Subjectivity in Plotinus

Plotin: Traité 53 (2004) is Gwenaëlle Aubry’s contribution to the French series Les écrits de Plotin. It is a translation of and commentary on the treatise Porphyry placed at the very beginning of the Enneads when he edited his teacher’s works. In this essay Plotinus broaches the question who “We” are.

Aubry translates the title of Plotinus’ essay as “What Is the Animal? What Is the Man?”. (The classic English translation by Stephen MacKenna called it “The Animate and the Man”.) But she says “The real question of treatise 53 is not that of man, but rather of the subject…. [T]here appears something like a subject in the modern sense of the term, that is to say a reflexive consciousness, capable of asking itself about its operations and its identity” (p. 17, my translation throughout).

Plotinus develops his unique view of soul (psyche) as in effect a sort of unmoved mover. “We”, it will turn out, are for him neither the pure soul nor a union of soul and body. Aubry says here that for Plotinus the subject is not a substance and has no identity. It is rather a “pure power of identification” (p. 18).

It was precisely the classical identification of subject with substance that led Augustine — who was deeply impressed by Plotinus — to insist that the mind is not a “subject”.

“Finally, the theme of the immaculacy of the separated soul is another way of underlining the responsibility of the “We”: it is on us, ultimately, that the ethical decision depends, understood as a choice of identification with that which exceeds us or with that which hinders us, with what founds us or with what weakens us — with the divine or with the animal in us” (p. 18).

“The itinerary of treatise 53 is nothing other, finally, than the passage from the me to the self. What the treatise proposes to its readers, what it proposes to ‘us’, is not to discover our identity — for identity we do not have. It is not to define our essence — for the essence is not ‘us’, but the self — it is to identify ourselves with another object than that with which we spontaneously confuse ourselves” (ibid).

For Plotinus, a mere conversion to interiority is not sufficient to disclose the self, Aubry says. That just gives us a sensible, empirical “me”, a subject of passions. “The whole effort of the treatise… is to redirect consciousness away from that immediate and fascinating object, to orient it toward the impassible and separated soul in which essential identity resides. Thus, the work of definition imposed by the Delphic precept [know thyself] is inseparable from an ethical work: the self cannot be determined except at the price of a renunciation of its first object of identification” (p. 20, brackets added).

She quotes Plotinus asking, “that which investigates, which examines and poses these questions, what could it be?” (p. 23).

“At this point, the treatise takes up a new orientation, engages itself on a radically unexplored path: for the subject in the classical sense of the term — substance, the subject of attribution — is substituted in effect, by the detour of a phrase, a modern subject, possessed of consciousness and reflexivity. The Plotinian project here distinguishes itself radically as much from that of the De Anima [of Aristotle] as from that of the First Alcibiades [of Plato]. It is no longer only to examine the various faculties to distinguish among them which are common to the soul and the body, and which are proper to the soul alone. It is no longer only to decide whether man is the soul, the body, or the mixture of soul and body. It’s about, writes Plotinus, asking oneself about the very thing that does the investigation: the philosophizing subject takes itself as the object of investigation. The conversion is no longer only to interiority, but to consciousness: and that consciousness takes the form of an immediate reflexivity” (ibid, brackets added).

Plotinus seems to have been the first to claim this sort of immediate reflexivity of consciousness. As Aubry goes on to note, for both Plato and Aristotle, reflexivity only comes through the mediation of another. “The other is not only another self, but it is through the other, insofar as the other is at the same time like me and other than me, that I have access to myself…. The access to interiority requires a detour, either by way of exteriority, or by otherness” (p. 25).

Hegel and Paul Ricoeur, I would note, have each in their own way again taken up Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on mediation and the need for a detour. But even though Plotinus claims an immediate reflexivity, he does not claim that it is or has an identity.

For Plotinus, according to Aubry, “the we is neither the incarnate, empirical me, nor the separated essential self; it is the passage from the one to the other” (p. 27). In the related essay “A Me Without Identity? The Plotinian We” in Le moi et l’interiorite (2008), she writes, “Returning into itself, thus, [the ‘We’] does not know itself as a unity, nor in its identity with itself, but as a mixture of two terms, where neither is, properly speaking, ‘itself'” (p. 108).

On Being a Thing

The next few paragraphs of Hegel’s final chapter are concerned with the notions of “thing” and “object” in an apparently completely general way, from the point of view of what happens with them in “absolute” knowledge.

Immediately after the paragraph I quoted in the previous post, Hegel specifies that “The surmounting of the object of consciousness is not to be taken one-sidedly as meaning that the object showed itself returning into the self” (Baillie trans., p. 789). This once again rules out any subjectivism that would abolish objectivity altogether.

Hegel continues, “It has a more definite meaning: it means that the object as such presented itself to the self as a vanishing factor; and, furthermore, that the emptying of self-consciousness itself establishes thinghood, and that this externalization of self-consciousness has not merely negative, but positive significance, a significance not merely for us or per se, but for self-consciousness itself. The negative of the object, its cancelling its own existence, gets, for self-consciousness, a positive significance; or, self-consciousness knows this nothingness of the object because on the one hand self-consciousness itself externalizes itself; for in so doing it establishes itself as object, or, by reason of the indivisible unity characterizing its self-existence, sets up the object as its self. On the other hand, there is also this other moment in the process, that self-consciousness has just as really cancelled this self-relinquishment and objectification, and has resumed them into itself, and is thus at home with itself in its otherness as such” (pp. 789-790).

The presentation of an object as a “vanishing factor” of which Hegel speaks — though it cannot be represented statically — is supposed to be something that really happens, so this is quite different and a great deal more subtle than simply saying the object is not really real. I think Hegel’s talk about the purely relational view “negating” the object qua object and other similarly strained uses of “negation” have not helped the understanding of his work, but as Hegel himself proceeds to remind us, this is only one moment of a larger movement, and it is the multifaceted whole and its transformations we ought to be concerned with. (In general I’ve found Brandom’s explanation of Hegelian negation in terms of material incompatibility very helpful, but it’s not clear to me there is a material incompatibility in this instance. In the bigger picture, though, Hegel seems to be saying that there is a sense in which every object is a reification, and another in which all its properties can be explained in relational terms.)

“Consciousness, at the same time, must have taken up a relation to the object in all its aspects and phases, and have grasped its meaning from the point of view of each of them. This totality of its determinate characteristics makes the object per se or inherently a spiritual reality; and it becomes so in truth for consciousness, when the latter apprehends every individual one of them as self, i.e. when it takes up towards them the spiritual relationship just spoken of” (p. 790).

The object is a spiritual reality in the sense that there is a purely relational account of its properties. Hegel here also has in mind his dictum that Reason is the certainty of being all reality. The object as reification is clearly separate from me, but as Aristotle might remind us, its objective relational form or essence is not distinct from the shareable intelligible thought of that form or essence.

“The object is, then, partly immediate existence, a thing in general — corresponding to immediate consciousness; partly an alteration of itself, its relatedness (or existence-for-another and existence-for-self), determinateness — corresponding to perception; partly essential being or in the form of a universal — corresponding to understanding. The object as a whole is the mediated result… or the passing of universality into individuality through specification, as also the reverse process from individual to universal through cancelled individuality or specific determination” (p. 790, brackets in original).

Even the most subtle and developed articulations far removed from what we might call immediate sensation have an aspect of immediacy analogous to what Hegel describes in Sense-Certainty, in that they recognize or assert certain discrete presented or represented “things” or their existence or their truth, taking “thing” in the broadest possible sense. But Hegel wants us to recognize that in real life we never stop at what he calls mere “certainty”. Nothing is ever just immediately there. Even in the most unphilosophical kind of practical life, distinctions are unavoidable. Then any distinction we make turns out to depend on other distinctions. Distinctions implicitly introduce universal “properties” of things that can be compared. This leads to the ramified world of Perception or “things with properties”, but Perception in general still holds fast to Sense-Certainty’s initial intuition of independent “things” as pre-given reference points in the sea of interdependent distinctions, and gets into logical difficulties as a result. Finally Understanding dissolves particular “things” into a purely universal field of constitutive relations with no pre-given terms, like what we find in mathematical physics or structural linguistics. We may experience all of the moments simultaneously in one experience of one thing. Of course, as we know, the Phenomenology is far from done at the end of Understanding and there are many other considerations to address, but these are the three basic moments of “consciousness” as that which takes an attitude toward things or objects.

I want to emphasize that this applies to all objects whatsoever, especially including those of ordinary life. Harris advocates the much narrower reading that Hegel’s main concern in this section is to implicitly suggest an application of these general notions to the preceding discussion of religion.

We have seen that what Hegel calls “absolute” knowledge does indeed have a close relation to the concerns of religion. In the Religion chapter, though I didn’t remark on it, Hegel had in passing explicitly applied the succession of Sense-Certainty, Perception, and Understanding to his schematic account of the history of religion. So, Harris’ reading between the lines here has some plausibility, but he seems for the moment to allow his interpolations continuing the focus on religion to eclipse the much more general apparent surface meaning of the text.

In Harris’ account, “it is the ‘object’ of Manifest Religion that has now to be turned over into the ‘Subject’ of ‘Absolute Knowing'” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 714). In general this seems reasonable, even though it is an interpolation in the present context.

“‘The object is in part immediate Being’. This is the ‘It is’ of Sense-Certainty; and all the modes of Natural Religion are subsumed under the ‘It is’…. For Natural Religion God is simply (and immediately) there. There is no distinction yet between His being-for-self and His being-for-another; and there cannot be any, because no ‘other’ has any independent essence of its own” (ibid).

Aside from Harris’ interpolation of religion into this discussion of the object, the last statement is historically anomalous, because the idea of a God before whom no other has independent essence belongs to traditions of strong monotheism that Hegel associates with the Unhappy Consciousness rather than with Sense-Certainty. However, if we abstract from actual history and just consider Hegel’s rather thin working notion of “natural” religion, it does seem accurate.

“Secondly the object is ‘partly an othering of itself, its relationship, or Being for Other and For-Self-Being, that corresponds to Perception’. This is how God is experienced in the Art-Religion; we make the Gods in our own image, while at the same time regarding ourselves as their servant, and envisaging our own free existence as a play for the Gods. God is thus an ambiguous relationship of Being for Other and For-Self-Being, just like the ‘thing and its properties’ in Perception” (ibid).

This interpolation seems relatively more historical, and consistent with what Hegel says elsewhere.

“Lastly, the object is ‘partly essence or as Universal, which corresponds to the Understanding’. This is how God is experienced in the Manifest Religion. Here He is the rational Force whose essence is to manifest itself” (ibid).

Hegel does seem to provocatively suggest that there is a parallel between the relation between Manifest Religion and its predecessors, on the one hand, and that between the purely relational view of mathematical physics and ordinary sensation and perception, on the other. It may seem surprising to see these categories from the phenomenology of religion reflected back into the elementary moments of “consciousness”, but this underscores how nonlinear Hegel’s overall development really is. As Harris points out, Hegel does also explicitly argue in the Religion chapter that the actual history of religion recapitulates the succession of moments he analyzed for object-oriented elementary “consciousness”. But to me, all this still seems a distraction from the new topic of “absolute” knowledge that Hegel is introducing here.

Hegel goes on to specify that the “knowledge” at issue now is not purely conceptual, but “is to be taken only in its development” (Baillie trans., p. 790). He notes that “the object does not yet, when present in consciousness as such, appear as the inner essence of Spirit in the way this has just been expressed” (ibid).

He recalls the recapitulation of Sense Certainty’s immediacy on a higher level in Observing Reason. “We saw, too, [Observing Reason’s] specific character take expression at its highest stage in the infinite judgement: ‘the being of the [Fichtean] ego is a thing’. And, further, the ego is an immediate thing of sense. When ego is called a soul, it is indeed represented also as a thing, but a thing in the sense of something invisible, impalpable, etc., i.e. in fact not as an immediate entity, and not as that which is generally understood by a thing. That judgment, then, ‘ego is a thing’, taken at first glance, has no spiritual content, or rather, is just the absence of spirituality. In its conception, however, it is the most luminous and illuminating judgment; and this, its inner significance, which is not yet made evident, is what the other two moments to be considered express” (p. 791).

Here again Hegel is considering two contrasting senses. The mere reification of a Fichtean ego as an empirical individual is rather banal; but to consider the universal Fichtean ego as an incarnated and concretely situated spiritual reality rather than in abstraction is a great advance.

“The trained and cultivated self-consciousness, which has traversed the region of spirit in self-alienation, has, by giving up itself, produced the thing as its self” (p. 792). This is a simple but vital point.

Hegel continues, “Or again — to give complete expression to the relationship, i.e. to what here alone constitutes the nature of the object — the thing stands for something that is self-existent; sense-certainty (sense experience) is announced as absolute truth; but this self-existence is itself declared to be a moment which merely disappears, and passes into its opposite, into a being at the mercy of an ‘other’.”

“But knowledge of the thing is not yet finished at this point. The thing must become known as self not merely in regard to the immediateness of its being and as regards its determinateness, but also in the sense of essence or inner reality. This is found in the case of Moral Self-Consciousness. This mode of experience knows its knowledge as the absolutely essential element, knows no other objective being than pure will or pure knowledge. It is nothing but merely this will and this knowledge. Any other possesses merely non-essential being, i.e. being that has no inherent nature per se, but only its empty husk. Insofar as the moral consciousness, in its view of the world, lets existence drop out of the self, it just as truly takes this existence back again into the self. In the form of conscience, finally, it is no longer this incessant alternation between the ‘placing’ and the ‘displacing’… of existence and self; it knows that its existence as such is this pure certainty of its own self; the objective element, into which qua acting it puts forth itself, is nothing other than pure knowledge of itself by itself” (pp. 792-793).

Here we have the ethical character of the path to the “Absolute”.

Harris comments, “So while, on the one hand, the moral consciousness ‘lets the natural world go free out of the Self’, to be whatever it contingently must be, it is equally true, on the other hand, that it takes that contingent natural order back into itself. In the unity of conscientious conviction, this contradiction is successfully sublated. But the community in which Conscience finds itself, and for which it claims to act, is in a state of moral anarchy, which is only overcome by the transition to the religious community of universal forgiveness. That community, having returned to itself as the shape of religious faith, has only to recognize itself in the ultimate community of finite Spirit, from which its religious journey began. That ultimate community of Spirit was able to make the religious journey because, in the final sublation of the standpoint of moral judgment, it is reconciled with humanity at all times, and in all places. It does not need to judge, but only to comprehend, i.e. to integrate the other as a member” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 719). I feel like we are back on track here.

He argues further that “In this final form, the ‘Manifest Religion’ ceases to be a revealed religion (in any but the historical sense) for it will comprehend that the whole range of religious ‘manifestation’ belongs to it in principle, because its God is just the intelligible force of Reason, whose very essence is to manifest itself. This concretely universal community of the human Spirit is ‘the Self’s pure knowledge of itself’. ‘Conscience’ is just its alienated, universally self-assertive shape” (ibid). Now the motivation for Harris’ interpolated argument about religion seems to make better Hegelian sense.

Harris adds, “We look over the course of the science and ask how ‘dead thinghood’ evolves logically. First we go from ‘singular thinghood for self’ to ‘universal thinghood for another’; and so to ‘the singular self that is lawgiver for the world of things’. And when we reach the third shape, we realize that we have not passed over to Kojève’s ‘anthropology’. In his world, the essential anarchy of Conscience takes us straight back to Hobbes” (pp. 719-720). (In the 20th century, Kojève promoted a subjectivist reading of Hegel that influenced Sartre and others. Hobbes famously described human society as a “war of all against all”.)

“[E]very judge must recognize the ‘sin’ of sundering knowing from doing. Absolutely pure knowing becomes possible only in and through the act of forgiving” (p. 720).

Sense Certainty?

The first chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology is devoted to “sense certainty”. In spite of his polemic against those who want to ground human knowledge in immediacy, it seems to me Hegel is actually very charitable here, in conceding that there is already a truth to which “certainty” could apply.

Again with apologies for my use of the old Baillie translation, Hegel says “This bare fact of certainty, however, is really and admittedly the abstractest and the poorest kind of truth. It merely says regarding what it knows: it is; and its truth contains solely the being of the fact it knows. Consciousness, on its part, in the case of this form of certainty, takes the shape merely of pure Ego. In other words, I in such a case am merely qua pure This, and the object likewise is merely qua pure This. I, this particular conscious I, am certain of this fact before me, not because I qua consciousness have developed myself in connection with it and in manifold ways set thought to work about it: and not, again, because the fact, the thing, of which I am certain, in virtue of its having a multitude of distinct qualities, was replete with possible modes of relation and a variety of connections with other things. Neither has anything to do with the truth sensuous certainty contains: neither the I nor the thing has here the meaning of a manifold relation with a variety of other things, of mediation in a variety of ways. The I does not contain or imply a manifold of ideas, the I here does not think: nor does the thing mean what has a multiplicity of qualities. Rather, the thing, the fact, is; and it is merely because it is. It is — that is the essential point for sense-knowledge, and that bare fact of being, that simple immediacy, constitutes its truth” (pp. 149-150).

Hegel goes on to point out that this otherwise completely indeterminate “bare fact of being” implicitly presupposes a distinction between “I” and “object”. “When we reflect on this distinction, it is seen that neither the one nor the other is merely immediate, merely is in sense-certainty, but is at the same time mediated: I have the certainty through the other, viz. through the actual fact; and this, again, exists in that certainty through an other, viz. through the I” (p. 150). And so begins the dialectical path that Hegel claims can eventually lead to a knowledge free of the kind of transcendental illusion Kant had said was inevitable for us humans.

So Hegel is saying even the standpoint that takes itself to be grounded in pure immediacy actually turns out not to be purely immediate. But he generously nonetheless allows it its “truth” of “this is“.

What immediate sensation gives us is only something we can point at as “this”, but Hegel is also accepting the very general and minimal claim that whenever we sense something — even if we are totally ignorant or mistaken about what it is — we can still be certain that we are sensing “something”. Completely without prejudice as to what it is, he is generously counting our impression that it in some way is as a minimal kind of knowledge. A “this” by itself can be neither true nor false, but “that this is” is arguably a kind of minimal proposition to which truth and certainty could apply.

Referring to Hegel’s contemporary notebooks, H. S. Harris in his commentary says that “The real paradigm of sense certainty is the consciousness of Hegel’s [peasant woman] who is comfortably at home in her world of singular things, each with its proper name” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 212). He quotes Hegel “The peasant-wife lives within the circle of her Lisa, her best cow; then the black one, the spotted one, and so on; also of Martin, her lad, and Ursula, her lass, etc.” (ibid).

Harris goes on to emphasize that “The Hegelian philosopher is like the peasant woman in that everything she does is part of actual living, part of the integral awareness of her own life…. We do not ever leave Sense-Certainty behind — though, of course we do leave some philosophical views that are founded upon it behind” (p. 213).

Hegel does not ask us to leave “natural consciousness” behind, but invites us to broaden its circle. It is philosophical views purporting to ground themselves in pure immediacy that will be conclusively left behind.

Each of the standpoints or shapes of experience successively described in the Phenomenology is discussed by Hegel from multiple perspectives. He tries to describe the way each standpoint sees itself; he may allude to ways in which he thinks other philosophers have misappropriated it; and he tries to clarify how he wants us to come to see it. What eventually happens with each of the standpoints thus has a certain ambiguity, depending on which perspective is under consideration.

In real life we don’t abstractly say to ourselves “this… is“, but are more like the peasant woman recognizing Lisa, her cow. We “immediately” experience Lisa the cow, not abstract sense data. Our “immediate” recognition of Lisa the cow involves a preconscious Kantian synthesis of a sensible manifold in light of many past experiences.

I am somewhat in doubt myself about counting a bare “this is” as a meaningful truth. It has the syntactic form of a proposition, but it seems totally unclear what is being asserted. It is applying an indeterminate to an indeterminate. “This is Lisa the cow” on the other hand I would count as a meaningful proposition of ordinary life. I think saying “this is“, though admittedly not the same as just saying “this”, is more like just saying “this” than it is like saying “this is Lisa the cow”. Lisa the cow at least is distinguishable from many other things even if “this” is not, so it means something to say “this is Lisa the cow”.

But Hegel and Harris are being deliberately generous here, and my earlier point about multiple perspectives on each “standpoint” applies. Technically I would want to say that in recognizing Lisa the cow we must have already reached beyond sense-certainty to what Hegel will call Perception, but it is nonetheless true that common sense elides this sort of distinction, and experiences itself as immediately seeing Lisa the cow. The Hegelian philosopher too as a living being will still “immediately see” Lisa the cow and many other already differentiated things; she just won’t build dogmatic theories that take this experienced immediacy as the last word.

Reason, Feeling

Reason is grounded not in the false start of the apparent immediacy of Consciousness and its objects, but in the “long detour” of mediated reflexivity. It can begin anywhere, and finds its own stability in the course of its development. Nonetheless (I want to say), it never loses touch with something grounded in feeling that I have called reasonableness. Both Reason and feeling involve meaning, which involves mediation.

Ricoeur on Psychoanalysis

The concluding book of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy aims at a reconciliation of two contrasting approaches in hermeneutics — demystifying and kerygmatic — that would be not merely eclectic but genuinely dialectical. He suggests on the one hand that faith ought to be entirely compatible with a sharp critique of idols, and on the other that Freud never adequately considered how his late concept of Eros and its sublimations could be legitimately reconnected with notions of spiritual love.

He develops a bit further his earlier contrast between a “philosophy of consciousness” and a “philosophy of reflection”. A philosophy of consciousness grounds a false Cogito on the immediacy of consciousness. A philosophy of reflection on the other hand pays attention to the always mediated character of experience, and to subjectivity as something that is constituted as well as constitutive. It therefore decenters subjectivity. Ricoeur argues that Husserl as much as Freud considered subjectivity as something constituted.

At the same time, Ricoeur in this work still wants to speak of a true Cogito of reflection, and in this context wants to distinguish between immediate consciousness and the “living self-presence” to which Husserl appealed. Although Ricoeur does not say it, it seems to me that Husserl’s living self-presence is supposed to be precisely a kind of non-empirical (i.e., transcendental) immediate consciousness. I think on the contrary that the transcendental is all mediation, and hold what I take to be a Kantian position that feelings of living presence or self-presence belong on the side of introspective appearance that is ultimately empirical rather than transcendental.

Ricoeur notes that for Freud, it is more a question of “it speaks” rather than “I think”.

He thinks there is an ambiguity in Freud between primitive, sub-linguistic and transcendental, supra-linguistic concerns, so that symbolic meaning expressing poetic or spiritual truth is not clearly separated from something like word play. This goes back to his earlier concern with the phenomenology of religious symbols. I actually think that word play can serve as an indirect expression of poetic or spiritual truth, but then I also think spiritual truth is inherently “poetic”.

In spite of criticizing (the old stereotype of) Hegel for claiming a sort of omniscience, Ricoeur suggests that Hegel’s phenomenology, with its distinction between Consciousness and Spirit and its discussions of the relation between Spirit and desire, provides a “teleology” complementary and inverse to Freud’s “archeology” of subjectivity. For this to be a truly dialectical relation, he says, each must contain a moment approximating the other, and he thinks that in fact they do.

He also connects Freud’s work with Spinoza’s critique of consciousness and free will; Leibniz’s theories of unconscious perception; and Kant’s simultaneous assertion of a transcendental idealism and an empirical realism. Freud’s “topographies” are associated with a kind of realism in this Kantian sense.

For Ricoeur’s Freud, life and desire always have an unsurpassable character. Because of this, a relation to reality is always a task, not a possession. What ultimately distinguishes psychoanalysis, Ricoeur says, is not just the idea that we have motives of which we are ignorant, but Freud’s account of the resistance of an always somewhat narcissistic ego and the corresponding extended work of overcoming it. This relates directly to the idea of reality as a task. “We did not regard this realism as a relapse into naturalism, but as a dispossession of immediate certitude, a withdrawal from and humiliation of our narcissism” (p. 432). “It is one and the same enterprise to understand Freudianism as a discourse about the subject and to discover that the subject is never the subject one thinks it is” (p. 420).

“I consider the Freudian metapsychology an extraordinary discipline of reflection: like Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, but in the opposite direction, it achieves a decentering of the home of significations, a displacement of the birthplace of meaning. By this displacement, immediate consciousness finds itself dispossessed to the advantage of another agency of meaning — the transcendence of speech or the emergence of desire…. We must really lose hold of consciousness and its pretension of ruling over meaning, in order to save reflection” (p. 422). What Ricoeur called reflection and will, I give the more classical name of Reason.

Marcel on Being

I’ve been looking at Marcel’s The Mystery of Being (1950). “[I]t is not possible to treat all experience as coming down in the end to a self’s experience of its own states…. we shall see… how difficult it is to succeed in getting a direct glimpse of whatever it is that we mean by self.” (Vol. 1, p. 63-64; emphasis in original). “I appear to myself both as a somebody and not a somebody, a particular individual and not a particular individual” (p. 106). “This self to which I have to be true is perhaps merely the cry that comes out to me from my own depths — the appeal to me to become that which, literally and apparently, I now am not” (p. 176). Properly speaking, we should not say that our self exists, as this would make it a thing among other things.

Marcel says Truth should not be reduced to what is the case; it is an illumination. He distinguishes between primary reflection, which is objectifying, and secondary reflection, in which we ourselves are part of the reflection. In secondary reflection, we are participants rather than spectators. For example, “my” body is not some thing that I have, but rather something in which I am involved. More problematically from this writer’s point of view, he adds that my body is to me a sort of “non-mediatizable immediate” (p. 135).

To be is to be in a situation, understood in the participatory rather than the objectifying sense. We navigate situations by active processes of recognition and reconnoitring. “[A] being that can say, ‘My situation’… is not… self-contained; on the contrary, such a being is open and exposed” (p. 178; emphasis in original). “My life infinitely transcends my possible conscious grasp of my life… fundamentally and essentially it refuses to tally with itself” (p. 206). We should not represent a life as a series of movie stills.

Being is also being with, or togetherness with others. “[I]ntersubjectivity plays its part also within the life of the subject, even at moments when the latter’s only intercourse is with itself” (p. 224).

We should distinguish between an object and a presence. A presence lies beyond the grasp of any possible prehension, and can only be invoked or evoked. A rose in a poem is present to us in a way that a rose in a seed catalog is not. A mystery for Marcel is something that transcends the realm of technical solutions, in that we cannot hold it at arm’s length and objectify it, because it involves our own very being. Every Marcelian “presence” is mysterious in this way. “A felt quality… is not a mental object” (p. 231). Truth is not a thing, but a spirit. It is in this sort of way, he says, that essence should be understood.

In approaching the question of what Being is, “I have to think not only for myself, but for us… for everyone who may have contact with the thought which is mine” (Vol. 2, p. 6). We must exorcize the ego-centric spirit. “A complete and concrete knowledge of oneself… must be hetero-centric” (p. 9). He contrasts “we are” with “I think”. “[T]he intelligible milieu… is only the projection on an ideal plane of what existentially speaking presents itself to us as the intersubjective nexus” (p. 12). “[I]t is literally true to say that the more exclusively it is I who exist, the less do I exist” (p. 38; emphasis in original). He equates a transcendental ego with solipsism, but says that Being is not reducible to intersubjectivity, either.

Ontology for Marcel is concerned with acts of judgment associated with the “is” of predication, rather than with objects. He contrasts the “fullness” of truth with “the hollowness of a functionalized world” (p. 47). Fullness is not to be confused with totality, and being cannot be reduced to totality. Any fullness of truth involves secondary reflection, from which we cannot separate ourselves as participants. Being cannot be indifferent to value. Faith must be distinguished from opinion; it is a matter of believing in, not believing that. Real prayer, he says, is possible only where intersubjectivity is operative.

A free act is one that “I come to think of, after the event, as having helped to make me what I am” (p. 131). “[W]e are concerned here with a certainty which I am rather than with a certainty which I have… I am a living testimony” (p. 144). Just as there is creative fidelity, there is creative testimony, but the creativity in question involves an active receptivity, not a simple production.

Marcel’s invocations of “being” and “existence”, as well as of “presence” and of “ontology” all seem rather different from the standard, representationally oriented usages of these terms, to which I have expressed various objections. He also did not engage in anything like Heidegger’s dubious historiography of a “forgetting of Being”.

Early in the book, he seemed to reject “what is” questions as inherently objectifying. I think that questions of what and why are most naturally treated as matters of open-ended interpretation, and that ontology, epistemology, and all manner of specific technical disciplines can be subsumed under hermeneutics, which is in turn subsumed under ethics. From my perspective, what Marcel would have regarded as objectifying perspectives can thus be subsumed in a way that undoes their objectifying character.

Although Marcel’s style of exposition and vocabulary are very different from Aristotle’s, the broad spirit of his perspective seems very close in important respects. To a greater extent than most other philosophers, Aristotle and Marcel each in their own way brought to the fore an emphasis on concreteness and the way we encounter things in life. (Marcel’s pessimistic view of “what is” questions is perhaps the most significant difference. Aristotle also did not have explicit analogues of Marcel’s “presence” and “mystery”.)

While I am uncomfortable with Marcel’s top-level characterization of my relation to my body as an un-mediatizable immediacy because I think it involves the mediation of something like the unconscious level of Kantian processes of synthesis, I very much like the ethical contrast of being and having that informs the details of his account of this. Marcel doesn’t explicitly say as I do that “being” is primarily an ethical concept, but his account seems open to such an interpolation. (See also Ricoeur on Embodiment; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities; Being, Consciousness.)

Immanence, Transcendence

Immanence and transcendence are both dubious theological concepts. Everything we care about and everything that inspires us belongs in the space of an interweaving that is neither properly immanent nor properly transcendent. Immanence implies an overly simple, immediate presence, and transcendence implies a reification and objectification. On the other hand, the traditional formula of asserting both at once — in spite of its self-contradictory appearance — can be charitably understood as a way of speaking about the real that is neither the one nor the other.

Experience

Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom all work with thick, nonprimitive, structured notions of human experience that do not involve treating consciousness as a transparent medium in which ready-made contents are immediately presented. Aristotle emphasized experience as a product of accumulation over time, as when we say someone is “experienced”. Kant emphasized that all experience is a product of preconscious synthesis that involves complex applications of concepts. Hegel developed a radical critique of the supposed positive role of immediacy. Whereas many previous readings tended to water down the impact of Kant and Hegel by explicitly or implicitly assimilating their work to empiricist or existential-phenomenological views that treat experience as something primitive, Brandom has emphasized how Kant and Hegel anticipated Wilfrid Sellars’ critique of the “Myth of the Given”, and developed an innovative “negative” account of the role of immediacy within experience (see Error; Negativity in Experience.)

The bottom line of all of this is that experience cannot be used as an unproblematic beginning point, as if all the difficult issues were separate from it, out there in the world somewhere. There is no such separation; we find ourselves only in and through a process of understanding life and the world. It is the forms brought to light through this process that matter.

Experience can still be a beginning point of sorts, but in the Aristotelian pragmatic sense that gives no privilege to beginnings. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Intro to Hermeneutics

“Hermeneutics” is derived from the Greek word for interpretation. It has a complex history, with roots in Greek literary interpretation, scriptural interpretation, and Renaissance humanism. In an 1808 work, the German philologist Friedrich Ast formulated a first version of the hermeneutic circle, emphasizing that we encounter a sort of chicken-and-egg relationship between the meaning of the parts and the meaning of the whole in a text. Wilhelm Dilthey (1833 – 1911) promoted a discipline of hermeneutics as the grounding for a distinctive kind of scientific method for the human sciences. In contrast to Dilthey, Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) emphasized that we do not begin from the outside with a theoretical methodology, but rather find ourselves in the world along with the things we seek to understand.

The name most strongly associated with 20th century hermeneutics is Hans-Georg Gadamer (1900 – 2002). Combining neo-Kantian and Heideggerian influences with a strong interest in Platonic and Aristotelian ethics, Gadamer emphasized that all understanding has the character of a dialogue, and dwelt extensively on Aristotelian phronesis, or practical wisdom regarding concrete situations and what to do.

Another major figure is Paul Ricoeur (1913 – 2005), who dwelt on the nature of human beings as responsible ethical agents, while rejecting claims that the self is immediately transparent to itself, or fully master of itself. He sought to understand subjectivity without falling prey to subjectivism or presupposing a sovereign Subject. Both he and Gadamer also emphasized the irreducible role of language in understanding.

At least on these points, there is an interesting convergence with themes I have been pursuing here. I see philosophy as fundamentally hermeneutic, rather than seeking to formulate a “system of the world”. The kind of semantics I have attributed to Aristotle, along with his use of dialectic, seems to me to be the earliest developed philosophical hermeneutics, with roots in Socratic questioning. Brandom’s mix of semantics with what he calls normative pragmatics, in conjunction with his work on Hegel, can be considered as a very original form of hermeneutics within analytic philosophy.

Negativity in Experience

A first collection of critical responses to Brandom’s landmark work on Hegel has recently appeared (Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust, Routledge 2020). Leading Hegel scholar Robert Pippin’s contribution takes issue with Brandom’s methodology of “semantic descent”, and argues that Brandom’s account of negation in Hegel is incomplete.

While Kant and Hegel both focused most of their explicit philosophical attention on very high-level concepts that help explain the meaning of other concepts, I think they nonetheless intended their thought to have practical relevance to life. (Pippin himself wrote a book I cannot recommend too highly, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy.) Brandom goes a step further than Kant and Hegel did, and explicitly claims that the same kinds of considerations they found relevant to the interpretation of what he calls expressive metaconcepts are always already involved in kinds of questions that a philosophically inclined person can see as implicitly arising in ordinary life. I find this thesis of the rich philosophical import of interpretations in ordinary life very appealing, and take it as expansive rather than reductive in intent.

Pippin quotes Brandom to this effect, but somehow still seems to think there is a reduction involved in Brandom’s semantic descent. In a related move, Pippin first commends Brandom’s analysis of Hegelian negation in terms of material inference and modality, but then goes on to argue that this still only addresses the concerns of the first of three parts of Hegel’s Logic — what Hegel called a logic of being, as distinguished from a logic of essence or a logic of the concept.

Very schematically, for Hegel, a logic of being addresses facts about presumed existing things, in this way resembling the approach of standard contemporary formal logic. This turns out to presuppose a logic of essence, which is concerned with higher-level judgments about the natures or ways of being of things, like the inquiries of Plato and Aristotle. This in turn implicitly presupposes a logic of the concept, which leads from something like Kantian synthesis to Hegel’s so-called “Absolute” as a sort of ultimate horizon, under which the context-dependence of the most objectively valid particular determinations is to eventually become explicit.

I think that Brandom’s modal realism already involves what Hegel would call a logic of essence, and that Brandom’s notions of forgiveness, magnanimity, and truth-as-process operate at the level of what Hegel would call a logic of the concept.

Part of the significance of modal realism is as a grounding for concepts of natural law employed by modern science, which do still belong to what Hegel would call a logic of being, as Pippin says. But for Brandom, modal realism also plays the even more important role of grounding Kantian moral necessity. Brandom does not use the term “essence” in his semantics, but I would say that judgments of Kantian moral necessity are concerned with essence rather than mere fact. While it is not quite the same thing, I also think that in a Hegelian context, they belong on the level of a logic of essence.

Whereas I have worried a little about passages in Brandom that exclusively associate truth with truth-as-process — which seems to me not to give enough weight to the positive value Hegel recognized in Understanding, alongside his famous criticism of its limitations — Pippin has an opposite worry, that Brandom ends up reducing Hegelian Reason to Understanding.

Pippin seems to construe what Brandom refers to as “ground-level empirical concepts” in an overly narrow way. Pippin glosses these as “cases of, largely, matters of fact known empirically”, and then refers to “empirical discovery” as the “engine generating incompatible commitments”. While he quotes Brandom’s reference to “ground-level empirical and practical concepts” [emphasis added], he ignores the “practical” part of Brandom’s formula, which presumably refers to concepts used in concrete ethical judgments. It is true that Brandom uses “red” as his canonical example of a ground-level empirical concept, but I think this choice is only meant to provide opportunities to point out the already inferential character of the use of such an apparently simple perceptual term, rather than in any way to undo his explicit inclusion of ground-level practical concepts.

Surprisingly, Pippin also seems to blur together talk about Kantian empirical concepts; talk about Kantian empirical intuition, to which Brandom attributes a key “negative” role providing occasions for recognition of error; and talk about matters of empirical fact. This results in what I think is an unfair characterization of Brandom’s interpretation as reducing Hegelian good negativity to matters of empirical discovery, external to Reason.

To say, as Brandom effectively does, that the main role of the element of immediacy or Kantian intuition in experience is “negative” rather than “positive”, while also in a different context saying that ground-level empirical and practical concepts always already involve the kinds of complexity and nuance associated with expressive metaconcepts, does not imply that Brandom’s strategy of semantic descent reduces Hegelian negativity to anything empirical. I strongly believe that for Brandom, critical thought and dialogue provide additional sources for the good kind of “negativity” of Reason that Hegel thematized in contrast to the “positivity” of things merely taken as given.

Pippin wants to emphasize that Hegelian negativity is an internal feature of Hegelian Reason, not something that comes to it only from an external empirical source. So far, I agree, and I think Brandom would as well. But then, to my surprise, Pippin seems to take up an old-school, very literal reading of Hegel’s metonymies of logical “motion” and an associated “life” of the negative. To me, the better reading is to take these rather obvious metonymies as metonymies. Logic in itself does not move, and negativity in itself is not a form of life. It is we who move and are alive. (Who we are is another complicated story; see under Subjectivity in the menu.)