Fichte’s Evolution

Fichte was constantly revising the presentation of his core Wissenschaftslehre or “teaching of science”. He was very dissatisfied with the rushed writing of the 1794-95 Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre, translated as The Science of Knowledge, which was the only one published during his lifetime. The 1796-99 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, now translated as Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy, does seem more accessible and has many points of interest, but in broad outline carries forward the main theses of his earlier work. His 1804 lectures on the other hand, now translated as The Science of Knowing, contain major innovations.

The goal of both of the earlier works seems to be to elaborate a consistent philosophy based on radical “subject-centeredness”. The second introduction to the 1796-99 work develops a vivid polar contrast between “idealism” (which he says grounds everything in the subject) and “dogmatism” (which he says unsuccessfully attempts to ground everything in being or reality). “Idealism begins with the representing subject; dogmatism begins with the thing” (p. 93).

Kant had famously criticized dogmatic versions of realism with rather broad strokes, but called himself both a transcendental idealist and an empirical realist. Whatever one’s opinion of the Kantian “thing in itself” that would exist in spite of our failure to grasp it, it was clearly part of his concern to retain a notion of objective reality while rejecting its dogmatic use. Normally we contrast idealism with realism, and a critical attitude with dogmatism. By the clever rhetorical device of mixing up these two polarities, Fichte implies that all philosophically “realist” concerns are dogmatic. At this point, Fichte was a radical subjectivist (even though he was never a vulgar subjectivist, since his “subject” was always a subject of reason). In the same work, he further confirms this by talking in an unqualified way about the subject’s “absolute freedom”. He rejects the modest assertion of an unknown thing-in-itself, but claims to have an infallible intellectual intuition of the “I”. “Self-reverting activity and the I are one and the same” (p. 112). “All consciousness is accompanied by an immediate self-consciousness, which is called ‘intellectual intuition’, and this immediate self-consciousness must be presupposed if one is to think at all” (pp. 119-120).

I’m now looking for the first time at his 1804 lectures. Here he significantly modifies aspects of his stance. There is much less emphasis on the I. Instead, “the essence of philosophy would consist in this: to trace all multiplicity (which presses upon us in the usual view of life) back to absolute oneness” (p. 23). “[A]bsolute oneness can no more reside in being than in its correlative consciousness; it can as little be posited in the thing as in the representation of the thing. Rather, it resides in the principle, which we have just discovered, of the absolute oneness and indivisibility of both, which is equally, as we have seen, the principle of their disjunction. We will name this principle pure knowing, knowing in itself, and, thus, completely objectless knowing…. It is distinct from consciousness, which posits a being and is therefore only a half. This is Kant’s discovery, and is what makes him the founder of Transcendental Philosophy. Like Kantian philosophy, the science of knowing… does not posit the absolute in the thing, as previously, or in subjective knowing — which is simply impossible, because whoever reflects on this second term already has the first — but in the oneness of both” (pp. 25-26). “[F]or this kind of philosophy the difference between being and thinking, as valid in itself, totally disappears” (p. 30).

So he seems to have moved from a highly asymmetric view of subject and object to a much more symmetrical one. Unfortunately, the idea of reducing the Many to the One, even if he handles it in less cavalier fashion than Schelling, still leads to what Hegel called the “night in which all cows are black”.

Psychoanalytic Interpretation

In part 1 of book 2 of Freud and Philosophy, Ricoeur begins to discuss the various stages in the development of psychoanalytic interpretation, covering the posthumously published 1895 “Project for a Scientific Psychology” and the “first topography” of unconscious, preconscious, and conscious “systems” from The Interpretation of Dreams and related papers. Ricoeur quotes Freud saying he hoped via the route of medicine to arrive at his “original objective, philosophy” (p. 86n).

As of the 1895 “Project”, Freud was mainly concerned to apply physical concepts of conservation of energy and inertia to neurology, but even there, Ricoeur says a concern for interpretation was not absent, and the use of physical concepts was actually metaphorical. “Nothing is more dated than the explanatory plan of the ‘Project’, and nothing more inexhaustible than its program of description” (p. 73). Everything is expressed in terms of “quantities” of energy stored in neurons (“cathexis”), but the quantities are purely intensive and qualitatively described, rather than measured or subjected to mathematical laws. Freud associates discrimination between the real and the imaginary with a kind of inhibition. Breaking with the dominance of brain anatomy, he had already criticized then-orthodox theories of the localization of psychic functions to different parts of the brain. Ricoeur says the “Project” is already a topography like Freud’s later topographies, and clinical interpretation actually takes precedence over mechanical explanation.

The Interpretation of Dreams develops what Ricoeur calls a topographic-economic view. Anatomy is left behind once and for all, in favor of a distinctly psychological level of explanation. This time Freud starts from clinical interpretation and works toward a theory. Instead of cathected neurons, he speaks of cathected ideas. Dreams are understood through language, through a narration of their content. Dreams are said express a kind of thought, and sometimes also a kind of wishes. They show a kind of regression to an “indestructible” layer of infantile desire. Freud insists they are meaningful and not, e.g., just some kind of psychic garbage collection. Dreams illustrate the primary process of the unconscious, which includes operations of condensation and displacement of meaning. They perform what Freud calls “work” on meaning. Ricoeur says it is inverse to the analyst’s work of deciphering. He notes that Freud contrasts his own notion of interpretation as deciphering with notions of symbolic or allegorical interpretation.

The topographic-economic approach was further developed in papers from Freud’s middle period. The way we make inferences about the unconscious, Freud said, differs little from the way we make inferences about the consciousness of others. By this point, Ricoeur says, consciousness for Freud “far from being the first certitude, is a perception, and calls for a critique similar to Kant’s critique of external perception” (p. 120; emphasis in original). In this respect, I would point out, Freud also essentially recovered the perspective of Aristotle on what the moderns call consciousness.

On a more distinctly Freudian note, Ricoeur adds that “The question of consciousness has become the question of becoming conscious, and the latter, in great part, coincides with overcoming resistances” (ibid).

Ricoeur says Freud develops a “reduction” opposite to Husserl’s phenomenological reduction — a reduction of consciousness, instead of a reduction to consciousness. This approach “implies that we stop taking the ‘object’ as our guide, in the sense of the vis-à-vis of consciousness, and substitute for it the ‘aims’ of the instincts; and that we stop taking the ‘subject’ as our pole of reference, in the sense of the one to whom or for whom ‘objects’ appear. In short, we must abandon the subject-object problematic” (p. 122). “From now on the object is defined in function of the aim, and not conversely” (p. 123). “Not only are this and that object interchanged, while subserving the same aims, but also the self and the other, in the reversal from active to passive role” (p. 125). Once again, Freud seems to have unwittingly recovered an Aristotelian insight, this time concerning the priority of ends over subjects and objects in processes of constitution. “The history of the object is the history of the object function, and this history is the history of desire itself” (p. 126).

“[T]he ego itself is an aim of instinct” (p. 127). Freud is quoted as having later said that “The theory of the instincts is so to say our mythology” (p. 136). Instincts “represent or express the body to the mind” (p. 137). We are “always in the mediate, the already expressed, the already said” (pp. 140-141). “Psychoanalysis never confronts us with bare forces, but always with forces in search of meaning” (p. 151).

“Absolute” Knowledge?

The term “absolute” in Hegelian absolute knowledge refers only to a certain finality and stability of its form, not to any claim of infallibility or omniscience on the side of content. Intended for earthly actualization and thus finite, it also does not involve any infinite or immediate reflexivity. As a first approximation, it is simply the result of a thorough renunciation of implicit pretensions of Mastery — that is to say, it is a result of the abstraction or subtraction of something from ordinary knowledge, not of the acquisition of some kind of super powers.

At the risk of courting paradox, it might be said that “absolute” knowledge is absolute precisely because it recognizes itself as relative, and true freedom is freedom from false freedom.

This is related not only to an abstract recognition that finite concepts in general are provisional and that understandings in general are context-dependent. It is also requires concrete recognition that each finite concept we actually use is in principle provisional and subject to question, and that each understanding we actually rely on implicitly involves a dependence upon context, therefore also on an assessment of context that can be questioned.

Hegel offers two further developments of this. The first is associated with the perspective that “substance is also subject”. The second is a related one involving overcoming modern thought’s characteristic separation of subject and object. While the mention of either of these may initially raise further questions, they are not difficult to grasp once explained. (See also Rationality.)

Beyond Subject-Object

Hegel famously wanted to move beyond the subject-object dichotomy he saw as typical of early modernity. In practical terms, Kant’s most famous concern to avoid “dogmatic” assumptions about direct possession of epistemic objects had seemed to accentuate the separation of subject and object, by focusing on the distinction between appearance and reality. But both Kant and Hegel wanted to assert the possibility of knowledge in a strong sense, while avoiding what Kant called dogmatism. They also had considerable common ground in a shared rejection of naive early modern notions of subjects and objects and their relations.

Kant had begun — seemingly unwittingly — to recover some neglected Aristotelian insights in these areas, and Hegel made this an explicit theme. Thus they both already questioned the dichotomous interpretation of subject-object relations. Kant had also already highlighted the inevitable involvement of concepts in experience. For Kant, there is no direct epistemic access to real-world objects, or things in themselves (or to our own subjectivity). All knowledge proceeds by way of concepts, but he retains the concept of objects (and subjects) as a sort of placeholders for new distinctions between appearance and reality that can always be wrapped around current concepts in a new iteration.

When dichotomous connotations have already been applied to a distinction in some communicative context, it can be tricky to simultaneously clarify the transcendence of the dichotomy and the preservation of the underlying distinction, but the general solution is not far to find — just ensure that the underlying distinction is expressed in terms of some finite relation, rather than A versus not-A. Then we have Hegelian determinate negation or Aristotelian difference between the terms, rather than classical negation. So in effect, the solution lies in recognizing that the previous understanding of the distinction in terms of dichotomy was wrong in the first place.

More positively, Hegel eliminates dichotomies by putting determinate relations, coherence, and mediation first in the order of explanation, before all particular terms. The Hegelian Absolute — or that which transcends the subject-object dichotomy — is just a handle for perspectives that put processes, relations, coherence, and mediation before any preconceived notion of the conceptual content of particular terms.

I think Hegel saw this sort of structure as common to Aristotelian substance or “what it was to have been” a thing on the one hand, and Kantian subjectivity or synthesis of apperception on the other.

Working in the Hegelian Absolute does not require epistemic super powers or specious Cartesian certainty, just a sustained honest effort that is still implicitly defeasible. Hegel intends the Absolute to be a kind of Aristotelian achievable perfection, not a kind of omniscience or theological perfection that could never be legitimately claimed by a rational animal. (See Substance Also Subject.)

In approaching these matters in A Spirit of Trust, Brandom characteristically focuses not directly on higher-order abstractions, but on their implications for what we do with ordinary concepts in ordinary experience. Like Aristotle and Hegel but following a distinct strategy of his own, Brandom avoids the impasse of a supposed transition from psychological to “metaphysical” terms, or from ordinary experience to something that would seemingly have to be like the mind of God, by clarifying what we implicitly mean by concepts in the first place.

With Aristotle, Hegel, and Frege and in contradistinction to the empiricist tradition, Brandom understands concepts and apperception in a nonpsychological, nonrepresentational, normative-pragmatic, inferential-semantic way. Through the discovery of counterfactually robust relations, concepts evolve toward increasing universality. Through the experience of error, synthesis of apperception comes to incorporate the recognition that not only its commitments but also its concepts are always in principle provisional, subject to reformulation when faced with a new case. Through both of these combined with the additional cross-checks provided by mutual recognition, synthesis moves toward increasing objectivity and what might be called contact with reality. Through Brandom’s “expansive” model of responsibility, the last remaining obstacle to a full resolution of subject-object separation — the lack of a normative interpretation of unintended consequences of actions — is removed.

Neither “subjects” nor “objects” as such are very prominent in an account of this sort. It is much more a story about processes, relations, coherence, and mediation. Aristotle, Hegel, and Brandom each develop their own ways of working that start in the middle, as it were, and do not need reified subjects and objects to begin with. This, again, is just what the Hegelian Absolute is — a name for the sort of perspective that emphasizes the in-principle provisional character of all finite concepts, as contrasted with the more directly practical sort of perspective that provisionally works with the current basis as a source of reasons for particular sayings and doings. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic; Contradiction vs Polarity; Three Logical Moments.)


I’m looking at yet another critique of Brandom’s reading of Hegel by yet another person who did not consult the draft of Brandom’s major book on Hegel that was publicly available well before the critique was published. (So far, disappointingly, this has been true in four out of four cases I have examined.)

Alper Turken in “Brandom vs. Hegel: The Relation of Normativity and Recognition to the True Infinite” (2015) wants to say that the “true infinite”, which he identifies as Hegel’s resolution of the naive separation of Subject and Object in Consciousness, is the most important thing in Hegel, and is simply missed by any reading of Hegel that emphasizes the sociality of reason. According to Turken, reason must come before sociality, and a sociality of reason is incompatible with autonomy. Turken also cites psychoanalytic arguments that an empirical subject does not have what would in effect be Mastery over its attitudes.

Brandom explicitly comments on the Hegelian “true infinite” at several points in A Spirit of Trust. He characterizes it as a holistic perspective characteristic of the Hegelian “Absolute”, in which all identity is constituted through difference, and there is no fixed point of reference.

The idea that reason must come “before” sociality suggests a kind of modern platonism that I don’t think Plato himself — let alone Hegel — would have countenanced. (I view Platonic reason as inherently dialogical, and inherently involved with ethical concerns.)

Brandom applies a Fregean force/content distinction to normativity. It may appear that he does so with a sort of reciprocal onesidedness.

However, when he speaks of the attitude-dependence of normative force, I understand this to mean dependence on a concrete and fallible but inherently rational and ethical synthesis of apperception, not just an arbitrary attitude of an empirical subject.

The relevant autonomy does not consist in a putative right of naively conceived Enlightenment individuals to form whatever attitudes they factually please, but in the normative autonomy of reason in any synthesis of apperception. Autonomy just means that Reason should take only reasons — what it judges to be good reasons — into account, not assumptions or special pleadings. “I” as index of a synthesis of apperception also recognize only reasons that fit into the concrete synthesis. (See also Error.)

When Brandom speaks of the dependence of determinations of normative content on others, I understand the “others” in question to be the virtual universal community of all rational beings, not some empirically existing society. In the realm of Reason, the status quo of an existing society could never be the final word.

If Brandom did not deal with Hegel’s resolution of the naive early modern separation of Subject and Object, that would indeed be a grievous shortcoming. But in fact, Hegel’s resolution of subject-object separation is developed extensively by Brandom in A Spirit of Trust. It emerges organically from a nonpsychological notion of conceptual content. (See Beyond Subject-Object; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

It seems to me that there is actually a sort of parallel between the transition from naive early modern subject-object separation to the standpoint of Hegel’s Logic and the end of the Phenomenology on the one hand, and the transition from naive early modern individualism to Hegelian mutual recognition on the other. I see a similar parallel between the epistemic limitations of early modern subjectivism and the ethical limitations of early modern individualism. Hegel’s solutions to both are deeply interrelated.

Turken seems to assume that all sociality of reason must take the form of what Hegel called positivity, or empirically existing determinations such as received views. If this were the case, it could not possibly do what Brandom wants. But it is not the case. Commitments only exist in the social space of reasons, and every commitment invites rational questioning. In principle, there is no end to this potential dialogue. We never arrive at final answers, just the best ones we can obtain for now.

Once again, it seems to me that the critics of “deflationary” readings of Hegel implicitly depend on “inflationary” medieval transformations of Plato and Aristotle. Part of what those inflationary, reifying readings lost was the primacy of open-ended normative reasoning.

Subject, Object

Subject and object are functional roles. There is no guarantee that either has any stronger unity than is required by its role. Referentially, members of a subject-object pair may pick out parts of the same content. This can result in confusion when terms are used at different levels of analysis.

In the Sociology of Knowledge? post, I complained about a naive, unproblematic distinction between mind and world, then went on to speak of an asymmetric mutual determination. The latter sort of language might standardly be taken to imply a relation between distinct things, contradicting the former language. However, in context, the latter phrase is intended to be anaphoric at a higher level. In this case, mutual determination and the lack of an unproblematic distinction are two ways of talking about the same state of affairs.

This sort of mixed-metaphor-like phenomenon leading to apparent literal inconsistency often crops up when different dialectical levels are mentioned. We have to choose between potentially cumbersome formal disambiguation and extra interpretive work. (See also Aristotelian Dialectic.)