At Home in Otherness

This is part 3 of my direct walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology. It seems that the phrase “being at home in otherness” originated in my own notes on H.S. Harris’ commentary, and literally occurs neither in Hegel nor in Harris. Nonetheless, I still want to suggest that the underlying idea is central to the perspective Hegel wants to recommend. Hegel speaks at length about what might be called thinking in the element of otherness, and provocatively ties it to the overcoming of alienation, thereby seeking to transform our pre-existing notions of what that might mean.

More conventionally, the overcoming of alienation has been represented as the recovery of a lost possession or lost innocence that we originally had, like a figurative return to the garden of Eden. The German Romantics of Hegel’s time had popularized this sort of comfortable and reassuring notion. Hegel wants to give it an altogether different and much more challenging meaning.

He points out the inherent weakness of all isolated theses and unelaborated statements of principle.

“[A]ny further so-called fundamental proposition or first principle of philosophy, if it is true, is for this reason alone also false just because it is a fundamental proposition or principle. — It is consequently very easily refuted. Its refutation consist in demonstrating its defects; however, it is defective because it is only the universal, or, only a principle, or, it is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, then it is derived from and developed out of that fundamental proposition or principle itself — the refutation is not pulled off by bringing in counter-assertions and impressions external to the principle. Such a refutation would thus genuinely be the development of the fundamental proposition itself” (Pinkard trans., p. 15).

No matter how good the principle, a shallow statement of it will be “false”.

“Conversely, the genuinely positive working out of the beginning is at the same time just as much a negative posture toward its beginning; namely, a negative posture toward its one-sided form, which is to be at first only immediately” (p. 16).

Everything that Hegel would recognize as genuine development and improvement begins with thoughtful criticism of what went before.

“[Spirit] must be, to itself, an object, but it must likewise immediately be a mediated object, which is to say, it must be a sublated object reflected into itself” (ibid).

“To sublate” translates German aufheben, a famous Hegelian term that means simultaneously to absorb and to transform (literally, “to on-lift”).

“Pure self-knowing in absolute otherness, this ether as such, is the very ground and soil of science, or knowing in its universality. The beginning of philosophy presupposes or demands that consciousness is situated in this element. However, this element itself has its culmination and its transparency only through the movement of its coming-to-be. It is pure spirituality, or, the universal in the mode of simple immediacy. Because it is the immediacy of spirit, because it is the substance of spirit, it is transfigured essentiality, reflection that is itself simple, or, is immediacy; it is being that is a reflective turn into itself” (pp. 16-17).

In a very characteristic gesture, he begins to point out that in human life, even mediation and immediacy don’t just stand alongside each other as statically independent opposites. Rather, we end up with all sorts of mixed forms of “mediated immediacy” and “immediatized mediation”. This interweaving is especially typical of what he calls “spirit”.

By “science”, once again, he means mediated rational understanding. “Absolute otherness” is the antithesis of the identity-oriented simplicity and rigidity of the point of view of ordinary consciousness. What we mainly encounter in life are mixtures of these two, with a tilt toward the ordinary. I’m inclined to think there could be no human experience at all without some admixture of otherness. A stronger otherness disturbs our complacency and takes us out of our comfort zone, but Hegel wants to gently suggest that this can be a good thing.

“However much the standpoint of consciousness, which is to say, the standpoint of knowing objective things to be opposed to itself and knowing itself to be opposed to them, counts as the other to science — the other, in which consciousness is at one with itself, counts instead as the loss of spirit — still, in comparison, the element of science possesses for consciousness an other-worldly remoteness in which consciousness is no longer in possession of itself. Each of these two parts seems to the other to be an inversion of the truth” (p. 17).

Here he acknowledges that what he is recommending must seem incredibly strange from the perspective of ordinary consciousness.

He continues, “For the natural consciousness to entrust itself immediately to science would be to make an attempt, induced by it knows not what, to walk upside down all of a sudden. The compulsion to accept this unaccustomed attitude and to transport itself in that way would be, so it would seem, a violence imposed on it with neither any advance preparation nor with any necessity. — Science may be in its own self what it will, but in its relationship to immediate self-consciousness, it presents itself as an inversion of the latter…. Lacking actuality, science is the in-itself, the purpose, which at the start is still something inner, at first not as spirit but only as spiritual substance. It has to express itself and become for itself, and this means nothing else than that it has to posit self-consciousness as being at one with itself” (ibid).

Hegel’s own favored attitudes, like rationality or “science”, are not exempt from the general requirement of development. To simply try to foist “science” or our favored view of rationality or the value of otherness on the public as ready-made conclusions differs little from attempts to socially impose any arbitrary prejudice. It is a means not at all suited to the ends of philosophy.

In speaking of “immediate self-consciousness”, he applies another paradoxical mixed form. The very essence of self-consciousness for Hegel is mediation, or the opposite of immediacy. But even the most highly mediated form can also be named, pointed at, presented, represented, or recalled in a more immediate way. Every level of development has its own characteristic reflection in relative immediacy.

He continues, “This coming-to-be of science itself, or, of knowing, is what is presented in this phenomenology of spirit” (ibid).

“Knowing, as it is at first, or, as immediate spirit, is devoid of spirit, is sensuous consciousness. In order to become genuine knowing, or, in order to beget the element of science which is its pure concept, immediate spirit must laboriously travel down a long path…. In any case, it is something very different from the inspiration which begins immediately, like a shot from a pistol, with absolute knowledge, and which has already finished with all other standpoints simply by declaring that it will take no notice of them” (pp. 17-18).

Immediate spirit is devoid of spirit in the deeper sense that travels down a long path. But still it contains a beginning.

“The aim is spirit’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience demands the impossible, which is to say, to achieve the end without the means. On the one hand, the length of the path has to be endured, for each moment is necessary — but on the other hand, one must linger at every stage along the way, for each stage is itself an entire individual shape” (p. 19).

Rational understanding has to grow organically — to be actively taken up and worked over by its participants — to realize its value. Once again, it is never enough to just present summary conclusions and expect the world to agree, no matter how right they are. A long, patient working out is essential to achieving the goal he has in mind.

“In this movement… what still remains is the representation of and the familiarity with the forms” (ibid).

“The element thus still has the same character of uncomprehended immediacy, or, of unmoved indifference as existence itself, or, it has only passed over into representational thought. — As a result, it is at the same time familiar to us, or, it is the sort of thing that spirit has finished with, in which spirit has no more activity, and, as a result, in which spirit has no further interest” (ibid).

Familiarity is an issue because it leads us to take things for granted and become inattentive. Hegel contrasts all forms of static representation of knowledge with the kind of active coming-to-be of knowing he is aiming at.

He continues, “However much the activity, which is finished with existence, is itself the immediate, or however much it is the existing mediation and thereby the movement only of the particular spirit which is not comprehending itself, still in contrast knowing is directed against the representational thought which has come about through this immediacy, is directed against this familiarity, and it is thus the doing of the universal self and the interest of thinking” (ibid).

In more Aristotelian language, once an understanding is acquired, it becomes passively available for easy use. The mode of this availability and easiness is a kind of habit. Habits have a great utility for action and responding to the world, but in exercising a habit we are not learning anything new. The active becoming of knowing, on the other hand, demands continuous learning.

“What is familiar and well-known as such is not really known for the very reason that it is familiar and well-known. In the case of cognition, the most common form of self-deception and deception of others is when one presupposes something as well known and then makes one’s peace with it. In that kind of back-and-forth chatter about pros and cons, such knowing, without knowing how it happens to it, never really gets anywhere. Subject and object, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are, as is well known, all unquestioningly laid as foundation stones which constitute fixed points from which to start and to which to return…. Thus, for a person to grasp and to examine matters consists only in seeing whether he finds everything said by everybody else to match up with his own idea of the matter, or with whether it seems that way to him and whether or not it is something with which he is familiar” (p. 20).

“To break up a representation into its original elements is to return to its moments, which at least do not have the form of a representation which one has merely stumbled across, but which instead constitute the immediate possession of the self. To be sure, this analysis would only arrive at thoughts which are themselves familiar and fixed…. However, what is separated, the non-actual itself, is itself an essential moment, for the concrete is self-moving only because it divides itself and turns itself into the non-actual” (ibid).

Actualization as a process is not just the tranquil extension of what is already actual. The emergence of new actuality essentially depends on what is currently non-actual.

He continues, “The activity of separating is the force and labor of understanding, the most astonishing and the greatest of all the powers, or rather, which is the absolute power” (ibid).

Hegel is better known as a sharp critic of the limits of the understanding that divides and sees only fixed things. But here, against the Romantics he defends analytical understanding’s creatively disruptive role in unsettling our complacency.

He continues, “The circle, which, enclosed within itself, is at rest and which, as substance, sustains its moments, is the immediate and is, for that reason, an unsurprising relationship. However, the accidental, separated from its surroundings, attains an isolated freedom and its own proper existence only in its being bound to other actualities and only as existing in their context; as such, it is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thinking, of the pure I” (ibid).

Just as new actualization depends on what is non-actual, the complacency of substantial existence is only spurred to new learning by what first appears as accident.

“Spirit only wins its truth by finding its feet in its absolute disruption” (p. 21).

To “find its feet in absolute disruption” is to be at home in otherness.

He continues, “Spirit is not this power which, as the positive, avoids looking at the negative, as is the case when we say of something that it is nothing, or that it is false, and then, being done with it, go off on our own way on to something else. No, spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face and lingering with it” (ibid).

“Negation” for Hegel is not the simple thing that it is in Boolean logic. Boolean negation is purely formal, and yields the exact opposite of its input. For Hegel, every manifestation of otherness is a sort of “negation”. Personally, I prefer the language of otherness. Thus I would say, “looking otherness in the face and lingering with it”. This involves looking beyond fixed thoughts and everything that has the form of givenness.

“[I]n modern times, the individual finds the abstract ready-made…. Nowadays the task before us consists not so much in purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate and in making him into a thinking substance… It consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal through the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts. However, it is much more difficult to set fixed thoughts into fluid motion than it is to bring sensuous existence into such fluidity” (ibid).

Ready-made abstractions are the bane of deeper understanding. It is far easier to announce that we ought to overcome them than to actually succeed in doing so.

“Thoughts become fluid by pure thinking, this inner immediacy, recognizing itself as a moment, or, by pure self-certainty abstracting itself from itself — it does not consist in only omitting itself, or, setting itself off to one side. Rather, it consists in giving up the fixity of its self-positing as well as the fixity of the purely concrete…. Through this movement, pure thoughts become concepts, and are for the first time what they are in truth: self-moving movements” (pp. 21-22).

In Hegel’s usage, a “concept” is not a fixed thought but an active rational disposition. Further, he suggests that real immersion in active thought implicitly involves letting go of a fixed presupposed self separate from the activity of thinking. At the same time thoughts, instead of being identified with inert fixed contents, become “self-moving movements” (see Ideas Are Not Inert).

“[I]t ceases to be the type of philosophizing which seeks to ground the truth in only clever argumentation about pros and cons or in inferences based on fully determinate thoughts and the consequences following from them. Instead, through the movement of the concept, this path will encompass the complete worldliness of consciousness in its necessity” (p. 22).

The “complete worldliness” of consciousness is the overcoming of the habitual duality of consciousness and object in which consciousness “sets itself off to one side” from everything else.

“Consciousness knows and comprehends nothing but what is in experience, for what is in experience is just spiritual substance, namely, as the object of its own self. However, spirit becomes the object, for it is this movement of becoming an other to itself…. And experience is the name of this very movement in which the immediate, the non-experienced, i.e., the abstract (whether the abstract is that of sensuous being or of ‘a simple’ which has only been thought about) alienates itself and then comes around to itself out of this alienation” (pp. 22-23).

“The inequality which takes place in consciousness between the I and the substance which is its object is their difference, the negative itself. It can be viewed as the defect of the two, but it is their very soul or is what moves them” (p. 23).

Here inequality manifests otherness. Notably he refers to it “taking place” rather than simply existing.

Even the core defect of the standpoint of ordinary consciousness — its duality, in which consciousness stands “off to one side” of its objects — in its capacity as a source of unrest already points beyond itself, kicking off the whole long movement that the Phenomenology aims to characterize.

“However much this negative now initially appears as the inequality between the I and the object, still it is just as much the inequality of the substance with itself. What seems to take place outside of the substance, to be an activity directed against it, is its own doing, and substance shows that it is essentially subject” (ibid).

Unqualified “substance” in Hegel’s sense really encompasses everything there is, even though we imagine that we are somewhere off to the side. Thus the apparent duality between us and substance that we think about turns out to be internal to substance itself. What seemed to be “our” separate activity turns out to be equally the activity of substance that is no longer “just” substance. The substance that is thought of loses its fixity and becomes an active thought.

“Why bother with the false at all?…. Ordinary ideas on this subject especially obstruct the entrance to the truth…. To be sure, we can know falsely. For something to be known falsely means that knowing is unequal to its substance. Yet this very inequality is the differentiating per se, the essential moment. It is indeed out of this differentiation that its equality comes to be, and this equality, which has come to be, is truth. However, it is not truth in the sense that would just discard inequality, like discarding the slag from pure metal, nor even is it truth in the way that a finished vessel bears no trace of the instruments that shaped it. Rather, as the negative, inequality is still itself immediately present, just as the self in the true as such is itself present” (pp. 23-24).

Hegel’s usage of “knowing” is much more inclusive than the strict Platonic or Kantian sense that I have been recommending here.

Here we reach another delicate point. What is false, he is saying, is not purely and simply false, because it also creates the unrest that is the impetus for further development. But this is very easily misunderstood, and can lead to complete nonsense.

To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, he continues, “For that reason, it cannot be said that the false constitutes a moment or even a constitutive part of the true. Take the saying that ‘In every falsehood, there is something true’ — in this expression both of them are regarded as oil and water, which cannot mix and are only externally combined. It is precisely for the sake of pointing out the significance of the moment of complete otherness that their expression must no longer be employed in the instances where their otherness has been sublated. Just as the expressions, ‘unity of subject and object’ or of ‘the finite and the infinite’, or of ‘being and thinking’, etc., have a certain type of clumsiness to them in that subject and object, etc., mean what they are outside of their unity, and therefore in their unity, they are not meant in the way that their expression states them, so too the false as the false is no longer a moment of truth” (pp. 24-25).

Here he is employing an Aristotelian “said in many ways” distinction to avoid confusion and nonsense. It remains the case that everything for Hegel being more than it “just” is requires a great wakefulness on the part of the reader, to avoid slipping into just the kind of nonsense he is warning about.

Incidentally, he suggests that “otherness” is a better alternative to talk about the unity of subject and object, finite and infinite, being and thinking, etc.

Wrapping up this part of the argument, he continues, “The dogmatism of the way of thinking, in both the knowing of philosophy and the study of it, is nothing but the opinion that truth consists either in a proposition which is a fixed result or else in a proposition which is immediately known…. [E]ven bare truths… do not exist without the movement of self-consciousness…. Even in the case of immediate intuition, acquaintance with them is linked to the reasons behind it” (p. 25).

Substance and Subject

This is part 2 of my walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. We’ve reached the point where he says “In my view, which must be justified by the exposition of the system itself, everything hangs on grasping and expressing the true not just as substance but just as much as subject” (Pinkard trans., p. 12).

I’ve previously written two posts (Substance Also Subject; Subject and Substance, Again) that try to bring this aspect of Hegel as close as possible to the deeper sense that Aristotle gives to “substance” in the Metaphysics. I still think this fits well with Hegel’s larger perspective, but here I want to deal with the text as it stands.

Just two sentences after the one quoted above, there is an unmistakable reference to Spinoza’s controversial view that God is the only substance there is. Spinoza defines substance as “what is in itself and is conceived through itself, i.e., that whose concept does not require the concept of another thing, from which it must be formed” (Ethics book 1 definition 3; Collected Works, Curley trans., vol. 1 p. 408). The sentences in which Hegel literally speaks of substance in the Preface appear to be consistent with this. In general, Hegel most often speaks of “substance” as something whose main attributes are self-containedness and immediate identity with itself. This is very far indeed from the Metaphysics-based notion of substance I have been concerned to develop here. But as we will see, Hegel makes up for this in other ways.

A “subject” for Hegel is always a conscious or self-conscious being. But consciousness for Hegel always comes paired with an object. Self-consciousness eventually overcomes the duality of consciousness and object, but it is constituted in irreducible relation with other rational beings.

So when Hegel says “substance is also subject”, it is a paradoxical expression saying that what is self-contained “also” has irreducible relations to objects or other beings. Language is here strained to the breaking point. Perhaps he wants to imply that the very thing that the Schellingians claimed was entirely self-contained is in reality essentially embedded in otherness.

Overall, Hegel stresses irreducible relations far more than self-containedness. In the opening quote, he just told us that in his discourse, we should not expect to find a “substance” that is only substance and nothing more. In Hegel, even the absolute is never “just” absolute. Everything for Hegel is more than it “just” is.

When he speaks of ethical substance or spiritual substance, what he seems to really want to convey is just that these have an aspect of self-containedness or simple immediacy, not that they are strictly reducible to it.

“The true is not an original unity as such, or, not an immediate unity as such. It is the coming-to-be of itself, the circle that presupposes its end as its goal and has its end for its beginning, and which is actual only through this accomplishment and its end” (pp. 12-13).

The circular relation here is importantly different from that by which Plotinus strictly identifies the end of all things with the origin of all things (for him, the One is both of these). In Hegel, the circle explicitly involves actualization of the end via coming-to-be, which escapes strict identity, whereas in Plotinus the circle is supposed to be eternal and to figuratively represent a simple identity. Directly contrary to Hegel, Plotinus would tell us that the true is both an original unity and an immediate unity.

Hegel expands his previous statement as follows:

“However much the form is said to be the same as the essence, still it is for that very reason a bald misunderstanding to suppose that cognition can be content with the in-itself, or, the essence, but can do without the form — that the absolute principle, or absolute intuition, can make do without working out the former or without the development of the latter. Precisely because the form is as essential to the essence as the essence is to itself, the essence must not be grasped as mere essence, which is to say, as immediate substance or as the pure self-intuition of the divine. Rather, it must likewise be grasped as form in the entire richness of the developed form, and only thereby is it grasped and expressed as the actual.”

“The true is the whole. However, the whole is only the essence completing itself through its own development. This much can be said of the absolute: It is essentially a result, and only at the end is it what it is in truth. Its nature consists just in this: to be actual, to be subject, or, to be the becoming-of-itself. As contradictory as it might seem, namely, that the absolute is to be comprehended essentially as a result, even a little reflection will put this mere semblance of contradiction in its rightful place. The beginning, the principle, or, the absolute as it is at first, or, as it is immediately expressed, is only the universal. But just as my saying ‘all animals’ can hardly count as an expression of zoology, it is likewise obvious that the words, ‘absolute’, ‘divine’, ‘eternal’, and so on, do not express what is contained in them; — and it is only such words which in fact express intuition as the immediate. Whatever is more than such a word, even the mere transition to a proposition, is a becoming-other which must be redeemed, or, it is a mediation” (p. 13).

“Hence, reason is misunderstood if reflection is excluded from the truth and is not taken to be a positive moment of the absolute. Reflection is what makes truth into the result, but it is likewise what sublates the opposition between the result and its coming-to-be” (p. 14).

As with “substance”, Hegel gives essence a much more restrictive meaning than I have been developing here. On the other hand, he has a lively Aristotelian notion of form that is quite unusual among modern writers.

To pay attention to mediation is to “be at home in otherness”. Here I think we are much closer to Aristotle again, perhaps in spite of what I find to be the awkward earlier words about substance and subject. Hegel seems to confirm this by explicitly comparing what he has just said to the larger scheme of Aristotelian teleology, just as I had hoped before (see Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity; Hegel’s Preface). Now that the ground is clear, I’ll apply this to the earlier point about Kant and Aristotle in a future post.

“What has just been said can also be expressed by saying that reason is purposive doing. Both the exaltation of a nature supposedly above and beyond thinking, and especially the banishment of external purposiveness have brought the form of purpose completely into disrepute. Yet, in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive doing, purpose is the immediate, the motionless, which is self-moving, or, is subject…. For that reason, the result is the same as the beginning because the beginning is purpose — that is, the actual is the same as its concept only because the immediate, as purpose, has the self, or, pure actuality, within itself. The purpose which has been worked out, or, existing actuality, is movement and unfolded coming-to-be” (ibid).

As an added bonus, he puts an explicit caveat on the previous talk about the subject. What really matters is the actuality of the concept as self-moving, not the putative fixed point of the subject. I like this vocabulary much better.

“The subject is accepted as a fixed point on which the predicates are attached for their support through a movement belonging to what it is that can be said to know this subject and which itself is also not to be viewed as belonging to the point itself, but it is solely through this movement that the content would be portrayed as the subject. Because of the way this movement is constituted, it cannot belong to the point, but after the point has been presupposed, this movement cannot be constituted in any other way, and it can only be external. Thus, not only is the former anticipation that the absolute is subject not the actuality of the concept, but it even makes that actuality impossible, for it posits the concept as a point wholly at rest, whereas the concept is self-movement” (p. 15).

Not only does he emphasize the movement of the concept, but he even mentions the content being “portrayed” as the subject. (See also Ideas Are Not Inert.)

Beauty and Discursivity

Plotinus was a huge inspiration for me in my youth. Revisiting a piece of his Enneads just now, I am again struck by the majesty of his thought and writing. These days I have a much more positive view of discursive reasoning, but I first wanted to let him speak for himself.

I still agree that there is far more to knowledge and understanding than an accumulation of propositions. But as a teenager, I definitely considered step-by-step reasoning to be something inferior to the kind of holistic intellectual intuition Plotinus emphasizes when he talks about Intellect. The latter I considered to be the true source of insight — “silent mind before talking mind”.

Nowadays, I think that kind of unitary vision is achievable only as the crowning result of much patient work. I no longer take it to be the original source that discursive reasoning imitates in an inferior way. Intellect or Reason does form a relational whole, and the whole is more important than the parts. But today I would emphasize that the relational whole is an articulated whole, and it is the articulation — the making of connections — that is the real essence.

From many connections, we get larger unities. Larger unities are still the goal, but the work of making connections is what makes such fused views possible. The contemplation of well-formed wholes by the silent mind of an embodied human depends on prior work that must include open discursive questioning and reasoning, if the result is to be genuine.

Aristotle made a vitally important distinction between what is first in itself and what is first for us. To directly aim for the highest truth in itself while being dismissive of what is “first for us” is to disregard our nature as rational animals. Put another way, to directly aim for the highest truth is simply to miss it. This is the kind of illegitimate shortcut that Plotinus himself criticized the gnostics for.

We rational animals need the “long detour” of dialectic to properly grasp any kind of real truth. Otherwise, our visionary experiences will just be fever dreams of the sort that incite fanatics. The goal is not just immediacy but mediated immediacy, as Hegel would say. I think Plotinus at least partially recognized this.

To no longer regard things in the manner of “a spectator outside gazing on an outside spectacle” is to overcome naive dichotomies of subject and object. To really do this, we have to clear our minds of prejudice, not just do meditative exercises to silence internal dialogue. Clearing our minds of prejudice is what requires the long detour.

Causes: Real, Heuristic?

The neoplatonic and scholastic traditions tended to treat causes as hypostatized real metaphysical principles, either inferred or simply given. Modern science in its more sophisticated statements has generally treated causes in a more heuristic way, as useful for the explanation of lawful regularity in phenomena.

I read the “causes” or “reasons why” in Aristotle as a sort of hermeneutic tools for understanding. This would encompass the kind of explanations employed by modern science, as well as much else that is helpful for understanding things in ordinary life, and for realizing our potential as animals involved with meaning and values.

Aristotle’s Metaphysics treats causes in Book V, in the context of “things said in many ways”. I will here quote the short first chapter, which introduces causes indirectly through the related concept of arché (governing principle, beginning, or as Sachs translates it, “source”):

Source means that part of a thing from which one might first move, as of a line or a road there is a source in one direction, and another one from the opposite direction; and it means that from which each thing might best come into being, as in the case of learning, sometimes one ought to begin not from what is first and the source of the thing, but from which one might learn most easily; or it means that constituent from which something first comes into being, such as the keel of a ship or the foundation of a house, and in animals some say it is the heart, others the brain, and others whatever they happen to believe is of this sort; or it means that which is not a constituent, from which something first comes into being, and from which its motion and change naturally first begin, as a child from its father and mother, or a fight from insults; or it means that by whose choice a thing is moved or what changes changes, in the sense in which the ruling offices of cities as well as oligarchies, monarchies, and tyrannies are called sources, as are the arts, and among these the master crafts most of all. Also, that from which a thing is first known is called the source of the thing, such as the hypotheses of demonstrations.”

“Causes [aitiai] are meant in just as many ways, since all causes are sources. And what is common to all sources is to be the first thing from which something is or comes to be or is known; of these, some are present within while others are outside. For this reason nature is a source, as are elements, thinking, choice, thinghood, and that for the sake of which; for the good and the beautiful are sources of both the knowledge and the motion of many things” (Sachs translation, pp. 77-78).

What is emphasized in the notion of “source”, which Aristotle uses to provide insight into that of “cause”, is what is ultimately — or at least relatively ultimately — behind something, not that which is immediately behind it. By contrast, what I have been calling the “modern” (common-sense, not properly scientific) sense of “cause” is supposed to “operate” in an at least relatively immediate and direct (proximate) way.

Direct and Indirect “Knowledge”

For now, this will be the last installment on Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject. Though he has promised another four and a half volumes, I’ve reached the end of what has been published so far. Here I’ll briefly summarize the remainder of volume 3 part 1.

After analysis of an anonymous Averroist text of the 1270s that criticizes Aquinas in sharper language than that employed by Siger of Brabant, de Libera briefly discuses substance dualism and the plurality of substantial forms in the later Augustinian tradition. He documents the beginnings of the shift toward modern usages of “subject” and “object” in the 13th century. He notes the large difference in connotation between Aristotelian ousia and Latin substantia, glossing ousia as what something is in its depth. (I’ve been continuing to use “substance”, with Aristotle’s own gloss from the Metaphysics of “what it was to have been” a thing.)

He then turns to a long and delicately nuanced review of Aquinas’ compromise between Aristotle and Augustine on the soul’s knowledge of itself. The title of this chapter in French is a pun: by homonymy, it suggests “The Subject Supposed to Know Itself”, but literally, it is “The Subject Supposed to Have Itself”.

At summary level, Aristotle holds that all self-knowledge is indirect, while Augustine holds that the soul directly knows itself through its essence. But de Libera points out that there are elements of directness in Aristotle, and elements of indirectness in Augustine. He emphasizes that “knowledge” is said in many ways, from mere undifferentiated awareness to the strong knowledge that was called “science”. If we want to discuss claims about self-knowledge, we need to distinguish what kind of “knowledge” we are talking about.

In the final chapter, de Libera again mentions the Franciscan Peter Olivi, who in the 13th century criticized the representationalism of the medieval theory of “species” in the name of direct realism. Olivi also further sharpened Augustine’s claims that the soul directly knows itself by its essence. According to de Libera, while Olivi was far less influential than Aquinas, it was the interaction of their legacies that ultimately led to the modern notion of the human subject as agent and ego. Toward the end, de Libera again mentions the 18th century Scottish philosopher of common sense Thomas Reid, who was completely unaware of medieval Augustinian criticisms of representationalism, and re-invented direct realism.

Once again, we have to be careful about too easy assumptions regarding “isms”. Here, it turns out that both advocates of representationalism and advocates of direct realism may make strong appeals to immediacy and presence. The difference is that in modern terms, representationalists appeal to the alleged immediacy of mental representations, whereas direct realists appeal to the alleged immediacy of external objects. I read Aristotle as acknowledging a modest role for immediacy in common sense apprehensions, but as rejecting the idea that immediacy has any kind of privileged status in knowledge. I read Kant, Hegel, Brandom, and Ricoeur among others as strongly supporting this Aristotelian view.

Earlier, de Libera had noted a common Franciscan criticism that for both Aristotle and Aquinas, all self-knowledge is inferential. These days, I would take that as a compliment. In my youth, I uncritically absorbed a large bias toward immediacy myself. Immediacy was supposed to give a truth hidden by ordinary alienation. But in more recent years, I have become sympathetic to Brandom’s thesis that all apparently immediate knowledge is just that — apparently immediate, and that a kind of inference actually is the most primitive source of knowledge.

Form vs Action

Lately I’ve been assembling materials for a contrast between two different “root metaphors” that have been used in making sense of life, the world, and things — one a notion of form associated especially with Aristotle, and the other a Latin scholastic and modern notion of action. This is also related to the historical transformation of the notion of efficient cause and of causality in general.

The first thing to note is that these are families of metaphors rather than uniform applications of the “same” two concepts. Literal shapes, linguistic meanings, and patterns of activity are all called “forms”, but do not reflect the same concept. The “action” of creation from nothing and that of mechanical impulse are two entirely different concepts.

The unifying themes, I think, are that “action” is supposed to be something more or less simple, immediate, and instantaneous, supporting what is supposed to be a kind of bottom-up, foundational explanation of things, whereas “form” always involves some “intensional” complexity and mediation; may involve extension in time and space that further ramifies that intensional complexity and mediation; and supports a kind of “middle-out” explanation that begins with reflection on middle-sized elements of actual experience, rather than a posited foundation of ultimate simple constituents.

(For some additional complications regarding the above simple picture of action, see A Thomistic Grammar of Action.)

Questioning the Role of Action

Which comes first in the order of explanation: action, as immediate doing; or patterns of activity or practice, as extended, intricately developed over time, mediated, purposeful, and responsive to circumstance? I think it is more the latter.

What I aim to question here is not at all the reality of change or activity, but rather what might be called the “action model” — a way of explaining extended processes and changes and human reality in general in terms of punctual and immediate actions or events. The question is, do we focus on understanding larger processes and developments as the sum of discrete actions, or do we focus on understanding more or less immediate actions in terms of their place in larger processes and developments?

There is more than just a simple polarity here — meaning consists of both concrete detail and a larger context, and we need each of these to help elaborate the other. Nonetheless I want to suggest that it is better to explain things from the larger perspective of activities rather than the narrower one of actions.

Berkeley on Perception

George Berkeley (1685-1753) is most famous for his provocative claim that material objects don’t really exist. Positively, he claimed that “to be is to be perceived”. Berkeley took as a starting point the view of Descartes and Locke that perceptions are “ideas” in the mind, but took issue with the further assumption of Descartes and Locke that ideas nonetheless also “represent” things that exist independent of the mind. It seems to me that the implicit concept of mind in this kind of usage assumes way too much, but for now I won’t dwell on that.

Berkeley has been the subject of superficial ridicule as a poster child for extreme subjectivism, but that is a caricature. Famously, he is supposed to have maintained, e.g., that a tree falling in the woods and heard by no one makes no sound. As 20th century analytic philosophers have noted, however, even if his positions are ultimately untenable, the quality of his arguments is actually quite high. Apart from the abstract “metaphysical” question of the actual existence of external objects, he also generally wanted to vindicate common sense.

Far from denying the existence of any objective reality, what he really wanted to do was articulate an alternate account of objectivity, based on something other than the independent existence of discrete objects. He had two different kinds of responses on the falling tree. One invokes counterfactual conditions; all that is of practical relevance to us are the conditions under which a perception would occur. The other invokes God as a universal witness.

From within the tradition of British empiricism, Berkeley partially anticipates the non-representationalist accounts of objectivity developed by Kant and Hegel, using the resources of a kind of Christian Platonism. Unlike Kant and Hegel, he flatly asserts that what really exists are what he calls spirits, which combine Christian-Platonic attributes with those of minds in a broadly Cartesian-Lockean sense.

A bit like the monads of Leibniz but without the infinite nesting and mutual inclusion Leibniz posited, Berkeley’s spirits are inherently active, and inherently endowed with perception. Spirits have experience that is expressed in purely immanent and immediate — but entirely passive and inert — contentful ideas.

Berkeley wrote an important early work on the theory of vision, arguing that what we really see is immediate phenomena of light and color, rather than inferred “things”. This was an important source for phenomenalism in early 20th century philosophy of science. Like the later phenomenalists, he tried to explain all cognitive error as bad inference from good immediate perception. From this point of view, “ideas” cannot be wrong, because they are purely immediate and purely inert; the possibility of error depends on the actions of finite spirits.

The common tradition of Cartesianism and British empiricism insists that there is a layer of immediate apprehension that is immune to error, and wants to ground knowledge and science by more authentically getting back to that immediate layer. I think Kant and Hegel convincingly showed that everything we experience as immediate actually has a prehistory, so that immediacy itself is only an appearance, and all immediacy that we experience is really what Hegel called mediated immediacy. Mediated immediacy has the same general kind of explanation as what is called “habit” in translations of Aristotle. We “just know” how to ride a bicycle once we have already learned. We don’t have to think about it; we just spontaneously do it. Similarly, I think “immediate” perception involves a complex unconscious application of categories that is affected by large bodies of previous experience.

Thus I want to say that there is no layer of human experience that is immune to error. On the other hand, through reflection and well-rounded judgment, we genuinely but fallibly participate in objectivity. Objectivity is not something that is simply “out there”; it is a real but always finite and relative achievement.

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).