Distinction

So, I want to say that distinction is something good, not a defect we ought to remedy. It is a fundamental symptom of life. Stoics, Buddhists and others remind us that it is best not to be too attached to particular forms. This is a wise counsel, but not the whole truth. I am tempted to say there is no compassion without some passion. Caring about anything inevitably involves distinction. It is better to care than not to care.

Everything flows, Heraclitus said. But in order to make distinctions, it has to be possible to compare things. Things must have a character, even if they do not quite ever stay still within their frames. Having a character is being this way and not that. Real being is always being some way or other. Its diversity is something to celebrate.

It is not immoral to prefer one thing to another. We can’t be who we are without definite commitments. Perfect apathy would lead to many sins of omission. It is better to have lived fully. We are not apart from the world, but inhabit the oceans of difference, and sometimes must take a side.

Proclus’ Elements

The later neoplatonist Proclus (412-485 CE) was head of the Platonic Academy in Athens, at a time when the Athenian Academy was somewhat notorious as the intellectual center of resistance to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, his work had a profound influence on the Arabic, Byzantine, and Latin traditions. He is usually cited as the main philosophical influence on the early Christian theologian pseudo-Dionysius, who was taken very seriously by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas.

Proclus wrote extensive commentaries on Plato, as well as an influential commentary on book 1 of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Hegel called him the greatest dialectician of antiquity. Though I think Hegel by his own principles really should have given that title to Aristotle, Hegel was right to recognize Proclus as important.

Aquinas is credited with recognizing that the Latin Book of Causes — a translation of the Arabic Discourse on the Pure Good — was mostly derived from Proclus’ Elements of Theology. Aquinas treated Proclus himself with considerable respect. Dietrich of Freiberg made significant use of his work, and his student Berthold of Moosburg wrote a very long commentary interpreting the Elements of Theology in Christian terms. The Renaissance theologian Nicolas of Cusa and the maverick Giordano Bruno were much inspired by Proclus.

Along with Spinoza’s Ethics, Proclus’ Elements shares the peculiar distinction of being written in a style visibly influenced by Euclid’s Elements. Euclid’s work has often been cited as a sort of paradigm of demonstrative reasoning. Though Proclus, unlike Spinoza, did not work from explicit definitions and postulates and used a looser style of demonstration, his Elements consists of theorems and a sort of demonstrations.

Proclus defends the neoplatonic idea of a One that transcends being, but as Gwenaëlle Aubry and Laurent Lavaud point out in the introduction to the French collection Relire les Éléments de théologie de Proclus (2021), perhaps his most influential idea is that of a very strong continuity from the highest principles to the most mundane effects, which has been read as a strong assertion of immanence as well as transcendence. He is an important source for all the later theological traditions that want to argue for simultaneous immanence and transcendence.

Proclus very explicitly crystallizes what I have called the generalized “unmoved mover” model of causality in Plotinus. For Proclus, “higher” and “lower” causes cooperate in the constitution of worldly things, but the higher cause is always more of a cause than the lower cause. At the same time, he rejects Plotinus’ identification of matter with evil, while emphasizing all of Plotinus’ more positive affirmations of the goodness of manifestation and the beauty of the cosmos.

In a separate treatise On Providence, he develops a sort of epistemic analogue to the generalized unmoved mover theory. “Providence” (pronoia — literally, “forethought”) is a knowledge-like thing that is superior to knowledge in that it is supposed to be eternal and unextended, and to involve no separation of what we might call subject and object. Proclus develops a subtle and suggestive account of something metaphorically like implicit, unextended “seeds” of forms within the overflowing of the One that transcends all extended form. While the One does not “know” worldly things, it “pre-knows” their unextended “seeds”, within something like what Schelling later paradoxically called the identity of identity and nonidentity.

In the Elements, Proclus argues for an interdependence of being, life, and intellect. While one obvious reading of this would emphasize a foundational role of spiritual beings in Proclus’ metaphysics, I am intrigued that it can also be interpreted as a somewhat “deflationary” account of being, closer to Aristotle, and far removed from later notions of pure abstract existence. We can’t begin to have an account of being, without also having an account of life and intellect. With his endorsement of a One beyond “being”, Proclus had no need for a commitment to a notion of pure “being”.

Yorick

“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”.

Observing Reason

Hegel had suggested that a Fichtean idealism ends up attempting to fill out its extreme abstraction by ad hoc adoption of a complementary Lockean empiricism. He goes on to treat something like Lockean empiricism, under the title of “Observing Reason”. The bulk of Hegel’s discussion ends up focusing on the empirical study of organic nature, with brief remarks on attempts to define psychological “laws of thought” and other psychological “laws”. Then he turns to physical anthropology, polemicizing at length against the old pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology, which purported to make predictions about human character from body types and skull shapes. Here we also reach the end of the first volume of Harris’ commentary on the Phenomenology, subtitled “The Pilgrimage of Reason”. The concluding second volume will be “The Odyssey of Spirit”.

Hegel dwells at length on the concept of organism, taking up Kant’s practical vindication of Aristotelian teleology in biology. The unity of an organism has to do with a pure “purpose” internal to the organism. None of its particular observable characteristics turn out to be essential in themselves; rather, they all have a fundamentally relational character. In Force and Understanding he had argued that mathematical physical law is purely relational; here he treats an organism as a purely relational unity held together by an internal “purpose”. Force and Understanding had been concerned with the formal unity of the physical world; the notion of organism introduces the notion of individuation within a world. Hegel picturesquely says that animals actively individuate themselves — distinguish themselves from the surrounding world — by means of their teeth and claws. By comparison, plants in their “quiescence” have only a minimal kind of individuality. Previously, he had quipped that animals must be unimpressed by the putative separateness of objects, because without ceremony they fall to and gobble them up.

Harris says in his commentary, “Observing Reason is a ‘return’ of Sense-Certainty and Perception together, because it is concerned with the ‘essence’ of real things. It wants to conceptualize them, but it is naive, like the Understanding” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 474).

“Locke’s standpoint differs from that of Sense-Certainty and Perception, both because he insists that the mind can know only its own ideas, and because what he calls the ‘plain historical method’ is a descriptive technique that aims to uncover the universal laws and principles of rational epistemology” (p. 475). The world is “stripped” to the pure concept of “matter or extension” (p. 476). “Here at the beginning we are faced by a Reason that wants to know not itself, but the world of things” (p. 477).

In the context of organic nature, “[Hegel] is now going to show us that the Kantian concept of mathematical schematism (which is a direct descendant of Gailleo’s distinction [between primary and secondary qualities of bodies]) fails completely as a bridge between the observed data and the conceptual structures used by the scientific ‘observers’. The observing consciousness of Reason itself is now going to learn what we learned when we observed the perceptual consciousness. It will learn that the thing is a Hegelian concept, (not a Galilean or Lockean one). The consciousness we are observing will discover that the [Galilean or Lockean “thing”] cannot correspond to Reason because it is essentially and necessarily dead” (p. 478).

(I confess I don’t recognize the reference to Kantian “schematism” as mathematical; I think of Kantian schematism more generally as a mediation between sensible “intuition” and conceptual thought through imagination.)

“Everywhere it observes things; but what it seeks is their Concept, or the law of their behavior…. It will observe first the natural world, then itself (as subjective spirit); and finally it will observe the relation between subjective spirit and its natural embodiment. But because the object of observation must always be a stably inert Gestalt, an observable thing, the results achieved become less satisfactory at every step” (pp. 478-479).

“[T]he ‘immediacy’ of the standpoint means that we are not observing it in the proper way…. Consciousness must first descend ‘into its own depth’. Thinking must discover what it is, as an activity; it must discover the dialectical logic that is its own ‘living spirit'” (p. 479). But this is only a beginning.

“The logical priority of ‘consciousness’ as the ‘own proper shape’ of Reason can only be established by the reductio ad absurdum of the alternate route through ‘things’. It must be established in this way, because the structure of ‘consciousness’ determines that Reason will naturally begin by trying to find itself in ‘things’…. Hence it is part of the object of the present chapter to show that we cannot make a direct descent into the depths of consciousness as subjectivity. If we try to do this (as Kant and Fichte did) what we discover is only an abstract essence of Reason that is perfectly valid, but almost completely useless. Its only real use will be to serve as the guiding light for the subsequent descent into the depths of our cultural world. We have to experience both the quest for the ‘essence of things’ and the quest for the ‘essence of consciousness’ before we can properly embark upon the discovery of the self in its thing-world” (ibid).

Harris develops Hegel’s distinction between inert “representations” of “things” and active thought. “The controlling conception in Hegel’s mind is the self-individuation of the Aristotelian form” (p. 486).

In this context of organic nature, Harris notes Hegel’s general preference for Plato and Aristotle over Newton, and thinks Hegel also takes from Aristotle the less fortunate view that nature has no history. I take Aristotle’s remarks about the “eternity” of species, the motions of the stars, etc., as having the valid pragmatic sense that such things had not been observed to change within living social memory. (I note also that Plato in the Laws already suggested that organic species do in fact come to be and perish.) Hegel defends Aristotelian “internal” teleology, while rejecting both the biological mechanism of Descartes and the “external” teleology of the argument from design used by Newton and others. Purposefulness for Hegel does not presuppose a mind (p. 502).

In spite of his criticisms of philosophical empiricism, Hegel defends the importance of empirical verification of hypotheses. Harris actually calls Hegel a “spiritual empiricist” in both natural science and ethics (p. 490). He says that Hegelian “necessity” is neither physical nor formal, but “logical” in Hegel’s sense. Hegel is much more concerned to criticize the “formalism” of philosophies of nature developed by followers of Schelling than actual scientific work.

In spite of the importance of “Life” in contrast to “dead” things in Hegel’s view, he has no use for vitalism. “Life is not more on the ‘inside’ of the organism than it is on the ‘outside’…. It is the ‘general fluidity’ within which the parts and organs of the body are formed and dissolved…. Observing Reason makes the Newtonian mistake of granting priority to visible stability” (p. 507). Hegel discusses notions of “sensibility” and “irritability” current in the biology of his time, adding in his own notions of “fluidity” and “elasticity”. He is very skeptical about “laws” in biology.

Between remarks on zoology and psychology, Hegel briefly (and dismissively) discusses so-called “laws of thought”. These relate to the early modern tradition of psychologizing in logic. With somewhat different motivation, Hegel anticipates Frege and Husserl’s rejection of such “psychologism”.

He also has no use for early modern psychology. In Harris’ summary, “Observational psychology operates with a mechanical toy that is all in pieces, so that the soul is observed and discussed like a bag full of loose bits” (p. 562). Hegel adds some sympathetic remarks on biography before launching a devastating critique of the now-forgotten pretensions of physiognomy and phrenology to discern purely physical indications of human character. What is important in the last is his general contention that even animal behavior cannot be adequately explained in a purely mechanistic way.

In spite of all of this, the idea of “observing” the objective dimension of a self in its concrete actualization in the world as contrasted with any direct intuition of pure interiority will turn out to have pivotal importance in the development to come. This is in fact how we experience others, and how others experience us. For Hegel it is our shared experience of one another rather than anyone’s private experience that is the basis of ethics. (See also Individuality, Community.)

Freedom of Self-Consciousness?

“[Stoicism] is a freedom which can come on the scene as a general form of the world’s spirit only in a time of universal fear and bondage, a time, too, when mental cultivation is universal, and has elevated culture to the level of thought” (Hegel, Phenomenology, Baillie trans., p. 245).

Why is it that the Phenomenology talks about Stoicism and Skepticism but not about Plato and Aristotle, whom Hegel regarded as “humanity’s greatest teachers”? The Phenomenology is a quite different undertaking from Hegel’s lectures on the history of philosophy, where he made the latter remark. Although it partly follows a development in time, it is mainly concerned with a backward-looking perspective on stages leading to the formation of a new shape of spirit Hegel optimistically sees emerging.

Spirit for Hegel belongs to all of us, not just great philosophers. He is aiming to talk about social development, particularly of his own culture. Modern Europe grew up from the ashes of the Roman empire, already far removed from the world of the Greek city-states. The Roman empire was indeed a “time of universal fear and bondage”. In relation to the emperor, everyone else was like a serf.

Stoicism was actually the first Western philosophy to have widespread social influence. Hegel implicitly connects the Stoic emphasis on reason and reasonableness with the development of Understanding he discussed earlier. Stoicism historically propounded a theory of complete determination in the world, alternating between physicalistic accounts and appeals to the will and reason of a supreme deity.

Hegel’s treatment of Stoicism here is very brief, very abstract, and expressed in something closer to the language of Fichte than to that of the Stoics themselves. “Stoicism” is said to realize a kind of Freedom, but it is only an “abstract” freedom of Understanding in relation to its representations, not affecting life. The Stoic sage aimed to achieve a kind of indifference to pain and adversity through detachment from worldly concerns and identification with the completeness of God’s plan. Unlike Hegel’s serf, the Stoic is supposed to have no fear of death.

“The freedom of self-consciousness [here] is indifferent toward natural existence…. [T]his lacks the concrete filling of life. It is, therefore, merely the notion of freedom, not living freedom itself” (ibid). Hegel is not wrong to associate this indifference with an abstract kind of freedom.

The figure of “Stoicism” stands for a perspective that is like that of the serf in its relation to life and the world, but like that of the lord in the separate interiority of its own thought. Hegel regards this split perspective as a kind of alienation.

Here he also suggests a notion of Thought as concerned with pure distinction that is basically unrelated to historical Stoicism.

Harris in his commentary writes, “For the [Stoic] Sage organic life is a servitude, towards which she should be indifferent. If that indifference is threatened, if the freedom of thought is physically denied to her, she can herself deny nature and die freely. She is the lord’s consciousness in the serf’s situation” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 385). “When she is asked for the criterion of truth and virtue she can produce nothing but analytically true statements: ‘The True is the Divine Reason’, ‘Virtue is living according to Reason’, ‘Happiness is living in accordance with Nature’. So the Stoic wisdom never makes us any wiser, but we do get bored” (p. 387).

Nonetheless “Something begins with Stoicism that comes to its climax in the Phenomenology. The Stoic logos, the spark of divine Reason recognizable in each of us, is an individuality which must both display itself as living in its action (Handeln) and grasp (fassen) the world as a system of thought…. Only the advent of the Gospel will provide the requisite account in thought itself for the ‘expansion’ (Ausbreitung) of individuality as alive in action, and comprehensive of the living world as a system in its thinking” (ibid).

To comprehend the living world as a “system” (i.e., to interpret the actual world as a coherent but unfinished whole) is vastly different from simply asserting or propounding a world-view that is “systematic” in some abstract sense.

I would emphasize that Aristotle already closely approached Hegel’s ideal of a living unity here, and greatly influenced his formulation of it. The difference is that Stoicism, Christianity, and Hegel all put more emphasis on what might be called our abstract equality before God. Aristotle too recognized that all “rational animals” have the same abstract potential for reason and ethical being, but his ethics put great emphasis on distinguishing different degrees of actualization, or what we practically succeed in doing with our potential and our values. Hegel combines an Aristotelian emphasis on concrete actualization as a criterion in value judgments with Kant’s stronger universalization of Aristotelian friendship-like respect for other rational beings, which has a historically Christian source.

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).

Meditation on Death?

I’m preparing to write something about Ricoeur’s treatment of the Freudian “death instinct”, but first wanted to separately express some views of my own. I disapprove of attempts to make death into a philosophical theme. Our finitude has plenty of other more illuminating and ethically relevant aspects, and I think the living should focus on life. Spinoza’s “The philosopher thinks of nothing less than of death” seems right to me. In cherishing the memory of lost loved ones, it is the loved ones who are important.

I don’t like early Heidegger’s melodramatic talk about “being toward death”. I don’t even like Plato’s literary representation of what I would call Socrates’ excessive acceptance of his impending execution. Even though it is counterbalanced by more life-affirming passages in other places, the suggestion that the philosopher should welcome death goes too far.

I thoroughly approve of Brandom’s reinterpretation of the Hegelian myth of a “struggle to the death” between competing would-be Masters as a melodramatic extreme illustration of an underlying much more general concept of risk-taking. The importance of risk-taking is the real essence there and the message to carry forward, not struggle against others and not death. (Apart from this, Hegel’s Master serves as an extreme negative example of attitudes that exist but should be overcome.)

Plato on the Soul

I read Plato’s various suggestions about the kind of thing that soul is as mainly practical, in the Kantian sense of being involved with ethics. As I read him, he does not intend to offer a consistent theory of the nature of soul.

There is strong textual basis for at least two rather different notions of “soul”, each of which I think Plato uses heuristically in a different kind of context. Soul might be a kind of essence that stands outside of time, or it might be a principle of life and cause of motion in time. Rather than trying to reconcile these at an ontological level as Plotinus and others did, I think it is more faithful to Plato to apply an Aristotelian semantic approach, and note that “soul” in Plato is said in more than one way. Plato is actually much more concerned with a more detailed level that is more directly involved with ethical considerations.