Problems of Immediacy

Returning now to Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, he continues his chapter on Hegel’s “logic of being” by raising problems he associates with what Hegel calls mediated immediacy. I would alternatively characterize these as mainly having to do with ambiguities about what we mean by “immediacy” in a “logical” context.

Apparent immediacy plays a large role in experience, but on closer examination I think there it always turns out to be already mediated. So what does pure immediacy even mean in the logical context? My impression at this point is that it is only a failed beginning that creates a problem that motivates further development. I’m still not really used to this idea of taking a complete failure as a beginning, still at least partly holding on to the prejudice that we could not have a legitimate beginning without at least getting something right. (But see also Error.)

Pippin quotes Hegel saying there is “nothing in heaven or nature or spirit or anywhere else that does not contain just as much immediacy as mediation, so that both these determinations prove to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them nothing real” (p. 197).

As he notes, this rules out any “two-step” interpretation of the relation between immediacy and mediation. Hegel cannot be saying that first we have something purely immediate, and then later some mediation is added to it.

The apparent moment of Parmenides’ saying of pure Being was already characterized as a failed thought. In the quote above, Hegel is in effect saying that the moment of pure Parmenidean Being could never really occur. That does not prevent him from nonetheless treating it as a “logical” moment. To paraphrase part of the corresponding part of the Encyclopedia Logic, being is the merely implicit form of the concept; when the concept is made explicit and actual, it “abolishes” the (purported) immediacy of being, or the (purported) form of being as such.

It also seems that all the subsequent logical “movement” will have always already occurred. Hegel’s Logic follows something like an Aristotelian teleological ordering by hypothetical necessity for Kantian conditions of possibility, not the kind of sequential ordering characteristic of the passage of time.

Pippin quotes Hegel’s statement in the Encyclopedia Logic that “Immediacy of knowledge is so far from excluding mediation, that the two things are linked together — immediate knowledge being actually the product and result of mediated knowledge” (p. 198).

This last perspective is what I think of first as the meaning of mediated immediacy. It is like the ability to ride a bicycle — once we have learned it, it is transparent and effortless. Similarly, we recognize complex objects at a glance, once we have learned to do so. (See also Meaningful “Seeing”.)

All these statements by Hegel seem very reasonable and in accordance with experience. But he also says it is “easy to show” (p. 197) that the beginning of philosophy can be neither something immediate nor something mediated. I am more used to saying that we always begin in the middle, that there is no true beginning; or that every beginning has an element of arbitrariness, and will eventually be superseded, and it is the development that matters.

Perhaps Hegel really means the beginning can be neither purely immediate nor purely mediated. But it seems to me that for Hegel, pure thought, pure negativity, and “otherness” are purely mediated. If the context were an account of experience, it makes sense that none of these could be a beginning either, since none of them directly occur in experience. But even though we are in a purely “logical” context, Hegel still seems to disallow these options, and does not seem to clearly explain why.

Maybe the reference here to the beginning of philosophy is meant as a step outside the purely logical context, but the second edition of this part of the Logic was one of Hegel’s last works (1831), and by then Hegel was explicitly presenting his logic as the “first” part of his philosophy.

That the beginning cannot be immediate we have already seen. The failed duality of Being and Nothing that Hegel placed at the beginning seems to conclusively show that any notion of “pure” immediacy as a sort of foundation is a dead end.

My first thought is that Hegel again wants to assert that in experience, mediation and immediacy come always already mixed together, and again in experience, pure mediation with no component of immediacy ought to be just as unthinkable as pure immediacy. My second thought is that pure immediacy has no logical role to play at all. My third thought is that he continues to talk about immediacy anyway, largely because immediacy was given a privileged status by the followers of Schelling and Jacobi, against whom he polemicizes in the Preface to the Phenomenology.

My fourth, tentative thought is that maybe even though pure immediacy itself has no logical role, the failed reflective thought of it still might. My fifth thought is that maybe what Hegel is doing here should be understood as beginning with the logical impossibility of foundationalism — which is after all a common enough kind of explicit or implicit claim about beginnings — as a kind of prerequisite for the Logic‘s real work of showing the conditions that make intelligibility and normativity possible.

According to Pippin, Hegel further complicates the picture by saying (again in the Encyclopedia Logic) that “thinking is the negation of something immediately given” (quoted, p. 199), “even though in the same paragraph he denies that these moments are ever distinct and insists that they are always ‘inseparably bound together'” (ibid). The first part could be taken to suggest a before-after relation that the second part denies. I think the answer has to be that the first part should not be taken that way; the emphasis there is on thinking as negation in Hegel’s special sense. Elsewhere he calls thinking a “pure negativity”, and suggests that at least some the senses of the “negativity” of thought are actually non-transitive, so the language here about a negation of something could be just a figure of speech conforming to the expectation of common sense.

According to Pippin, the failed duality of Being and Nothing, “now that… we can understand what Hegel means by considering thinking itself as a negating, will assume a very general importance. It is the duality between mediation and immediacy, differentiation and unity, and form and what is formed, and amounts to the core argument of the Logic (the inseparability yet distinguishabilty of these moments” (p. 194, emphasis added).

Pippin seems much more worried than I am about the status of what Hegel calls “mediated immediacy”, which I have taken to be Hegel’s name for the inseparable mixtures we actually encounter.

“[Mediated immediacy] is obviously problematic in its very formulation. If any such immediacy is to be considered as mediated, then it is not immediate. A canceled event is not a kind of happening, a kind of event. The event did not happen. A mediated immediacy is no longer an immediacy…. [The] argument has ruled out… any… two-step account. So the problem is not merely how there can be distinguishable but not separably occurring elements in some whole, like, say, pitch and timbre in a musical note…. The problem is how the logical or conceptual character of this relation between activity and receptivity is to be understood, if not in this stepwise way. Hegel’s formulations of the problem seem to take delight in forcing the issue into terms that are initially bewildering” (p. 197).

I don’t think there are any events in the Logic, which seems instead to be about conditions and dependencies of possible thought and judgment.

All experiencing seems to involve an element of immediacy, and all experience involving anything contentful seems to involve mediation (and there seems to be no experiencing that that does not involve something contentful).

Pure thought, I think Hegel wants to say, includes no passive or immediate element, but no experience consists in pure thought alone. Every concrete actualization of thought involves more than thought alone. Also, we can think about pure thought, but we never experience it in its pure form. The Logic, however, is concerned with what is thinkable rather than with experience.

The inseparability of immediacy and mediation fits well with a perspective of Aristotelian hylomorphism, which Pippin has been arguing Hegel uses to re-interpret the apparent dualities in Kant. Helpful as this is, Pippin suggests that it is in basic tension with Kant’s insistence on the entirely active character of thought, which Hegel wants to preserve. I have not yet gotten to his resolution of this issue.

On the one hand, Aristotelian hylomorphism helps solve Kantian problems: “In even the simplified and misleading ‘impositionist’ interpretation of Kant that is so common, we will not be able to explain the determination of what to impose if we hold to… an exclusive disjunction [between sensible intuition and thought]” (p. 207). “Every determinate judgment must also involve a reflective determination of which concept to apply, and every reflective search for a concept must already proceed from a particular sufficiently determinate to warrant the judgment for one rather than another” (p. 208).

On the other hand, Pippin recalls “the Kantian innovation perhaps more important than any other: that thinking is discursive, is not itself open to the world in any direct way…. There is no lumen naturale [natural light (of reason)], no nous pathetikos [passive intellect], no Jacobi-esque flash of insight” (p. 207).

This means that “The claim that ‘matter’, in whatever logical register, is to be understood as always enformed and that form is always being enmattered cannot in Kantian terms be leading back to a position that sensible intuiting is a kind of thinking, and thinking is a kind of intuiting, as if along a continuum” (p. 205).

This too seems right. Hylomorphism is wonderful and many things have hylomorphic relations, but thinking and intuiting as such do not form a hylomorphic pair.

For one thing, intuition is only relevant at the empirical level, having to do with experience and how things seem, but the same is not true of thought.

Also, Kantian intuition does not have the right shape for the Aristotelian identity of thought and what it thinks to apply to it. Intuition is rather intuition of something that is transcendent to it. In Hegelian terms, intuition always refers to something “positive” that is opaque to thought.

On the other hand, Hegel seems to claim that his unique formulation of pure thought as purely negative ought to be the perfect shape to be identical to what it thinks, because in being purely “negative” it refers to no opaque element, and is only a pure immanence to itself or — as was said in connection with apperceptive judgment — a pure self-relation or self-referentiality.

I believe the experience of thinking and the experience of intuition do form a continuum. The Logic, however, is not about experience or empirical things, but about “transcendental” conditions of possibility.

Pippin hints that mediated immediacy will turn out to be intimately connected to the notion of reflective judgment that Kant developed in his later Critique of Judgment. Kantian reflective judgment is ancestral to the notion of apperceptive judgment that Pippin finds to be a major theme of Hegel’s Logic.

He also makes the promising suggestion that the solution to the problem of mediated immediacy will look something like the Hegelian use of actuality in ethics (see Hegel on Willing):

“[I]n the same way that we can imagine that the determination of a person’s character from his deeds, from the immediate appearances, is not a once-and-for-all determination, but a reflective determination always attentive to future deeds and so an expanded or revised ‘essence’, and therewith an expanded or revised interpretation of deeds as typical or untypical, we can also imagine that in both logical and empirical determinations of conceptual content, this process or movement can be better considered as a kind of oscillation…, and we will have at least a sketch of how the matter seems to Hegel” (p. 210).

Pippin notes that Hegel in a remark to the section of the Encyclopedia Logic on pure Being calls it “the logical version of the general problem of sensory consciousness” (p. 196) that he treated in the early chapters of the Phenomenology.

He says that in the corresponding part of the Phenomenology, Hegel’s argument is meant to show “the impossibility of any model of experiential knowledge that is understood to be based on a foundation that consists simply in the direct sensory presence of the world to the mind, a putative consciousness of a content that is contentful just by being passively apprehended, contentful on its own, in no relation to any other or any remembered content. By imagining such a model and showing that it has some inner incoherence or necessarily raises a question that cannot be answered in its terms, Hegel shows that the possibility of any such determination requires a capacity beyond mere differential responsiveness, a capacity that, among other things, allows a perceiver to track, keep attending to, any such content over time, and that allows the perceiver to fulfill a condition of such determinacy: that the differentiability of such content from what is other than it be possible. This is supposed to establish the impossibility of any epistemological atomism, and to undermine any idea of a strict separability between our sensible and intellectual faculties. This is so because fulfilling these conditions on experiential determinacy requires, he wants to show, the exercise of spontaneous conceptual capacities in perception itself. This is not at all in any way a denial of our reliance on direct sensible contact with objects in gaining empirical knowledge, or a denial of the difference between sensible and intellectual capacities. It is meant as a denial that such sensory receptivity can properly play its role in the model of empirical knowledge all on its own, conceived as independent of, or prior to, as he would say, any conceptual mediation” (ibid; see also Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True).

It might seem surprising that Hegel sees an analogy between the attitude of “sense certainty” and the metaphysical claims of Parmenides about Being, which run contrary to all experience. But he analyzes both as assertions of an undifferentiated immediacy that is still supposed to tell us something, and he responds to both cases by pointing out that all meaningful saying depends on differentiation.

Being the One Acting

Another passing doubt in my reading of Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows came up when he said something along the lines of “I know I am the one acting because I am the one acting”. This certainly captures an intuitive feeling that I have too, but on reflection it seems to rely on what I would call an appearance of inner sense.

With Aristotle I call all inner immediacy an appearance of inner sense. Then my Platonic instincts say that no appearance qualifies as knowledge.

Does Pippin mean to suggest that Hegel — “that great foe of immediacy” — believes in a sort of immediate self-knowledge of individuals via the identification of thinking and being? But he pointed out that Hegel’s German selbst is strictly an adverbial modifier that has no dual usage as a substantive noun, the way “self” does in English. What he wrote in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy seems at odds with this as well.

Pippin has argued that thought for Hegel is inherently self-referential. I think I want to affirm this, but the relational “self” of self-referentiality and unity of apperception is not the immediately contentful, more noun-like empirical “self” of me and mine (see The Ambiguity of “Self”), which I think we experience through the medium of Aristotelian/Kantian imagination rather than thought. Pippin’s remark with which I began seems to blur the line between transcendental self (-referentiality) and empirical self. The relation between transcendental and empirical “self” is one of neither isomorphism nor hylomorphism, I want to say. Something like what Plato called “mixing” does seem to occur in experience, but how to characterize it is a very difficult question.

Aristotle used episteme (knowledge as rationally articulable) and gnosis (direct personal familiarity) in contrasting ways, but it is common to see them both rendered to English as “knowledge”, as if they were interchangeable. With Hegel too we have to be careful, because multiple German words get translated by English “knowledge”.

Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited

My previous article on this was a bit narrow, focused only on an Aristotelian analogue for the sort of “transcendental” subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel. Of course, the whole field of “subjectivity” is much broader than that, and properly transcendental subjectivity has little to do with the empirical subjectivity that we have in mind when we call something “subjective”. Here I’d like to begin to round out the picture. (In the background, I’m also imagining what Aristotle might say in response to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

It is in fact something of a truism that none of the Greeks had a modern concept of the human “subject”. The closest (still distant) analogue is what gets conventionally translated by the etymologically related term “substance” in Aristotle. The elementary notion of substance as a literally existing logical/syntactic substrate for properties –“something underlying something else” — from the Categories was influentially referred to by Heidegger as “subjectity” (intended to stand in constrast to “subjectivity“).

The explanatory role of a literal notion of substrate is raised again in the Metaphysics. Aristotle says the most obvious candidate for a substrate of things is matter. But then he goes on to deconstruct and ultimately discard the whole notion that the most important kind of explanation of things involves reference to a literal substrate. Form — identified with essence or definition, and “what it was to have been” a thing — is then developed as providing more fundamental explanation than any substrate; then form itself is given a deeper explanation in terms of actuality and potentiality.

But neither the elementary account of “something underlying” in the Categories nor the sophisticated discussion in the Metaphysics makes any reference at all to the sentience and agency that are equally fundamental to modern notions of a human “subject”.

Separate from all of this, Aristotle identifies humans as those animals that have language and the ability to reason, which he considers as depending on language. I have argued that the main resource for an implicit notion of transcendental subjectivity in Aristotle is actually his ethical writings. The treatise on the “soul” (psyche) deals with bodily growth, nutrition, movement, and reproduction; with sense perception and imagination; and also with thought, which he refers to as coming to the soul “from outside”. Related treatises address memory and dreams. Human emotions, on the other hand, he deals with not in the “psychological” treatises but rather in the Rhetoric. The context in which Aristotle treats emotion is thus social and communicative rather than inward-looking. He also treats a kind of emotional maturity as a prerequisite for ethical development. He has a refined and well-differentiated notion of situated agency and ethical responsibility, but lacks the obsession with identity shown by many later authors.

I want to suggest that the “whatness” of subjectivity-forms — whether empirical or transcendental — is far more interesting and practically relevant than the supposed abstract “existence” of subject or substrate entities. This is true regardless of whether we are dealing with empirical or transcendental subjectivity. In Heideggerian terms, I want to decouple subjectivity from presumptions of subjectity.

As regards the Aristotelian soul, in Naissance du Sujet (volume 1 of Archeologie du Sujet), Alain de Libera lists four recent analytic interpretations: 1) the psyche is identical to the body; 2) the psyche is an attribute of the body; 3) the body “constitutes” the psyche; 4) the psyche is an immaterial substance. Actually, none of these seems to me to adequately capture Aristotle’s hylomorphism, or notion of the complementarity of “form” and “matter” (neither of which individually means quite what it might seem to, either — see above links). I am also sympathetic to the reading that Aristotelian matter is a relative concept, so that something could be the material for something else that is in turn material for another thing. Something similar, I think, could be said of form.

The relation of soul to body is clearly presented as an instance of the relation of form to matter, though it seems that the relation of form to matter may be different in different cases. In any case I do not think the form/matter relation is intended as an instance of the substance/accident relation. (The notion of “substantial form” was an original development of the Latin medieval tradition, not found in Aristotle, and the bits I understand of the medieval debate on unity or multiplicity of substantial forms further complicate the picture. The key to this whole territory is to understand that there are very many highly distinct and sophisticated positions in the tradition on issues of this sort.)

A further complication involves the relation between “soul” and the “intellect” that “comes from without”, which has a long and fascinating history in the commentary tradition, extending from Alexander of Aphrodisias through the Arabic tradition to the Latin tradition of Albert the Great.

The great Arabic commentator Averroes was apparently the first to ask what is the “subject”, in the substrate sense, of human thought. He came up with the novel suggestion that individual human thought has two such “subjects”: one belonging to the soul that is involved with the body and perception, and one that is an immaterial source of concepts, belongs to the whole human community, gains content over time, and would cease to exist if there were no more humans.

Another intriguing complication in the historical Western tradition is the clear stance taken by Augustine that human mind, soul, or spirit should definitely not be taken as a subject in the substrate sense, e.g., for knowledge or love.

Aristotelian Actualization

Having just concluded a series broadly on the actualization of freedom in Hegel, I’d like to say a few words on the Aristotelian roots of the important concept of actualization. A discussion of actualization is arguably the centerpiece of Aristotle’s diverse lecture notes related to first philosophy placed by the editor “after the physics”, which came to be traditionally called Metaphysics. From that discussion, actualization is clearly a process, and comes in degrees.

Aristotle also made the pregnant remark that while what he called soul is the “first actuality” or “activity” of the body (associated with its life), intelligence or reason (associated especially with language and ethics) is a kind of second actuality of a human being.

For all Aristotle’s praise of the soul, unlike Plato he did not treat it as an independent substance. It is only the hylomorphic unity of soul and body that gets this key designation. As I read him, things like soul and intellect are complex adverbial and ultimately normative characterizations expressing how we function and act in relation to ends. They are made into nouns only as a matter of convenience.

Aristotle distinguished stages of actualization. In a famous example, an unschooled youth has the potential to learn geometry. Someone who has already acquired an understanding of geometry has the potential to use it. This is an intermediate degree of actualization. In someone who is actively using such an understanding in work on a proof, there is said to be a higher degree of actualization.

This already suggests a kind of process of development that is not reducible to the model of simple organic growth (in which Aristotle was also quite interested). Rather, he approaches such developments in terms of his notion of dialectical inquiry or cumulative exploratory reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty, which in my view is the essential kernel from which Hegel’s very extensive original (and sometimes confusing) development of “dialectic” proceeded.

Commentators on Aristotle like Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century CE) and al-Farabi (10th century CE) further refined this notion of degrees of actualization, especially with regard to intelligence or reason. In the Latin tradition, this was taken up especially by the school of Albert the Great. These writers tended to hypostatize intellect as something transcendent or even divine to which the human soul could nonetheless become progressively “joined”, approximating something like the seamless hylomorphic unity of soul and body. But it is possible to put such claims of strong transcendence in brackets, while focusing on the detailed dialectical development of notions of progressive mixture, layers, and stages. These medieval notions of layered actualization seem to lead in a very different and more interesting direction than the tedious cliché of the “Great Chain of Being”.

Be that as it may, the essential point is that in Aristotle himself, actualization is discussed dialectically rather than in terms of organic growth. (See also Actuality; Second Nature; Parts of the Soul; Intelligence from Outside; Fortunes of Aristotle.)

Ricoeur on Embodiment

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

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

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

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

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


Hylomorphism refers to the fact that Aristotelian form and matter are found in a pair, are only analytically distinguishable, and have no separate existence. This is utterly different from a dualism such as the Augustinian one between a separately constituted soul and body, or the Cartesian one between mind and matter. Form and matter — an active way of being and its contingent situatedness — are so deeply interwoven that one cannot be empirically picked out from the other. I think something similar applies to substance and accident. At the end of the day, the distinction is only analytical. (See also Purpose, Contingency.)