Apperceptive Judgment

What Hegel calls “the concept” is not a simple content to be grasped, as if it were already completely formed as what it will turn out to be, and all of that in advance of and independent of the activity of judgment. Rather, it emerges out of the activity of judgment in the space of reasons. It also turns out to have an inherently normative character.

Pippin quotes Kant: “I find that a judgment is nothing other than the way to bring given cognitions to the objective unity of apperception…. I do not mean to say that these representations necessarily belong to one another in the empirical intuition, but rather that they belong to one another in virtue of the necessary unity of the apperception in the synthesis of intuitions” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 102).

As a first approximation, “apperception” here means something like apprehension of intelligible meaning. For Kant, “the basic feature” of the “general or content-less logic as rules for valid judgings and inferrings” is that “judging is apperceptive” (p. 103).

The significance of this will become a bit clearer further below. Hegel will go further than Kant in construing apperception in a purely “logical” (as opposed to psychological) way.

“Kant was well aware that with this notion of apperceptive judging he was breaking with the rationalist (and Lockean) notion of reflection as inner perception, and as we shall see, Hegel’s language is everywhere carefully Kantian in this respect” (p. 112).

(Aristotle too carefully distinguished thought from inner sense, rather than identifying them in the style of Descartes and Locke.)

Pippin quotes Hegel: “It is one of the profoundest and truest insights to be found in the Critique of Pure Reason that the unity which constitutes the essence of the concept is recognized as the original synthetic unity of apperception, the unity of the ‘I think’, or of self-consciousness” (ibid).

This suggests a three-way mutual explication of the essence of the concept, unity of apperception, and self-consciousness. Self-consciousness for Hegel turns out to be not a separate substantive “subject” distinct from its “object”, but rather an essential adverbial property of self-reference that is intrinsic to the thinking of every concept (see The Ambiguity of “Self”).

From Hegel’s perspective “it is quite misleading for Kant to formulate the point by saying that the ‘I think’ must ‘accompany’ (begleiten) all my representations…. Representing objects is not representing objects, a claiming to be so, unless apperceptive…. And that has to mean, in a very peculiar sense that is important to Hegel and that will take some time to unpack, that such judgings are necessarily and inherently reflexive, and so at the very least are self-referential, even if such a reflected content is not substantive, does not refer to a subject’s focusing on her judging activity as if it were a second consciousness…. Virtually everything in the Logic of significance descends in one way or another from the proper understanding of this claim” (ibid).

Judgings as activities are “necessarily and inherently… self-referential”. The suggestion seems to be that apperception and self-consciousness consist in complex self-referential judgings, rather than anything resembling perceptive receptivity or simple consciousness. “Reflexivity” for Hegel is an elemental property of judgments as judgments, not a global property of consciousness. To assert the inherent self-referentiality of judging activity is quite different from asserting the sort of inherent reflexivity of consciousness that Descartes and Locke presuppose.

“[W]e have to be clear that this has nothing to do with inner perception or the mind observing itself” (p. 105).

“There must be some way of saying that the self-conscious dimension of thought and action is a matter of the way a claim is made or an action undertaken. To adopt the formulations used by Ryle in accounting for many similar phenomena, they are accomplished ‘self-consciously’, rather than accompanied by or even identical with another act of consciousness” (p. 106).

“There is a self-referential component in any judgment or action too (‘I think this, I act thus’), but it can be misleading to think that this is the same problem as ‘how does the first-person pronoun have sense, and thereby pick me uniquely out’. As we shall see, it is misleading because it suggests a punctuated moment of awareness” (p. 107).

“Finally, there is little doubt that Hegel realized that apperception was not a kind of consciousness” (ibid).

In support of this he quotes Hegel: “[I]n this original deed there is not yet the representation of the ‘I’…. [T]his objectifying deed, liberated from the opposition of consciousness [between subject and object], is closer to what may be taken simply as thinking as such. But this deed should no longer be called consciousness; for consciousness holds within itself the opposition of the ‘I’ and its intended object which is not to be found in that original deed” (ibid).

Apperception thus implicitly becomes the middle term of a syllogism: self-consciousness is apperception; apperception is not a kind of consciousness; therefore (contrary to what the formation of the word suggests) self-consciousness is not a kind of consciousness, but something “else”.

I take consciousness to be a form of presentation in what Aristotle called imagination, and self-consciousness to be the form of the self-referential character of judgment or apperception. Outside the context of the Logic (e.g., in the Phenomenology), self-consciousness has an inherently social or intersubjective dimension; in both the Phenomenology and the Logic it has a normative dimension. Human as opposed to purely animal experience is always a mixture of “consciousness” and “self-consciousness”.

“I know what I am doing not by identifying myself with the one acting, but by being the one acting. So how can such a Two also be One? We are in the middle of everything of significance in Hegel’s Logic, not to mention Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre and Schelling’s early idealism…. This unusual identity is constitutive of ‘theoretical thought’ as such” (pp. 108-109).

“This too is important to state carefully. Hegel scholars often assume that Hegel inherits ‘identity philosophy’ from Schelling, and that it means ‘the identity of subject and object’. They then formulate various implausible versions of such an identity, such as that true reality is divine thought thinking itself, that objects are moments of this thought’s ‘intellectual intuition of itself’. But the Logic is not committed to anything remotely like this” (p. 109).

Rather, the identity Hegel is principally interested in is that “the thought (belief, assertion) of some content… is at the same time the thought of the reasons that are required for such an ‘answer'” (p. 110, emphasis added). This what it means to say that thought is inherently self-referential.

This helps to explain why it is true that “It is a condition of use of a concept that the use is subject to a norm of correct and incorrect use, and that norm is internal to the concept…. Such capacities as judgment and self-consciousness are called into play in a way that can be redeemed if challenged, for example” (p. 106).

Pippin elaborates, “being committed to the truth of a proposition, I am just thereby committed to the denial of everything inconsistent with it. The latter is not a separate inference I draw, on the basis of my first commitment. It is a dimension of the content of my first commitment. This is not to say I must be conscious of these implications and incompatibilities, but just that I could not be thinking of that content were I not able to be responsive to such considerations. This is all so just as someone’s believing something and her thought that it is something right to believe ‘are the same reality‘” (p. 112).

The idea that a proposition should be identified with the distinctions and entailments that it presupposes and that follow from it — rather than with a simple Boolean value of true or false, as in mainstream 20th century logic — has been developed with extraordinary thoroughness by Robert Brandom in Making It Explicit, which Richard Rorty credited with ushering in a new “Hegelian” stage of analytic philosophy.

“[N]o one could be said to ‘just’ assert, or just believe, or just act. Any such undertaking, if self-conscious, must be potentially responsive to the question of ‘Why?’; that is, to reasons. (An assertion is such a responsiveness; the latter is not a secondary or even distinct dimension of the former.)” (ibid).

This formulation that an assertion is such a responsiveness — which relies on the essential self-referentiality of judgment that Pippin is arguing for here — seems in a way more radical than the way Brandom puts it. For Brandom and Brandom’s Hegel, the concomittant commitments are material inferences, and there is a sort of Kantian imperative that we ought to show such responsiveness to everything with a material-inferential connection to our assertions. According to Pippin’s Hegel, the concommitant commitments are not inferences at all but integral to the true identity of the assertion, and we would not really have made an assertion at all if we did not show responsiveness to them. But they ultimately agree that we ought to show such responsiveness — that addressing the concomittant commitments of our assertions is not something we could legitimately choose to ignore — and that this has something to do with the very nature of assertion-making.

“And it is at least plausible to say that the greater the extent of such potential responsiveness (or said another way, the greater the self-understanding), the ‘freer’ the activity, the more I can be said to redeem the action as genuinely mine, back it, stand behind it. We thus have formulated what [Sebastian] Rödl rightly identifies as the heart of German Idealism, the principle ‘that self-consciousness, freedom and reason are one'” (pp. 113-114).

Statements like “self-consciousness, freedom and reason are one” used to give me no end of trouble, because I assumed they were meant to assert the sovereignty of a Subject (i.e., in this case that the Subject is self-conscious; the Subject has free will; and the Subject is the seat of reason). What I eventually realized through the closer study of Kant and Hegel is that I was assuming dictionary meanings of self-consciousness and freedom that are not applicable, and that Hegel and even Kant are much less “subject-centered” than common readings make them out to be. A strong concern for subjectivity need not be identified with the assumption of a sovereign Subject.

Because what Hegel means by “concept” is so fundamental to understanding the Logic and so far from the way it is commonly understood, Pippin repeats an earlier message in different words:

“[C]oncepts are determinate only by virtue of their roles in judgment, the ‘bringing to the objective unity of apperception’, in Kant’s definition” (p. 115).

“So a concept like ‘essence’, for example, can be said to be delimitable as just that concept by virtue of its possible uses in various contrasts to ‘appearance’ or by virtue of its negation (in the grand structure of the [Science of Logic]) of the concept ‘being’, or its role in distinguishing accidental from essential predicates. These are all roles in judgments (and are thereby tied to judgmental roles in inferences). Any of these uses, though, involves any such claim in a network of justifications, a normative order. The application of any such concept in judgment, since apperceptive, self-consciously applied, must be, just thereby, responsive to its possible misapplication, and the question of the general contours of its correct use implicates any one notion in the normative proprieties governing many others. Hence, as we shall see, the course of the ‘movement’ of the logic” (ibid).

“A proper understanding of the self’s relation to itself in thinking, the form of any conceiving and thereby any concept, and thereby any inferential relation, is also the core meaning of what Hegel calls the ‘infinity’ treated by speculative philosophy” (p. 118).

“This is yet again not an easy thought: some sort of self-relation that is not a two-place relation, but something like a circular structure, in which the self’s self-relation never terminates in a distinct object or determinate posit, but in so attending, returns to itself as a relating…. This is ‘infinity’ in the proper sense, Hegel tells us frequently, and… ‘Self-consciousness is thus the nearest example of the presence of infinity'” (p. 119).

I need to study this part of the Logic more closely. My current impression is that what Hegel calls the “good” infinite has something to do with what I would tentatively call relational structures with cyclic dependencies, and he thinks we can and do implicitly use something like this in life, without getting stuck in what could be a mathematically infinite cyclic traversal of the structure. (That something like this is at least conceivable is anecdotally supported by the existence of computable and hence in that sense “finite” implementations of infinitely extensible data structures.) The more usual notion of infinity — at root mathematical, a paradoxical “value greater than any definite value” — Hegel derides as “bad” infinity, regardless of whether it is potential or actual (which was a key distinction for Aristotle).

Hegel in effect seems to ask us to suspend the assumption that standard mathematical infinity is what infinity is, and to step back to the more general idea of the non-definite. Further, he identifies the contrasting term of finitude specifically with a non-relational view of things, as being whatever they are even in complete isolation from one another, so his condemnations of finitude are not at all condemnations of the view of things as finite in the sense of depending on other things. Pippin earlier even suggested that some kind of notion of things depending on other things for their intelligibility is the main source of the famous and difficult-to-understand “motion” in Hegelian logic.

“Discriminating what belongs together with what, what is connected to what in a temporal order, knowing that the successive perceptions of a house do not count as the perception of a succession in the world, requires an apperceptive unity; it does not just happen to consciousness” (p. 121).

“Without this ability to distinguish how things are from how they seem to me, there would be as many ‘I’s’ as associated seemings, and no unity of self-consciousness. Or, achieving the unity of self-consciousness is differentiating seeming from being” (p. 122).

Pippin returns to his larger argument about the Kantian basis of what Hegel is doing.

“The attempt has been to understand the Kantian claim about apperception as a logical, not psychological claim, and this goes some way toward understanding the link between this reflexive character of judging as the essence of intelligibility and ‘the intelligibles’. If it is possible to establish that certain a priori judgments have… objectivity, but without Kant’s limitation thesis, restricting that thesis to possible objects of sense experience (phenomena, not noumena), we will have a way into Hegel’s claim that logic can be understood as metaphysics. Our claim about Kant was that even for him, this relation to objects is not established by the imposition of subjective form onto received sensory material. Kant’s position is not ‘impositionist’ in this sense, and both he and Hegel are following the nonimpositionist, more Aristotelian (hylomorphic) line” (p. 125).

He includes several more quotes from Kant and one from Beatrice Longuenesse that offer hints in this more Aristotelian direction, then says, “We need only remember that for Hegel this is the core of Kant’s own position once we give up any notion of separable contributions from sensibility and understanding, and give up referring to pure forms of intuition as species-specific…. If we do, we get the careful statements about the identity within difference of concept and being in and for itself with which we began” (p. 126).

He returns to the more basic point that “There is no indication that Hegel thinks that being or God has an apperceptive discursive intellect and that we are manifestations of it. We are manifestations of the finitude of Verstand [understanding] and the possibility inherent in Verstand of the transcendence of such self-imposed finitude” (ibid).

In referring to “self-imposed” finitude, I think Pippin means the viewing of concepts as independent, isolated objects or fixed representations, rather than as pure moments in the traversal of the relational network of the space of reasons.

“[W]e need a kind of stereoscopic vision to keep in mind two aspects of this issue that Hegel keeps stressing…. The first is that conceiving is an activity and concepts are ‘moments’ of this activity. This is something stressed in a different way when Hegel tells us that concepts are not things, objects. The second is that… such activities are not actions, doings, and that Kant’s position, when properly understood (and so not as Kant understood it), should not be taken as a part of a two-step or impositionist account of such activity” (p. 127).

That activity is not reducible to punctual actions is a thesis I have been pursuing in an Aristotelian context.

“Hegel says that (Kant’s) objective or transcendental logic ‘replaces’… general metaphysics or ontology. Logic so construed also takes account of and replaces special metaphysics, the a priori doctrines of the soul, the world, and God” (p. 128).

Once again, Hegel’s “logical” alternative to rationalist metaphysics and psychology does not presuppose any fixed concepts. Pippin returns to this to avoid misunderstanding, because he has been emphasizing the non-psychological character of apperceptive judgment for Hegel.

“If we think, as some do, of Hegel’s Denkbestimmungen [thought determinations] as something like Fregean thoughts, objective in a Platonic sense, as abstract entities, then what I am quoting [to the effect that the “objective” part of Hegel’s logic is the true critique of such determinations] is very puzzling. Hegel certainly knows that Kant’s transcendental logic is in some sense or other a logic of subjectivity” (p. 129).

The distinction that is beginning to be made explicit here is between subjectivity in general and specifically psychological subjectivity. This will allow Hegel to develop a “subjective” logic that has nothing to do with psychology.

By analogy, Pippin notes that “Frege interpreters argue that there is no reason to go as far as the historical Frege did (a form of Platonism) to differentiate objective thought from mental episodes, private associations, etc.” (ibid).

“In a claim we shall have to return to and investigate, [Hegel] repeats often that the true critical question is not whether subjective forms of thought have any objective purchase, but whether the concepts of a logic ‘in and for themselves’ provide what they are supposed to provide: what is required for successful conceptual determination…. Kant did not sufficiently investigate what these pure concepts are; he did not pursue the question of their ‘nature’ and their very possibility” (p. 130).

Broadly speaking, the answer will be that concepts are not Platonic forms but get their meaning from their uses, as normatively evaluated in the space of reasons.

“Commentators are sometimes so eager to observe the spirit of this sort of critique of Kantian ‘subjectivism’ that they assume that the Logic is something like the ‘pure’ manifestation of the objective dependence and implication relations among ‘pure essentialities’, thoughts in the objective sense, logical entities that are in those relations in ways that have nothing to do with anyone ‘thinking them'” (p. 131).

The delicate point here is that we can take the activity of thinking into account by treating it as its own “subject”, rather than attributing it to a separate Subject.

“But the apperceptive or inherently reflexive determination of conceptual content… is no more external than the ‘I think’ is external to a content thought. Judgment and the consciousness of judgment are one act. No content represents anything except as thought/judged” (ibid).

Recalling the syllogism I constructed above from Hegel’s statements — which concluded that what he calls self-consciousness is not a kind of consciousness — I think Pippin should have said “self-consciousness” rather than “consciousness” in the above. “Self-consciousness” for Hegel is normative and non-psychological. What he calls “consciousness” (the aspect of immediacy and of presentation in the form of objects) does have a psychological character. In real life, we encounter mixtures of the two.

“The movement of pure thought is like the movement in a proof, on the assumption that the moves are inferences a thinker, on pain of contradiction, must make, and not merely formal-structural functions, as in a symbolic logic” (p. 132).

A proof involves not just a sequence of propositions but a sequence of judgments or assertions. Frege explained this difference in terms of an additional dimension of “assertoric force” alongside his Platonic view of concepts and propositions. For Pippin and Brandom, the consideration of assertoric force is where normativity enters into logic.

“[I]t is also question-begging to assume that anyone who makes the assertoric force inseparable from the logical structure of a unit of meaning (as Hegel unquestionably does) is thereby guilty of psychologism, or of relying on some ‘experiential’ standard of adequacy. Even Frege was willing to make the question of assertoric force a part of ‘logic’ in his own terms” (ibid).

Hegel takes assertoric force into account by treating it normatively rather than psychologically. Meanwhile, the movement of judging activity that is the bearer of Hegel’s notion of truth must also be distinct from the mere inspection of logical structure.

[O]bjects moving about [in Hegel’s Logic]… is a mystification. At any rate, I have no idea what it would be to ‘observe’ one thought-object developing into another. (We don’t observe what happens when one step in a proof ‘becomes’ another; the inference has to be drawn, and drawn for a reason.) Such an objectivism makes it almost impossible to understand what Hegel calls the Logic‘s inner ‘drive’…, and it especially does not take account of the claim that conceptual form is itself apperceptive, that ‘the truth is self-consciousness’ (pp. 133-134).

“Essentialities do not move or establish relations with other essentialities…. A proposition cannot be the bearer of truth, does not even represent any state of affairs, except as judged, and therewith the identity of the acts of thinking involve[s] a wide variety of other commitments at the same time…. (I mean such things as being committed to the denial of all judgments inconsistent with the one that one asserts as true, and this not as a second act of thought.) By contrast, the basic unit of intelligibility for Hegel is not an internally complex object, even if in relations with other objects, but as he says in many ways and many different times, a result, the accomplishment of the ‘active universal’, which activity is judging…. The mode of logical connection is inseparable from the mode of connecting. They are co-constituting” (pp. 134-135).

Objective “thoughts” in Hegel’s sense are not just pure Platonic essentialities but judgments that have a shareable meaning and that inherently invite normative evaluation.

“Said another way, a strong way of insisting that Hegel’s new ‘metaphysics’ is a logic, none of this has anything to do with what anything is made of, consists in, with the furniture of the universe. What we want to know… about these concepts is their ‘logic’, how they function with account-givings governed by the norms of explanatory satisfactoriness and truth” (p. 137).

“This means that any concept of thinking and of the content of thought involves normative proprieties, exclusions, and implications, without which any thinking a thought could not be the thinking and the thought that it is. These normative commitments are independent of what a thinker might herself be able to acknowledge, but they cannot be denied on being noticed, on pain of incoherence, of not thinking anything at all” (ibid).

Thus apperception — or what we might call “pure” as opposed to empirical subjectivity, which need not be tied to an assumed separate Subject, but only to some judging activity — for Hegel is purely “logical” (having to do with the determination of meaning). It is independent of anything psychological, and at the same time it is inherently normative.

Cartesian Metaphysics

For Descartes, according to Gueroult, “metaphysics” is the universal science or the system of science, and also a kind of introduction to more concrete studies. Here we are far from Aristotle and much closer, I think, to Duns Scotus. Without knowledge of God and oneself, Descartes says, it would never be possible to discover the principles of physics. Gueroult says that Descartes insists on an “incomprehensibility” of God that is neither unknowability nor irrationality but the “formal reason of the infinite” (Descartes selon l’order des raisons, p. 17). This again has a somewhat Scotist sound to my ear.

The infinitude of God puts God absolutely first, as the first truth that founds all others. Gueroult quotes Descartes saying, “It is a ‘blasphemy’ to say that the truth of something precedes God’s knowledge of it…, because the existence of God is the first and the most eternal of all the truths that can be, and the truth from which all the others proceed” (ibid; my translation).

Descartes says that God “freely creates” eternal truths. I have no idea what creation of eternal truths could even possibly mean, though such a notion seems to be at least implicit in the teaching of Duns Scotus. To be eternal is to have no before and after. Therefore, it seems to me, all eternal things must be co-eternal. This point of view accommodates part of Descartes’ thesis, insofar as if all eternal things are co-eternal, then an eternal truth would not “precede” God’s knowledge of it. In broadly neoplatonic terms, eternal truths could plausibly be regarded as aspects of the “nature” of God. I can also grasp the idea of truths following logically from the “nature” of God, but I suspect Descartes would either follow Scotus in arguing that God’s infinite power is not a “nature”, or follow Aquinas in arguing that God is pure existence and has no other “nature”. I don’t see how anything more specific can directly follow from either infinite power or pure existence.

For Descartes, though, God’s omnipotence “excludes the possibility of error” and “alone founds the objective validity of my intellectual faculty” (ibid). Descartes aims at “a total system of certain knowledge, at the same time metaphysical and scientific, … entirely immanent to mathematical certitude enveloped in the clear and distinct intellect, … in its requirement of absolute rigor. This totality of the system is in no way that of an encyclopedia of material knowledge effectively acquired, but the fundamental unity of the first principles from which follow all possible certain knowledge” (p. 18). Descartes’ doctrine is for him “a single block of certainty” (p. 19) that would be falsified by adding or removing any detail. All this seems way too strong to me.

Gueroult points out that Descartes wants to contrast an “order of reasons” with an “order of material”, as being more principled. However, unlike geometry, the total system of metaphysical reasoning for Descartes has “psychological” as well as logical requirements. Gueroult says it is for this reason that the Meditations best represent Descartes’ paradigm of rigorous analytic demonstration.

Granted that there is a clear “psychological” aspect to the Meditations, at this point I’m unsure what it means to relate that to the claimed rigor of the system. Moreover, adding a “psychological” dimension to what was said before about mathematical reasoning affects the very meaning of the claim of rigor. I think I understand what mathematical rigor is. I do not understand what “psychological” rigor would be in this context, but I suspect it may be wrapped up with what I would call extraordinary presumptions of absolute self-transparency and immediate reflexivity.

Toward Self-Consciousness

The Force and Understanding chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology concludes with two sections I find particularly difficult.

In the first, the supersensible in comparison with the world of appearances is treated as a sort of “inverted world” where negation and universality rather than concrete form play the main role in intelligibility as law. The subsequent return to the world of appearances that explains it as law-governed and takes us back to positive things again is then described as a “second inversion”.

According to Harris in his commentary, Hegel wants to establish that the formal necessity of mathematics is insufficient to account for the rationality of experience. The Understanding wants to explain everything in terms of force, including the Understanding itself. All the movement of explanation is in the Understanding. Hegel argues that the explanation of necessity in the world turns out to presuppose free activity in the Understanding. The fixing of distinctions Hegel meanwhile associates with sensuous representation as distinct from the supersensible.

In the second, what Hegel wants to call a kind of infinity emerges from Understanding’s looking at the world of appearances as a law-governed but constantly moving and restless whole that is unconditioned by anything other than itself.

Harris notes that this infinity is a result. Because infinity or the absolute is a result rather than a starting point, Hegel is able to say that the old neoplatonic problem of how the Many emerge from the One does not arise for him. Harris says Hegel is here making an Aristotelian response to Plotinus.

“Our approach to this problem has shown that Unity and Multiplicity are logically internal to one another, that the real Infinite must embrace the finite because the Infinite is precisely the raising of finitude to Infinity. This is how we can express the significance of the ‘second inversion’ in the speculative-theological terminology of finite and Infinite” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 303).

Because the Understanding wants to explain everything and everything includes itself, its own momentum pushes it toward self-consciousness. At this stage, what Hegel will call the Concept with a capital “C” — which will become the new continuum, folded upon itself, between subject and object, that displaces the substantiality of both in their separate forms — has yet to emerge. Hegel says that for the Understanding, what plays the role of the Concept is the Understanding itself.

Harris says “The human desire to know — to understand the situation we are in — is the most primitive way in which the Absolute is with us from the start…. The world of which the true Infinite really is the ‘soul’ is the world of our quest for the absolute truth. Our quest itself is the ‘spirit’ — the self-consciousness — of that living soul…. The understanding intelligence is the self-consciousness of the unconditioned universal that it contemplates.”

“The Understanding remains naive in its self-enjoyment; it keeps positive and negative, attraction and repulsion, all separate from one another, and from itself. It knows nothing of the ‘second inversion’. But the comprehension of the necessary relation a priori of the opposite moments of all its concepts is what the Understanding is, because it moves continually from the organized appearance to its concepts, and back again” (pp. 303-304).

“The theoretical Understanding has the whole world before it as an object. In the ‘second inversion’ it becomes aware of itself as the positing activity for the whole cycle that moves from perception (the ‘play of forces’) to the natural order as ‘Law’. But now that ‘free self’ (the ‘distinguishing of the undistinguished’) actually distinguishes itself and asserts its independence, without having any consciousness of the cycle from which it has logically emerged. It will discover by experience what the Fichtean philosophical Ego cannot help knowing from the first: ‘that this distinct [self] is not distinct’. It will make this discovery many times, in different ‘shapes’, before it returns finally to the practical comprehension of its identity with the ‘Infinite'” (pp. 305-306; brackets and italics in original).

“The truth for us… is that the universal concept of Force (or Necessity) has become the universal concept of Life (or the ‘true Infinite’ as living Freedom). But if we look at what has happened from the point of view of Understanding itself, two worlds have come into being. There is the world of Necessity which the Understanding wants to construct, but can never be sure that it has successfully duplicated; and the world of its own intellectual activity. In this second world it experiences itself as a free motion. It does not know that these two worlds are moments of one Concept, which is equally the objective world and itself as intelligence. But it does know, necessarily, that it is alive and free in the world of necessity that appears to it. It still has to discover that it is identically what appears. But it knows that it is what is appeared to” (p. 307).

“[F]rom the conscious certainty that the Understanding has of its eternal truth, we have thus come back to the certainty of the peasant-wife that this farmyard and these cows are hers. We know now, why she would not come with us on our theoretical odyssey. She was the self at home in its world; and that meant that she already knew something that we were ignoring. Truth, we thought, is an absolute object. It cannot belong to anyone. Frau Bauer, on the other hand, realized that in order to know anything one must be alive” (p. 318). (Later, it will also turn out that we were right that truth cannot belong to anyone.)

“As the implications of my identification with another self-consciousness which exemplifies what I want to be are unpacked, we shall discover that the supposedly ‘supersensible’ world is the real present world that we live in; or that ‘the spirit’ is the real substantiality of our sense-experience” (p. 335).

Infinity, Finitude

Here is another area where I find myself with mixed sympathies.

Plato seems to have regarded infinity — or what he called the Unlimited — as something bad. Aristotle argued that infinity exists only in potentiality and not in actuality, a view I find highly attractive. I think I encounter a world of seemingly infinite structure but only finite actualization.

Some time in the later Hellenistic period, notions of a radical spiritual infinity seem to have appeared in the West for the first time, associated with the rise of monotheism and the various trends now commonly called Gnostic. This kind of intensive rather than extensive infinity sometimes seems to be folded back on itself, evoking infinities of infinities and more. The most sophisticated development of a positive theological infinite in later Western antiquity occurred in the more religious rethinking of Greek philosophy by neoplatonists like Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.

In 14th century CE Latin Europe, Duns Scotus developed an influential theology that made infinity the principal attribute of God, in contrast to the pure Being favored by Aquinas. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, was a bombastic early defender of Copernican astronomy and notorious critic of established religion who espoused a curious hybrid of Lucretian atomistic materialism, neoplatonism, and magic. He proclaimed the physical existence of an infinity of worlds like our Earth.

Mathematical applications of infinity are a later development, mainly associated with Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz in particular enthusiastically endorsed a speculative reversal of Aristotle’s negative verdict on “actual infinity”. Nineteenth century mathematicians were embarrassed by this, and developed more rigorous reformulations of the calculus based on limits rather than actual infinity. The limit-based formulation is what is generally taught today. Cantor seemingly went in the opposite direction, developing infinities of infinities in pure mathematics. I believe there has been another reformulation of analysis using category theory that claims to equal the rigor of 19th century analysis while recovering an approach closer to that of Leibniz, which might be taken to refute an argument against infinity based solely on lack of rigor according to the standards of contemporary professional mathematicians. One might accept this and still prefer an Aristotelian interpretation of infinity as not applicable to actual things, though it is important to recall that for Aristotle, the actual is not all there is.

The philosophy of Spinoza and even more so Leibniz is permeated with a positive view of the infinite — both mathematical and theological — that in a more measured way was later also taken up by Hegel, who distinguished between a “bad” infinite that seems to have been an “actual” mathematical infinite having the form of an infinite regress, and a “good” infinite that I would gloss as having to do with the interpretation of life and all within it. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return seems to involve an infinite folding back on itself of a world of finite beings. (See also Bounty of Nature; Reason, Nature; Echoes of the Deed; Poetry and Mathematics.)

On the side of the finite, I am tremendously impressed with Aristotle’s affirmative development of what also in a more Kantian style might be termed a multi-faceted “dignity” of finite beings. While infinity may be inspiring or even intoxicating, I think we should be wary of the possibility that immoderate embrace of infinity may lead — even if unwittingly — to a devaluation of finite being, and ultimately of life. I also believe notions of infinite or unconditional power (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Arbitrariness, Inflation) are prone to abuse. In any case, ethics is mainly concerned with finite things.

Self, Infinity

Ricoeur’s idea of an ethical Self as an aim is an important new variant in the menagerie of nonequivalent concepts of self. Perhaps this one has been implicit for a while, but I had not clearly made this exact connection. I very much like Aristotelian ends and Brandom’s reading of Kantian unity of apperception as an ethical goal though, so it is a welcome addition. Now I suspect this is behind what Ricoeur later called ipse identity and narrative identity, which had been troubling me.

The same older work of Ricoeur’s also uses the term “infinite” for the relatively modest if still noteworthy kind of freedom that is indirectly apparent in ordinary language use and ordinary determination of concepts. I would probably still choose a different word to avoid other connotations, but have no objection to that meaning. Again though, a couple of later, less clear references to infinity that had troubled me could be explained by this.

Lévinas on the Other

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-95) was an important religiously oriented philosopher within the existential-phenomenological tradition. He translated Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to French. His most famous work Totality and Infinity (French edition 1961) — dedicated to Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl — argues at top level that philosophy has often been dominated by a drive for a vision of totality, and that we should abandon this in favor of the “infinity” of our experience of the Other, which for Lévinas leads from an ethical concern to a sort of eschatology. He puts ethics before ontology, which I like, but still takes a more metaphysical approach than Marcel, for instance.

I appreciate his stress on concern for others, but have trouble applying the notion of infinity in this context. I’m more comfortable talking about the essential incompleteness of our experience as finite beings. Lévinas is right that reaching for totality is overreaching, but I think Plato and Aristotle — and also Kant, and even especially Hegel (so different from the common stereotype) — already clearly recognized this. In my view, ordinary open-ended interpretation already implicitly poses a potentially infinite (i.e., indefinitely extensible, and therefore always incomplete) task that we cut short in order to act, but we never in experience encounter an actual or completed infinite. Ethical encounter with others highlights the incompleteness (i.e., non-totality, in Lévinas’ terms) of our understanding.

This incompleteness — and the thickness and “overflowing” character of meant realities or informal “being” that is its complement — already seems to me sufficient to support an ethical, hospitable relation to the other. I want to say that an overflowing beyond objectifying schemas is characteristic not just of absolute transcendence and infinity, but of ordinary being and ordinary meaning. Routinely in everyday life, there is meaningful intelligibility and there is overflow, in the very same context. Even in the most ordinary moments, with sufficient openness we can find poetic reverie and ethical awe that takes us outside of ourselves.

Lévinas speaks of the “absolutely other” as “truth” in the sense of a religious transcendence, to which ethics is the “royal road” (p. 29). Transcendence, Lévinas says, should not be confused with ecstasy or magical communion. He has in mind a more sober kind of religion. He cites Marcel and Martin Buber on the irreducibility of the relationship to the Other to objective knowledge, and associates the driving of practice by theory with a failure to recognize this primacy of the other. With Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I think we should recognize that theoretical reason actually depends on a practical reason that renounces Mastery; that theoretical reason is more of a tool, whereas practical reason is more of an agency; and that practical reason begins with recognition of the other.

I like when he speaks of a “generosity nourished by the Desired” (p. 34). He goes on to talk about a metaphysical Desire for the absolutely Other, “non-adequate to the idea” (ibid). Less metaphysically, I see forms overflowing their boundaries without thereby ceasing to be forms, and locate meaning in a foundationless but relatively stable difference in a relation of reciprocal co-grounding with moral commitment and practical judgment.

He talks about the reduction of the Other to the Same, and seems to think most philosophy does that. I have a more optimistic or charitable view that I think is also more historiographically valid. Aristotle and Hegel especially (contrary to common stereotypes) are very careful to avoid claiming overly strong Identity, so it is really not fair to say they reduce the Other to the Same.

Directly contrary to my view, he says that “The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification” (p. 69; emphasis in original). Disappointingly, he seems to prefer an authoritative teacher whom he calls an absolute Stranger. “The absolutely foreign alone can instruct us” (p. 73). It’s starting to sound like Kierkegaard here. I feel that hyperbolic expressions like this begin to denigrate ordinary life, and ultimately lead to a sort of absolute inflation. Lévinas’ Other is supposed to be a source of gentleness rather than arbitrariness, but to me what is gentle — much as it may exceed any objectification — cannot be absolutely foreign. I prefer to emphasize goodness rather than power, and I want to say that goodness speaks to us, so it cannot be absolutely foreign. (See also Immanence, Transcendence.)

Pure Negativity?

I’m still hoping to arrive at a more constructive engagement with the Žižek school of contemporary Hegel interpretation. Žižek’s reading is more “metaphysical” than the Aristotle-and-Brandom-inspired one I’ve been developing here, and I’m not fond of his penchant for showmanship, but there is a broad proximity of concerns. I’m looking now at Sbriglia and Žižek, Subject Lessons: Hegel, Lacan, and the Future of Materialism (2020). The unusual “materialism” at issue here is openly proclaimed to be a development of German idealism. The contributors seek to distinguish themselves from other recent currents of so-called “cultural materialism”, “new historicism”, “new materialism”, and “object-oriented ontology”. I’ve briefly reviewed one of the representative works from which the Žižekians want to distinguish themselves.

Common to all these trends, the Žižek school, and the work pursued here is a rejection of a classic Cartesian Subject. As against the others, the Žižek school and I both also want to nonetheless affirm the importance of subjectivity. While I am not a Lacanian, I also think Lacan deserves serious engagement, and the Žižek school is pursuing that.

Sbriglia and Žižek write that “the self-limitation of the phenomenal that renders matter un-whole, the fact that the phenomenal field is in itself never ‘all’, never a complete, consistent whole, is strictly correlative to subjectivity as such” (p. 10, emphasis in original). Mladen Dolar in his contribution writes, “Subject is rather the very impossibility of substance to be substance” (p. 38). Žižek in his contribution adds, “when Kant asserts the limitation of our knowledge, Hegel does not answer him by claiming he can overcome the Kantian gap…. the Kantian gap already is the solution: Being itself is incomplete…. This dimension gets lost in Fichte and Schelling, who both assert intellectual intuition” (pp. 107-108, emphasis in original). This seems exactly right.

I would add that for similar reasons having to do with criteria of identity, there is an impossibility like Dolar’s (developed by Aristotle himself in the central books of the Metaphysics) for Aristotelian “what it was to have been” a thing to just be the kind of quasi-grammatical substrate that came to be commonly understood by Latin substantia. The above-quoted formulations are a big advance over notions of mere epistemic incompleteness due to the inexhaustibility of a naively conceived in-itself. In my more Aristotelian language, not only do we rational animals never have a completely univocal perspective on the whole, but we should not be afraid to speak of equivocal determination in the real. Equivocal determination is still determination, but it is incomplete.

My only caveat to Sbriglia and Žižek’s formulation would be on the Schellingian sound of “self-limitation of the phenomenal”. It seems to me the Žižek school sometimes wants to put a Schellingian spin on Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” claim, which would be an unfortunate regression. I think Hegel not only wanted to sharply distinguish his perspective from that of Schellingian identity philosophy, but succeeded in doing so.

Sbriglia and Žižek use the picturesque Lacanian language of a “hole in reality” as a defining characteristic of subjectivity, commenting that “the inaccessibility of the transcendent In-itself… is a result of the inscription of the perceiving subject into reality” (ibid). I prefer to minimize implicit identity claims, and thus to say (some) subjectivity rather than “the” subject. In some contexts, I think this is merely a terminological difference. Insofar as they just mean a decentered subjectivity with roots in the unconscious, the formulation seems fine, provided “perceiving” is taken as referring to something like Hegelian “Perception” and higher levels of the Phenomenology, not to something like his intended-to-be-discarded starting point of putative empirical “Sense Certainty”.

I get less comfortable with their talk about “the” subject as an abyss of pure negativity. Here I hear echoes of Sartre. While this is neither a substantial Cartesian-medieval intellectual soul nor even a Husserlian transcendental Ego, talk about “pure” negativity or an “abyss” seems to imply a kind of immanent infinity, albeit stripped of traditional theological associations. Sartre used this kind of metaphysics of negativity to bolster an extreme voluntarist anthropology, ironically transferring claims from old bad theology to the service of a strident atheism. Alain Badiou, who is a significant influence on the Žižek school, began as a Sartrean, and is perhaps the most outspoken extreme voluntarist today. I think it is a disservice to bring Sartre and Badiou into the reading of Hegel. Voluntarism is at root a naked expression of the attitude of one-sided Mastery, and should have no place in a discourse that aims at emancipation. Emancipation cannot come from an imposition of will. It comes rather from the increase of justice through processes furthering concrete realization of the autonomy of reason and mutual recognition. (See also Independence, Freedom; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Claims of immanent infinity may get a bit of added credibility these days, due to circulating complaints against Kantian “finitude”. It is easy to superficially enlist quotes from Hegel that appear to support such complaints. Here I want to explicitly defend the Kantian perspective of the essential finitude of human reality, relating it back to the happily rather than unhappily finite perspective of Aristotle, and supporting that by an Aristotelian-Brandomian reading of Hegel. A perspective of human finitude can also draw on charitable understandings of much traditional wisdom.

I do also think there is an inherently good but distinctly inhuman Hegelian “negative infinity” that can be anonymously intimate to our finite reality and the formation of our values, through the mediation of second nature, without actually being “us” or “ours” or immanent in us. Even if that negative infinity is to be identified with the “pure Self” Sbriglia and Žižek mention from Hegel’s 1805-06 lectures, it should not be identified with any empirical or existentialist or common-sense self. The Žižek school’s way of expressing this is to speak of a “split subject” or a split in the subject. Various strands of traditional wisdom can be seen in retrospect to have bearing on such a distinction as well. Members of the Žižek school would probably eschew any favorable reference to “traditional wisdom” of the kind I am making here as incompatible with academic-leftist credentials important to them, but Hegel himself often showed an irenic and even valorizing attitude on matters of this sort. (See also Acts in Brandom and Žižek; Self, Subject; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)