Essence and Explanation

Hegel’s Logic comprises what Robert Pippin calls three separate “logics” — a logic of being, a logic of essence, and a logic of the concept. The first of these, the logic of being, was characterized by Pippin as an out-and-out failure that Hegel deliberately embarks on in order to make an indirect point. Broadly speaking, that failure consists in attempting to explain things or make them intelligible solely by means of simple assertions. The logic of being also shows the impossibility of grounding philosophical explanation in a simple immediacy of sense-certainty or intuition, or in any notion of pure Being or being qua being. It seems to me that what these results have in common is the impossibility of explaining any definiteness or determinacy in terms of what is indeterminate.

So far, there is no indication that the logic of essence will ever be regarded by Hegel or Pippin as a failure like the logic of being. It will be further enriched by the logic of the concept, and we have yet to see the detail of this. But now we have at least reached the beginning of a true beginning, after having completed extensive due diligence toward claims of an easier, more direct kind of beginning that did not pan out. At the same time, the subject matter has changed from mere isolated assertions to what Kant in the Critique of Judgment called reflective judgments.

I have characterized the indirect positive outcome of the logic of being in terms of the primacy of relation and relatedness over discrete “things”. Pippin says that the logic of being also showed the impossibility of a completely presuppositionless beginning. Hegel’s reworking of Kantian reflective judgment now takes the primacy of relatedness as a starting point.

The logic of essence will thus effectively take the constitutive priority of intelligible relations over their respective “things” as its starting point. Relations will constitute things, at least to a greater degree than vice versa. This is what the Preface to the Phenomenology calls the perspective of “otherness”, and what Hegel also, in a special polymorphic sense that has been very badly misunderstood, calls “negativity”.

Rather than futilely trying to explain something determinate from something completely indeterminate, we have now turned to examining the conditions of the constitution of any possible determinacy. Additional normative considerations will be made explicit in the logic of the concept.

Essence is a Latin term that is read backwards into Greek philosophy, due mainly to its use as a translation of Aristotle’s “what it was to be” a thing. As treated by mainstream scholasticism, however, it had a meaning closer to that of Platonic form (see Platonic Truth). Platonic form is eternal, whereas form for Aristotle and Hegel has an irreducible dependency on manifestation and development in time. But Plato in his dialogues treats “essence” or what a thing eternally is as a matter of dialectical discovery subject to a kind of perpetual renewal, whereas the scholastics generally (and Leibniz) held it to be already finally established by God in the act of creation.

I think of human character as a sort of privileged example of Aristotle’s “what it was to be” some particular one. Pippin has given this an excellent development (see Toward Essence; Hegel on Willing). What makes human character a “privileged” example for me is that it makes many nuances visible that are not so applicable to “what it was to be” that chair, for instance. The nuances of interest here concern relations between essence and appearance, which form the main subject matter of the logic of essence.

Here we also have an instance of the Aristotelian and Hegelian point that we gain the most insight from considering the richest examples of anything, rather than the simplest ones.

The moderns learned from Descartes to privilege simple cases, and to aim to systematically reduce complex cases to simple cases. That is an admirable procedure in mathematics, with many applications. But in life more generally, there is no good reason for assuming that richer cases can be explained with no more resources than it takes to explain simpler ones. In mathematics, if we have a proof that some specific class of rich cases can be reduced to some set of simple cases without remainder, then we can make that sort of “reductionist” claim for that particular class of cases. Outside of mathematics, it seems to me that reductionist claims usually turn out to be mere assertions.

What Hegel calls the “problem of indifference” — how are we to judge which particular appearances show aspects of the “essence” or deeper truth of people or things and which do not — is brought to the fore here.

“We can be said to know the ‘what it was to be’ of a thing, neither by direct intellectual intuition (its being-at-work is a process, a way of being, not graspable punctually as itself some object) nor by just observing, say, the life of a living thing or the uses of an artifact” (Pippin, Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 227).

As Pippin puts it, “if essence is to explain anything, it must be the ground of what immediately ‘shines’ or appears. Those seemings must be its own, and they are made sense of by reference to their essence” (ibid).

“In some sense, and it is the task of the logic of essence to explain in what sense, the thing’s actuality is both not its mere seemings, and yet nothing other than those seemings, rightly understood” (p. 228).

This is another very Aristotelian point.

“Determinate specification of something essential in an appearance requires essential predication or specification of some sort — some predicates, not others. But we know which predicates are essential only by already knowing what essence is. This is a problem that assumes different forms but is basically the same, whether posed in the language of classical essentialism and manifestations, or selecting from a large set of ‘grounding’ causal factors the genuinely explanatory one or ones” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, pp. 226-227).

Hegel develops the terms “ground” and “grounding” for discussing the generalization from essence to any sort of explanation.

Pippin notes that “Plato, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, and others can all be cited in various ways as expressive of the reflective logic of the appearances of essence, the manifestation of something substantial that is nevertheless not manifest as it is in itself” (p. 231).

He quotes Hegel: “On the one hand, the ground is ground as the immediately reflected content determination of the determinate being [Dasein] which it grounds; on the other, it is that which is posited. It is that on the basis of which that determinate being [Dasein] is supposed to be understood; but, conversely, it is inferred from the latter and is understood from it. The main business of this reflection thus consists in gleaning the ground from a determinate being [Dasein], that is, in converting the immediate determinate being [Dasein] into the form of reflected being; consequently the ground, instead of being self-subsisting in and for itself, is rather that which is positive and derived” (pp. 227-228, Pippin’s emphasis).

Once again, I would note a convergence with Aristotle. Aristotle says that in order to possibly know how things are in and for themselves, we should and do start with how things are “for us”, not with how they supposedly are, full stop. Hegel will eventually amplify this into what he calls the “subjective” (though anything but merely subjective) logic of the concept.

Aristotle and Hegel both want to say that the basis of knowledge and explanation is a partial overlap between how things are initially for us and how they really are. This notion of a partial overlap between essence and appearance is a sort of Aristotelian mean that eliminates the roots of the twin evils of “all is illusion” skepticism, and of foundationalism, or the claim of a certain starting point for knowledge.

“[Hegel] is in effect saying that a putative logic of being is, has shown itself to be, mere seeming, Schein [literally, “shine”]. As [Michael] Theunissen points out, this means that Hegel is actually invoking the notion of Schein in three different senses. There is the unacknowledged Schein that a logic of being has turned out to be. There is the Schein of the mere appearance that the skeptic and idealists claim are all we are able to know. And there is the result of the analysis, that this purported limitation of knowledge to mere Schein is itself Schein, unable to account for itself; what seemed to be mere Schein turns out to be the Schein of essence or Erscheinung [Hegel’s technical term for appearance that is more than just mere appearance]” (p. 229, emphasis in original).

That all appearance is only mere appearance must be itself only a mere appearance, if there is to be any knowledge or meaningful explanation at all.

“In other words, the illusion of any possible absolute presuppositionlessness is what has been demonstrated by showing that Sein [being] must be understood as Wesen [essence], just in order to be understood as Sein. ([Hegel says] ‘Being is as such only the becoming of essence’…)…. Wesen will show itself (and itself as the truth of Sein) as always already conceptually mediated determinacy” (p. 230, emphasis in original).

The brute “things” of mere assertion depend on the richer, subtler “things” considered by reflective judgment for any truth they may have. This is an archetypal Hegelian move.

Pippin points out that the logic of essence gives a new sense to Hegel’s very nonstandard notion of negation. Whereas before, “negation” served to express the dependency of meaningful relational distinction on what else something rules out in order to express what it is, now “Essence’s seemings are its own…, even though no seeming or set of appearances express in their immediacy what that essence really is” (ibid).

He quotes Hegel, “In the becoming of being, it is being which lies at the foundation of determinateness, and determinateness is reference to an other. Reflective movement is by contrast the other as negation in itself, a negation which has being only as self-referring” (p. 231, Pippin’s emphasis).

Rather than addressing an external other, in reflective judgment Hegelian “negation” is now turned on itself — seeking further clarification first and foremost through questioning itself and its own formulations. (See also Hegel on Reflection.)

Negation and Negativity

“Hegel is willing to say some extraordinary things about the concept he sometimes calls ‘negation’, sometimes ‘negativity’. What he has been taken to mean has been the source of most of the criticism of Hegel: that he confused logical negation with actual opposition, as in the oppositions of forces or magnitudes in general in the world; that he thought everything in the world contradicted itself, and so believed that pairs of contradictory judgments could both be affirmed; or simply that what he said about negation and contradiction cannot be coherently understood. And any commentator must face the fact that he invoked the notion of negation in many different contexts in many different ways. So the first task is to have in view that variety of contexts before we can understand what they all might have in common (if anything)” (Pippin, Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 139).

Some time ago I touched on the most elementary parts of this thorny issue in Contradiction vs Polarity. My basic sense at this point is that Hegel does indeed have very worthwhile things to say on this very distinctive theme of his, but that the standard connotations of his core vocabulary for talking about it — negation, negativity, contradiction — are so impoverished relative to what he really means in his extensive and varied metaphorical uses of it that the vocabulary does not communicate well.

Pippin identifies five somewhat overlapping contexts that ought to be taken into account in a serious interpretation of Hegelian negation: the nature of thinking; the talk about freedom; the nature of intelligibility; the notion of speculative truth; and the talk about contradiction.

In the context of the nature of thinking, he says “In the simplest sense, we are talking about the logical structure of apperceptive intentional knowledge, as well as the ontological status of agency. What it means to claim that the intelligibility of any content of empirical knowledge is not… wholly ‘positive’… is best understood by contrast. If it were not so and were wholly positive, subjectivity would be something like a mere complex registering and responding device (of the same ontological status as a thermometer) ” (p. 141).

“As we have seen, one is not simply wholly absorbed in the presence of the world to one, not wholly and merely reactive to the stimulation of sensibility, and that ‘not’ is the beginning (but certainly not the end) of all the logical issues of negation that emerge in Hegel’s philosophy, at both the phenomenological and the logical level. In making such a judgment I ‘negate’ the mere immediacy or givenness of perceptual content, negate it as immediate and putatively given, and take up, am always taking up, a position of sorts about what is there, what is the case” (p. 142).

The suggestion is that all “taking” of things to be thus-and-such for Hegel implicitly involves a negation of immediacy.

“What thinking is is such a ‘negation’ of one’s immediate ‘positive’ state. (One can say: this negation of mere immediacy is ‘taking a stand’, rather than being put into a state.) Any thinking could be a seeming-to-be-the-case, not what is the case, and that possibility is constitutive of the act’s being a judging in the first place…. The constitutive feature attended to in a Hegelian philosophical logic is the fact that judgments are potentially responsive to reasons and revisions just qua judgments” (ibid).

Pippin thus cites responsiveness to reasons as another non-obvious instance of negation for Hegel.

“And in being an agent, I am not simply causally responsive to inclinations and desires; there is no ‘fullness of positive being’ here either. I interrupt or negate positive being (what I feel inclined to do, experience as wanting to do) by deliberating and resolving what to do” (p. 143).

Deliberation is another non-obvious instance.

“As noted before, the closest first and general approximation of what he means is Aristotelian: subjectivity (thinking and acting according to norms) is the distinct being-at-work… of the biological life form that is the human, reason-responsive substance; this in the same sense in which Aristotle says, if the eye were body, seeing would be its form, its distinctive being-at work” (ibid).

Subjectivity in general is another.

“Instead of thinking of the fundamental act of understanding as a synthesis of independent, originally unrelated elements, either by subsuming an individual under a concept, or by including one concept under another, we should understand ourselves, both in experience and in logical reflection, beginning with ‘wholes’, never with experiential or logical subsentential simples [individual words] or atoms” (pp. 143-144).

Hegel presents this last point as a sort of inversion of Kant, and it does speak to some of Kant’s language. But I would argue that the true starting point of Kantian synthesis is not experiential or logical atoms, but rather the sensible manifold in intuition, which is only potentially differentiable. This brings Kant closer to Hegel. True, the manifold has such a loose unity that arguably it might have trouble qualifying as a “whole”, but even less does it consist in already predifferentiated “atoms”. In Kant I think we have no basis for identifying putative atoms in experience until “after” the figurative synthesis of imagination has done its work. (It is the preconscious, in a non-Kantian sense “spontaneous” figurative synthesis that for Kant creates an inevitable gap between being and thinking, and that for Hegel gives us the fixed representations relied upon by common sense.)

In the context of freedom, Pippin says that “In the same way that judging, insofar as it is genuine, holds open the possibility of its negation or disconfirmation, just by being judging, not by virtue of any second, reflective act…, a deliberation about action, if it is to be a deliberation, is open to the force of reasons the agent has already accepted by deliberating at all, a possibility criterial for his acting at all…. [Hegel] is insisting on the logical or categorical requirements of the normative, and in that sense (the sense in which freedom is normatively constrained judgment and rational action), the negative (here only the possibility of not doing what I am powerfully inclined to do) is ‘that by which a person is free’. (And he does not mean any uncaused causality, but that which counts to the subject as a reason” (p. 147).

Normativity in general thus counts as depending on a kind of negation.

“In terms of the structure of the Logic, what Hegel will want to argue is that we cannot adequately explain freedom if we consider just a determinate property that some beings happen to have…, and we cannot explain it either as a kind of essential ideal, manifest in but never adequately expressed in its appearances, in concrete individual actions…. We need the logic of the Concept, in which concepts are said to ‘give themselves their own content’ and be ‘self-determining’ in a way indebted to [the] Kantian claim on self-legislation…. Any philosophical determination of actuality must be understood as ‘self-legislating’ in the broad sense [that] reason relies only on itself in determining such a normative structure. These are not empirical questions. There is no flash of ‘essence intuition’ (Wesenschau) giving access to a world of abstract immaterial objects, essences” (p. 148).

Self-legislation too involves some subtle kind of negation.

In the context of the nature of intelligibility, Pippin says “Every determination of every sort of content in the Logic is a negation of some insufficient determinacy that must be able to be conceived positively” (p. 153). This is another way of characterizing the basis of the notorious “movement” in Hegel’s logic.

The determination of content for sure involves negation.

In the context of speculative truth, he mentions that “[E]valuative judgments, like ‘this action is good’, or our familiar ‘this is a bad house’, will be paradigmatic examples of judgment in the logic of the Concept. They do not qualitatively specify a thing by distinguishing it from other things; they do not identify the appearances that show the ‘essence’ of the thing; they understand the content ‘in terms of its concept'” (p. 154).

Evaluation of anything against its concept is another subtle variety.

In the context of the notorious “contradiction”, Pippin says “So in a general sense, one has to say that a thing… ‘includes’ its contrary, or more precisely its relation to its contrary, in order to be, and be known to be, what it is. Neither of these ‘moments’ of negation involves contradiction in the Aristotelian sense because ‘is’ and ‘is not’, while said of the same thing and at the same time, are not meant in the same sense. But Hegel wants for various reasons to call such an analyzed state a ‘contradiction’, and there is some ground in the use of the term for saying that…. In the simplest sense, personifying the process, what someone intends to say, means to say, can be ‘contradicted’ by what is actually said, what he finds he has to or can say” (p. 156).

Evaluation of any outcome against intent is another.

Pippin notes that Hegel says retrospectively at the end of the Logic that the abstract treatment typical of the logic of being and the logic of essence is due to “mere opinion” or lack of awareness of what it is actually treating. “It cannot say what it means to say” (p. 157). This is yet another way of characterizing the Logic‘s “movement”.

Logical “movement” is another.

“Hegel’s speculative notion of contradiction is not predicate or sentence negation…. [H]e means to focus attention on concept negation…. Now concepts, understood as rules, have content by being understood to have the content that they have. To understand a rule is to know how to use it, and in using it, to know one is following it…. So understanding… is not… ‘grasping a content’ but understanding what the rule instructs us to think. That is, the concept is always already a moment of discursive activity, a thinking through of its implications” (pp. 158-159).

“[T]he considerations discussed so far should not be understood to be matters of formal clarity…. As Hegel insisted, we are not studying how we think about (or talk about) matters (or even how we ‘must’ think). The question is a question about ‘any possible intelligibility’, and so about being in its intelligibility, … not ‘our ways’ of rendering intelligible” (p. 160).

All the above varieties of “negation” involve normativity in one way or another. Here Pippin again emphasizes the universality of criteria of intelligibility that Hegel counterposes to the Kantian gap between thinking and being.

“The forms of intelligibility are the forms of what could be true, although they do not settle the question of what, in particular, is true” (p. 175).

“[O]ur first orientation in trying to understand Hegelian negation should be not the logical operation of predicate or sentence negation, but real opposition…. [Michael] Wolff also thinks that the controversy in the eighteenth century about positive and negative magnitudes, especially as it surfaced in Kant, as well as the emerging clarity about negative numbers, played a far larger role in the development of Hegel’s thinking about negation and contradiction than did a reflection on the logic of the formal operator” (pp. 177-178).

Real opposition is an instance of contrariety, which is actually much more relevant to Hegel than formal logical contradiction.

“Hegel’s category of becoming, so important at the beginning of the logic of being, owes much to Hegel’s defense of Newton and the latter’s doctrine of the becoming equal of magnitudes” (pp. 178-179).

“Critics like Crusius were aghast at the idea of forces having positive and negative values. But Kant understood that such ‘values’ (and here again an important precedent for Hegel) had those values in relation to each other, not absolutely, that they were relative values, arbitrarily reversible even” (pp. 179-180).

Negative magnitudes are another instance of contrariety.

“This is not the sense of contradiction throughout the Logic, but it gives us enough background… to appreciate that Hegel is neither a lunatic for saying that ‘everything is contradictory’, nor a mystical Heraclitean” (p. 180).

Pippin devotes nearly half of this chapter to critical remarks about Brandom’s interpretation of Hegelian negation as material incompatibility, which involves a more nuanced form of contrariety. He says Brandom’s reading very well captures the meaning of negation in Hegel’s logic of being, but is inadequate for what Hegel goes on to do in the logic of essence and the logic of the concept. For example, material incompatibility alone is insufficient to explain things like the “self-legislation” of the concept or the idea of the good, but Hegel at least claims that these have something to do with the concept of negation.

Brandom’s interpretation of Hegelian negation seemed to me incomparably clearer than Hegel himself, so until now I have adopted it enthusiastically as a charitable rendering of what Hegel ought to have said to better express his meaning. This is the first of many counter-arguments to Brandom I have seen that really seems to me to at least raise a serious question, but for now I will forego another lengthy tangent.

Zambrana on Actualization

Building on the interpretations of Pipppin and Brandom, Roc√≠o Zambrana in Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility (2015) argues that Hegel’s logic is based around the same notion of actualization that orients his ethics, and that actualization is none other than Hegel’s reformulation of Kantian synthesis. This is a fascinating complement to my previous focus on the Aristotelian background of Hegelian actualization. She argues that the main significance of the theory of the “absolute” idea in the Science of Logic is to make intelligibility a function of normativity.

She begins, “To be is to be intelligible, according to Hegel” (p. 3). Plato and Aristotle would concur.

Zambrana agrees with Pippin that Hegel defends the complete autonomy of reason, thus radicalizing Kant’s critical project. “For Kant, the sensible given and the postulates of practical reason (freedom, God, the immortality of the soul) are touchstones of knowledge, morality, faith. For Hegel, the only legitimate touchstone of a thoroughgoing critical philosophy is reason itself” (p. 4).

She suggests that intelligibility and normativity for Hegel are a matter of binding between ideality and reality that is always subject to renegotiation.

“In the Logic, Hegel pursues an immanent critique of classical ontology, philosophies of reflection, and transcendental idealism that allows him to elaborate his distinctive view of determinacy as a matter of the dialectical relation between ideality and reality” (p. 6).

“In what is perhaps the most puzzling passage of the Logic, Hegel describes the absolute idea as personality (Pers√∂nlichkeit). While puzzling, this passage is not mystifying. It is in fact key. It helps us specify the status of the absolute idea as the concept that elaborates the view that intelligibility is a matter of normative authority. It indicates that binding is the structure of intelligibility” (pp. 5-6; see also Substance and Subject).

“Hegel argues that form is nothing but negation(ibid).

That form is negation for Hegel seems clear. But I constantly struggle to clarify the real meaning of negation in Hegel. For sure, it is not classical negation. But what exactly is it? To me, many of Hegel’s usages of negation and related terms seem metaphorical. Ordinarily, people use concrete metaphors to circuitously express more abstract things, but Hegel often uses the extreme abstraction of negation or negativity as a metaphor for various more concrete things or conditions. Negativity in Hegel therefore doesn’t seem to me to have a single fixed meaning. This ought not to be surprising, given Hegel’s strong opposition to single fixed meanings in general.

I sometimes think Hegel goes too far in this direction. Good definitions retain value for clarity of thought, even if they are always provisional and context-bounded. Hegel himself seems to recognize something like this when he emphasizes that understanding, despite its limitations, plays an essential role. I prefer Aristotle’s style of approaching things as “said in many ways” — where each of the ways is potentially definable, but there may be real question which is applicable in any given case — over unspecified generalized fluidity.

“Negation is necessarily a negation of something — whether a logical category, a philosophical position, a historically specific identity or institution. Form thus requires content in order to be negation. The central claim of Hegel’s theory of determinacy, then, concerns the negativity of form and the necessity of content” (ibid).

I am also very sympathetic to the importance of content, but a bit in doubt about the argument that negation in and of itself straightforwardly requires content to which it is applied. That would be true for negation in a formal sense that is not Hegel’s, but Hegel does not put much stock in fixed definitions, and he often speaks of a pure negativity that doesn’t seem to depend on anything else or refer to anything external to it. This I take to be part of what he calls the “inverted” perspective of otherness.

“Negativity is the inner determination of the way in which intelligibility is articulated within practices and institutions” (p. 7).

“Inner determination” here would be the purely “logical” aspect, as distinct from the social and historical.

“[N]egativity calls into question the assumption that the content of any normative commitment retains authority or stability within a historically specific form of life…. [Concrete forms of intelligibility] are subject not only to reversals of meanings and effects but also to coextensive positive and negative meanings and effects. For these reasons, no determination can be understood as final or fully stable” (ibid).

She seems to think this latter point is implicit but insufficiently emphasized in the readings of Pippin and Brandom. I think they already make it explicit. How much relative emphasis to give to determination versus fluidity is a delicate matter subject to considerations of context.

“[T]he key to Hegel’s idealism and its emphasis on negativity is his treatment of the Kantian problem of synthesis” (p. 12).

“Hegel follows Fichte’s reading of Kantian autonomy [as positing], yet he stresses that positing is a matter of actualization, which he understands in terms of normative authority. The activity of reason is a matter of distinction-making” (p. 37).

Provocatively, she suggests that Hegel makes a three-way identification of reason, imagination, and synthesis.

“Recall that Hegel suggests [in his early work Faith and Knowledge] that the transcendental unity of apperception and the figurative synthesis are one and the same synthetic unity. Hegel calls this one and the same synthetic unity ‘reason’. In fact, he argues that ‘the imagination is nothing but reason itself’…. Reason for Hegel, I want to suggest, is neither an epistemic faculty nor an ontological principle. It is the work of synthesis” (p. 40).

My instinct is still to distinguish reason from imagination, thinking of reasoning as mainly conscious and deliberate and imagination as mainly pre-conscious. Similarly, I am doubtful about early Hegel’s identification of Kantian unity of apperception and figurative synthesis. Both are forms of synthesis, but following Brandom I take the unity of apperception to be a kind of moral imperative, whereas I take the figurative synthesis of imagination to be something that happens pre-consciously. This seems like an important difference.

That the activity of reason in general is one of synthesis, however, is an excellent point.

“A totality of relations of negation is gathered together by inferential patterns that thereby institute a concrete determination of reason. Reason can thus be thought of as concrete forms, figures, or shapes of rationality articulated by a process of actualization” (ibid).

“A logic of actualization indicates that intelligibility is not only historically specific but also precarious and ambivalent” (p. 41).

She points out that for Kant, an individual concept is not itself a product of synthesis, whereas for Hegel it is.

“That a thing, event, idea is always already outside of itself… is not to the detriment of the thing. Rather, it is the thing’s way of becoming what it is” (p. 42).

She recognizes that Hegel’s teleology is Aristotelian rather than “classical” in form, and that teleology for both Aristotle and Hegel is inherently subject to contingency in its actualization. In neither Aristotle nor Hegel is the working out of teleology underwritten by an omnipotent power.

“Hegel does not articulate reason’s purposiveness in terms of a goal that is unambiguously realized, thereby affirming a classical teleology of reason. Hegel argues that reason is purposive ‘in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive activity'” (ibid).

She recognizes that the import of Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” is not an assertion of some cosmic mind, but rather is intended at a much more elemental level.

“The ‘tremendous power of the negative’ is accordingly the capacity of things to unfold in and through conditions that exceed them…. The actualization of reason is the subjectivity of things themselves” (p. 43).

The “subjectivity of things themselves” testifies that we have here moved beyond the opposition of subject and object that Hegel attributes to ordinary consciousness.

“Establishing the objectivity of subjectivity requires action (Handeln)…. Hegel’s appeal to action introduces the thought that Kant’s signature problem of objectivity is in effect a problem of normative authority” (p. 118; see also Hegel on Willing).

I would prefer to say activity rather than action, but in this context that is a nuance.

Crossing Out

In the passive synthesis lectures, Husserl has a very original treatment of modality from an experiential point of view. First come varieties of negation, which most logicians do not treat as a modality.

“[I]n the normal case of perception, all fulfillment progresses as the fulfillment of expectations. These are systematized expectations, systems of rays of expectations which, in being fulfilled, also become enriched; that is, the empty sense becomes richer in sense, fitting into the way in which the sense was prefigured.”

“But every expectation can also be disappointed, and disappointment essentially presupposes partial fulfillment; without a certain measure of unity maintaining itself in the progression of perceptions, the unity of the intentional lived-experience would crumble. Yet despite the unity of the perceptual process occurring with this abiding, unitary content of sense, a break does indeed take place, and the lived-experience of ‘otherwise’ springs forth” (Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 64).

At a very broad level, I would note that the tenor of this discourse resembles that of Aristotle’s discussions of processes fundamentally driven by ends, and of complex patterns of activity. I am also reminded of Brandom’s treatment of the experience of error in Hegel, and of the Kantian unity of apperception as a task rather than a fact.

“Naturally, this does not take place in explicit acts; but if we were to go back actively, we would necessarily find the altered interpretation explicitly and consciously, that is, the continual concordance that has been produced. But layered beneath this is something that does not accord with it, and actually what does not accord pertains to the entire series that has been flowed-off insofar as we are still conscious of the old apprehension in memory…. [A]nd with it the substratum itself, the thing itself, which in the original perceptual series bore [one] sense determination…, is in this respect crossed out and at the same time reinterpreted: it is ‘otherwise'” (p. 65).

“In the case of normal perception, the perceived object gives itself as being in a straightforward manner, as existing actuality” (p. 66). Here Husserl is using the thin modern notion of actuality as “what is the case”, rather than the teleologically charged notion I’ve been concerned to elicit in Aristotle.

He continues, “But that ‘being’ can be transformed into ‘dubitable’ or ‘questionable’, into ‘possible’, into ‘supposed’; and then ‘non-being’ can also occur here, and in contrast to this, the emphatic ‘it really is’, the ‘it is indeed so’. Correlatively, (i.e., in a noetic regard), one speaks of a believing inherent in perceiving; from time to time we already speak here of judging, that is, of judicative perception” (ibid).

He refers back to the thin notion of logical judgment in Mill and Brentano, which he has criticized elsewhere. “Here the source of really radical clarifications is perception…. [T]he modalities occur precisely here, and it is no coincidence that perception and judgment have these modalities in common. From there we will be able to show that the modes of belief necessarily play their role in all modes of consciousness” (p. 67).

The empiricist tradition had treated perception as a purely passive reception, and consciousness as a kind of mirror or transparent medium of representation. Husserl is clearly at odds with both of these conceptions.

I am a bit wary that he nonetheless seems to treat consciousness as a universal common denominator of human experience. As I read Hegel, the latter sharply distinguishes what he misleadingly calls “self-consciousness” (which essentially involves ethical relations with others) from simple “consciousness” of objects. Hegel seems to me to locate most of being human such as believing and judging in already ethical self-consciousness, and to leave only the rather abstract and elementary sphere of objects in the realm of “consciousness”. This seems right to me.

“Here a conflict occurs between the still living intentions, and — emerging in newly instituted originality — the contents of sense and the contents of belief, together with the horizons proper to them.”

“But there is not only a conflict. By being presented in the flesh, the newly constituted sense throws its opponent from the saddle, as it were. By covering it over with the fullness of its presentation in the flesh as the sense that is now demanded, it overpowers the former, which was only an empty anticipation” (p. 68).

“But it does it in such a way as to characterize the conflicting moments of the old prefiguring as void. However, insofar as these moments of sense are mere moments of a unitary sense organized in a tight uniformity, the entire sense of the series of appearance is altered modally, and this sense is at the same time duplicated. For we are still conscious of the previous sense, but as ‘painted over’, and where the corresponding moments are concerned, crossed out” (p. 69).

“Belief clashes with belief, the belief of one content of sense and one mode of intuition with a belief of a different content in its mode of intuition. The conflict consists in the peculiar ‘annulment’ of an anticipating intention…. And specifically, it is an annulment that concerns an isolated component, while the concordance of fulfillment advances where the remaining components are concerned” (p. 70).

“[T]he original constitution of a perceptual object is carried out in intentions (where external perception is concerned, in apperceptive apprehensions); these intentions, according to their essence, can undergo a modification at any time through the disappointment of protentional, expectational belief” (p. 71).

“But if we compare the unaltered consciousness, on the one hand, with the consciousness that is altered by being crossed out, on the other hand, and if we make this comparison in view of the content of sense, then we will see that while the intention is indeed transformed, the objective sense itself remains identical. The objective sense still remains the same after being crossed out precisely as a crossed out sense” (ibid, emphasis in original).

Certainly it is true that if we analytically distinguish the previous sense from the operation of crossing out that is applied to it, that sense remains the same. He seems to be treating the intention as a subjective factor in contrast to the objective sense, and this fits with the way he is approaching modality here overall. But now it occurs to me that this seems to presuppose that the operation of crossing out — or the application of modality in general — does not also result in a new objective sense that includes the crossing out or the modality, as if modality were only something subjective. I am intrigued by this whole discussion, but I also think modality corresponds to something objective in the sense of really real, and indeed plays a key role in our progressive reaching toward the real (which is always an end, and never a possession).

Spinoza on Human Confusion

Spinoza strikes a rather Platonic note in suggesting that insofar as we live by perception and imagination we are reactive, confused, and unfree, but insofar as we have genuine ideas or concepts, we are active and free. This last part depends on his rather unusual take on what ideas are.

“I say expressly that the Mind has, not an adequate, but only a confused… knowledge, of itself, of its own Body, and of external bodies, so long as it perceives things from the common order of nature, i.e., so long as it is determined externally, from fortuitous encounters with things, to regard this or that, and not so long as it is determined internally, from the fact that it regards a number of things at once, to understand their agreements, differences, and oppositions. For so often as it is disposed internally, in this or another way, then it regards things clearly and distinctly, as I shall show below” (Spinoza, Ethics, book II, proposition 29, scholium, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., p. 471, brackets in original).

The actual nature of “Mind” for Spinoza has yet to be made clear. So far it seems straightforwardly individual; there is nothing here like the Aristotelian and Hegelian notion of Reason as a socially and linguistically grounded ethos. On the other hand, we soon will turn out to be very far indeed from a standard modern or early modern notion of mind. I am almost reminded of the non-private interiority that connects us to God in Augustine. But either way, the practical result is that we get to an antidote for confusion, thanks to participation in a Reason that is takes us beyond what is merely subjective or self-seeking.

Again like Plato, he emphasizes that ideas are different both from images and from words, implicitly taking both of the latter as examples of mere representation. To regard a number of things at once and understand their agreements, differences, and oppositions is to ground one’s perspective in relations of Reason rather than in mere representations of singular things.

“I begin, therefore, by warning my Readers, first, to distinguish accurately between an idea, or concept, of the Mind, and the images of things that we imagine. And then it is necessary to distinguish between ideas and the words by which we signify things. For because many people either confuse these three — ideas, images, and words — or do not distinguish them accurately enough, or carefully enough, they have been completely ignorant of this doctrine concerning the will. But it is quite necessary to know it, both for the sake of speculation and in order to arrange one’s life wisely.”

“Indeed, those who think that ideas consist in images which are formed in us from encounters with… bodies, are convinced that those ideas of things… of which we can form no similar image… are not ideas, but only fictions which we feign from a free choice of the will. They look on ideas, therefore, as mute pictures on a panel, and preoccupied with this prejudice, do not see that an idea, insofar as it is an idea, involves an affirmation or negation.”

“And then, those who confuse words with the idea, or with the very affirmation that the idea involves, think that they can will something contrary to what they are aware of, when they only affirm or deny with words something contrary to what they are aware of. But these prejudices can be easily put aside by anyone who attends to the nature of thought, which does not at all involve the concept of extension. He will then understand clearly that an idea (since it is a mode of thinking) consists neither in the image of anything, nor in words. For the essence of words and of images is constituted only by corporeal motions, which do not at all involve the concept of thought” (book II, proposition 49, scholium 2, pp. 485-486).

To stress the separateness of thought from extension is yet again to direct us away from mere representation of things, and from taking the represented things for granted.

When he says that an idea involves an affirmation or negation, he means that unlike an isolated word, an idea in his particular sense is something we can assert or deny (it has propositional content). If it’s actually not a representation, an idea must be an inferential meaning, and that would be something we can affirm or deny.

He had just argued that “In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea” (proposition 49, p. 485). He goes on to strictly identify “the Mind” with its “ideas”, i.e., with what it affirms, and contrariwise with what it rejects. This is what I meant earlier in suggesting that what he means by “Mind” turns out to be quite different from standard modern notions.

In effect he identifies “us” not with our consciousness as Locke does, but rather by what we affirm and what we reject. On this point at least, he comes out close to both Aristotle and Hegel.

I do think Aristotle and Hegel are a little more explicit than Spinoza that what is most authoritative with respect to what we really affirm or deny is what we actually do, as witnessable by others.

Death Instinct?

Part 3 of book 2 of Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy examines the considerable perturbations to Freud’s views that resulted from his introduction of a “death instinct” in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Ricoeur notes that Freud’s German is more literally “drive” rather than instinct, which seems to make fewer assumptions, and that Freud often refers to “death instincts” in the plural. He sees this phase of Freud’s work as involving a partial return to Freud’s youthful interest in a Romantic “philosophy of nature” like that of Goethe, from the more scientific orientation of his earlier work.

According to Ricoeur, the late Freud ends up proposing his own sort of Romantic philosophy of nature in opposition to the dominant “philosophy of consciousness”. Ricoeur notes that at this point Freud’s presentation becomes frankly speculative and increasingly tentative. Whereas The Interpretation of Dreams derived theory from clinical interpretation, the later work in part bases clinical interpretation on a new “mythology” of instincts. Three great questions arise: What is the death instinct? What is pleasure? And what is the “reality principle”?

It turns out that for the later Freud, “death instinct” is said in many ways. The idea originated from his questioning of his own previous view that the unconscious is uniformly governed by the “pleasure principle” — seeking pleasure and avoiding unpleasure — with pleasure understood as an ultimately physical decrease of tension. Investigating phenomena of obsessive repetition, Freud began to wonder if something even more primitive than the pleasure principle were involved, a sort of compulsive psychic conservatism.

Ricoeur says the initial presentation of the death instinct was largely in terms this sort of conservatism; only later did Freud begin to emphasize aggressive impulses. The death instinct can also be sublimated into negation that need not be related to any aggression. (Ricoeur reminds us that for Freud there is no negation in the unconscious, so this involves an expression through the ego.) It is also expressed in feelings of guilt, associated with the “cruelty” of the superego’s authoritarian “conscience” toward the ego. (The superego is said to be closer to the id than to the ego; it seems very far from a pure moral conscience, heavily weighed down with psychological baggage. Neither aggression nor a cruel superego seems “natural” to me; I would call them both phenomena of alienation.) Finally, there is a complex relation between the death instinct and the ego. An instinct for conservative self-preservation against change becomes interpreted as ultimately a desire to die in one’s own way.

Freud’s notion of pleasure became increasingly ambiguous, as he began to emphasize cases in which a detour through unpleasure leads to a greater pleasure. This should not be too surprising; Plato and Aristotle already pointed the highly equivocal character of pleasure.

Ricoeur says Freud initially took a notion of “reality” for granted, in contrast to hallucination. Later it became a task and a problem, associated with Ananke, the word for “necessity” in the Greek tragedies. Whereas in Freud’s earlier work the “pleasure principle” governing the unconscious was contrasted with the “reality principle” associated with the development of consciousness, in the later work Eros or love is the principle that binds all things together, from cells in a body to people in society, and helps protect us against the ravages of the death instinct and aggressive self-assertion. Ricoeur associates the Freudian Eros with a kind of wisdom that comes to recognize reality through or in spite of the distortions of the death instinct.

“Death instinct” is a paradoxical term. It becomes less paradoxical if we consider its evolution or variation from a conservative impulse to an aggressive impulse. As mentioned above, I don’t consider human aggression to be primarily a natural phenomenon, but rather mainly an emergent result of bad socialization, so I don’t want to call it an instinct, but at most a distorted expression of an instinct. On the other hand, I find it a good deal easier to accept the idea that there could be a “conservative instinct” alongside Eros, leading to the disharmony of instincts that was the late Freud’s great theme. (See also Psychoanalytic Interpretation; Culture and the Freudian Ego.)

Negativity in Experience

A first collection of critical responses to Brandom’s landmark work on Hegel has recently appeared (Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust, Routledge 2020). Leading Hegel scholar Robert Pippin’s contribution takes issue with Brandom’s methodology of “semantic descent”, and argues that Brandom’s account of negation in Hegel is incomplete.

While Kant and Hegel both focused most of their explicit philosophical attention on very high-level concepts that help explain the meaning of other concepts, I think they nonetheless intended their thought to have practical relevance to life. (Pippin himself wrote a book I cannot recommend too highly, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy.) Brandom goes a step further than Kant and Hegel did, and explicitly claims that the same kinds of considerations they found relevant to the interpretation of what he calls expressive metaconcepts are always already involved in kinds of questions that a philosophically inclined person can see as implicitly arising in ordinary life. I find this thesis of the rich philosophical import of interpretations in ordinary life very appealing, and take it as expansive rather than reductive in intent.

Pippin quotes Brandom to this effect, but somehow still seems to think there is a reduction involved in Brandom’s semantic descent. In a related move, Pippin first commends Brandom’s analysis of Hegelian negation in terms of material inference and modality, but then goes on to argue that this still only addresses the concerns of the first of three parts of Hegel’s Logic — what Hegel called a logic of being, as distinguished from a logic of essence or a logic of the concept.

Very schematically, for Hegel, a logic of being addresses facts about presumed existing things, in this way resembling the approach of standard contemporary formal logic. This turns out to presuppose a logic of essence, which is concerned with higher-level judgments about the natures or ways of being of things, like the inquiries of Plato and Aristotle. This in turn implicitly presupposes a logic of the concept, which leads from something like Kantian synthesis to Hegel’s so-called “Absolute” as a sort of ultimate horizon, under which the context-dependence of the most objectively valid particular determinations is to eventually become explicit.

I think that Brandom’s modal realism already involves what Hegel would call a logic of essence, and that Brandom’s notions of forgiveness, magnanimity, and truth-as-process operate at the level of what Hegel would call a logic of the concept.

Part of the significance of modal realism is as a grounding for concepts of natural law employed by modern science, which do still belong to what Hegel would call a logic of being, as Pippin says. But for Brandom, modal realism also plays the even more important role of grounding Kantian moral necessity. Brandom does not use the term “essence” in his semantics, but I would say that judgments of Kantian moral necessity are concerned with essence rather than mere fact. While it is not quite the same thing, I also think that in a Hegelian context, they belong on the level of a logic of essence.

Whereas I have worried a little about passages in Brandom that exclusively associate truth with truth-as-process — which seems to me not to give enough weight to the positive value Hegel recognized in Understanding, alongside his famous criticism of its limitations — Pippin has an opposite worry, that Brandom ends up reducing Hegelian Reason to Understanding.

Pippin seems to construe what Brandom refers to as “ground-level empirical concepts” in an overly narrow way. Pippin glosses these as “cases of, largely, matters of fact known empirically”, and then refers to “empirical discovery” as the “engine generating incompatible commitments”. While he quotes Brandom’s reference to “ground-level empirical and practical concepts” [emphasis added], he ignores the “practical” part of Brandom’s formula, which presumably refers to concepts used in concrete ethical judgments. It is true that Brandom uses “red” as his canonical example of a ground-level empirical concept, but I think this choice is only meant to provide opportunities to point out the already inferential character of the use of such an apparently simple perceptual term, rather than in any way to undo his explicit inclusion of ground-level practical concepts.

Surprisingly, Pippin also seems to blur together talk about Kantian empirical concepts; talk about Kantian empirical intuition, to which Brandom attributes a key “negative” role providing occasions for recognition of error; and talk about matters of empirical fact. This results in what I think is an unfair characterization of Brandom’s interpretation as reducing Hegelian good negativity to matters of empirical discovery, external to Reason.

To say, as Brandom effectively does, that the main role of the element of immediacy or Kantian intuition in experience is “negative” rather than “positive”, while also in a different context saying that ground-level empirical and practical concepts always already involve the kinds of complexity and nuance associated with expressive metaconcepts, does not imply that Brandom’s strategy of semantic descent reduces Hegelian negativity to anything empirical. I strongly believe that for Brandom, critical thought and dialogue provide additional sources for the good kind of “negativity” of Reason that Hegel thematized in contrast to the “positivity” of things merely taken as given.

Pippin wants to emphasize that Hegelian negativity is an internal feature of Hegelian Reason, not something that comes to it only from an external empirical source. So far, I agree, and I think Brandom would as well. But then, to my surprise, Pippin seems to take up an old-school, very literal reading of Hegel’s metonymies of logical “motion” and an associated “life” of the negative. To me, the better reading is to take these rather obvious metonymies as metonymies. Logic in itself does not move, and negativity in itself is not a form of life. It is we who move and are alive. (Who we are is another complicated story; see under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Contradiction vs Polarity

The simple term “day” does not contradict the simple term “night”, although they may be conventionally treated as polar opposites. If we agree to treat them that way, then the proposition “It is day” contradicts the proposition “It is night”.

Hegel developed idiosyncratic shorthand ways of talking that may have the misleading appearance of suggesting that he ignored this distinction. In popular references to Hegelian dialectic, it is very common to hear about “contradictions” between so-called opposites. This can lead to massive misunderstanding of what Hegel was really trying to say, especially if one does not realize how concerned he was to deconstruct so-called polarities.

Polarities involve pairs of terms related by classical negation. A is the opposite of B if A = not-B, where “not” satisfies not-not-X = X. In fact, Hegel routinely criticized so-called Understanding for taking such polarities at face value.

In another piece of idiosyncratic shorthand, he talked about a “unity of opposites”. This refers to a sort of conceptual interdependence, not identity in the strict sense.

A single term may be taken as shorthand for many judgments characterizing a thing. Then “contradiction” between two terms actually refers to some contradiction between implications of the associated judgments.

Platonic dialectic in its most canonical form considered in turn the implications of pairs of contradictory propositions, in order to canvas all possibilities. The important part was really the examination of implications. Hegel, too, was far more interested in analyzing extended implications of things than in some dance of polarities.

Hegel’s dialectic — like Aristotle’s — is fundamentally about improving the subtlety of our distinctions, and thus the quality of our reasoning. If we begin with a polar opposition, the intent is to supersede it. As I previously noted, the standard method for superseding a polar opposition for Hegel is to move toward the concrete — i.e., to replace the abstract, “infinite”, classical negation of polar opposition with some suitable finite difference or specific material incompatibility or “determinate negation”, as he liked to call it. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic; Three Logical Moments.)