility as law. The subsequent return to the world of appearances that explains it as law-governed and takes us back to positive things again is then described as a “second inversion”.

According to Harris in his commentary, Hegel wants to establish that the formal necessity of mathematics is insufficient to account for the rationality of experience. The Understanding wants to explain everything in terms of force, including the Understanding itself. All the movement of explanation is in the Understanding. Hegel argues that the explanation of necessity in the world turns out to presuppose free activity in the Understanding. The fixing of distinctions Hegel meanwhile associates with sensuous representation as distinct from the supersensible.

In the second, what Hegel wants to call a kind of infinity emerges from Understanding’s looking at the world of appearances as a law-governed but constantly moving and restless whole that is unconditioned by anything other than itself.

Harris notes that this infinity is a result. Because infinity or the absolute is a result rather than a starting point, Hegel is able to say that the old neoplatonic problem of how the Many emerge from the One does not arise for him. Harris says Hegel is here making an Aristotelian response to Plotinus.

“Our approach to this problem has shown that Unity and Multiplicity are logically internal to one another, that the real Infinite must embrace the finite because the Infinite is precisely the raising of finitude to Infinity. This is how we can express the significance of the ‘second inversion’ in the speculative-theological terminology of finite and Infinite” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 303).

Because the Understanding wants to explain everything and everything includes itself, its own momentum pushes it toward self-consciousness. At this stage, what Hegel will call the Concept with a capital “C” — which will become the new continuum, folded upon itself, between subject and object, that displaces the substantiality of both in their separate forms — has yet to emerge. Hegel says that for the Understanding, what plays the role of the Concept is the Understanding itself.

Harris says “The human desire to know — to understand the situation we are in — is the most primitive way in which the Absolute is with us from the start…. The world of which the true Infinite really is the ‘soul’ is the world of our quest for the absolute truth. Our quest itself is the ‘spirit’ — the self-consciousness — of that living soul…. The understanding intelligence is the self-consciousness of the unconditioned universal that it contemplates.”

“The Understanding remains naive in its self-enjoyment; it keeps positive and negative, attraction and repulsion, all separate from one another, and from itself. It knows nothing of the ‘second inversion’. But the comprehension of the necessary relation a priori of the opposite moments of all its concepts is what the Understanding is, because it moves continually from the organized appearance to its concepts, and back again” (pp. 303-304).

“The theoretical Understanding has the whole world before it as an object. In the ‘second inversion’ it becomes aware of itself as the positing activity for the whole cycle that moves from perception (the ‘play of forces’) to the natural order as ‘Law’. But now that ‘free self’ (the ‘distinguishing of the undistinguished’) actually distinguishes itself and asserts its independence, without having any consciousness of the cycle from which it has logically emerged. It will discover by experience what the Fichtean philosophical Ego cannot help knowing from the first: ‘that this distinct [self] is not distinct’. It will make this discovery many times, in different ‘shapes’, before it returns finally to the practical comprehension of its identity with the ‘Infinite'” (pp. 305-306; brackets and italics in original).

“The truth for us… is that the universal concept of Force (or Necessity) has become the universal concept of Life (or the ‘true Infinite’ as living Freedom). But if we look at what has happened from the point of view of Understanding itself, two worlds have come into being. There is the world of Necessity which the Understanding wants to construct, but can never be sure that it has successfully duplicated; and the world of its own intellectual activity. In this second world it experiences itself as a free motion. It does not know that these two worlds are moments of one Concept, which is equally the objective world and itself as intelligence. But it does know, necessarily, that it is alive and free in the world of necessity that appears to it. It still has to discover that it is identically what appears. But it knows that it is what is appeared to” (p. 307).

“[F]rom the conscious certainty that the Understanding has of its eternal truth, we have thus come back to the certainty of the peasant-wife that this farmyard and these cows are hers. We know now, why she would not come with us on our theoretical odyssey. She was the self at home in its world; and that meant that she already knew something that we were ignoring. Truth, we thought, is an absolute object. It cannot belong to anyone. Frau Bauer, on the other hand, realized that in order to know anything one must be alive” (p. 318). (Later, it will also turn out that we were right that truth cannot belong to anyone.)

“As the implications of my identification with another self-consciousness which exemplifies what I want to be are unpacked, we shall discover that the supposedly ‘supersensible’ world is the real present world that we live in; or that ‘the spirit’ is the real substantiality of our sense-experience” (p. 335).

Consciousness in Locke and Hegel

It is not unreasonable to broadly associate the notion of consciousness invented and promoted by Locke with the “Consciousness” whose inadequacies are exposed across the development of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is probably not clear from my very selective recent mention of Locke, which was focused on his novel approach to personal identity rather than his overall empiricist theory of knowledge, to which I have not done justice either. In addition, Hegel abstracts away Locke’s very prominent emphasis on what he called “ideas”, which are mental representations that Locke takes to be simply given to us in experience. Hegel is able to do this because what Locke calls ideas are supposed to transparently convey whatever they are supposed to represent.

In Hegel’s version, a naive standpoint of everyday “consciousness” is presented as understanding itself as confronting ready-made external objects. These, I take it, are among the things that are supposed to be transparently referred to by Locke’s simply given mental representations. The standpoint of Consciousness in Hegel is entirely superseded from the point of view of its self-understanding, but its practical import is substantially preserved, being refined rather than superseded. The identities and natures of things we interact with — even their qualities — are not simply given to us, but things we interact with do constrain us. That is the push-back of reality that we all genuinely engage with, despite our misapprehension of many subtleties.

One of Hegel’s major points is that any valid discussion of human freedom has to take acknowledgement of that push-back of reality as a starting point. This rules out any notion that we could act with complete arbitrariness, as if in a vacuum. One of Hegel’s other major points is that concrete human capabilities are grounded not in a vacuum, but in concrete potentials already implicit in the reality that also pushes back at us.

Locke’s famous (and in my opinion, broadly sound) polemic against innate ideas often overshadows his implicit reliance on a simple givenness of perceptual contents and other items in experience.