Subjectivity in Plotinus

Plotin: Traité 53 (2004) is Gwenaëlle Aubry’s contribution to the French series Les écrits de Plotin. It is a translation of and commentary on the treatise Porphyry placed at the very beginning of the Enneads when he edited his teacher’s works. In this essay Plotinus broaches the question who “We” are.

Aubry translates the title of Plotinus’ essay as “What Is the Animal? What Is the Man?”. (The classic English translation by Stephen MacKenna called it “The Animate and the Man”.) But she says “The real question of treatise 53 is not that of man, but rather of the subject…. [T]here appears something like a subject in the modern sense of the term, that is to say a reflexive consciousness, capable of asking itself about its operations and its identity” (p. 17, my translation throughout).

Plotinus develops his unique view of soul (psyche) as in effect a sort of unmoved mover. “We”, it will turn out, are for him neither the pure soul nor a union of soul and body. Aubry says here that for Plotinus the subject is not a substance and has no identity. It is rather a “pure power of identification” (p. 18).

It was precisely the classical identification of subject with substance that led Augustine — who was deeply impressed by Plotinus — to insist that the mind is not a “subject”.

“Finally, the theme of the immaculacy of the separated soul is another way of underlining the responsibility of the “We”: it is on us, ultimately, that the ethical decision depends, understood as a choice of identification with that which exceeds us or with that which hinders us, with what founds us or with what weakens us — with the divine or with the animal in us” (p. 18).

“The itinerary of treatise 53 is nothing other, finally, than the passage from the me to the self. What the treatise proposes to its readers, what it proposes to ‘us’, is not to discover our identity — for identity we do not have. It is not to define our essence — for the essence is not ‘us’, but the self — it is to identify ourselves with another object than that with which we spontaneously confuse ourselves” (ibid).

For Plotinus, a mere conversion to interiority is not sufficient to disclose the self, Aubry says. That just gives us a sensible, empirical “me”, a subject of passions. “The whole effort of the treatise… is to redirect consciousness away from that immediate and fascinating object, to orient it toward the impassible and separated soul in which essential identity resides. Thus, the work of definition imposed by the Delphic precept [know thyself] is inseparable from an ethical work: the self cannot be determined except at the price of a renunciation of its first object of identification” (p. 20, brackets added).

She quotes Plotinus asking, “that which investigates, which examines and poses these questions, what could it be?” (p. 23).

“At this point, the treatise takes up a new orientation, engages itself on a radically unexplored path: for the subject in the classical sense of the term — substance, the subject of attribution — is substituted in effect, by the detour of a phrase, a modern subject, possessed of consciousness and reflexivity. The Plotinian project here distinguishes itself radically as much from that of the De Anima [of Aristotle] as from that of the First Alcibiades [of Plato]. It is no longer only to examine the various faculties to distinguish among them which are common to the soul and the body, and which are proper to the soul alone. It is no longer only to decide whether man is the soul, the body, or the mixture of soul and body. It’s about, writes Plotinus, asking oneself about the very thing that does the investigation: the philosophizing subject takes itself as the object of investigation. The conversion is no longer only to interiority, but to consciousness: and that consciousness takes the form of an immediate reflexivity” (ibid, brackets added).

Plotinus seems to have been the first to claim this sort of immediate reflexivity of consciousness. As Aubry goes on to note, for both Plato and Aristotle, reflexivity only comes through the mediation of another. “The other is not only another self, but it is through the other, insofar as the other is at the same time like me and other than me, that I have access to myself…. The access to interiority requires a detour, either by way of exteriority, or by otherness” (p. 25).

Hegel and Paul Ricoeur, I would note, have each in their own way again taken up Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on mediation and the need for a detour. But even though Plotinus claims an immediate reflexivity, he does not claim that it is or has an identity.

For Plotinus, according to Aubry, “the we is neither the incarnate, empirical me, nor the separated essential self; it is the passage from the one to the other” (p. 27). In the related essay “A Me Without Identity? The Plotinian We” in Le moi et l’interiorite (2008), she writes, “Returning into itself, thus, [the ‘We’] does not know itself as a unity, nor in its identity with itself, but as a mixture of two terms, where neither is, properly speaking, ‘itself'” (p. 108).

On Being a Thing

The next few paragraphs of Hegel’s final chapter are concerned with the notions of “thing” and “object” in an apparently completely general way, from the point of view of what happens with them in “absolute” knowledge.

Immediately after the paragraph I quoted in the previous post, Hegel specifies that “The surmounting of the object of consciousness is not to be taken one-sidedly as meaning that the object showed itself returning into the self” (Baillie trans., p. 789). This once again rules out any subjectivism that would abolish objectivity altogether.

Hegel continues, “It has a more definite meaning: it means that the object as such presented itself to the self as a vanishing factor; and, furthermore, that the emptying of self-consciousness itself establishes thinghood, and that this externalization of self-consciousness has not merely negative, but positive significance, a significance not merely for us or per se, but for self-consciousness itself. The negative of the object, its cancelling its own existence, gets, for self-consciousness, a positive significance; or, self-consciousness knows this nothingness of the object because on the one hand self-consciousness itself externalizes itself; for in so doing it establishes itself as object, or, by reason of the indivisible unity characterizing its self-existence, sets up the object as its self. On the other hand, there is also this other moment in the process, that self-consciousness has just as really cancelled this self-relinquishment and objectification, and has resumed them into itself, and is thus at home with itself in its otherness as such” (pp. 789-790).

The presentation of an object as a “vanishing factor” of which Hegel speaks — though it cannot be represented statically — is supposed to be something that really happens, so this is quite different and a great deal more subtle than simply saying the object is not really real. I think Hegel’s talk about the purely relational view “negating” the object qua object and other similarly strained uses of “negation” have not helped the understanding of his work, but as Hegel himself proceeds to remind us, this is only one moment of a larger movement, and it is the multifaceted whole and its transformations we ought to be concerned with. (In general I’ve found Brandom’s explanation of Hegelian negation in terms of material incompatibility very helpful, but it’s not clear to me there is a material incompatibility in this instance. In the bigger picture, though, Hegel seems to be saying that there is a sense in which every object is a reification, and another in which all its properties can be explained in relational terms.)

“Consciousness, at the same time, must have taken up a relation to the object in all its aspects and phases, and have grasped its meaning from the point of view of each of them. This totality of its determinate characteristics makes the object per se or inherently a spiritual reality; and it becomes so in truth for consciousness, when the latter apprehends every individual one of them as self, i.e. when it takes up towards them the spiritual relationship just spoken of” (p. 790).

The object is a spiritual reality in the sense that there is a purely relational account of its properties. Hegel here also has in mind his dictum that Reason is the certainty of being all reality. The object as reification is clearly separate from me, but as Aristotle might remind us, its objective relational form or essence is not distinct from the shareable intelligible thought of that form or essence.

“The object is, then, partly immediate existence, a thing in general — corresponding to immediate consciousness; partly an alteration of itself, its relatedness (or existence-for-another and existence-for-self), determinateness — corresponding to perception; partly essential being or in the form of a universal — corresponding to understanding. The object as a whole is the mediated result… or the passing of universality into individuality through specification, as also the reverse process from individual to universal through cancelled individuality or specific determination” (p. 790, brackets in original).

Even the most subtle and developed articulations far removed from what we might call immediate sensation have an aspect of immediacy analogous to what Hegel describes in Sense-Certainty, in that they recognize or assert certain discrete presented or represented “things” or their existence or their truth, taking “thing” in the broadest possible sense. But Hegel wants us to recognize that in real life we never stop at what he calls mere “certainty”. Nothing is ever just immediately there. Even in the most unphilosophical kind of practical life, distinctions are unavoidable. Then any distinction we make turns out to depend on other distinctions. Distinctions implicitly introduce universal “properties” of things that can be compared. This leads to the ramified world of Perception or “things with properties”, but Perception in general still holds fast to Sense-Certainty’s initial intuition of independent “things” as pre-given reference points in the sea of interdependent distinctions, and gets into logical difficulties as a result. Finally Understanding dissolves particular “things” into a purely universal field of constitutive relations with no pre-given terms, like what we find in mathematical physics or structural linguistics. We may experience all of the moments simultaneously in one experience of one thing. Of course, as we know, the Phenomenology is far from done at the end of Understanding and there are many other considerations to address, but these are the three basic moments of “consciousness” as that which takes an attitude toward things or objects.

I want to emphasize that this applies to all objects whatsoever, especially including those of ordinary life. Harris advocates the much narrower reading that Hegel’s main concern in this section is to implicitly suggest an application of these general notions to the preceding discussion of religion.

We have seen that what Hegel calls “absolute” knowledge does indeed have a close relation to the concerns of religion. In the Religion chapter, though I didn’t remark on it, Hegel had in passing explicitly applied the succession of Sense-Certainty, Perception, and Understanding to his schematic account of the history of religion. So, Harris’ reading between the lines here has some plausibility, but he seems for the moment to allow his interpolations continuing the focus on religion to eclipse the much more general apparent surface meaning of the text.

In Harris’ account, “it is the ‘object’ of Manifest Religion that has now to be turned over into the ‘Subject’ of ‘Absolute Knowing'” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 714). In general this seems reasonable, even though it is an interpolation in the present context.

“‘The object is in part immediate Being’. This is the ‘It is’ of Sense-Certainty; and all the modes of Natural Religion are subsumed under the ‘It is’…. For Natural Religion God is simply (and immediately) there. There is no distinction yet between His being-for-self and His being-for-another; and there cannot be any, because no ‘other’ has any independent essence of its own” (ibid).

Aside from Harris’ interpolation of religion into this discussion of the object, the last statement is historically anomalous, because the idea of a God before whom no other has independent essence belongs to traditions of strong monotheism that Hegel associates with the Unhappy Consciousness rather than with Sense-Certainty. However, if we abstract from actual history and just consider Hegel’s rather thin working notion of “natural” religion, it does seem accurate.

“Secondly the object is ‘partly an othering of itself, its relationship, or Being for Other and For-Self-Being, that corresponds to Perception’. This is how God is experienced in the Art-Religion; we make the Gods in our own image, while at the same time regarding ourselves as their servant, and envisaging our own free existence as a play for the Gods. God is thus an ambiguous relationship of Being for Other and For-Self-Being, just like the ‘thing and its properties’ in Perception” (ibid).

This interpolation seems relatively more historical, and consistent with what Hegel says elsewhere.

“Lastly, the object is ‘partly essence or as Universal, which corresponds to the Understanding’. This is how God is experienced in the Manifest Religion. Here He is the rational Force whose essence is to manifest itself” (ibid).

Hegel does seem to provocatively suggest that there is a parallel between the relation between Manifest Religion and its predecessors, on the one hand, and that between the purely relational view of mathematical physics and ordinary sensation and perception, on the other. It may seem surprising to see these categories from the phenomenology of religion reflected back into the elementary moments of “consciousness”, but this underscores how nonlinear Hegel’s overall development really is. As Harris points out, Hegel does also explicitly argue in the Religion chapter that the actual history of religion recapitulates the succession of moments he analyzed for object-oriented elementary “consciousness”. But to me, all this still seems a distraction from the new topic of “absolute” knowledge that Hegel is introducing here.

Hegel goes on to specify that the “knowledge” at issue now is not purely conceptual, but “is to be taken only in its development” (Baillie trans., p. 790). He notes that “the object does not yet, when present in consciousness as such, appear as the inner essence of Spirit in the way this has just been expressed” (ibid).

He recalls the recapitulation of Sense Certainty’s immediacy on a higher level in Observing Reason. “We saw, too, [Observing Reason’s] specific character take expression at its highest stage in the infinite judgement: ‘the being of the [Fichtean] ego is a thing’. And, further, the ego is an immediate thing of sense. When ego is called a soul, it is indeed represented also as a thing, but a thing in the sense of something invisible, impalpable, etc., i.e. in fact not as an immediate entity, and not as that which is generally understood by a thing. That judgment, then, ‘ego is a thing’, taken at first glance, has no spiritual content, or rather, is just the absence of spirituality. In its conception, however, it is the most luminous and illuminating judgment; and this, its inner significance, which is not yet made evident, is what the other two moments to be considered express” (p. 791).

Here again Hegel is considering two contrasting senses. The mere reification of a Fichtean ego as an empirical individual is rather banal; but to consider the universal Fichtean ego as an incarnated and concretely situated spiritual reality rather than in abstraction is a great advance.

“The trained and cultivated self-consciousness, which has traversed the region of spirit in self-alienation, has, by giving up itself, produced the thing as its self” (p. 792). This is a simple but vital point.

Hegel continues, “Or again — to give complete expression to the relationship, i.e. to what here alone constitutes the nature of the object — the thing stands for something that is self-existent; sense-certainty (sense experience) is announced as absolute truth; but this self-existence is itself declared to be a moment which merely disappears, and passes into its opposite, into a being at the mercy of an ‘other’.”

“But knowledge of the thing is not yet finished at this point. The thing must become known as self not merely in regard to the immediateness of its being and as regards its determinateness, but also in the sense of essence or inner reality. This is found in the case of Moral Self-Consciousness. This mode of experience knows its knowledge as the absolutely essential element, knows no other objective being than pure will or pure knowledge. It is nothing but merely this will and this knowledge. Any other possesses merely non-essential being, i.e. being that has no inherent nature per se, but only its empty husk. Insofar as the moral consciousness, in its view of the world, lets existence drop out of the self, it just as truly takes this existence back again into the self. In the form of conscience, finally, it is no longer this incessant alternation between the ‘placing’ and the ‘displacing’… of existence and self; it knows that its existence as such is this pure certainty of its own self; the objective element, into which qua acting it puts forth itself, is nothing other than pure knowledge of itself by itself” (pp. 792-793).

Here we have the ethical character of the path to the “Absolute”.

Harris comments, “So while, on the one hand, the moral consciousness ‘lets the natural world go free out of the Self’, to be whatever it contingently must be, it is equally true, on the other hand, that it takes that contingent natural order back into itself. In the unity of conscientious conviction, this contradiction is successfully sublated. But the community in which Conscience finds itself, and for which it claims to act, is in a state of moral anarchy, which is only overcome by the transition to the religious community of universal forgiveness. That community, having returned to itself as the shape of religious faith, has only to recognize itself in the ultimate community of finite Spirit, from which its religious journey began. That ultimate community of Spirit was able to make the religious journey because, in the final sublation of the standpoint of moral judgment, it is reconciled with humanity at all times, and in all places. It does not need to judge, but only to comprehend, i.e. to integrate the other as a member” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 719). I feel like we are back on track here.

He argues further that “In this final form, the ‘Manifest Religion’ ceases to be a revealed religion (in any but the historical sense) for it will comprehend that the whole range of religious ‘manifestation’ belongs to it in principle, because its God is just the intelligible force of Reason, whose very essence is to manifest itself. This concretely universal community of the human Spirit is ‘the Self’s pure knowledge of itself’. ‘Conscience’ is just its alienated, universally self-assertive shape” (ibid). Now the motivation for Harris’ interpolated argument about religion seems to make better Hegelian sense.

Harris adds, “We look over the course of the science and ask how ‘dead thinghood’ evolves logically. First we go from ‘singular thinghood for self’ to ‘universal thinghood for another’; and so to ‘the singular self that is lawgiver for the world of things’. And when we reach the third shape, we realize that we have not passed over to Kojève’s ‘anthropology’. In his world, the essential anarchy of Conscience takes us straight back to Hobbes” (pp. 719-720). (In the 20th century, Kojève promoted a subjectivist reading of Hegel that influenced Sartre and others. Hobbes famously described human society as a “war of all against all”.)

“[E]very judge must recognize the ‘sin’ of sundering knowing from doing. Absolutely pure knowing becomes possible only in and through the act of forgiving” (p. 720).

Sense Certainty?

The first chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology is devoted to “sense certainty”. In spite of his polemic against those who want to ground human knowledge in immediacy, it seems to me Hegel is actually very charitable here, in conceding that there is already a truth to which “certainty” could apply.

Again with apologies for my use of the old Baillie translation, Hegel says “This bare fact of certainty, however, is really and admittedly the abstractest and the poorest kind of truth. It merely says regarding what it knows: it is; and its truth contains solely the being of the fact it knows. Consciousness, on its part, in the case of this form of certainty, takes the shape merely of pure Ego. In other words, I in such a case am merely qua pure This, and the object likewise is merely qua pure This. I, this particular conscious I, am certain of this fact before me, not because I qua consciousness have developed myself in connection with it and in manifold ways set thought to work about it: and not, again, because the fact, the thing, of which I am certain, in virtue of its having a multitude of distinct qualities, was replete with possible modes of relation and a variety of connections with other things. Neither has anything to do with the truth sensuous certainty contains: neither the I nor the thing has here the meaning of a manifold relation with a variety of other things, of mediation in a variety of ways. The I does not contain or imply a manifold of ideas, the I here does not think: nor does the thing mean what has a multiplicity of qualities. Rather, the thing, the fact, is; and it is merely because it is. It is — that is the essential point for sense-knowledge, and that bare fact of being, that simple immediacy, constitutes its truth” (pp. 149-150).

Hegel goes on to point out that this otherwise completely indeterminate “bare fact of being” implicitly presupposes a distinction between “I” and “object”. “When we reflect on this distinction, it is seen that neither the one nor the other is merely immediate, merely is in sense-certainty, but is at the same time mediated: I have the certainty through the other, viz. through the actual fact; and this, again, exists in that certainty through an other, viz. through the I” (p. 150). And so begins the dialectical path that Hegel claims can eventually lead to a knowledge free of the kind of transcendental illusion Kant had said was inevitable for us humans.

So Hegel is saying even the standpoint that takes itself to be grounded in pure immediacy actually turns out not to be purely immediate. But he generously nonetheless allows it its “truth” of “this is“.

What immediate sensation gives us is only something we can point at as “this”, but Hegel is also accepting the very general and minimal claim that whenever we sense something — even if we are totally ignorant or mistaken about what it is — we can still be certain that we are sensing “something”. Completely without prejudice as to what it is, he is generously counting our impression that it in some way is as a minimal kind of knowledge. A “this” by itself can be neither true nor false, but “that this is” is arguably a kind of minimal proposition to which truth and certainty could apply.

Referring to Hegel’s contemporary notebooks, H. S. Harris in his commentary says that “The real paradigm of sense certainty is the consciousness of Hegel’s [peasant woman] who is comfortably at home in her world of singular things, each with its proper name” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 212). He quotes Hegel “The peasant-wife lives within the circle of her Lisa, her best cow; then the black one, the spotted one, and so on; also of Martin, her lad, and Ursula, her lass, etc.” (ibid).

Harris goes on to emphasize that “The Hegelian philosopher is like the peasant woman in that everything she does is part of actual living, part of the integral awareness of her own life…. We do not ever leave Sense-Certainty behind — though, of course we do leave some philosophical views that are founded upon it behind” (p. 213).

Hegel does not ask us to leave “natural consciousness” behind, but invites us to broaden its circle. It is philosophical views purporting to ground themselves in pure immediacy that will be conclusively left behind.

Each of the standpoints or shapes of experience successively described in the Phenomenology is discussed by Hegel from multiple perspectives. He tries to describe the way each standpoint sees itself; he may allude to ways in which he thinks other philosophers have misappropriated it; and he tries to clarify how he wants us to come to see it. What eventually happens with each of the standpoints thus has a certain ambiguity, depending on which perspective is under consideration.

In real life we don’t abstractly say to ourselves “this… is“, but are more like the peasant woman recognizing Lisa, her cow. We “immediately” experience Lisa the cow, not abstract sense data. Our “immediate” recognition of Lisa the cow involves a preconscious Kantian synthesis of a sensible manifold in light of many past experiences.

I am somewhat in doubt myself about counting a bare “this is” as a meaningful truth. It has the syntactic form of a proposition, but it seems totally unclear what is being asserted. It is applying an indeterminate to an indeterminate. “This is Lisa the cow” on the other hand I would count as a meaningful proposition of ordinary life. I think saying “this is“, though admittedly not the same as just saying “this”, is more like just saying “this” than it is like saying “this is Lisa the cow”. Lisa the cow at least is distinguishable from many other things even if “this” is not, so it means something to say “this is Lisa the cow”.

But Hegel and Harris are being deliberately generous here, and my earlier point about multiple perspectives on each “standpoint” applies. Technically I would want to say that in recognizing Lisa the cow we must have already reached beyond sense-certainty to what Hegel will call Perception, but it is nonetheless true that common sense elides this sort of distinction, and experiences itself as immediately seeing Lisa the cow. The Hegelian philosopher too as a living being will still “immediately see” Lisa the cow and many other already differentiated things; she just won’t build dogmatic theories that take this experienced immediacy as the last word.

Indistinct Cows, Pistol Shot

Hegel in the Phenomenology wants to teach us to be at home in what he calls “otherness”.

Plato was traditionally read as treating “the Others” as inferior to “the One” in the Parmenides, but in the Sophist he explicitly suggested that notions of Other, Same, and Being are equally fundamental.

Hegel goes further, in affirming the essential role of mediation (dependence of things on other things) — as well as the kind of differences in form that “make a difference” practically — in any kind of intelligibility. In the Preface, he sharply criticizes unnamed contemporaries for effectively denying the importance of otherness, either through excessive preoccupation with formal identity or through emphasis on a kind of immediate intuition of God or the Absolute.

Schelling never forgave Hegel for the quip that to insist that all is one in the Absolute makes of the Absolute a “night in which all cows are black”, which has often been read as directed at him. Harris in his commentary argues that the main target of this particular remark was actually the purely formal notion of truth propounded by K. L. Reinhold, who helped popularize Kant.

A bit later, Hegel goes on to denounce “the sort of ecstatic enthusiasm which starts straight off with absolute knowledge, as if shot out of a pistol, and makes short work of other points of view simply by explaining that it is to take no notice of them” (Baillie translation, pp. 88-89). In this case Harris finds it most plausible that the reference really is to Schelling’s Presentation of My Own System (1801), but adds in a note that a good case has also been made that the reference is to J. K. Fries, who apparently talked a lot about the feeling of the infinite.

Hegel shared many of the perspectives of the German Romantics, including a concern for spiritual renewal, awareness of the limits of formal reasoning, and inspiration from Greek antiquity. But by the time of the Phenomenology and for the rest of his life, he supported Kant against Schelling in denying the legitimacy of appeals to direct intuition of metaphysical truth, and had distanced himself from Romantic notions of individual immediate interiority.

For Hegel, Reason finds its home in otherness. This is closely related to the noncontrolling attitude he associates with what he calls “Science” (see The Ladder Metaphor). Hegel’s verbal emphasis on “system” and “Science” needs to be understood in the context of his defense of other-sensitive, value-oriented interpretive Reason against both its reduction to formalism and its effective rejection by Romantics and other proponents of metaphysical intuition.

Place of a Preface

The preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology famously maintains that the conventional notion of a preface (e.g., “say what you are going to say”) is inapplicable to serious work in philosophy. There is an air of paradox about this, because in some sense he goes on to do what he just said was impossible. Hegel’s preface does summarize key conclusions of the book, but Hegel wants to make it clear that any such summary can at best be what Kant would call a dogmatic anticipation of real philosophical work yet to be done (in Brandom’s phrase, a “promissory note”).

I would note that this also reflects Hegel’s deep Aristotelianism. The way ideas are developed counts for much more than the way in which they are introduced. Aristotle did not follow the “say what you are going to say” model. Instead, he would begin with broad orienting remarks, a preliminary demarcation of subject matter, and a survey of common or leading views on the subject. Beginnings are the least certain part of a work; real substance emerges — if at all — from extensive development.

Of course it is possible to refer to an extensive development without producing or reproducing it in-line, but the relative soundness of such references depends on the soundness of the development and its applicability.

Simplicity is a pedagogical virtue that helps us on the uptake, but ultimately it cannot be the criterion of clarity. Real clarity comes from manifest interlinkages in a development that can be assessed independent of asserted conclusions (see Aristotelian Demonstration).

In his commentary, Harris says “The most important part here is Hegel’s insistence that the results of a science — whether it be philosophical or empirical — cannot be separated from the process (the Ausführung, or ‘execution’) by which they are reached” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 36). One of Hegel’s minor headings in the preface reads: “The principle is not the conclusion — against Formalism” (quoted on p. 48).

“We have a paradox here. The philosophical truth is absolute; but we have to hear it from one who is like ourselves. In this sphere, all particular situations are equally contingent. The philosopher, addressing her peers, will begin with this problem of how someone who accepts the finite human status can claim to say what is absolutely true — because that was precisely the problem that philosophy faced when the Phenomenology of Spirit was conceived. The philosopher and her peers, however, are not ‘in the midst of things’ in the way that the rest of us are. When she writes a book, she must take account of how we, the literate audience, are in medias res [in the midst of things]. Yet neither her situation nor ours is of any concern to philosophy as a systematic Science. For philosophy itself it is only the pure structure of ‘being in the midst of things’ that can be a possible starting point” (pp. 33-34).

Mediation Revisited

In my early article on mediation, I originally talked about it without adequately saying in a simple way what it is. Since I refer to it frequently, I wanted to fix this. Normally I don’t give notice of edits to older articles, but this one seemed to deserve it. Now added at the top:

“Mediation is any kind of dependency of things on other things. With such dependencies in mind, Euclid the geometer is famously reported to have said there is no royal road to science, but the point also applies more broadly to all kinds of meanings. Paul Ricoeur referred to mediation as the ‘long detour’ essential to understanding.”

Phenomenological Reduction?

This is a follow-up to my earlier article on Husserlian and existential phenomenology in light of the past year’s reading of Paul Ricoeur. In The Conflict of Interpretations (French ed. 1969), Ricoeur discusses the impact of his own view of hermeneutics as a “long detour” essential to understanding.

Ricoeur wrote that “It is in spite of itself that [Husserlian] phenomenology discovers, in place of an idealist subject locked within its system of meanings, a living being which from all time has, as the horizon of all its intentions, a world, the world. In this way, we find delimited a field of meanings anterior to the constitution of a mathematized nature, such as we have represented it since Galileo, a field of meanings anterior to objectivity for a knowing subject. Before objectivity, there is the horizon of the world; before the subject of the theory of knowledge, there is operative life” (p. 9). “Of course, Husserl would not have accepted the idea of meaning as irreducibly nonunivocal” (p. 15).

“In truth, we do not know beforehand, but only afterward, although our desire to understand ourselves has alone guided this appropriation. Why is this so? Why is the self that guides the interpretation able to recover itself only as a result of the interpretation? …the celebrated Cartesian cogito, which grasps itself directly in the experience of doubt, is a truth as vain as it is invincible…. Reflection is blind intuition if it is not mediated by what Dilthey called the expressions in which life objectifies itself. Or, to use the language of Jean Nabert, reflection is nothing other than the appropriation of our act of existing by means of a critique applied to the works and the acts which are the signs of this act of existing…. [R]eflection must be doubly indirect: first, because existence is evinced only in the documents of life, but also because consciousness is first of all false consciousness, and it is always necessary to rise by a corrective critique from misunderstanding to understanding” (pp. 17-18). This is a nice expression of what I take to be one of the greatest lessons of Aristotle and Hegel (see First Principles Come Last; Aristotelian Actualization; What We Really Want.)

For Ricoeur, Husserlian phenomenological reduction ceases to be a “fantastic operation” identified with a “direct passage”, “at once and in one step”. Rather, “we will take the long detour of signs” (p. 257).

Husserl’s “reductions” reduced away reference to putatively existing objects in favor of a sole focus on what would be the Fregean sense in meaning. Ricoeur wants to reintroduce reference, and in this way to distinguish a semantics that includes consideration of reference from a semiology addressing pure sense articulated by pure difference. Reference for Ricoeur is not a primitive unexplained explainer, but something that needs to be explained, and a big part of the explanation goes through accounts of sense. Ricoeur also wants to connect reference back to the earlier mentioned “self that guides the interpretation”, which again functions as an end rather than being posited as actual from the outset.

Similarly to his critique of phenomenological reduction “at once and in one step”, he criticizes Heidegger’s “short route” that in one step simply replaces a neo-Kantian or Husserlian “epistemology of interpretation” with an “ontology of understanding”. Ricoeur is a lot more deferential to Heidegger than I would be at this point, but for Ricoeur such an ontology is again only a guiding aim, and not a claimed achievement like it was for Heidegger. I think this makes Ricoeur’s “ontological” interest reconcilable with my own “anti-ontological” turn of recent years, because my objections have to do with claimed achievements. I broadly associate Ricoeur’s modest ontology-as-aim with my own acceptance of a kind of inquiry about beings that avoids strong ontological claims. Even Heidegger emphasized Being as a question.

Ricoeur of course rejects foundationalist epistemology (see also Kant and Foundationalism), but sees both an epistemology of interpretation and an ontology of understanding as aims guiding the long detour. He effectively contrasts the long path of investigation of meaning with the short path of appeals to consciousness (see also Meaning, Consciousness).

I actually like the idea he attributes to Husserl of reducing being to meaning or the sense(s) of being. If meaning is fundamentally nonunivocal as Ricoeur says rather than univocal as Husserl wanted, this would not be idealist in a bad sense.

Brandom’s simpler suggestion that reference is something real but that it should be ultimately explained in terms of sense seems to me a further improvement over Ricoeur’s apparent notion of reference as a kind of supplement to sense that nonetheless also needs to be explained in terms of sense, but without being reduced to it. I see the inherently overflowing, non-self-contained nature of real as compared to idealized being/meaning as making a supplement superfluous. (See also Reference, Representation; Meant Realities.)

Formal and Informal Language

Paul Ricoeur suggested that more formal kinds of explanation and informal understanding are related to one another by the first playing a mediating role in the second, and used this in a very nice reconciliation of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics. From the formal side, the mathematician Haskell Curry — whose work has greatly influenced the theory of programming languages — argued in the 1950s that the ultimate metalanguage for all formal languages can only be ordinary natural language. Amid the tremendously rich development of formal languages in the 20th century, this point got somewhat lost, but more recently Robert Brandom’s expansion of Wilfrid Sellars’ work on material inference has provided a detailed account of how this works. The circumscribing role of informal natural language in all formal developments is related to the great Kantian insight of the primacy of practical over theoretical reason.

Searching for a Middle Term

“But nothing, I think, prevents one from in a sense understanding and in a sense being ignorant of what one is learning” (Aristotle, Posterior Analytics; Complete Works revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 115). The kind of understanding spoken of here involves awareness “both that the explanation because of which the object is is its explanation, and that it is not possible for this to be otherwise” (ibid). To speak of the “explanation because of which” something is suggests that the concern is with states of affairs being some way, and the “not… otherwise” language further confirms this.

Following this is the famous criterion that demonstrative understanding depends on “things that are true and primitive and immediate and more familiar than and prior to and explanatory of the conclusion…. [T]here will be deduction even without these conditions, but there will not be demonstration, for it will not produce understanding” (ibid). The “more familiar than” part has sometimes been mistranslated as “better known than”, confusing what Aristotle carefully distinguishes as gnosis (personal acquaintance) and episteme (knowledge in a strong sense). I think this phrase is the key to the whole larger clause, giving it a pragmatic rather than foundationalist meaning. (Foundationalist claims only emerged later, with the Stoics and Descartes.) The pedagogical aim of demonstration is to use things that are more familiar to us — which for practical purposes we take to be true and primitive and immediate and prior and explanatory — to showcase reasons for things that are slightly less obvious.

Independent of these criteria for demonstration, the whole point of the syllogistic form is that the conclusion very “obviously” and necessarily follows, by a simple operation of composition on the premises (A => B and B => C, so A=> C). Once we have accepted both premises of a syllogism, the conclusion is already implicit, and that in an especially clear way. We will not reach any novel or unexpected conclusions by syllogism. It is a kind of canonical minimal inferential step, intended not to be profound but to be as simple and clear as possible.

(Contemporary category theory grounds all of mathematics on the notion of composable abstract dependencies, expressing complex dependencies as compositions of simpler ones. Its power depends on the fact that under a few carefully specified conditions expressing the properties of good composition, the composition of higher-order functions with internal conditional logic — and other even more general constructions — works in exactly the same way as composition of simple predications like “A is B“.)

Since a syllogism is designed to be a minimal inferential step, there is never a question of “searching” for the right conclusion. Rather, Aristotle speaks of searching for a “middle term” before an appropriate pair of premises is identified for syllogistic use. A middle term like B in the example above is the key ingredient in a syllogism, appearing both in the syntactically dependent position in one premise, and in the syntactically depended-upon position in the other premise, thus allowing the two to be composed together. This is a very simple example of mediation. Existence of a middle term B is what makes composition of the premises possible, and is therefore what makes pairings of premises appropriate for syllogistic use.

In many contexts, searching for a middle term can be understood as inventing an appropriate intermediate abstraction from available materials. If an existing abstraction is too broad to fit the case, we can add specifications until it does, and then optionally give the result a new name. All Aristotelian terms essentially are implied specifications; the names are just for convenience. Aristotle sometimes uses pure specifications as “nameless terms”.

Named abstractions function as shorthand for the potential inferences that they embody, enabling simple common-sense reasoning in ordinary language. We can become more clear about our thinking by using dialectic to unpack the implications of the abstractions embodied in our use of words. (See also Free Play; Practical Judgment.)

Pippin on Mutual Recognition

Hegel’s ethical, epistemological, and political notion of mutual recognition has its roots in his early writings, predating the Phenomenology of Spirit, and is most famously developed in the Phenomenology itself. Some older commentators claimed that in the late period of the Encyclopedia and Philosophy of Right, Hegel turned his back on this grounding in intersubjectivity in favor of what Robert Pippin calls “a grand metaphysical process, an Absolute Subject’s manifestation of itself, or a Divine Mind’s coming to self-consciousness” (Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, p. 184). Pippin thinks those writers were “insufficiently attentive to the unusual foundations of the mature theory of ethical life, or to Hegel’s theory of spirit (Geist) and so the very unusual account of freedom that position justifies” (p. 185; for other aspects of Pippin’s reading, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom; Hegel on Willing).

What Hegel calls “true” or “concrete” individuality “should not be confused with questions of pre-reflexive self-familiarity, self-knowledge, existential uniqueness, personal identity, psychological health, and so forth” (pp. 185-186). The concrete individual for Hegel is an ethical being, i.e., a being to be understood through her actions and commitments, and as such embedded, ramified, and temporally extended — anything but an atom “acting” instantaneously in a vacuum. It is this ethical being — not factual existence — that is constituted by mutual recognition.

Pippin notes that recognition of others as “free” as an ethical aim is not directed at meeting any psychological need for recognition. (Certainly it is also not about believing they have arbitrary free will. Rather, it is to be identified with an elementary requirement of Kantian respect for others as a starting point for ethics.)

Pippin agrees with Ludwig Siep — a pioneer of scholarship on recognition in Hegel — that Hegel “understood himself to have clarified and resolved the great logical problems caused by the sort of relational claim implicit in a radical theory of the constitutive function of recognition (wherein the relata themselves, or agents, are ultimately also relational) in his account of ‘reflection’ in particular and the ‘logic of essence’ in general” (p. 183n).

The freedom said to be the essence of spirit — which emerges concretely from mutual recognition — involves a mediated relation to one’s own “individual immediacy”. Mediation grounds reason, which grounds universality (in the mid-range Aristotelian rather than the unconditional Kantian sense, as distinguished in Self-Legislation?), which grounds the actualization of freedom.

Hegel is quoted saying “in an ethical act I make not myself but the issue itself the determining factor” (p. 192). This is the perspective he identifies with “ethical life”. “When I will what is rational, I act not as a particular individual, but in accordance with the notions of ethical life in general” (ibid).

To interpret ourselves and others as ethical beings or “respectfully” is to understand ourselves and them as each “freely” acting from an ethos, in the sense that we genuinely share in it by virtue of “willingly” and actually acting on it — and that is genuinely ours by the fact that we have thus willingly taken it up, whoever “we” may turn out to be — rather than treating action as a matter of our empirical selves causing things and/or being caused to be in a certain way, and freedom as a matter of power-over.

Hegelian freedom is never an intrinsic property of a substance or subject; it is an achievement, and what is more, that achievement always has a certain fragility, or possibility of losing itself. The acting self “can only be said to be such a self when [it acknowledges] its dependence on others in any determination of the meaning of what is done” (p. 200). For Hegel, what agency consists in is thus not a “metaphysical or substantive question” (p. 204). Instead, it involves a kind of non-arbitrariness or responsiveness to reasons. It seems to me one might say it is a sort of procedural criterion.

Hegel is quoted saying “In right, man must meet with his own reason… The right to recognize nothing that I do not perceive as rational is the highest right of the subject” (p. 244). Pippin continues, “Further, it is not sufficient merely that subjects actually have some sort of implicit, subjective faith in the rectitude of their social and political forms of life, that they in fact subjectively assent….. What I need to be able to do to acknowledge a deed as my own… is in some way to be able to justify it” (pp. 245-246). “It is never a good reason simply to say, ‘This is how we do things'” (p. 266). For Brandom’s take on the same aspects of Hegel, see Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Mutual Recognition.)