Reflection and Dialectic

As with dialogue, reflection provides a kind of model for dialectic. Reflection can be understood as an either metaphorical or literal dialogue with ourselves. We “question ourselves”, which is to say we examine and potentially criticize or refine the basis of our own commitments. Further, actual dialogue is always implicitly dialogue among fellow rational beings, all of whom are engaged at least to some extent in their own reflective activity, just by virtue of being rational beings, so dialogue implicitly presupposes reflection.

Pippin quotes Hegel: “But at issue here is neither the reflection of consciousness, nor the more specific reflection of the understanding that has the particular and the universal for its determination, but reflection in general…. For the universal, the principle or the rule and law, to which reflection rises in its process of determination is taken to be the essence of the immediate from which the reflection began…. Therefore, what reflection does to the immediate, and the determinations that derive from it, is not anything external to it but is rather its true being” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, pp. 238-239).

And again: “In general, this means nothing but this: Anything which is, is to be considered to exist not as an immediate, but as a posited; there is no stopping at immediate determinate being [Dasein] but a return must rather be made from it back into its ground, and in this reflection it is a sublated being and is in and for itself. What is expressed by the principle of sufficient reason is, therefore, the essentiality of immanent reflection as against mere being” (p. 239).

In the first quote, Hegel is again emphasizing that what he means by reflection is not just looking in a figurative mirror, but rather something more like finding an orientation among (or building a synthesis of) the potentially infinite mutual reflections in a hall of mirrors. Reflection “in general” is a name Hegel gives to reflection with this kind of potentially infinite dimension. (That the infinity here should be called potential is my friendly Aristotelian interpolation.)

In the second quote, he is saying that this kind of reflection — lifted out from the distinction between reflective activity and what it reflects upon — is what he would call the “truth” of everything that appears to be immediately determinate.

The principle of sufficient reason as formulated by Leibniz effectively says that for everything that is in some definite way, there is a reason why it is that way. Hegel is saying more specifically that such “reasons why” emerge immanently from the reflective grounding of what he is in a nonstandard way calling essence. What Leibniz cannot show is how a particular essence or monadic point of view results in certain predicates and not others; despite great sophistication, he is still to some extent using essence and monads as unexplained explainers to avoid what Hegel calls the “problem of indifference”. Hegel on the other hand explicitly makes essence and explanation interdependent.

“[T]he ‘principles’ of identification and differentiation are deeply intertwined, not independent of each other” (p. 240).

“[A] thing’s determinate properties are not, cannot be, a mark of that thing’s unlikeness from other things, just by being those properties…. If one thing is red and another square, we do not thereby know one is unlike the other; they are just two different things. A locomotive has nothing to do with a melody; it is not unlike a melody. We are trying to account not for determinate otherness, as in the logic of being, but for how objects that share properties (are like) could be, even with an extraordinary degree of such likeness, still unlike” (p. 241).

“Some of this anticipates topics in the logic of the Concept. Two trees are alike in being trees but unlike in being two individual trees. The idea will be that just in their likeness, their way of being alike, that they are unlike (different trees), just in the way each distinctly instantiates ‘treeness’ that they are unlike. Such a different ‘way of being a tree’ is not another property but the way the tree-properties are ‘had’ by the individual” (p. 242).

“Hegel is thinking of the way in which the specifying work of ‘unlikeness’ cannot be a matter of individual properties, atomistically conceived, but unlikeness within likeness is best understood as some content, the unlikeness of which is strict, even within such likeness. Some charge can be both positive and negative; some number, 4, can be both +4 and -4; some quantity of money can be an asset and also a debt pending; some force can be attractive and repelling; some distance marched east is canceled by the same distance marched west, and all these are ‘opposed’ only within some common likeness” (ibid).

I find “either-or” language more appropriate to these cases than the “both-and” language above, but the intent is the same. The distinctions in each sub-case are concrete “opposites” applicable to some specific context, and each definable only in reference to the other. In each case, it is possible to abstract an indifferent thing being measured or assessed — “positive-or-negative-quantity” for the one, and “virtue-or-vice” for the other.

“The ‘world’s being contradictory’ means nothing more than that, as he says, virtue cannot be virtue just by being other than, different from, in comparison with, vice, but only by ‘the opposition and combat in it’ against vice” (p. 243, emphasis in original).

Pippin complicates the matter with this example, because “relative” seems to have a different significance in the context of virtue and vice than it does in, say, that of positive and negative numbers. But the intended point is a very abstract one about constitution of meanings that is common to both cases. Whatever the difference between the two “oppositions” (positive/negative, virtue/vice), in each case the two sub-terms are somehow measured or assessed “against” one another.

“Hegel is trying to specify how affirming contrary predicates (‘in opposition’) does not amount to a logical contradiction. That is the point of his discussion, to make this distinction, not to treat such oppositions as if they were logically contradictory and then to affirm them anyway. As [Michael] Wolff puts it, Hegel’s orientation… is not from sentence or predicate negation, but from developments in the understanding of negative numbers and from Kant’s defense of Newton on positive and negative magnitudes. In general, then, mathematical, not logical negation” (pp. 243-244).

This is extremely important. The status of negative numbers was still controversial in Hegel’s time. Kant and Hegel contributed to their acceptance. Hegel struggled to invent new language to distinguish ambiguous cases in his Logic and to say reasonable things about them, but readers (certainly including myself) have found his unique idioms very hard to follow. Most of the ink spilled over “contradiction” in Hegel has been based on fundamental misunderstandings. (See also Negation and Negativity.)

“To use an empirical example, if the question is something like ‘Why did the ball fall to the ground?’ we want to avoid two kinds of answers: ‘because whenever a heavy object is dropped from a height, it falls’; and ‘it is in the nature of heavy things to fall’. Doing so, avoiding these alternatives, will allow us to see that the relation between a ‘ground’ and ‘what it grounds’ must be understood as a dynamic relation, one whereby the determinacy of the ground and that of the grounded cannot be fixed in isolation from each other” (pp. 245-246).

He quotes Hegel: “But the being that appears and essential being stand referred to each other absolutely. Thus concrete existence is, third, essential relation; what appears shows the essential, and the essential is in the appearance. — Relation is the still incomplete union of reflection into otherness and reflection into itself; the complete interpenetrating of the two is actuality” (p. 246).

“The general point [Hegel] keeps making is: a strict separation of the two moments, and an insistence that the nature of an appeal to an essence, or to a causal law, or to someone’s reason for acting cannot be understood as punctuated moments on the billiard-ball model of causation, but involve a kind of unity, the development of a kind of unity, much closer (yet again) to Aristotle on energeia. This essential-being-as-activity, manifesting itself in its appearances, is what should count as ‘actuality’. This has the implication that many existing things have no actuality, are not really ‘anything’. A lump of dirt, a cough, a strand of wire” (ibid).

“The question for Hegel is the question of ‘actuality’, not ‘existence’, or the sensibly apprehensible, just as for Aristotle, the question is the ‘really real’, to ontos on.” (p. 247).

Pippin quotes from the Encyclopedia Logic, “The logical is to be sought in a system of thought-determinations in which the antithesis between subjective and objective (in its usual meaning) disappears. This meaning of thinking and of its determinations is more precisely expressed by the ancients when they say that nous [“intellect”, or thought in a non-psychological sense] governs the world” (p. 248).

Here “governs” is meant in a constitutive sense. The important point is that the “thought-determinations” here are indifferent to the ordinary distinction between a subjective “thinker” and an objective “thought content”.

In this context he speaks of “this dynamical relation, this Ur-relation of all relations” (ibid).

“I have tried to show in another book that the most important, most clarifying implications of this Ur-relation occur in Hegel’s practical philosophy, both in his account of human agency, and in the implications of that account for the practical theory of freedom in his Philosophy of Right and theory of objective spirit in general (ibid).

“[T]he full demonstration of the truth of this Ur-relation lies in what it actually illuminates, in the cogency and credibility of, for example, an account of agency based on it” (p. 249).

It was the outstanding (and very Aristotelian) account of Hegel’s view of agency in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy that first attracted me to Pippin’s work.

In his own idiom, Hegel says “thus the inner is immediately the outer, and it is this determinateness of externality for the reason that it is the inner; conversely, the outer is only an inner because it is only an outer” (quoted, ibid.)

Pippin comments, “He does not mean here anything as obvious as: when I do something, my ex ante intention is fulfilled and so becomes something outer, just as what was done, the bodily movement, counts as an action because it expressed this ex ante intention. The passage does not say that the inner becomes the outer, nor that the outer is the expression of the inner. It says: there is no ex ante intention except as outer. It is the outer. And there is no outer except as what must count as inner, nor that it expresses a separable inner. There is no such separation” (pp. 249-250; see also Hegel on Willing).

This concludes Pippin’s chapter on the logic of essence. Unsurprisingly, we have not uncovered any magic formula that would tell us which appearances manifest the essence in particular cases. Such a thing seems completely impossible to me; we should not expect to be able to find any general formula covering an unspecified collection of particulars. Any judgments involving particulars must in part at least come back to something like Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, which yield only particular results.

Nonetheless, in discussing the logic of essence we have ruled out some important classes of misunderstandings, and we have set the stage for the climax of Hegel’s Logic in the “logic of the concept”. The logic of the concept will take as a starting point the non-separation of “inner” and “outer” that has been shown in the logic of essence.

Reflective Grounding

In Essence and Explanation, I introduced Hegel’s generalization from essence to “ground”, which is anything that explains something else and could be said to metaphorically “underlie” it.

Essence and ground in Hegel’s sense are not simply definable once and for all. Instead, he emphasizes dynamic relations of “grounding”, in accordance with his unusual notion of truth as a process. These dynamic relations correlate with movements of the reflective judgment that Kant discusses in the Critique of Judgment.

Kant distinguishes “determinative” judgment — corresponding to ordinary predicative assertions like “S is P“, and to the subsumption of individuals under universal concepts — from “reflective” judgment, which open-endedly looks for universals appropriate to the individual. Pippin suggests there is a kind of reciprocal dependency involved in the actual working of these two kinds of judgment.

It seems to me that reflective judgment has a great deal in common with the deliberation that lies behind Aristotelian practical judgment, even though Aristotle speaks of these as concluding in action rather than knowledge or opinion. Perhaps we might also say with Brandom that undertaking a commitment about how things are is a kind of action.

Hegel argues that even determinative judgments presuppose a reflective component, and speaks at length of “reflective determination”.

This use of “reflective” has nothing to do with the immediate inspection or direct consciousness of some content, or even with any single stage of reflection, or indeed any kind of move that could be completed all at once.

Paul Ricoeur’s works make a similar point, in tying the term “reflective” closely to his other notion of the “long detour” needed for philosophical understanding, which is itself very Hegelian in spirit. This is anything but a rabbit-out-of-hat “reflexivity at a glance”.

If there is a metaphor here, it is not gazing in a mirror to see something, but finding an orientation within the potentially infinite reflections of a hall of mirrors. Note also that we see the potentially infinite reflections in an “immediate” representation, even though each layer of reflection is an additional mediation when we interpret what we are seeing.

At the level of nature, similar potentially infinite reflection occurs in biological and ecological processes that achieve stability through feedback cycles.

Toward Essence

What does it mean to really explain something, as opposed to just making claims about it? According to Robert Pippin, this question underlies what he calls the key transition of Hegel’s Logic, between the “logic of being” addressed in several recent posts and what Hegel calls the “logic of essence”.

The logic of essence will itself eventually be superseded by the logic of the concept. With very broad brush, it seems to me one might expect that the logic of essence will be a representation of important insights Hegel attributes to Aristotle, whereas the logic of the concept is supposed to be a representation of what he claims as his own (and Kant’s).

“[Hegel’s] general approach [is] to begin with the least ‘mediated’, least theoretically committed determination and argue for the further determinations, further theoretical commitments, without which even these relatively simpler determinations would not be possible” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 211).

Hegel assimilates all simple predications or assertions to the logic of being, the inadequacy of which we have seen in some detail. Every word, phrase, or assertion taken in strict isolation reduces to meaningless noise, just like the attempt to “say” indeterminate Being. Only taken together and in some sort of context do words and assertions begin to mean something.

According to Pippin, “a mere list of contingent properties and quantitative measures cannot count as having determined any subject of those determinations as such” (ibid). Hegel “summarizes this problem by calling it the problem of indifference” (ibid). We still lack any even quasi-stable things to talk about.

An explanation is more than just a generalization. Explanation requires distinguishing the essential from the nonessential.

Hegel thinks that even something as sophisticated as the use of Newton’s inverse square law to account for the elliptical shape of planetary orbits is still only a compact way of making a complex assertion about relational properties, and does not give us a reason. This corresponds to the level of the “force and understanding” chapter of the Phenomenology, which reaches a purely relational point of view on mathematical physics, but still lacks the features Hegel associates with self-consciousness.

“[A] distinction between what is truly real or essential and what appears, or that way of thinking, is now on the Logic‘s agenda…. A practice exists, and we want to know not merely what happens or whether it exists but whether the practice is actually a religious practice. Or a computer wins at chess, but is it actually thinking? Something is displayed in a gallery, but is it actually art?” (p. 218).

“These questions are just examples. The Logic is not concerned with them, and, we should say, is concerned with actuality as such, the possible actuality of anything intelligible” (ibid). “These example questions… depend on ‘the logic of actuality’ as such, which simply means: how we think about what anything ‘really is’. As we have seen, the determinations of such conceptuality cannot be empirical; they must be understood, according to Hegel, as ‘products’ of thought’s self-determination of itself, a process that continually realizes thought’s apperceptive nature. Or: the concept gives itself its own actuality. Hegelian conceptuality has this subjective dimension (‘thought’s autonomy‘), even while also being the articulation of the conceptual structure of reality. This has nothing to do with spinning every actual, contingent species-form out of thought’s self-examination. The topic… is logical or categorical formality as such, not ‘what are the existing species-forms?’ ” pp. 218-219).

“The very title of a ‘logic of essence’ suggests (yet again) immediately the philosopher whom Hegel seems most to admire, Aristotle” (p. 219). “We found in the logic of being that, according to Hegel, it was not possible to specify a thing’s ‘actual’ being by qualitative and quantitative markers…. Since Hegel accepts the Aristotelian premise that actually to be is to be a this-such, where that means it is identifiable by being an instance of a kind, this means we have failed with respect to the question of actuality. We are thereby compelled, in the prosecution of the original task, to consider that, ‘actually’, a thing is not how it simply appears, looks, sensibly manifests itself, however regular or predictable. We have to say that in some way, what a thing actually is lies hidden, must be uncovered, posited, a product of thought, not a simple empirical apprehension as such” (p. 220).

The “original task” is the determination of meaning, which didn’t get very far in the logic of being, even though in the parts Pippin has skipped over, Hegel did develop resources for making broad classes of simple assertions or claims about appearance.

“What we will need is a comprehension of the difference… between the ‘essential’ and the ‘unessential’, and the basis for this differentiation” (p. 221). “[W]hatever seemings are, (in not ‘actually’ being), they exist and are determinate, a determinacy inexplicable, Hegel claims, by the ‘skeptics and idealists’ who claim that the distinction cannot be made, and therefore say, ‘everything is illusory'” (ibid).

Whoever claims that “everything is only mere appearance” turns out to have no basis for making any distinctions within the so-called appearance.

“Someone who had understood everything said onstage, the plot of Shakespeare’s King Lear, and the basic motivations of the characters, as those characters and others voice them, and had understood only that, would not, we feel entitled to say, have understood ‘the play’. Put in the simplest possible way, to understand the play, one has to do more than listen to it; one must think about it, or we can say, using the word most important for Hegel, ‘reflect’ on it, understand what lies ‘beneath’… these facts about plots and characters…. There is no such thing as a hidden meaning in King Lear; there are just the words spoken or found on the page. How we get from this clumsy metaphor to the ‘concept’ of King Lear in itself is the underlying story of the logic of essence” (pp. 223-224).

All meaning that is worth talking about has this same kind of non-thing-like character. It is constituted from relations of connection and disconnection.

“It would be a mistake to sum a person up, attempt to ‘understand’ her in the distinct way persons should be understood, simply by adding up or listing everything she did, from what she had for breakfast to volunteering for a dangerous mission. A person would not be properly understood by attention to such ‘immediacy’ alone (or her qualitative/quantitative/measured appearances, as in the logic of being). We need to understand her deeds as ‘mediated’ by what Hegel calls her ‘inwardness’…, something (and now in the most important difference with the logic of being) that we cannot see, that does not simply present itself” (p. 224).

The relations that constitute meaning do not themselves directly appear. This applies as much to things in general as to human character.

It is certainly ubiquitous that people and things also respond differentially to direct appearances, without anything deeper than a qualitative or quantitative appearance being involved. Mid-20th century behaviorism claimed that was all there is, that the meaning at issue here was a mere figment or conceit.

Pippin continues his previous example, “For example, we can’t really understand what she did except by some attention to her own formulation of the act description and to her avowed motive (her ‘intention’). Sometimes what happens should not count as a deed because there is not the proper connection of inner and outer. An accident happens. Something prevents her from realizing her intention; that is, something happens to her. She does not do something. What happens is not an expression of her character. On the other hand, as Hegel states the central claim of the entire logic of essence in a phrase, we must concede that any such inner self-construal can ‘prove itself’… only in what manifests that outwardly, in the deeds. (It is immediately important that this ‘test’ can fail.) Too radical a separation and we have someone trying to disown what she in fact did, to fabricate excuses. (‘Mistakes were made’; ‘It was never my intention to deceive/hurt/offend anyone’, etc.) We need this distinction, but we can’t establish which deeds are true manifestations of essence and which are merely aberrations by any statistical analysis of frequency, any simple inspection of what happens. We need to understand how ‘what shows’, ‘what manifests itself’ (Schein), can be said to reflect these deeds’ essence when it does (if it does, then as Erscheinung, appearance), even if, as appearance, no one deed is ever a manifestation or simple representation of essence as such ” (pp. 224-225).

It was this sort of point about the ethical meaning and use of actuality in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy that initially greatly impressed me in Pippin’s work (see especially Hegel on Willing). According to Pippin, this kind of question about the relation of actuality to appearances is just what Hegel’s “logic of essence” is all about.

Unexpectedly for me at least, this now provides the occasion for Pippin to tell us more specifically what he thinks “mediated immediacy” means in Hegel. As I mentioned before, I have always thought first of things like the experience of riding a bicycle or recognizing an object, which properly speaking are examples of “immediatized mediation”, bridging the gap between the intrinsic emptiness of immediacy in itself and our undoubtedly non-empty “immediate” uptake of things in ordinary experience. In other words, my attention was drawn to the way in which complex results of some previous synthesis can be pre-consciously associated to what we experience “immediately” in a new synthesis of imagination.

Hitherto, in thinking about the term “mediated immediacy”, I have focused on ordinary appearances of meaning, in contexts that according to Hegel are not adequate to “immediately” support the constitution of that apparent meaning. This is admittedly to disregard the surface grammar of the phrase.

Pippin here starts to give “mediated immediacy” a sense that is aligned with the surface grammar, and is also closely aligned with what he has just said the logic of essence is all about.

He continues, “Understanding this relation properly is what Hegel thinks allows him to speak of a mediated immediacy. The appearances are not denied as unreal. They ‘shine’ in their immediacy. But they can be understood in their determinate immediacy only as the manifestation of the thing that they are appearances of, and so are always mediated…. We can’t derive the appearances from a mediated (‘posited’, ‘reflected’, ‘thought-over’) essence. That would be a denial of their immediacy. But we don’t apprehend such appearances on their own, in pure immediacy, and then infer what appears. What appears is appearing in what manifests itself…. What a person does is tied to that person’s character, whatever it is. And understanding that character is nothing other than rightly understanding what that person has done. With respect to all the reflected dualisms introduced in the logic of essence, this thought in various forms remains the kernel of that logic throughout” (p. 225).

This is Hegel’s recovery of something like Aristotle’s qualified common-sense realism about experience. We say that we experience not just phenomena but also things, even if we are wrong about them sometimes. At the simplest level, though not itself thing-like, essence is what enables the distinction of things from arbitrary collections of appearances.

“This is also why essence is a retrospective reflection of what has been made manifest, why it is rooted in gewesen, the past participle of sein [to be] or ‘what has been’, a feature somewhat counterintuitive in an account of action. It is also why Hegel is happy to accept the Wesen/gewesen suggestion of temporality. It links his account with one he admired, Aristotle’s, whose term for what has often been translated as essence is to ti en einai, something like ‘the what it was to be’ of a thing” (p. 226).

Essence, I would suggest, subsists independent of time once constituted, but the constitution of essence for both Aristotle and Hegel has a dependency on appearances in time. It therefore could not be pre-given. We have to actively discover or construct it, often taking into account long sequences of appearances in time. These may wander in various directions or sharply reverse our previous expectation. Parts of them we will judge to be irrelevant. This is only the beginning of the story of essence, not the end.

“Ultimately on Hegel’s account, if we want to know whether this lie reveals a person to be a ‘liar’, what we need is not to have deeper insight into some thinglike essence, but to observe what else the person does over time and to understand the relation among these deeds, to interpret them or ‘think them over’ in their relation to each other. This will be a crucial point throughout the logic of essence, and it obviously raises the question of how to make, what guides us in making, this relational connection.”

It is relatively easy to express the openness of Aristotelian practical judgment. But we still have to do the work of judgment in each case, and due to the openness we will have committed to with Aristotle, there could not be a precise roadmap telling us how to do the work. But Kant already argued that at least at a sufficiently high level of abstraction, universals can meaningfully guide practical judgment, so perhaps something more could be achieved. Any such progress on how to judge what is essential would be priceless indeed.

“Finally, it is important to stress that this topic is being introduced very broadly. No particular theory of ‘essentialism’ is being entertained, and as already noted, making the general distinction just discussed could be achieved even by an account of the difference between transcendental and empirical subjectivity, or between categories and empirical concepts” (ibid).

Essence as such need not be taken as a specific “ontological commitment”. It means what is reasonably, reflectively judged to be important. That is part of the hermeneutics of things and of life, which we encounter as soon as we begin asking if someone or something is really or actually something-or-other. (See also Essence and Explanation; Hegel on Reflection.)

Problems of Immediacy

Returning now to Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, he continues his chapter on Hegel’s “logic of being” by raising problems he associates with what Hegel calls mediated immediacy. I would alternatively characterize these as mainly having to do with ambiguities about what we mean by “immediacy” in a “logical” context.

Apparent immediacy plays a large role in experience, but on closer examination I think there it always turns out to be already mediated. So what does pure immediacy even mean in the logical context? My impression at this point is that it is only a failed beginning that creates a problem that motivates further development. I’m still not really used to this idea of taking a complete failure as a beginning, still at least partly holding on to the prejudice that we could not have a legitimate beginning without at least getting something right. (But see also Error.)

Pippin quotes Hegel saying there is “nothing in heaven or nature or spirit or anywhere else that does not contain just as much immediacy as mediation, so that both these determinations prove to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them nothing real” (p. 197).

As he notes, this rules out any “two-step” interpretation of the relation between immediacy and mediation. Hegel cannot be saying that first we have something purely immediate, and then later some mediation is added to it.

The apparent moment of Parmenides’ saying of pure Being was already characterized as a failed thought. In the quote above, Hegel is in effect saying that the moment of pure Parmenidean Being could never really occur. That does not prevent him from nonetheless treating it as a “logical” moment. To paraphrase part of the corresponding part of the Encyclopedia Logic, being is the merely implicit form of the concept; when the concept is made explicit and actual, it “abolishes” the (purported) immediacy of being, or the (purported) form of being as such.

It also seems that all the subsequent logical “movement” will have always already occurred. Hegel’s Logic follows something like an Aristotelian teleological ordering by hypothetical necessity for Kantian conditions of possibility, not the kind of sequential ordering characteristic of the passage of time.

Pippin quotes Hegel’s statement in the Encyclopedia Logic that “Immediacy of knowledge is so far from excluding mediation, that the two things are linked together — immediate knowledge being actually the product and result of mediated knowledge” (p. 198).

This last perspective is what I think of first as the meaning of mediated immediacy. It is like the ability to ride a bicycle — once we have learned it, it is transparent and effortless. Similarly, we recognize complex objects at a glance, once we have learned to do so. (See also Meaningful “Seeing”.)

All these statements by Hegel seem very reasonable and in accordance with experience. But he also says it is “easy to show” (p. 197) that the beginning of philosophy can be neither something immediate nor something mediated. I am more used to saying that we always begin in the middle, that there is no true beginning; or that every beginning has an element of arbitrariness, and will eventually be superseded, and it is the development that matters.

Perhaps Hegel really means the beginning can be neither purely immediate nor purely mediated. But it seems to me that for Hegel, pure thought, pure negativity, and “otherness” are purely mediated. If the context were an account of experience, it makes sense that none of these could be a beginning either, since none of them directly occur in experience. But even though we are in a purely “logical” context, Hegel still seems to disallow these options, and does not seem to clearly explain why.

Maybe the reference here to the beginning of philosophy is meant as a step outside the purely logical context, but the second edition of this part of the Logic was one of Hegel’s last works (1831), and by then Hegel was explicitly presenting his logic as the “first” part of his philosophy.

That the beginning cannot be immediate we have already seen. The failed duality of Being and Nothing that Hegel placed at the beginning seems to conclusively show that any notion of “pure” immediacy as a sort of foundation is a dead end.

My first thought is that Hegel again wants to assert that in experience, mediation and immediacy come always already mixed together, and again in experience, pure mediation with no component of immediacy ought to be just as unthinkable as pure immediacy. My second thought is that pure immediacy has no logical role to play at all. My third thought is that he continues to talk about immediacy anyway, largely because immediacy was given a privileged status by the followers of Schelling and Jacobi, against whom he polemicizes in the Preface to the Phenomenology.

My fourth, tentative thought is that maybe even though pure immediacy itself has no logical role, the failed reflective thought of it still might. My fifth thought is that maybe what Hegel is doing here should be understood as beginning with the logical impossibility of foundationalism — which is after all a common enough kind of explicit or implicit claim about beginnings — as a kind of prerequisite for the Logic‘s real work of showing the conditions that make intelligibility and normativity possible.

According to Pippin, Hegel further complicates the picture by saying (again in the Encyclopedia Logic) that “thinking is the negation of something immediately given” (quoted, p. 199), “even though in the same paragraph he denies that these moments are ever distinct and insists that they are always ‘inseparably bound together'” (ibid). The first part could be taken to suggest a before-after relation that the second part denies. I think the answer has to be that the first part should not be taken that way; the emphasis there is on thinking as negation in Hegel’s special sense. Elsewhere he calls thinking a “pure negativity”, and suggests that at least some the senses of the “negativity” of thought are actually non-transitive, so the language here about a negation of something could be just a figure of speech conforming to the expectation of common sense.

According to Pippin, the failed duality of Being and Nothing, “now that… we can understand what Hegel means by considering thinking itself as a negating, will assume a very general importance. It is the duality between mediation and immediacy, differentiation and unity, and form and what is formed, and amounts to the core argument of the Logic (the inseparability yet distinguishabilty of these moments” (p. 194, emphasis added).

Pippin seems much more worried than I am about the status of what Hegel calls “mediated immediacy”, which I have taken to be Hegel’s name for the inseparable mixtures we actually encounter.

“[Mediated immediacy] is obviously problematic in its very formulation. If any such immediacy is to be considered as mediated, then it is not immediate. A canceled event is not a kind of happening, a kind of event. The event did not happen. A mediated immediacy is no longer an immediacy…. [The] argument has ruled out… any… two-step account. So the problem is not merely how there can be distinguishable but not separably occurring elements in some whole, like, say, pitch and timbre in a musical note…. The problem is how the logical or conceptual character of this relation between activity and receptivity is to be understood, if not in this stepwise way. Hegel’s formulations of the problem seem to take delight in forcing the issue into terms that are initially bewildering” (p. 197).

I don’t think there are any events in the Logic, which seems instead to be about conditions and dependencies of possible thought and judgment.

All experiencing seems to involve an element of immediacy, and all experience involving anything contentful seems to involve mediation (and there seems to be no experiencing that that does not involve something contentful).

Pure thought, I think Hegel wants to say, includes no passive or immediate element, but no experience consists in pure thought alone. Every concrete actualization of thought involves more than thought alone. Also, we can think about pure thought, but we never experience it in its pure form. The Logic, however, is concerned with what is thinkable rather than with experience.

The inseparability of immediacy and mediation fits well with a perspective of Aristotelian hylomorphism, which Pippin has been arguing Hegel uses to re-interpret the apparent dualities in Kant. Helpful as this is, Pippin suggests that it is in basic tension with Kant’s insistence on the entirely active character of thought, which Hegel wants to preserve. I have not yet gotten to his resolution of this issue.

On the one hand, Aristotelian hylomorphism helps solve Kantian problems: “In even the simplified and misleading ‘impositionist’ interpretation of Kant that is so common, we will not be able to explain the determination of what to impose if we hold to… an exclusive disjunction [between sensible intuition and thought]” (p. 207). “Every determinate judgment must also involve a reflective determination of which concept to apply, and every reflective search for a concept must already proceed from a particular sufficiently determinate to warrant the judgment for one rather than another” (p. 208).

On the other hand, Pippin recalls “the Kantian innovation perhaps more important than any other: that thinking is discursive, is not itself open to the world in any direct way…. There is no lumen naturale [natural light (of reason)], no nous pathetikos [passive intellect], no Jacobi-esque flash of insight” (p. 207).

This means that “The claim that ‘matter’, in whatever logical register, is to be understood as always enformed and that form is always being enmattered cannot in Kantian terms be leading back to a position that sensible intuiting is a kind of thinking, and thinking is a kind of intuiting, as if along a continuum” (p. 205).

This too seems right. Hylomorphism is wonderful and many things have hylomorphic relations, but thinking and intuiting as such do not form a hylomorphic pair.

For one thing, intuition is only relevant at the empirical level, having to do with experience and how things seem, but the same is not true of thought.

Also, Kantian intuition does not have the right shape for the Aristotelian identity of thought and what it thinks to apply to it. Intuition is rather intuition of something that is transcendent to it. In Hegelian terms, intuition always refers to something “positive” that is opaque to thought.

On the other hand, Hegel seems to claim that his unique formulation of pure thought as purely negative ought to be the perfect shape to be identical to what it thinks, because in being purely “negative” it refers to no opaque element, and is only a pure immanence to itself or — as was said in connection with apperceptive judgment — a pure self-relation or self-referentiality.

I believe the experience of thinking and the experience of intuition do form a continuum. The Logic, however, is not about experience or empirical things, but about “transcendental” conditions of possibility.

Pippin hints that mediated immediacy will turn out to be intimately connected to the notion of reflective judgment that Kant developed in his later Critique of Judgment. Kantian reflective judgment is ancestral to the notion of apperceptive judgment that Pippin finds to be a major theme of Hegel’s Logic.

He also makes the promising suggestion that the solution to the problem of mediated immediacy will look something like the Hegelian use of actuality in ethics (see Hegel on Willing):

“[I]n the same way that we can imagine that the determination of a person’s character from his deeds, from the immediate appearances, is not a once-and-for-all determination, but a reflective determination always attentive to future deeds and so an expanded or revised ‘essence’, and therewith an expanded or revised interpretation of deeds as typical or untypical, we can also imagine that in both logical and empirical determinations of conceptual content, this process or movement can be better considered as a kind of oscillation…, and we will have at least a sketch of how the matter seems to Hegel” (p. 210).

Pippin notes that Hegel in a remark to the section of the Encyclopedia Logic on pure Being calls it “the logical version of the general problem of sensory consciousness” (p. 196) that he treated in the early chapters of the Phenomenology.

He says that in the corresponding part of the Phenomenology, Hegel’s argument is meant to show “the impossibility of any model of experiential knowledge that is understood to be based on a foundation that consists simply in the direct sensory presence of the world to the mind, a putative consciousness of a content that is contentful just by being passively apprehended, contentful on its own, in no relation to any other or any remembered content. By imagining such a model and showing that it has some inner incoherence or necessarily raises a question that cannot be answered in its terms, Hegel shows that the possibility of any such determination requires a capacity beyond mere differential responsiveness, a capacity that, among other things, allows a perceiver to track, keep attending to, any such content over time, and that allows the perceiver to fulfill a condition of such determinacy: that the differentiability of such content from what is other than it be possible. This is supposed to establish the impossibility of any epistemological atomism, and to undermine any idea of a strict separability between our sensible and intellectual faculties. This is so because fulfilling these conditions on experiential determinacy requires, he wants to show, the exercise of spontaneous conceptual capacities in perception itself. This is not at all in any way a denial of our reliance on direct sensible contact with objects in gaining empirical knowledge, or a denial of the difference between sensible and intellectual capacities. It is meant as a denial that such sensory receptivity can properly play its role in the model of empirical knowledge all on its own, conceived as independent of, or prior to, as he would say, any conceptual mediation” (ibid; see also Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True).

It might seem surprising that Hegel sees an analogy between the attitude of “sense certainty” and the metaphysical claims of Parmenides about Being, which run contrary to all experience. But he analyzes both as assertions of an undifferentiated immediacy that is still supposed to tell us something, and he responds to both cases by pointing out that all meaningful saying depends on differentiation.

Meaningful “Seeing”

We ordinarily “see” things with the appearance of immediate meaning — for instance, not just patches of color but recognizable objects and individuals. We experience these as having properties that we expect to hold under various conditions that do not apply at present. We also seem to immediately apprehend subtler aspects of situations that presuppose what Kant and Hegel called “reflection” to discern and express at all. This goes far beyond any simple passive registering of sense data.

The Stoics tried to bridge the gap between a theorized passivity of perceiving and knowing and the already meaningful character of experience in a naturalistic way, by positing some kind of material transmission of “phantasms” from objects to the perceiver.

Variants of this were adopted by many Latin scholastics under the name of “sensible species”. By analogy, Aquinas and others argued for the real existence of “intelligible species” that could be passively received by the intellect.

However, medieval nominalists already anticipated modern empiricism in rejecting both sensible and intelligible species, and medieval Augustinians argued for a much larger role of active powers of the soul in the apprehension of meaning.

Kant and Hegel broadly agree with the nominalist and empiricist critique of the theory of passive transmission of species, and with an abstracted version of the Augustinian thesis of the role of active capabilities in perception and knowledge.

How this all relates to Aristotle involves many subtleties, some of which are mentioned in Aristotle on Perception.

(See also Berkeley on Perception; Kantian Synthesis; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant; Taking “Things” as True; Husserl on Perception; Primacy of Perception?; The Non-Primacy of Perception; What We Saw.)

Plotinus Against the Gnostics

Since publication of James Robertson’s The Nag Hammadi Library (1977), there has been a big upsurge of interest in the loose bundle of religious tendencies under the Roman Empire known retrospectively as “gnosticism”. These tended to emphasize extreme forms of transcendence, and to reject the classical notion of the inherent goodness of life in the finite world.

Hans Jonas’ 1958 classic The Gnostic Religion was an early sympathetic account that impressed me in my youth. Jonas gave a somewhat philosophical reading of general gnostic principles, emphasizing the claim that a direct personal experience of metaphysical realities could transform one’s being. I now think that true wisdom does not come from any immediate experience, although immediate experience may encapsulate wisdom already acquired. In light of Kant, I think the idea of direct experience of transcendent metaphysical realities is a category mistake.

Surviving gnostic texts nonetheless contain many bits of inherent interest to the historian of religions, illustrating results of a rather wild cross-cultural fusion between nonstandard Jewish, Christian, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and even Buddhist elements. Related themes found their way into Ismaili Shi’ism, Suhrawardian Illuminationist Sufism, Catharism, and Jewish Kabbalah. Particularly in the Shi’ite versions, there was at times an element of concern for social justice. This kind of formation, however, seems to be prone to developing an authoritarian or cult-like character, e.g., “I am better than you because I have the secret wisdom.”

Prior to the 19th century, gnosticism was known in the West almost exclusively from extremely hostile heresiological sources, which were often not far from the mentality that groups we don’t like eat babies for breakfast. There was an underground interest in gnosticism among occultists and Jungians, but only in the later 20th century did studies of it acquire broader intellectual respectability.

The pendulum has now perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction of rather uncritical enthusiasm. In this context, the independent critique of gnosticism by Plotinus is worth recalling.

The largest single treatise of Plotinus, the great founder of neoplatonism, the so-called Großschrift, was divided into four pieces by his student and editor Porphyry, who gave its conclusion the title “Against the Gnostics”. The three preceding parts, which expressed related views of Plotinus in more positive terms, were “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”, “On the Intellectual Beauty”, and “That the Intelligibles Are Not Outside the Intellect, and on the Good”.

Plotinus criticized the gnostics for making arrogant claims to possess otherwise hidden metaphysical knowledge; for their negative attitudes toward life in this world; and for their feverish multiplication of metaphysical principles. In my youth I had some sympathy for the “esoteric” view, and for general feelings of alienation from the existing world order. However, I have come to believe that the truest spirituality has a universal rather than esoteric character. Also, I have really always believed that nature and worldly being are good in themselves, and that social ills are due to us and not to unjust cosmic forces. I have come to think that Plotinus’ notions of the One, Intellect, and Soul are too strong, but still consider him a major figure. (See also The One?; Power of the One?; Neoplatonic Critique of Identity?; Subjectivity in Plotinus).

Hegel offers many enriching views of the broader matters addressed by Plotinus here.


“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”.