Things in Themselves

I never understood why people would object to Kant’s thesis of “things in themselves”, or find it inconsistent with his epistemological scruples. I take this just to mean that there are ways that things are. This is an entirely separate question from whether we have perfect and certain knowledge of those ways. All that is ruled out by Kant’s Critical perspective is claims that we have knowledge of things just as they are in themselves. This just calls for a kind of epistemic modesty.

People who rejected things in themselves included Fichte and the important early 20th century English translator and interpreter of Kant, Norman Kemp Smith, who was sympathetic to the phenomenalism then fashionable among empiricists (see brief discussion under Empiricism).

Hegel too was very critical of the phrase “things in themselves”, mainly because he thought the wording implied a kind of artificial isolation, but he by no means wanted to throw out the realist moment that Kant always wanted to affirm — quite the opposite. Discussions about realism and idealism get rather complicated, especially where Kant and Hegel are concerned, but Kant repeatedly affirmed a kind of empirical realism. I take this to have been a sort of pragmatic vindication of common sense with respect to ordinary experience, coupled with respect for Newtonian science. What Kant and Hegel both objected to — each in their own different terms — were strong traditional metaphysical claims. Whatever their other many differences, commentators are basically unanimous in taking Hegel to have wanted to be at least as “realist” as Kant.

Redding on Morals and Modality

A recent web draft by Australian philosopher Paul Redding — author of a nice introductory book on analytic readings of Hegel — makes quite a few interesting points about Leibniz, Kant, Hegel, J.N. Findley, and modal logic. Findley was an important 20th century philosopher with analytic training who developed a very this-worldly but still metaphysical reading of Hegel, with strong influence from Wittgenstein. Findley’s student Arthur Prior apparently developed an “actualist” alternative to the more common possible worlds approach to modal logic, which latter is usually said to have an antecdent in Leibniz. Redding argues that there is a similarity between Prior’s criticism of modal possible worlds and Hegel’s criticism of Kantian formalism in ethics.

I take the assertions of Leibniz in a more tentative way than Redding seems to, and sharply distinguish between Leibniz and his Wolffian semi-followers. Leibniz’s thought on possible worlds, though, is one of the parts of his work I agree is less attractive, even though I am sympathetic to its motivation as an alternative to theological voluntarism. It seems to me like a beautiful but very extravagant speculation, related to his thoughts on infinity. Leibniz’s youthful co-discovery of the calculus was but one aspect of a lifelong fascination with the new idea of a mathematical infinity. Explicit reliance on the assumption of this kind of “actual infinity” is removed from later presentations of mathematical analysis, which instead carefully talk about differentials and integrals in terms of limits. For what it’s worth, Aristotle argued against any actual infinity, and Hegel called it “bad infinity”.

Redding attributes to Findley criticism of an ethics of rules in favor of an ethics of values. I like this very much in general, but I make a big distinction between rules that would supposedly just tell us what to do (which I find hideous) and higher-order rules like Kant’s categorical imperative, which merely requires that we aim at universality, without presuming to tell us exactly what we should do. While taking Hegel’s criticism of Kantian formalism a bit more literally than I would, Redding nonetheless concludes that Hegel’s position is an extension of Kant’s.

Redding notes Hegel’s complaint against Kant’s advocacy at one point of “duty for duty’s sake”. I find this formula as unappealing as the categorical imperative is salutary. But it turns out that Kantian “duty” is really a stand-in for the kind of absence of material inconsistency that characterizes a unity of apperception. Redding correctly points out that this is hardly the law of non-contradiction in the usual sense, so Kant’s argument is not really like the Wolffians’ attempt to derive a whole metaphysics from that logical law. Redding then attributes to Hegel an emphasis on “actualized Sittlichkeit” as opposed to empty formalism. Hegel may have said the words, but I think this is way too simple. It sounds like some actually existing set of norms just taken at face value. I’d take empty formalism over that any day. (See discussion on Pippin’s concern about positivity in Mutual Recognition.) Unfortunately, Redding also moves from unity of apperception to a Fichtean self-identity of a Subject (“I = I”), from which I want to sharply separate Kant and Hegel.

The idea of building logical modality into the actual world rather talking about quantification over possible worlds seems appealing to me, but I would not want to go so far as to deny potentiality, as Kant seemed to in his more Newtonian moments, to which Redding alludes. I think Hegel went a long way toward recovering something like potentiality.

Aristotelian Subjectivity

If we want to find an analogue in Aristotle for the notion of (transcendental) subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel, the best place to look is in the concept of ethos, rather than in something like soul or intellect, which for Aristotle have more specialized roles. Then, going in the other direction, this Aristotelian point of view centered on ethos helps to clarify and consolidate many of the points Brandom has wanted to make about the mainly normative or ethical import of subjectivity in Kant and Hegel.

Philosophical interest in subjectivity applies especially to the transcendental kind. Traditionally, this has been situated between what was called metaphysics and something like the “rational psychology” classically criticized by Kant. With inspiration from Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I’ve been proposing that the constitution of transcendental subjectivity is instead ethical at root. This seems much more helpful than the traditional version for addressing the human condition and questions of who and what we are. The values we actually live by are far more important for this than claims about the existence of some abstract entity like a personal Subject. Meanwhile, personal identity is better left outside the transcendental sphere, and located instead in our concrete emotional constitution. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Two Kinds of Character; Substance Also Subject.)

The Ambiguity of "Self"

To put it mildly, “self” is said in many ways. To begin with, is it used as a noun, as an adjective, or as an adverb? As a noun, it may refer to an empirical “me”. As an adjective, it may name an abstract, pure reflexivity. It may also be used to adverbially describe something that has recursive structure that depends on details. I’ve always thought adverbs were the part of speech closest to reality.

The contrast between “self” in something like Hegelian self-consciousness and the “self” figuring in my recent Ego post could not be more extreme. Hegel’s use is definitely adverbial; as I have said several times, self-consciousness is anything but direct consciousness of a (noun) “self”. It has more to do with ethical awareness of limitations, and awareness of others. (See also Individuation.)

Categorical Hegel?

I just discovered a book-length nLab web draft with extremely detailed interpretation of Hegel’s Science of Logic into higher category theory and homotopy type theory. (Reading category theory into Hegel was originally suggested by William Lawvere in the 1960s.) A lot of it is way beyond me, but there is much of interest. nLab in general hosts world-class work in math and logic, as well as applications of it to physics and philosophy. Remarks there about historical philosophers are uneven in quality, but a number of them are interesting, and the more mathematical or logical they are, the better the quality gets. The aforementioned draft does reference old, inadequate generalizations about Hegel as “mystical”, but the detail and scope of the interpretation into state-of-the-art mathematics are awe-inspiring. It also includes a nice formalization of Aristotelian logic, which is mathematically much simpler and relatively easy to understand. I previously found a much shorter page there that explicitly mentions Brandom, and connects with his interest in modal logic. (See also Identity, Isomorphism; Categorical “Evil”; Higher Order.)

Suther on Hegel on Freedom

I’m always nervous about strong emphasis on “Freedom” in treatments of German idealism, but recent literature has considerably improved the situation. Jensen Suther in “Hegel’s Logic of Freedom: Towards a ‘Logical Constitutivism’” makes a number of points I would endorse. While his is a “metaphysical” reading, it also owes something to Sellars and Brandom.

Hegelian logic for Suther is “a logic of freedom not only in the sense that it articulates the logic of what it means to be free, but also in the sense that it is a fully free practice of logic, leaving no presupposition uncontested and demanding of thought that it learn to think for itself” (see my The Autonomy of Reason). Suther also says “the only true or intelligible conception of being is one of which the good is taken to be constitutive” (emphasis in original). He recognizes that purposes are not merely subjective. Further, “it is essential to the intelligibility of what is that it be rendered intelligible, that reasons be given and asked for as to why we take things to be as they are”. He also recognizes the positive importance of error. (See also Reasons; Being, Existence; Freedom and Free Will.)

It gets a bit more problematic when he says “rational agency is not something we achieve, but is instead the distinctive form of living beings that are capable of being initiated into a social and historical process of progressive actualization of the potential for agency”. I don’t see why a distinctive form cannot also be something achieved. He seems mainly concerned to deny that it is an individual achievement, a view he attributes to Robert Pippin. I would agree that rational agency is at least as much a historical achievement as an individual one, but every human qua rational/talking animal or even just every modern person is not thereby a full-fledged rational agent. To be a rational animal (or to be sapient in Brandom’s sense) is just to be capable of being initiated, etc., to borrow Suther’s words quoted above.

In the Aristotelian commentary tradition, al-Farabi (10th century CE) and others explicitly developed a notion of a distinct form of acquired intellect, such that being “acquired” was considered key to the distinctness of that form. (Intellect for al-Farabi was at root more cosmic than cultural, but that is not the point here.) Only second-nature things could be of an acquired kind. The “acquired” status was part of an elaboration of several structural degrees of actualization. A classic example would be someone who has already learned something, say geometry, but is not currently using it. Actualization of intellect only advances to the further degree of “active” by being in use, as when the geometer is busy proving a theorem.

Suther generalizes about “the neo-Aristotelians”, referencing John McDowell and Robert Stern. I appreciate it when people like McDowell make significant positive references to Aristotle, but McDowell is hardly a full-blooded Aristotelian. According to Suther, what counts as freedom for McDowell and Stern is something given in advance. Suther calls this a neo-Aristotelian position. I don’t think Aristotle considered anything to be “given in advance”. He was the original emergentist.

Suther has a great quote from Hegel that “there is nothing degrading about being alive”, and a nice emphasis on the unity of life and knowing. For me, this comes back to the way second nature positively builds on first nature, rather than standing in opposition to it. Suther, though, seems to think there is something essential about death, fear, anxiety, and pain. While these are not entirely absent in Hegel, in this respect Suther’s reading seems influenced by early Heidegger. Contra Heidegger, I would cite Spinoza’s “the philosopher thinks of nothing less than of death”. I prefer Brandom’s explanation of the struggle to the death in the Phenomenology as a dramatic extreme example of a much more general concept of commitment to what we hold dear as willingness to sacrifice something else for it.

Why Brandom's Hegel?

Brandom offers us an ethically oriented Hegel, read as anticipating many 20th and 21st century concerns. He provides an ethical path to overcoming the separation of subject and object.

Importantly, Brandom’s Hegel even turns out to have anticipated the main concerns of the 1960s French anti-Hegelians, while standing untouched by their criticism. He turns out to be the original critic of mastery and totalization; never uses subjectivity as an unexplained explainer; and claims no forward-moving historical teleology.

While Brandom’s approach to Hegel involves more original philosophical development than historical scholarship, I nonetheless believe based on my own independent reading that with a few caveats on nonessential points, it is historiographically sound. (That is far from saying it is the only valid or interesting interpretation; historiographical soundness just means that a reasonable case can be made.) At any rate, I find it both sound and tremendously inspiring.