Spontaneity

Spontaneity has a technical meaning in Kant and Husserl that is at odds with common usage. In ordinary speech, we are said to do something “spontaneously” when we do it on the spur of the moment, without a previous plan. But Kant and Husserl call everything guided by reason “spontaneous”, even though reason is involved with conscious deliberation and thinking things through.

According to an older usage, things in nature were said by some to occur “spontaneously” when they had no discernible cause. In the scholastic tradition, others argued that “nothing comes from nothing”, and rejected the assumption that things with no discernible cause really happen without a cause, as was purported to occur in what was called “spontaneous generation”.

Leibniz embraced and codified the “nothing from nothing” argument as the principle of sufficient reason. The principle of sufficient reason does not itself imply the kind of particular providence associated with the popular expression “everything happens for a reason”. It just says that everything has some kind of reasonable explanation, not that what we subjectively perceive as cosmic injustice is part of a divine plan, even though Leibniz separately argued for that as well.

Of course, it matters a lot what kinds of causes or reasonable explanations we recognize. In Leibniz’s time, the notion of cause had already been greatly contracted by early modern writers, who further transformed the late scholastic notion of efficient cause in a mechanistic direction, while accentuating the late scholastic tendency to reduce all other causes to efficient causes. Leibniz himself recommended the use of only mechanistic explanations in natural science, but did not see natural science as all-encompassing, and defended the use of teleological explanation in broader philosophy. He compensated for the narrowness of mechanistic causality by speaking of sufficient reason rather than sufficient cause, and kept a place for form and ends as reasons.

Kant ultimately also defended a kind of teleology, especially in biology and in his account of beauty, but he was much more reserved about using it in general explanation than Leibniz, due to his scruples about grounding all “theoretical” explanation in experience. However, he assigned all ethical matters to a separate “practical” domain, which he wanted to exempt from the kind of narrow causal explanation that he considered the norm for physics, and he argued that for us humans, “practical” reason is more fundamental.

Human action for Kant belongs to the practical domain, which he famously argued is governed by “spontaneity” and “freedom”. I now think “spontaneous” and “free” for Kant simply mean not subject to mechanistic explanation. Thus insofar as we are positively motivated by moral imperatives or values, he would say we act spontaneously and freely. I think he also believed that all human thinking is ultimately motivated by ultimate ends, and therefore called it spontaneous and free.

Kant confused generations of scholars by borrowing voluntaristic rhetoric, which he did with the aim of emphasizing that human thought and action are not reducible to mechanistic physics. But freedom and spontaneity in Kant do not mean arbitrariness, as they effectively do for defenders of voluntarism. Rather, they are meant to allow room for positive motivation by moral imperatives or values.

Another confusing move Kant made was to argue for a special “causality of freedom” that he never explained adequately. Due to its contrast with physical causality, it sounded at times like a kind of supernatural break in the natural order he otherwise recognized. Many commentators thought Kant contradicted himself in arguing both that the natural order is self-contained and that there is a separate causality of freedom. I think these problems are ultimately explained by the narrowness of the mechanical concept of causality in nature. The “causality of freedom”, I want to say, simply means motivation by moral imperatives or values rather than by impulse. Kant considered impulse to be within the realm of natural-scientific causality, and therefore opposed it to spontaneity, whereas contemporary common usage associates “spontaneity” with acting on impulse.

(Aristotle, with his much broader notion of cause that essentially identifies causes with any kinds of “reasons why”, would treat values and moral imperatives as one kind of final causes, or what I have been calling “ends”.)

Husserl’s way of speaking about these matters is to contrast human motivation with causality. For him, “causality” is exclusively the causality of modern physical science, but human thought and action are to be explained by “motivation” rather than causality. Husserl’s use of “spontaneity” is related to that of Kant, and applies to everything that he explains in terms of motivation. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Allison on Kant on Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?.)

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.)

Higher Order

Before and after early modern mechanism and in contrast to it, Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel all broadly agreed on the normative importance of higher-order things.

In modern terms, Plato’s forms are higher-order things, as distinct from first-order things. Plato trusts higher-order things more than first-order ones, because he considers only higher-order things to be knowable in the sense of episteme, because only higher-order things contain an element of universality, and episteme applies only to universals, not particulars.

Aristotle agrees that higher-order things are ultimately more knowable, but believes it is possible to say more about first-order things, by relating them to each other and to higher-order things; that our initial rough, practical grasp of first-order things can help us to begin to grasp higher-order things by example; and that going up and down the ladder of abstraction successively can help us progressively enrich our understanding of both.

(Incidentally, I have always read the Platonic dialogues as emphasizing the normative importance of acquiring a practical grasp of forms more than specific existence claims about “the forms”. Aristotle’s criticisms make it clear that at least some in the Platonic Academy did understand Plato as making such existence claims, but particularly in what are regarded as later dialogues like Parmenides, Sophist, and Theaetetus, what is said about form seems relatively close to an Aristotelian view. It is even possible that these dialogues were influenced by the master’s even greater student.)

Early modern mechanism completely discarded Plato and Aristotle’s higher-order orientation. Descartes famously recommends that we start by analyzing everything into its simplest components. This temporarily played a role in many great scientific and technological advances, but was bad for philosophy and for people. Hegel calls this bottom-up approach Understanding, as distinct from Reason.

Early and mid-20th century logical foundationalism still adhered to this resolutely bottom-up view, but since the later 20th century, there has been an explosion in the use of higher-order formal concepts in mathematics, logic, and computer science. It turns out that even from an engineering point of view, higher-order representations are often more efficient, due to their much greater compactness.

Leibniz already tried to reconcile mechanistic science with a higher-order normative view. He also contributed to the early development of higher-order concepts in mathematics.

Kant and Hegel decisively revived an approach that is simultaneously higher-order and normative.

Free Will and Determinism

Free will and determinism both represent overly strong claims when applied in an unqualified way. I’ve already written a bit about the evils of voluntarism.

Aristotle’s “cause” or aitia can be any kind of reason why something is the way it is, and a way that something is typically has multiple reasons of different kinds. The modern notion of cause, by contrast, is intended to provide a single, complete explanation of why an event does or does not occur. The modern notion, unlike the Aristotelian one, is univocal. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

In the reception of Aristotle, historically too much attention was paid to the identity of the underlying “something”, as contrasted to the way something is, emphasized by Aristotle himself — to the point where the standard Latin translation for ousia (Aristotle’s main word for a way of being) came to be substantia or “substance” (something standing under). By contrast, the central books of Aristotle’s Metaphysics start from the notion of something persisting through a change and ask what that is, but in addressing that question eventually reverse the order of explanation, and argue that what can best be said to be underlying just is a way that something is actively what it is. An ousia may be expressed in speech as a simple noun, but this is only a kind of shorthand that can always be unpacked into something like an adverbial expression.

In general, Aristotle suggests that we should value ends more than origins. How something turns out is much more important than where it came from.

Already in Neoplatonism, there was a decidedly non-Aristotelian turn toward putting higher value on origins than results, based on the idea that the One was the origin of everything, and nobler than everything. For monotheistic theologians, it was obvious that God as origin was superior to creation.

Aristotle ends up suggesting that what he calls efficient causes — the direct means by which change is triggered or effectuated, which would include mechanical cases like the classic bumping billiard balls — are not what is most fundamental in making things the way they are. By contrast, the Latin medievals made the efficient cause the root of all others, also applying it to God’s activity of creation from nothing.

Common early modern notions of causality started from this medieval reversal of Aristotle, assuming that efficient causes of the billiard-ball variety came first in the order of explanation. This was related to a widespread anti-Aristotelian privileging of immediacy. Kant and Hegel later developed strong critiques of the privileging of immediacy, but this aspect of their thought was not adequately understood and highlighted until recently. A reduction of all causes to allegedly immediate causes is an error common to both voluntarism and determinism.

Descartes developed a bottom-up explanatory model, starting from simple mechanical causes. This was good for science at a certain stage of development, but bad for philosophy. I would not wish to say that bottom-up explanations have no use (in delimited contexts, they most certainly do). I mean only that it is a delusion to think that nothing else is required, or that they can provide an absolute starting point.

In ethics, Aristotle’s notion of character is a nice relief from the seesaw of free will and determinism. Character is an acquired disposition to act in certain ways. The character of an individual resembles the culture of a community, and the same word (ethos) is used for both. We acquire it gradually over time, from an accumulation of our actions and things that have happened to us. Due to the contributing role of our actions in successive layers of character formation, we are in a broad way accountable for our disposition. On the other hand, it makes little sense to blame someone for acting in accordance with their disposition.