Things Themselves

Husserl continues his Logical Investigations with a long critical discussion of the then-current tendency to reduce logic to psychological “laws” of mental operations, which are in turn supposed to be reducible to empirically discoverable facts. He then begins to discuss what a pure logic ought to be. “We are rather interested in what makes science science, which is certainly not its psychology, nor any real context into which acts of thought are fitted, but a certain objective or ideal interconnection which gives these acts a unitary relevance, and, in such unitary relevance, an ideal validity” (p. 225).

To do this, we need to look at both things and truths from the point of view of their interconnections. In his famous phrase, we need to go “to the things themselves”. As Aristotle emphasized before, we need to look carefully at distinctions of meaning.

Expressive meanings are not the same thing as indicative signs. Meaning for Husserl is not reducible to what it refers to; it originates in a kind of act, though it is not to be identified with the act, either. Verbal expressions have an “intimating” function. “To understand an intimation is not to have conceptual knowledge of it… it consists simply in the fact that the hearer intuitively takes the speaker to be a person who is expressing this or that” (p. 277). “Mutual understanding demands a certain correlation among the acts mutually unfolded in intimation…, but not at all in their exact resemblance” (p. 278). “In virtue of such acts, the expression is more than a sounded word. It means something, and insofar as it means something, it relates to what is objective” (p. 280). “The function of a word… is to awaken a sense-conferring act in ourselves” (p. 282).

“Our interest, our intention, our thought — mere synonyms if taken in sufficiently wide senses — point exclusively to the thing meant in the sense-giving act” (p. 283). “[A]ll objects and relations among objects only are what they are for us, through acts of thought essentially different from them, in which they become present to us, in which they stand before us as unitary items that we mean” (ibid).

“Each expression not merely says something, but says it of something: it not only has a meaning, but refers to certain objects” (p. 287). “Two names can differ in meaning but can name the same object” (ibid). “It can happen, conversely, that two expressions have the same meaning but a different objective reference” (p. 288). “[A]n expression only refers to an objective correlate because it means something, it can rightly be said to signify or name the object through its meaning” (p. 289). “[T]he essence of an expression lies solely in its meaning” (ibid).

“Expressions and their meaning-intentions do not take their measure, in contexts of thought and knowledge, from mere intuition — I mean phenomena of external or internal sensibility — but from the varying intellectual forms through which intuited objects first become intelligibly determined, mutually related objects” (ibid). Meanings do not have to do with mental images.

“It should be quite clear that over most of the range both of ordinary, relaxed thought and the strict thought of science, illustrative imagery plays a small part or no part at all…. Signs are in fact not objects of our thought at all, even surrogatively; we rather live entirely in the consciousness of meaning, of understanding, which does not lapse when accompanying imagery does so” (p. 304). “[A]ny grasp is in a sense an understanding and an interpretation” (p. 309).

“Pure logic, wherever it deals with concepts, judgments, and syllogisms, is exclusively concerned with the ideal unities that we here call ‘meanings'” (p. 322). “[L]ogic is the science of meanings as such, of their essential sorts and differences, as also of the ideal laws which rest purely on the latter” (p. 323). “Propositions are not constructed out of mental acts of presentation or belief: when not constructed out of other propositions, they ultimately point back to concepts…. The relation of necessary consequence in which the form of an inference consists, is not an empirical-psychological connection among judgements as experiences, but an ideal relation among possible statement-meanings” (p. 324).

“Though the scientific investigator may have no reason to draw express distinctions between words and symbols, on the one hand, and meaningful thought-objects, on the other, he well knows that expressions are contingent, and that the thought, the ideally selfsame meaning, is what is essential. He knows, too, that he does not make the objective validity of thoughts and thought-connections, … but that he sees them, discovers them” (p. 325).

“All theoretical science consists, in its objective content, of one homogeneous stuff: it is an ideal fabric of meanings” (ibid). “[M]eaning, rather than the act of meaning, concept and proposition, rather than idea and judgement, are what is essential and germane in science” (ibid). “The essence of meaning is seen by us, not in the meaning-conferring experience, but in its ‘content'” (p. 327).

Allison on Kant on Freedom

Eminent Kant scholar Henry Allison writes in the introduction to his Kant’s Theory of Freedom (1990), “Kant’s theory of freedom is the most difficult aspect of his philosophy to interpret, let alone defend. To begin with,… we are confronted with the bewildering number of ways in which Kant characterizes freedom and the variety of distinctions he draws between various kinds or senses of freedom” (p. 1).

Kant advocates “not only a strict determinism at the empirical level but also a psychological determinism” (p. 31) at the level of desires and beliefs. Nonetheless he also famously argues for the pure spontaneity of reason at a transcendental level, and wants to link this to a distinctive “causality of reason” entirely separate from empirical causality. As I’ve said before, I think Kant often presents both the determinist part of this and the indeterminist part in terms that are too strong.

Kant intensifies this difficulty by apparently arguing that the very same human reason that is transcendentally utterly free also has an empirical character that is completely determined. According to Allison, Kant distinguishes between empirical and intelligible “character” (considered as general ways of being, not implying personality) in two different ways. Empirical character is sometimes presented as merely the phenomenal effect of intelligible character, but at other times as the sensible schema of intelligible character. The latter version is interpreted by Allison as implying that “empirical character involves not simply a disposition to behave in certain predictable ways in given situations but a disposition to act on the basis of certain maxims, to pursue certain ends, and to select certain means for the realization of those ends…. Clearly, the causality of reason, even at the empirical level, is inherently purposive. Consequently, explanations of its activity must be teleological rather than mechanistic in nature” (p. 33).

Allison argues that for Kant, not only moral but also prudential judgments exhibit a teleological causality of reason. An end understood in a context generates a moral or prudential “ought”. Allison says that acting on the basis of an ought is for Kant (at least in the first Critique) the defining characteristic of free agency.

“A helpful way of explicating what Kant means by the spontaneity of the understanding in its judgmental activity (epistemic spontaneity) is to consider judgment as the activity of ‘taking as’ or, more precisely, of taking something as a such and such” (p. 37). “[E]ven desire-based or… ‘heteronomous’ action involves the self-determination of the subject and, therefore, a ‘moment’ of spontaneity” (p. 39). “[T]he sensible inclination, which from the point of view of the action’s (and the agent’s) empirical character is viewed straightforwardly as cause, is, from the standpoint of this model, seen as of itself insufficient to determine the will. Moreover, this insufficiency is not of the sort that can be made up for by introducing further empirically accessible causal factors. The missing ingredient is the spontaneity of the agent, the act of taking as or self-determination. Since this can be conceived but not experienced, it is once again something merely intelligible” (ibid).

The association of spontaneity with “taking as” (which is Kant’s independent reinvention of Aristotelian practical judgment) rather than some kind of arbitrariness is a breath of fresh air. (See also Freedom Through Deliberation?)

For Aristotle, there could be no contradiction between determination by ends and a complementary determination by “efficient causes” or means. But for Kant, ends are noumenal or intelligible, while means are phenomenal or empirical.

But in his previous work Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Allison argued that Kant wanted to distinguish between phenomenal and noumenal interpretations rather than to assert the literal existence of ontologically separate phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The noumenal or the intelligible is not otherworldly, but a different way of interpreting the same world we experience.


“Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio” said Hamlet, cradling the unearthed skull of the jester who had played with him as a child. This Shakespearean reference is used by Hegel as a metaphor for the way our actions — and thus indirectly our very selves — become objectified from a retrospective point of view. Hamlet’s famous speech contrasting the living and the dead seems to inform Hegel’s frequent mention of objects as “dead” in contrast to living spirit.

I wanted to briefly expand upon the quote from Harris near the end of the last post. The Hegelian point he is commenting on is that the strictly singular self really is reducible to a “dead object”, but our participation in the ongoing incarnation of Spirit makes all human beings more than just singular selves.

Hegel constructs a parallel between the kind of objectification that applies to empirical individuals viewed externally, and the kind that applies to all the real-world manifestations of Conscience in action. Aristotle had noted that we can only judge the “happiness” of a whole life in hindsight, after it is complete. Hegel makes a similar point about actions in general. Our actions come from us and are the best guide to who we really are, but they have consequences that are not up to us, and their interpretation is ultimately up to others. (See also On Being a Thing; Real Individuality; Hegel on Willing; In Itself, For Itself.)

This latter kind of objectification plays an essential role in “absolute” knowledge. Only shareable contents like objectified actions as interpretable by others find their way into the Hegelian Absolute. But since all apparent immediacy is already a “mediated immediacy”, even the most rarified mediation can become immediate for us. From a “subjective” point of view, in “absolute” knowledge what is purely mediate and thus in itself has no dependency on anything pre-given becomes for us a new kind of mediated immediacy.

Insofar as as “absolute” knowledge is absolute, it has to be shareable. But insofar as it is actual concrete knowledge, it has to be the knowledge of actual individuals. Hegel wants us not to submerge ourselves as individuals and simply replace “I” with “We”, but rather to live in the “I that is We, and We that is I”.

Form as Value

Plato’s most famous discussions of form involved things like the form of virtue, of justice, or of the Good. These are questions that perplex the wise and the sincere inquirer. They therefore could not be the objects of any simple dogma.

In Aristotle there is a deep connection between form and ends. For both Aristotle and Plato, “essence” is never merely factual but always has what analytic philosophers call a normative dimension. It is not the kind of thing that could be simply given (see Form, Substance).

Brandom says that for Kant and Hegel, concepts always have a normative dimension, and intentionality is to be explained in terms of normativity rather than vice versa.

The necessity in formal logic and mathematics also has a normative character, but it is different from the previous examples in that it is univocal and definitely knowable. Things that are “formal” in this modern sense are quite different from form for Plato or Aristotle, which is closer to what Brandom would call conceptual content (see Mutation of Meaning). Well-founded certainty is only possible in domains that are purely formal in the modern sense.

Anything involving the “real world” involves interpretation, which is never finished. In life we work, act, and love on the basis of partial interpretations of the forms of things.

Reality of Ends

Are Aristotelian non-mental ends really compatible with Brandomian normativity in an account of the same things? I want to say yes.

Aristotelian ends have frequently been read as somehow pre-existing. Later commentators in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin traditions certainly most often took such a view, but in so doing they were more faithful to the values of neoplatonic or traditional monotheistic theology than to the Aristotelian text.

Aristotle pioneered the idea that ends come first in the general order of interpretation relevant to life. I see this as ancestral to Brandom’s idea that normativity comes first in the same context, even though Brandom himself does not really engage with pre-modern philosophy. Brandom’s main source for this is his reading of Kant and especially Hegel, but Hegel is also the modern author who began the restoration of Aristotle to his proper place in the history of philosophy.

To come first in the order of interpretation and explanation is not necessarily to pre-exist. Consideration of the order of explanation is after all only relevant to processes of explanation. Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom are all very process-oriented.

Brandom, drawing on Kant and Hegel, offers a broadly pragmatist account of the objectivity of values and reality, in terms of a counterfactual robustness of practical judgments ultimately grounded in mutual recognition and an ongoing commitment to the repair of errors. Such an account of a process of truth-and-error provides for everything involved in the normative sense of what we call objectivity, while making pre-existing truths superfluous.

In a much simpler but still very nuanced way, Aristotle often informally refers to existing realities. He usually starts with an optimistic and charitable approach to the deliverances of common sense in everyday life, only refining and superseding them as the need arises, but epistemic modesty prevents him from turning these into strong theoretical claims. Dialectic — i.e., exploratory discursive reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty — rather than demonstration from presumed truths is the main theoretical tool actually employed throughout Aristotle’s works.

On a more theoretical level, Aristotle provocatively suggests that something need not have actual existence in its own right in order to deeply affect the shape of reality (see The Importance of Potentiality). I take Aristotelian ends to be things of this sort.

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.

Between Transcendentalism and Pragmatism

Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was known as the leading American exponent of absolute idealism. He was recognized for contributions to philosophy of religion, psychology, and logic, as well as metaphysics. I thought of him because apparently, at least in his earlier works, he really did identify the Absolute with an all-embracing, divine consciousness that was supposed to include and underwrite all of reality, quite opposite to the way I read Hegel’s Phenomenology as an extended critique of the point of view of consciousness.

Also quite unlike the “deflationary” approach taken here, he straightforwardly identified his Absolute with God and with Being. Royce’s was a definitely personal God, also existing in time rather than eternally. Early in his career, he developed a novel argument for the existence of God based on the existence of error. According to Royce, the very existence of error presupposes the existence not only of truth against which the error can be recognized, but of a Knower who knows the truth.

Royce had strongly communitarian ethical views, sharply criticizing both the “heroic individualism” of the American Transcendentalists, with whom he shared an interest in German Idealist philosophy, and the individualist views of his close friend, the pragmatist William James. Among other things, Royce thought James in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience focused too much on intensely private experiences of extraordinary individuals, to the detriment of attention to the community aspect of religion. In his theology, Royce strongly associated God with an ideal of a Universal Community.

In his late work, he was increasingly influenced by the great founder of pragmatism, Charles Pierce. He became fascinated with Pierce’s notions of signs, semiotics, and interpretation. While this was not quite the full-fledged anti-foundationalist notion of interpretation developed here, I think it at least points in a similar direction. At this point, Royce developed a new notion of God as “the Interpreter Spirit” providing a metaphysical ground in time for all acts of interpretation, without the interpreters necessarily being aware of this. He extended his notion of the Universal Community, now explicitly calling it a “Community of Interpretation”. I think the latter is a fascinating partial anticipation of Brandom’s much more detailed work on mutual recognition, which also draws on the pragmatist Kantianism of Wilfrid Sellars.

(From Brandom’s point of view, Royce’s communitarianism would still be a one-sided overreaction to individualist trends. It seems to me that Brandom and Ricoeur converge on a very attractive alternative to this old seesaw, putting concrete relations with others and intersubjectivity before either individuality or community.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged Royce as the source of King’s own more elaborated notion of the ideal of the Beloved Community, a vision of tolerance and mutual acceptance. I have not evaluated claims of a recent book that in spite of this, Royce also in effect promoted a cultural version of the racist “white man’s burden”.

Royce attempted to derive all of ethics from a single principle of loyalty, understood as loyalty to a cause. He claimed that loyalty to vicious or predatory causes fails to meet a criterion of “loyalty to loyalty” intrinsic to his principle of loyalty. Thus the argument seems to be that loyalty has the kind of universality that Kant claimed for the categorical imperative. However, I don’t think the argument succeeds nearly as well as Kant’s. Kantian respect for people gives a crucial human face to Kant’s formalism in ethics. Even if loyalty to loyalty is concerned to avoid undermining the loyalty of others to the cause, as Royce argued, that seems to me to be a much narrower kind of concern for others. Also, loyalty is by nature particular, whereas Kant’s various formulations of the categorical imperative are actual tests for universality.

The Future and the Past

Practical interpretation is simultaneously forward- and backward-looking, as Ricoeur, Brandom, and Pippin have emphasized. Not only is the future not predetermined; for practical purposes, neither is the meaning of the past. The present is not a point, but a zone in which an incompletely determined past and an incompletely determined future overlap and fuse. (See Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)


We intuitively grasp a kind of unity of each human person, but have no special, privileged mode of knowledge of persons as individuals. Common sense tends to be rather dogmatic, and glosses over many distinctions in such matters. Plato compared the soul to a city, a sort of community of thoughts and desires — a kind of unity to be sure, but a relatively weak one. In Kantian terms, human persons seem to be distinguished from everything else by somehow being the nexus of combination of otherwise very distinct empirical and transcendental domains.

Considerations of change over time further complicate the picture, but may also provide a kind of guiding thread. A factual “me” is mainly a retrospective construction. A normative “I” on the other hand has both retrospective and prospective aspects. Brandom’s and Pippin’s readings of Hegel emphasize that we should think of agency and acts as always comprising both a partially constituted, retrospectively constructed past and a yet-to-be-determined future. Ricoeur has developed a temporally extended, retrospective and prospective notion of self as an ethical aim or promise rather than an existing actuality. Such an aim or promise, it seems to me, can have a much stronger unity than we could legitimately claim as an existing actuality.

Rather than conflating the empirical and transcendental, as in the Latin medieval notion of an “intellectual soul” — or inflating a notion of empirical self to fill the whole space of subjectivity, in the common modern way — we can tie the unification of empirical and transcendental elements to that prospective aim or promise, without asserting it in the present. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet?; Two Kinds of Character; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)