Idealism?

The next stop in our odyssey through Hegel’s Phenomenology is a discussion of “Idealism”, which Harris in his commentary associates especially with Fichte. Though Kant is sometimes called a “German Idealist”, he never simply characterized his views as idealist, and often used the term in a negative way. It was Fichte who mainly gave “Idealism” a positive sense. Because of the extreme subject-centeredness of his better known early works he is easy to caricature, but recent scholarship shows him to be a serious and interesting philosopher in spite of that. Paul Ricoeur also saw value in his work.

Hegel says “Now because, in this way, the pure essential being of things, as well as their aspect of difference, belongs to reason, we can, strictly speaking, no longer talk of things at all, i.e. of something which would only be present to consciousness by negatively opposing it” (p. 277). Here the qualification “strictly speaking” is essential.

Without questioning the relevance of the ready-made objects of common sense to everyday life, Kant had already decisively shown the weakness of attempts to treat objects as philosophically foundational. As Hegel put it, Perception in discerning identifiable objects still takes the immediate presentations of Sense Certainty largely for granted.

The most distinctive feature of Fichte’s early work was his concentration on a rational “I”. This already distinguishes him from garden-variety subjectivism, which subordinates everything else to a particular empirical “I”. Kant had contrasted a moral ideal of reason with the effective subjectivism of a particular “I”. Fichte boldly asserted that what really deserves to be called “I” is actually a universal, rational “I” and not the particular “I” of my wants. Fichte’s “I” just is a concretely instantiated reflexivity of pure Reason, to which he claims we all in principle have access.

It is this notion of a concretely instantiated reflexivity of Reason that Hegel takes up here. From Hegel’s point of view, this rational “I” is a big step forward, but still very abstract and in need of further development.

Harris in his commentary contrasts this with the point of view of the Unhappy Consciousness, and suggests that Hegel at least in part wants to suggest that the point of view of “Reason” has a historical connection to the religious perspective of Luther and the Protestant Reformation, as distinct from the Catholic tradition. This is consistent with Hegel’s valorization of Luther elsewhere, which seems to me to reflect a somewhat one-sided charity of interpretation. Hegel contrasts a greater attribution of authority to the Church and its human representatives in the Catholic tradition with a more self-determining direct personal relation to God and the Bible in the Protestant tradition, and wants to connect the latter with what he sees as the self-determining character of Reason. This is not without some validity, but ignores the fact that Luther’s point of view has also been a wellspring of fundamentalisms that have nothing to do with reason or good ethics.

Harris also connects the point of view of “Reason” with the scientific revolution (p. 456). “Hegel is using the terminology of Critical Idealism (Kant and Fichte) for what the consciousness that we are observing expressed in the language of Bacon and Descartes” (p. 455). “From the historical references that Hegel gives, it is clear that ‘Reason’ comes on the scene before ‘Idealism’; and it appears immediately as the certainty of being all reality” (p. 456). This abstract, “dogmatic” Reason has “forgotten” the long previous development we have been following.

“[P]rimitive self-consciousness does not really want any definite object at all; it just wants to get its own way about whatever objective occurs to it…. This self just wants to be master” (p. 457). In contrast, “the Stoic regards those who do not dwell in the light of Reason, as brothers and sisters nonetheless — sparks of the same divine fire…. But their goals are irrational… For the consciousness of ‘Reason’, on the other hand, every goal it can recognize at all, it recognizes as reasonable” (ibid).

“The great critical reasoner, Kant, declared that they are all dogmatists, and that their disagreements must continue forever, until they admit that Reason cannot say what is in any absolute sense” (ibid). But nonetheless “The Phenomenology aims to validate Kant’s hope by showing how the dialectic of Pure Reason [of which those disagreements are a symptom] can be overcome” (p. 459).

“Reflective Reason must begin again with Sense-Certainty, at the extreme of the ‘It is’, and traverse once more the forgotten path to self-possession…. But Fichte’s idealism will reveal itself as an error that turns round into a much higher truth than the philosophy of nature can give us…. ‘Idealism’ is handled almost as sarcastically as Stoicism was, and for the same reason: it has only a formal truth. But that formal truth is the actual concept of Spirit” (p. 460).

“My forgotten history is myself; it is the substance, or foundation, of my subjectivity…. It is the objective self from which self-conscious singular Reason has emerged, because the logical destiny, or the rational Bestimmung [calling] of the Spirit, is to be cognizant of what it has been. In the light of that cognizance we shall finally be able to know the not-self (in which subjective Reason will here strive unsuccessfully to find itself) as the necessary ‘otherness’ of my ‘absolute’ self” (p. 461).

“Reason is ‘all reality and all truth’ in the sense that it is the categorical structure and motion of all experience. In its moving aspect, Reason itself is ‘singular’. There is more to it than purely universal categories, because it is active, it is a principle of change in the world” (p. 464).

“As a ‘schema’ — an intellectual ‘middle’ between ‘thought’ and ‘sense’ — the thinking ego necessarily refers… to the world of experience that is to be comprehended. This ‘referring’ is the reflective (or transcendental) repetition of the naive ‘pointing’… of sense-certainty…. The formal ‘schema’ that Hegel derives from Fichte has a long way to go before its ‘certainty’ will become ‘truth'” (p. 465).

“Hegel fixes our attention here on the way that Fichte took over Locke’s empiricism wholesale” (p. 467). For Locke, “What we can know is only ‘our own ideas’; and our rational certainty is that they are indeed all ours. This is the return of sensible certainty at the level of Reason” (ibid).

“Actual Reason is… bound to abandon this empirical, observational stance, and to move on from its naive expectation that truth is to be discovered or found” (p. 468).

Hegelian Semantics

Brandom begins his second Brentano lecture saying, “On the ground floor of Hegel’s intellectual edifice stands his non-psychological conception of the conceptual. This is the idea that to be conceptually contentful is to stand in relations of material incompatibility and consequence (his “determinate negation” and “mediation”) to other such contentful items. The relations of incompatibility and consequence are denominated “material” to indicate that they articulate the contents rather than form of what stands in those relations. This is his first and most basic semantic idea: an understanding of conceptual content in terms of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion” (p. 39).

I think Aristotle and even Plato would have agreed with all of this: both the nonpsychological nature of concepts and the fundamental role of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion in determining meaning. But the Latin medieval to European early modern mainstream was in this regard much more influenced by the Stoic explanation of meaning by representation, and by the “psychological” cast of Augustine’s thought.

Brandom goes on to characterize Hegel’s position as a “bimodal hylomorphic conceptual realism”, carefully unpacking each part of this dense formula. The two modalities in question are the two fundamental ways in which things have grip on us: the “bite” of reality and the moral “ought”. Brandom holds that there is a deep structural parallel or isomorphism between these two kinds of constraints that affect us. Further, the isomorphism is also a hylomorphism in the sense that the two modalities are not only structurally similar, but so deeply intertwined in practice as to be only analytically distinguishable. Concepts and normativity are interdependent. Finally, it is through concepts and normativity that all our notions of the solidity of reality are articulated.

This kind of conceptual realism in Hegel is complemented by what Brandom calls a conceptual idealism. “At the grossest level of structure, the objective realm of being is articulated by nomological relations, and the subjective realm of thought is articulated by norm-governed processes, activities or practices. It can be asked how things stand with the intentional nexus between these realms. Should it be construed in relational or practical-processual terms?” (p. 43). “Hegel takes there to be an explanatory asymmetry in that the semantic relations between those discursive practices and the objective relations they know about and exploit practically are instituted by the discursive practices that both articulate the subjective realm of thought and establish its relations to the objective realm of being. This asymmetry claim privileging specifically recollective discursive practices over semantic relations in understanding the intentional nexus between subjectivity and objectivity is the thesis of conceptual idealism.” (p. 44).

Plato had talked about recollection in a mythical or poetic way in relation to paradoxes of learning. Hegel’s more “historiographical” recollection is also related to a kind of learning, but Hegel specifically stresses the importance of error as the stimulus to learning. Brandom says there is both a “subjunctive sensitivity of thought to things” (ibid) and a “normative responsibility of thought to fact. What things are for consciousness ought to conform to what things are in themselves.” (p. 45). This translates into a central obligation to repair our errors, and for Hegel the specific way to do this is through a recollective account of what was right in our previous stance; how we came to realize that it went wrong; and what we did to fix it.

“The normative standard of success of intentional agency is set by how things objectively are after an action. The idea of action includes a background structural commitment to the effect that things ought to be as they are intended to be. Conceptual idealism focuses on the fact that all these alethic and normative modal relations are instituted by the recollective activity that is the final phase of the cycle of cognition and action” (ibid).

“Conceptual realism asserts the identity of conceptual content between facts and thoughts of those facts. (Compare Wittgenstein: ‘When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we—and our meaning—do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this—is—so.’ [PI§95]) Conceptual idealism offers a pragmatic account of the practical process by which that semantic-intentional relation between what things are for consciousness and what they are in themselves is established. Pragmatics, as I am using the term, is the study of the use of concepts by subjects engaging in discursive practices. Conceptual idealism asserts a distinctive kind of explanatory priority (a kind of authority) of pragmatics over semantics. For this reason it is a pragmatist semantic explanatory strategy, and its idealism is a pragmatist idealism. The sui generis rational practical activity given pride of explanatory place by this sort of pragmatism is recollection” (pp. 45-46).

Brandom says that Hegel’s notion of experience has two levels, corresponding to two top-level kinds of concepts he distinguishes: ordinary practical and empirical concepts, and meta-level philosophical, categorial or “logical” concepts.

“The master-strategy animating this reading of Hegel (and of Kant) is semantic descent: the idea that the ultimate point of studying these metaconcepts is what their use can teach us about the semantic contentfulness of ground-level concepts, so the best way to understand the categorial metaconcepts is to use them to talk about the use and content of ordinary concepts… The pragmatic metaconcept of the process of experience is first put in play in the Introduction, at the very beginning of [Hegel’s Phenomenology], in the form of the experience of error. It is invoked to explain how the consciousness-constitutive distinction-and-relation between what things are for consciousness and what things are in themselves shows up to consciousness itself. Hegel assumes that, however vaguely understood it might be at the outset, it is a distinction-and-relation that can at least be a topic for us, the readers of the book” (pp. 47-48).

The most naive human awareness already implicitly recognizes a distinction between appearance and reality. “The question is how this crucial distinction already shows up practically for even the most metatheoretically naïve knowing subject. How are we to understand the basic fact that ‘…the difference between the in-itself and the for-itself is already present in the very fact that consciousness knows an object at all’… Hegel traces its origin to the experience of error” (p. 48).

“Hegel finds the roots of this sort of experience in our biological nature as desiring beings…. What a creature practically takes or treats as food, by eating it, can turn out not really to be food, if eating it does not satisfy the hunger that motivated it…. This sort of experience is the basis and practical form of learning” (p. 49). This is “the practical basis for the semantic distinction between representings and representeds, sense and referent” (pp, 49-50).

“[A]n essential part of the acknowledgment of error is practically taking or treating two commitments as incompatible. Such genuinely conceptual activity goes beyond what merely desiring beings engage in. The origins of Hegel’s idea here lie in Kant’s earlier broadly pragmatist account of what knowing subjects must do in order to count as apperceiving” (p. 50).

“Hegel breaks from the Kantian picture by adding a crucial constraint on what counts as successful repairs…. Successful repairs must explain and justify the changes made, in a special way” (p. 52). This takes the form of a historical recollection. “To be entitled to claim that things are as one now takes them to be, one must show how one found out that they are so. Doing that involves explaining what one’s earlier views got right, what they got wrong, and why…. This is the progressive emergence into explicitness, the ever more adequate expression, of what is retrospectively discerned as having been all along implicit as the norm governing and guiding the process by which its appearances arise and pass away” (p. 53). “Recollection… turns a past into a history” (p. 54).

All this serves as an explanation of how we come to have representations that actually refer to something, in terms of how we express our concerns. “In general Hegel thinks we can only understand what is implicit in terms of the expressive process by which it is made explicit. That is a recollective process. The underlying reality is construed as implicit in the sense of being a norm that all along governed the process of its gradual emergence into explicitness” (p. 56).

“Kant had the idea that representation is a normative concept. Something counts as a representing in virtue of being responsible to something else, which counts as represented by it in virtue of exercising authority over the representing by serving as a standard for assessments of its correctness as a representing. It is in precisely this sense that a recollective story treats the commitments it surveys as representings of the content currently treated as factual” (p. 58). Brandom says that Hegel reconstructs in expressive terms what the representationalists were right about, while strongly contrasting this way of thinking with representationalism.

“Hylomorphic conceptual realism then underwrites the idea of the categorial homogeneity of senses as graspable thoughts and their referents (what they represent) as correspondingly conceptually contentful, statable facts. This makes intelligible the idea that thoughts are the explicit expressions of facts. They make explicit… how the world is” (p. 60).

“The plight of finite knowing and acting subjects metaphysically guarantees liability to empirical error and practical failure. The experience of error is inescapable. What I earlier called the ‘false starts, wrong turns, and dead ends’ of inquiry can be retrospectively edited out of the sanitized, Whiggish vindicating recollective narrative, but they cannot be avoided going forward.

“Why not? In short because the rational, conceptual character of the world and its stubborn recalcitrance to mastery by knowledge and agency are equally fundamental primordial features of the way things are” (pp. 61-62).

“For Hegel, the experience of error requires not just the revision of beliefs… but also of meanings” (p. 62). “The manifestation of stubborn, residual immediacy in thought is the inevitability of the experience of error…. [T]he ineluctability of error and the realistic possibility of genuine knowledge [both] express valid perspectives on what is always at once both the experience of error and the way of truth. The important thing is not to seize exclusively—and so one-sidedly—on either aspect, but to understand the nature of the process as one that necessarily shows up from both perspectives” (p. 63).

“One of Hegel’s animating ideas is that the independence of immediacy (its distinctive authority over structures of mediation) is manifested in its role as a principle of instability, as providing a normative demand for change, for both rejection and further development of each constellation of determinate concepts and commitments articulated by them. The independence of mediation (its distinctive authority over immediacy) is manifested in all the retrospective recollective vindications of prior constellations of commitments as genuine knowledge, as resulting from the expressively progressive revelation of reality by prior claims to knowledge.” (pp. 64-65).

“The forward-looking obligation to repair acknowledged incompatibilities of commitment acknowledges error and the inadequacy of its conceptions. The backward-looking recollective obligation to rationalize as expressively progressive previous, now superseded, repairs and recollections institutes knowledge, truth, and determinate concepts whose incompatibilities and consequences track those articulating (in a different modal key) the objective world…. The recollective process is also what Hegel calls ‘giving contingency the form of necessity.'” (p. 65).

“The key in each case is to understand [truth and error] not as properties, states, or relations that can be instantiated at a single time, but as structural features of enduring experiential processes” (p.66).

This is to move from what Hegel calls Understanding to what he calls Reason. Understanding focuses on the fixity of concepts; Reason also has regard for their malleability. To think of experience as asymptotically approaching objective facts and relations belongs to the Understanding that disregards the mutation of meanings.

“The world as it is in itself as distinct from how it is for consciousness is not a brute other, but in that distinctive sense the product of its own recollective activity in experience” (p.72).

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 or 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. (See also Kantian Discipline; Copernican; Dogmatism and Strife; Transcendental?)

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.

Leibniz had suggested that God’s single eternal act is the selection of the best of all possible worlds from all possible worlds, and that in this context the complete essence of a thing is foreseen by God, allowing for a version of particular providence. Even though he worked out an alternative scheme for more concretely relational determination of essences in late correspondence with the Jesuit theologian Bartholomew Des Bosses, Leibniz preferred to stress the predetermination of each individual monad by God, as part of a comprehensive pre-existing harmony that put the reality of relations in the mind of God rather than in the world. In this context, Leibniz also famously suggested that monads do not really interact and “have no windows”. For Leibniz, “windows” to the outside are not really needed, because each monad contains within itself a reflection of the entire universe.

One of Kant’s earliest moves, however — long before publication of the First Critique — was to argue against Leibniz for common-sense real interaction among things in the world. It is doubtful that Kant knew of Leibniz’s alternative scheme for real relations, but in any case, Kant throughout his career stressed immanent relations among things in the world, rather than transcendent relations realized primarily in the mind of God. Since even the pre-Critical Kant had thus already undone the basis for treating each monad in splendid isolation, it seems very unlikely that the Critical Kant meant to imply any strong monadic properties when he spoke of things “in themselves”.

Saying that there are ways that things are does not have to mean that everything is determined down to the last detail. (See Equivocal Determination.)

Matter, Mind

I don’t think any kind of stuff could come first, be it matter or some sort of mind-stuff. What comes first in the sense of principle would be something like form or structure or mediation. (“First” in the general sense of principle is said in several ways, but I’m inclined to re-collapse some of them. These days, I consider ontology to be mostly either redundant with semantic and epistemological methodological senses, or else just a mistake. This leaves a long view of methodology as the best candidate for a principle.) The air of paradox associated with saying something like mediation comes first is dispelled if we recall that apparent immediacy is mediated immediacy. This just reflects the fact that methodologically, we are never at a completely pure beginning, and always start in medias res.

Mind especially seems to me not best approached as a kind of stuff at all. It is first and foremost a way of doing. (See also Mind Without Mentalism.) Then, too, what is loosely called the “matter” that we care about in concrete cases often comes down to potentiality, or dispositions to respond in certain ways when acted upon (which is distinct from Aristotelian matter, as I understand it). Both of these are adverbial characterizations, though things of this sort can always be nominalized for convenient reference.

Aristotle suggests that what is first “for us” (the short view of methodology) is some sort of activity that we tentatively pick out within appearance. We then move forward by developing the adverbial characterization of that activity in terms of form or structure or mediation. (See also Objectivity of Objects; First Principles Come Last; Owl; Passive Synthesis, Active Sense; Radical Empiricism?; Realism, Idealism; Johnston’s Pippin.)