Fichte’s Ethics

Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798) has been called the most important work of moral philosophy between Kant and Hegel. Unavailable in English till 2005, it is apparently a source for some key themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology. It also shows the more nuanced side of Fichte that impressed Paul Ricoeur. Fichte was an unusually powerful speaker, reportedly electrifying audiences with his intensity and bold rhetorical strokes. His thought greatly influenced German Romanticism.

Fichte begins by asking, “how can something objective ever become something subjective; how can a being for itself ever become something represented (vorgestellt)?” (p. 7). He continues, “No one will ever explain how this remarkable transformation takes place without finding a point where the objective and the subjective are not at all distinct from one another…. The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason, or whatever one wishes to call it.”

“This absolute identity of the subject and the object in the I can only be inferred; it cannot be demonstrated, so to speak, ‘immediately’, as a fact of actual consciousness. As soon as any actual consciousness occurs, even if it is only the consciousness of ourselves, the separation [between subject and object] ensues…. The entire mechanism of consciousness rests on the various aspects of this separation of what is subjective from what is objective, and, in turn, on the unification of the two” (ibid; brackets and emphasis in original).

Fichte revives an explicit appeal to “intellectual intuition” that Kant had proscribed and I find untenable, but carefully limits its scope, mainly using it for the existence of “the I”. Importantly, as the above quote shows, he does not claim to have a direct intuition of the identity of subject and object.

Next he asks, “how we ever come to take some of our representations to be the ground of a being” (p. 8), and answers, “I find myself to be acting efficaciously in the world of sense” (ibid).

This seems like a good pragmatist insight. Here and above, he asks questions about the status of representation and how it comes to be that anticipate aspects of Brandom’s work in this area.

“Insofar as I know anything at all I know that I am active” (p. 9). “I posit myself as active” (p. 10). Hegel criticized Fichte’s reliance on “positing” or postulation of various key notions.

Fichte goes on to specify that “I ascribe to myself a determinate activity, precisely this one and not another” (p. 11), and determinate activity implies resistance. “Wherever and whenever you see activity, you see resistance as well, for otherwise you see no activity” (p. 12). “[F]reedom can never be posited as able to do anything whatsoever about this situation, since otherwise freedom itself, along with all consciousness and all being, would fall away” (p. 13).

Throughout his career, while picking up and intensifying Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric and even aiming to build a system around it, Fichte made things more interesting and complicated by emphasizing that objectivity always involves a resistance to free action. Fichte goes on to specify that activity involves a kind of agility — i.e., ways of acting successfully in spite of the the object’s or the world’s resistance. Here we find ourselves on the threshold at least of the territory more fully explored by Ricoeur in Freedom and Nature (see Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action).

“I posit myself as free insofar as I explain a sensible acting, or being, as arising from my concept, which is then called the ‘concept of an end'” (p. 14). “[T]he concept of an end, as it is called, is not itself determined in turn by something objective but is determined absolutely by itself” (p. 15).

Freedom here is acting in accordance with concepts or ends. While Kant and Fichte both tended to identify this with a kind of exemption from the natural order, this second move is separable from the first. The need to treat freedom as an exemption presupposes a view of natural causality as completely rigid. But more fluid “tendencies” also exhibit the resistance that Fichte makes characteristic of objectivity.

He then claims in effect that the resistance we encounter in the world of sense is actually nothing but an appearance. “[N]othing is absolute but pure activity…. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency” (p. 17). I think Hegel and Ricoeur would each in their own way regard formulations like this as one-sided, and as a step back from his previous acknowledgement of resistance to our action as a basic fact of life, but that is in part because Hegel and Ricoeur both in a sense vindicate appearance itself as being something more than mere appearance.

Fichte is not actually contradicting himself or going back on a promise here, but moving to a different level. I think his point is that objects as separate are ultimately always a matter of appearance. I would agree as far as strictly separate objects are concerned, but I see objectivity in the first instance as a resistant but non-rigid sea of non-separate relations, tendencies, and currents that is not just an appearance, and is only secondarily divided into separate objects that insofar as they are separate are just appearances.

He comes a bit closer to Hegel again when he says “it is the character of the I that the acting subject and that upon which it acts are one and the same” (p. 28; emphasis in original).

But a few pages later he concludes that “all willing is absolute” and that the will is “absolute indeterminability through anything outside itself” (p. 33). “As an absolute force with consciousness, the I tears itself away — away from the I as a given absolute, lacking force and consciousness” (p. 37). One of Hegel’s main concerns in the Phenomenology was to show the inadequacy and undesirability of this ideal of total “independence”. I take “absolute force” as a kind of poetic language in Fichte’s rhetorical style that I would not adopt.

He repeats Kant’s claim that the will has “the power of causality by means of mere concepts” (p. 41). I agree that concepts can have a kind of efficacy in the world, though I would not call it causality in the narrow modern sense. On the other hand, I think talk about will as if it were a separate power not encompassed by the union of feeling and reason is misguided. I don’t think there is any will-talk that doesn’t have a better analogue in feeling-and-reason talk. So the question of the will’s causality does not even come up for me.

“According to Kant, freedom is the power to begin a state [Zustand] (a being and subsistence) absolutely” (p. 41). I don’t consider formulations like this to be typical of Kant’s thought as a whole. It rhetorically recalls voluntarist views in the Latin medieval tradition that saw human freedom as a sort of microcosmic analogue of creation from nothing. The notion of literal creation from nothing, though it achieved wide circulation in the monotheistic traditions, is actually an extreme view in theology whose main use has been to support radically supernaturalist claims of all sorts that are entirely separable from the broader spiritual purport of the world’s religions. Scholars have pointed out that creation from nothing is not inherent to the Old Testament text, and only emerged as an interpretation in the Hellenistic period with figures like Philo of Alexandria. One of Kant’s great contributions was actually to have developed other ways of talking about freedom that do not presuppose any of this kind of strong supernaturalism. (I adhere to the view commonly attributed to Aristotle in the Latin tradition that nothing comes from nothing in any literal sense.) Fichte of course was not at all a supernaturalist like Philo; but like Kant and even more so, in relation to freedom he nonetheless used some of the same rhetorical strategies originally developed to “rationalize” supernaturalism. (And if nature already participates in divinity, supernaturalism is superfluous.)

Fichte improves things by specifying, “It is not the case that the state that is begun absolutely is simply connected to nothing at all, for a finite rational being thinks only by means of mediation and connections. The connection in question, however, is not a connection to another being, but to a thinking” (ibid).

Much as I welcome this emphasis on mediation and connections, it is important to mention that he earlier strongly relied on the claim of a limited kind of direct intellectual self-intuition (pp. 25ff). Fichte was honest enough to acknowledge that he did not have inferential grounds for his strong notion of “I-hood”. The texture of his thought is a unique hybrid of a sort of inferentialism about things in general with an intuitionism about self. The points at which he relies on intuition are the same places where he applies the bold rhetorical strokes for which he initially became famous and popular with the Romantics. But in the long run, it is his emphasis on mediation — both in the form of inference and in the form of resistance to our projects — that holds the greatest value.

In a somewhat Kantian style that seems both more abstract and more simple and direct than that of Kant himself, Fichte sets out to “deduce” first the principle of morality, then the reality and applicability of the principle. For Fichte, the single principle of morality is the “absolute autonomy of reason” (p. 60). Reason is finite, but depends on nothing outside itself. Consciousness is always limited and in that sense determined by the objects it “finds”, but in conscience there is a pure identity of subject and object. Here again we can see how Hegel was in part taking up Fichtean ways of speaking.

Unlike Hegel, though, for Fichte “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness. Conscience is itself the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself” (p. 165).

From this it seems clear that Fichte recognizes no standpoint higher than that of Conscience. He identifies morality with good will (p. 149). Hegel on the other hand regards mutual recognition as a higher standpoint than that of the autonomy of Conscience. Although Fichte briefly refers to the concept of mutual recognition he had developed in Foundations of Natural Right (1797), the System of Ethics revolves mainly around a version of Kantian autonomy: “the formal law of morals [Sitten] is…. do what you can now regard with conviction as a duty, and do it solely because you have convinced yourself that it is a duty” (p. 155).

Surprisingly, he says “all free actions are predestined through reason for all eternity” (p. 216), and claims to have reconciled freedom with predestination. This provides a noteworthy additional perspective on his earlier love-hate relation with Spinoza.

“The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it,…. This process of drawing nearer to my final end is my finite end.”

“The fact that nature placed me at one point or another and that nature instead of me took the first step, as it were, on this path to infinity does not infringe upon my freedom” (pp. 217-218). This theme of “drawing nearer” and the “path to infinity” was sharply criticized by Hegel, but I rather like it.

I worry a bit when he says “The necessary goal of all virtuous people is therefore unanimous agreement [and] uniformity of acting” (p. 224). He did however also say that “anyone who acts on authority necessarily acts unconscionably” (p. 167; emphasis in original).

“I possess absolute freedom of thought… freedom before my own conscience…. [I]t is unconscionable for me to make the way in which I tend to the preservation of my body dependent on the opinions of others” (p. 225).

“What lies outside my body, and hence the entire sensible world, is a common good or possession” (ibid). “[I]n communal matters, I ought to act only in accordance with the presumptive general will” (p. 228). “I should… act in such a way that things have to become better. This is purely and simply a duty” (ibid). “As a means for bringing about the rational state, I have to take into account the present condition of the makeshift state” (ibid). In the case of unjust tyranny and oppression, “every honorable person could then in good conscience endeavor to overthrow this [makeshift] state entirely, but only if he has ascertained the common will” (ibid; emphasis in original).

“How then can one become aware of that upon which everyone agrees? This is not something one could learn simply by asking around; hence it must be possible to presuppose something that can be viewed as the creed of the community or as its symbol.”

“It is implicit in the concept of such a symbol or creed that it presents something not in a very precise or determinate manner, but only in a general way…. Moreover,… the symbol is supposed to be appropriate for everyone…. [T]he symbol does not consist in abstract propositions but rather in sensory presentations of the latter. The sensible presentation is merely the costume; what is properly symbolic is the concept. That precisely this presentation had to be chosen is something that was dictated by need… because they were not yet capable of distinguishing the costume that the concept had received by chance from the essence of the concept” (p. 230).

“[W]hat is most essential about every possible symbol or creed is expressed in the proposition, ‘there is something or other that is supersensible and elevated above all nature’…. What this supersensible something may be, the identity of this truly holy and sanctifying spirit, the character of the truly moral way of thinking: it is precisely concerning these points that the community seeks to determine and to unify itself more and more, by mutual interaction” (pp. 230-231).

Here we see some anticipation of Hegel’s account of religion in the Phenomenology.

“Not only am I permitted to have my own private conviction concerning the constitution of the state and the system of the church, I am even obliged by my conscience to develop this same conviction just as self-sufficiently and as broadly as I can.”

“Such development… is possible, however, only by means of reciprocal communication with others.” (p. 233).

Like Hegel, he makes mutual recognition a foundation of religion.

“The distinguishing and characteristic feature of the learned public is absolute freedom and independence of thinking” (p. 238). “Since scholarly inquiry is absolutely free, so must access to it be open to everyone” (p. 239).

“No earthly power has the right to issue commands regarding matters of conscience…. The state and the church must tolerate scholars” (ibid).

“All of a person’s efficacious acting within society has the following goal: all human beings are supposed to be in agreement; but the only matters that all human beings can agree on are those that are purely rational, for this is all they have in common” (p. 241).

“Kant has asserted that every human being is himself an end, and this assertion has received universal assent” (p. 244).

“The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of being perfected and remaining so, and this same law absolutely prohibits us from treating human beings in the opposite manner” (p. 229). Fichte argues at some length that this last point would be true no matter how dismal we might judge actual history to be.

Unfortunately, Fichte retained some of the prejudices of his time and place. He thought women should be subordinate to men, and his contribution to early German nationalism was not without a chauvinistic side.

Force and Understanding

After Perception, Hegel discusses what is basically the attitude of mathematical physics. Harris in his commentary notes that Hegel is much more sympathetic to natural science than some of his supporters have seemed to recognize. Hegel accepts mathematical physics as an authoritative account of the physical world, and is impressed by the concept of mathematical natural law.

More generally, this is where Hegel introduces what he calls Understanding, which seeks to give a fully univocal (thus also formalizable) account of things. Understanding will have permanent value in securing definiteness and discipline of thought. Hegel often makes sharp remarks about its limitations, so it is important to recognize that he also respected its strengths.

Perception already took a relational approach to the properties of things, but still held fast to the idea that its objects were independent things. Newton’s concept of force as characterized by mathematical law effectively takes a relational approach to determination in the physical world as a whole. Mechanics treats force subject to mathematical laws as the objective reality underlying the world of Perception and “things”, which it treats as Appearance rather than an immanent truth.

Force for Hegel is a supersensible rational construct. For the Newtonian physicist, it is a supersensible reality. Hegel approves of the physicist’s recognition that sensible reality is not all there is, and applauds what he sees as the physicist’s thoroughgoing relational approach. His main caveat is just that what the physicist sees as an independent physical necessity that is only described by mathematics, Hegel see entirely in terms of the formal necessity of the mathematics and logic used in the physicist’s theory.

This concludes the “Consciousness” section of the Phenomenology, where “consciousness” for Hegel is the attitude that treats objects and objectivity in a “pre-Kantian” way, as just being out there. The physicist’s thoroughly relational approach to the external world takes this to its highest sophistication. What remains is to examine the ways in which there is actually continuity and reciprocity between “us” and the world we inhabit, and the role that we play in its development.

Taking “Things” as True

The second standpoint examined by Hegel in the Phenomenology is Perception, or in the literal etymological sense of the German word for it, “true-taking”. This etymology has an intriguing but probably accidental resonance with the notion of taking things as thus-and-such that Brandom emphasizes in Kant. In Perception, emphasis is more on the things than on the taking.

Harris in his commentary associates Perception with the philosophy of healthy common sense. Even the peasant woman of the previous chapter “must follow the ‘leading’ of language at least one step beyond the naming of [things]. She identifies her cows not just by their names, but by their color-patterns; and she knows her apple trees from her plum trees or her neighbor’s peach, etc. Hers is a world not just of singular [things], but of perceptible types; but for her, the process of classification with its universal names is an instrumental shorthand for dealing with the ‘real things’ that can be identified and pointed to. She does not want to take the leading of language seriously, but only to get back to her life, and to get on with it” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 238).

Perception at least begins to take up the nuances of how things interrelate that are ignored by sense certainty. “Sense-Certainty is rich only in positive things to be certain of…. Only perception can say what is, because it names universal things that are perceived through the changing sequence and variety of their properties”(p. 239). “Perception is the being grasped together of the moments that unfold in perceiving as process…. The perceiving we are concerned with is a process in which the universal self takes itself to be a rational being, and the truth of its object to be a universal truth” (p. 238). By “universal self” he means an individual self taken as an instance of a rational self, not anything like a world soul.

Harris continues, “Our situation as philosophical observers is different in its ‘object’ from the perceiving consciousness. Our object has been logically determined for us, whereas the object of the perceiving consciousness simply ‘falls out of the world of Sense-Certainty’ for it… It knows that the object is a universal essence; but it does not know that ‘universality’ is an activity of the perceiving mind” (pp. 238-239).

We know that the ‘thing’ is a result of this process…. Our perceiving is the process, of which the object is the result. Perception… is an interpretation of sense-certainty in which the knowing consciousness is no longer concerned about the truth of the copula ‘is’, but about what is…. Sense-Certainty was already implicitly perception in its examples” (p. 239).

He quotes Hegel saying “Being is a universal in virtue of having mediation or the negative in it” (p. 240). As Harris says a bit later, “There is no nameable property of anything that is not part of a range of alternative properties. Some variations of properties are consistent with the thing continuing to count as the ‘same thing’ — and some are not” (ibid).

“[T]he singular property of ‘being salt’ is known to us as immediate sensation only when we taste it (and that is when the salt itself is necessarily dissolved back into the flux of sense-immediacy). Thus, in the white cube that is the ‘thing’ I perceive, the character of being salt is a not-this; it is not immediately sensed, but it is stably preserved for the sensation whenever I want to sense it…. It is a potentiality for sensation…. As this potentiality, this ‘otherness’ than what it is (the cubical whiteness etc.), it is a universal” (pp. 240-241).

(I am delighted to see Harris stressing the importance of potentiality in this crucial transition out of immediacy in Hegel. I don’t recall Hegel using the word “potentiality” much, but thought he ought to have.)

“What is ‘truly taken’ is an essence that is the negative ‘property’ which determines and holds together all the positive ones. But it is also truly taken as the positive property of filling a certain space. All of the properties cohere together in the space that the thing occupies…. ‘Thinghood’ as directly given for perceiving is the persisting spatial togetherness of many independent qualities…. The ‘thing’ is not just a loose collection of properties inhering somehow in the same identifiable region of space at the given time. It is a thing because of what it excludes; and its exclusiveness is what particularizes each of its properties” (p. 241).

“I know that I do not passively perceive what is true, in the way that I seem to apprehend the fact that ‘this is Lisa, and this is Ursel’ passively. My reflective capacities are involved. Perceiving is an activity of consciousness” (p. 245). “But it ought to be consistent” (p. 246).

“The attempt to claim that the manifold of sensation is simply subjective ignores its interpersonal objectivity. Every identifiable property is an objective essence…. Not just the oneness of the thing is objectively real, but its ‘difference’ from everything else” (p. 247).

“The essence of being a thing is to be ‘for another'” (p. 249). “Everything is specified by its difference from others” (p. 250). “The determinacy which is the ‘essential’ or ‘absolute’ character of a thing on its own account is essentially a relation to others (which negates the thing’s independence)” (p. 251).

Here we begin to see the limits of Perception. “The standpoint of Perception presupposes an absolute community of ‘things’. But the definition of ‘thinghood’ that the perceptual consciousness set up for itself contains no necessary reference from one thing to another for its being. The independent being of the thing is what makes it the ‘object’ that can be ‘truly taken’…. We have now seen that in any consistent formulation of the perceptual standpoint, this is logically impossible. It is the independence that is a sham” (p. 252).

“What is ‘essential’ and what is not ‘essential’ is a function of our supposedly external observation” (p. 253).

“Hegel… aims to show us that the naive empiricism which wants to conceive of perception causally (as analogous to mirror-reflection) cannot succeed.”

“We have already seen how we could not stand still at the concept of the ‘one thing’ with ‘many properties’. We had to admit that the multiplicity was founded in the ‘thing’, and not simply generated by the perceiving mind; and on the other hand, the ‘unity’ was an actively negative exclusion, which could not be simply contributed by the mind as it sorted the perceived ‘properties’ into things” (p. 254).

The standpoint of perception treats logic and philosophy as mere “game[s] with verbal counters” (p. 256). Its mistake is “to assume that ‘cognition’ is an activity that supervenes on an object that is already there; but actually it is the construction of ‘the object’ in a process of interpretation” (p. 257).

I-Thou, I-We

Brandom has long insisted on the more fundamental role of I-Thou relations as compared with I-We relations. This means that a community is not a pre-given whole or an immediate belonging, but rather something that emerges out of concrete relationships. This seems to me like a good Aristotelian or Hegelian approach. Truth is concrete, as Hegel put it. There are also grounds for saying that face-to-face relations (literal or metaphorical) are more primary for ethics than any alleged immediacy of a community as an abstract entity. Even more than other things, our notions of actual unity of collectivities like communities are products of complex Kantian synthesis.

Martin Buber famously contrasted I-Thou relations with I-It relations. For Buber, I-It relations refer to objects viewed as separate from us and are typical of sensation, whereas I-Thou relations involve others we recognize as like us, and have an intrinsically ethical character.

Though we metaphorically speak of the spirit of a community, a community as a unity is not a person but an abstraction. In this way, it is more like an object. Kantian respect applies to persons — to concrete others.

It is only in Brandom’s interpretation of Hegelian mutual recognition in his later work that his emphasis on I-Thou relations reaches its full flowering. Earlier, I think he had wanted to achieve the same delicate balance as in the later work. Social norms are instituted from the normative attitudes of people, but nonetheless also acquire a kind of emergent objectivity, so that something is not right just because I or my empirically existing community say it is, but because of a whole complex of criteria that have acquired relative independence. On the other hand, the last word is never said, so even what emerges as objective and relatively independent can also be questioned and change. But his earlier work was mainly framed as an ambitious technical contribution to the philosophy of language, even though normativity played a central role in it. One reviewer characterized Brandom’s “normative pragmatics” as the first comprehensive attempt to ground the whole philosophy of language in Wittgenstein’s dictum that meaning is use.

Brandom’s mentor Richard Rorty already characterized Making It Explicit as taking analytic philosophy into a new Hegelian phase, but at this stage Brandom was still very circumspect about the ultimately Hegelian character of his views, engaging mainly with the work of other analytic philosophers. Without his later detailed argument about mutual recognition, his assertion that normativity also has a kind of objectivity derived from intersubjectivity seemed to many readers not to be adequately supported or developed.

Brandom spent decades carefully laying the ground for the idea that there really could be a unification of analytic philosophy with key aspects of Hegel’s thought that would be meaningful and convincing in analytic terms. Only after that long preparatory work did he begin to publicly focus on Hegel. Only then did his longstanding emphasis on I-Thou relations flower into a groundbreaking account of mutual recognition, and only then did its ethical significance become more clear.

A number of reviewers have suggested that he changed his mind on this issue, from a more one-sided emphasis on attitudes to his current view that emphasizes a kind of two-sided interaction. I have tended to see more continuity, but Making It Explicit did briefly flirt with applying the term “phenomenalism” to Brandom’s view of norms. The way I understand phenomenalism, such a term better applies to a one-sided emphasis on attitude-dependence of norms than to the two-sided, intersubjective view that I think is already implicit in his I-Thou emphasis. I have not seen this odd usage of “phenomenalism” recur in his later work. That term gets zero references in the index to A Spirit of Trust.

Brandom associates one-sided attitude-dependence with modernity, and the two-sided view with what he now calls Hegelian postmodernity. As I have mentioned too many times already, I do find it odd that he has chosen to valorize the one-sided view as historically progressive, when his own view is two-sided. For me, the subjectivist or voluntarist error is at least as bad as naive traditionalist acceptance of values as pre-given. I want to emphasize the two-sided view across the board.

It is worth noting that Ricoeur has rehabilitated the third person from Buber’s negative association with an “It” by connecting it with notions of justice, which he sees as involving as an additional mediation of ethical second-person relations through Kantian universality in the third person. But Ricoeur’s notion of justice has nothing to do with Buber’s I-It model; indeed, one of the two “axes” around which it revolves is an implicitly I-Thou based “dialogical” constitution of self that ends up being close to Brandom’s. (See Ricoeur on Justice; Ricoeurian Ethics.) An important strand of the argument of his late work Memory, History, Forgetting converges with Brandom’s critique of a focus on I-We: “It is, therefore, not with the single hypothesis of the polarity between individual memory and collective memory that we enter into the field of history, but with the hypothesis of the threefold attribution of memory: to oneself, to one’s close relations, and to others” (p. 132).

Ricoeur on History

Having just treated Ricoeur’s views on historiography at a semi-technical level, and having just received a copy of his collection of essays History and Truth (French ed. 1955), I think this less technical earlier work, roughly contemporary with Freedom and Nature, merits a digression. It gives broad expression to his desire to mediate and reconcile, as well as more specific voice to his personal views on religion and politics.

At this stage, history for Ricoeur particularly meant two special kinds of history — the history of philosophy, and the historical dimension of Christian revelation.

The kind of history of philosophy he wanted to practice would not involve treating views of philosophers as instantiations of generic types of views, but rather treating each philosopher as a singularity. He argues that good history in general is largely concerned with singulars. I would agree on both points. There is a precursor to his later argument about the mediating role of singular causal imputation, and one of the essays begins with the wonderful quote from Spinoza that to better know singulars is to better know God.

In contrast to adherents of philosophical “systems” who would reduce the history of philosophy to moments in a monolithic “philosophy of history” subordinated to a system, he poses the idea of a simultaneously sympathetic and critical account of irreducibly multiple, integral philosophies. Philosophical “problems”, he says, do not eternally have the same meaning.

I find this very admirable, even though Ricoeur at this stage sounds like he uncritically accepted a Kierkegaardian view of Hegel as the bad “systematic” philosopher of history par excellence, whereas I follow more recent readings of Hegel as a leading critic of that sort of thing. On the other hand, he very correctly points out how Hegel reduced away Spinoza’s genuine concern for subjectivity.

Somewhat circumspectly, he suggests that a Christian notion of revelatory events in history creates something like a surplus of meaning that acts as a safeguard against totalizing views of history. I’m generally very nervous about claims of revelation, as revelation is often regarded as an unchallengeable knowledge with self-evident interpretation. Arrogant humans too often claim to just know the will of God, and want to impose their certainty on others. This has nothing to do with piety, and certainly does not reflect any humility or respect for mystery. The idea of a surplus of meaning on the other hand is precisely not a claim to “just know” that meaning.

Ricoeur’s idea of an inexhaustible “surplus” of meaning exceeding any interpretation has been criticized as implying that the meaning then must be predetermined on some virtual level, but that objection seems artificial to me, because Ricoeur’s idea is an acknowledgement of lack of knowledge rather than a knowledge claim. The inexhaustible surplus seems to me to be a less “metaphysical” analogue of the neoplatonic notion that ultimate principles are “supra-essential” and therefore beyond the grasp of rigorous knowledge but only hinted at in symbols, which I think actually reflected a kind of epistemic modesty. This seems to me no more objectionable than Kant’s notion of things in themselves as exceeding our knowledge.

As in the later discussion in Time and Narrative, he ambivalently develops a notion of historical objectivity and truth. On the one hand, he finds the quest for this both necessary and admirable, but on the other he worries that the truth of the historian abolishes both history as grounded in subjective consciousness, and the eschatology associated with revelation. Ricoeur wants to make room for personal faith, without compromising the autonomy of philosophy by asserting its subordination to revealed theology. He advocates for historical objectivity, but remains wary of any objectifying reduction of human or spiritual realities. The antidote to objectification is Marcelian mystery, and a recognition of ambiguity that he associates with faith. Ultimately, he wants to promote hope.

The later, even more nuanced discussion in Time and Narrative carefully weakens this work’s apparent claims on behalf of subjective consciousness, but here too, there is considerable subtlety.

In contrast to Sartre’s identification of freedom with negativity and nothingness, he wants to emphasize the primacy of affirmation. In contrast to Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, he says he wants to emphasize the primacy of a phenomenology of signification and meaning like that developed in Husserl’s early Logical Investigations. Ricoeur already thinks it is an error to treat human perception as if it could be separated from our involvement in language.

One essay is a tribute to Emmanuel Mounier, to whose journal Esprit he was a frequent contributor. Mounier’s “personalist” movement aimed at a new pedagogy to combat modern alienation, combining Christianity and a concern for the individual with a sort of democratic socialism. Another piece deals with nonviolence, and another contrasts Christian Agape with the “punitive violence of the magistrate” (p. 240).

Political power, Ricoeur says, is eminently prone to evil. Utopian belief in the future withering away of the state allowed many to justify a disregard for terrible abuses in the present, while the “false truth” of fascism was morally far worse. Clerical power is as dangerous as political power. “[T]he religious totality and the political totality are genuine totalities of our existence. This is why they are the two greatest temptations for the spirit of falsehood, the lapse from the total to the totalitarian” (p. 189). Ricoeur says that “the Christian has everything to learn from the critique of power elaborated by classical ‘liberal’ thought from Locke to Montesquieu, by the ‘anarchist’ thought of Bakunin, by those who supported the [Paris Commune of 1870], and by the non-Stalinist Marxists” (p. 117).

Nietzsche, Ethics, Historiography

Nietzsche famously criticized received notions of good and evil, and pointed out the inglorious role of “reactive” and resentful thinking about morals. To negatively frame our notions of goodness and virtue in terms of emotional reactions to bad things done by others is not an auspicious beginning for ethics. It results in a bad order of explanation that puts negative judgments of others before positive consideration of what is right.

Nietzsche pointed out that this occurs more often than we might think. A recurring emphasis on negative, blaming attitudes toward other people over affirmative values is unfortunately all too common not only in ordinary life and actually existing religious practice, but across what passes for the political spectrum. We ought to distance ourselves from this, and develop our values in positive rather than negative terms. We should aim to be good by what we do, not by contrasting ourselves with those other people. As an antidote to resentment, Nietzsche recommended we cultivate forgetfulness of wrongs done by others. I would add that we can have strong concern for justice without focusing on blame or revenge.

Like Aristotle, but without ever mentioning the connection, Nietzsche emphasized a certain sort of character development, and effectively advocated something close to Aristotle’s notion of magnanimity, or “great-souledness” as contrasted with small-mindedness. But in common with some modern interpretations of “virtue ethics”, Nietzsche tended to make whatever a presumably great-souled person might in fact do into a criterion, and consequently downplayed the role of the rational deliberation jointly emphasized by Aristotle and Kant.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche seems to have been so outraged by what he saw as widespread hypocrisy that he sometimes failed to take his own advice to avoid dwelling on the negative. This comes out in his tendency to make sweeping historical generalizations. Thus, he presented all religion in a negative light, and even went so far as to blame the “moralism” of Socrates and Plato for many later historical ills, while failing to note his own partial convergence with Aristotle.

Even at the peak of my youthful enthusiasm for Nietzsche, this negative judgment of Socrates and Plato always seemed wrong to me. Textual evidence just does not support the attribution of primarily “resentful” attitudes to either of them. On the contrary, Socrates and Plato began a completely unprecedented attempt to understand what is good in positive terms, and took great care to avoid prejudice in the process.

Partly as a consequence of his sweeping rejection of Socrates and Plato, Nietzsche looked for alternate heroes among the pre-Socratics, especially favoring Heraclitus. (In the 20th century, with different motivations, Heidegger expanded on Nietzsche’s valorization of the pre-Socratics over Plato and Aristotle, claiming that Heraclitus and Parmenides “had Being in sight” in ways that Plato and Aristotle did not. This seems to me like nonsense. As distinct from poetry and other artistic endeavors (which I value highly, but in a different way), philosophy is not about primordial vision or its recovery; it is about rational understanding and development toward an end, starting from wherever we actually find ourselves. While the pre-Socratics are important in a sort of prehistory of philosophy, the level of rational development they achieved was minimal. Extended rational development first bloomed with Plato, and then was taken to a yet higher level by Aristotle.)

Nietzsche also denied the reality or effective relevance of anything like Aristotelian potentiality, claiming that only what is actual is real. The semantic or expressive category of potentiality underwrites logical and linguistic modality, which among other things in turn underwrites the possibility of expressing objective judgments of “should”, as well as of causality, of which Nietzsche seems to have taken a Humean view. The general role of potentiality and modality is independent of all issues of the correctness or possibly prejudiced character of particular judgments.

Nietzsche’s denial of potentiality is thus related to a denial of any objective good and evil. It is akin to other views that attempt to explain values by facts. He thought mostly in terms of actually occurring valuations, and did distinguish better from worse ones, but mainly in terms of a kind of ad hominem argument from great-souledness or small-mindedness.

In my view, he should have been content to point out that many particular judgments are prejudiced or incorrect, and at any moment we have no sure way of knowing we accurately recognize which these are. Objectivity in ethics cannot be assumed as a starting point, but that does not mean there can never be any. Where it occurs, it is a relative status that is the product of a development. (See also Genealogy.)

Nietzsche’s poetic notion of the Eternal Return does in a way partly make up for his overly strong denial of any objective good or evil. The Eternal Return works especially as an ethical, selective thought that distinguishes purely affirmative valuations from others. I used to want to think this was enough to recover something objective that acts like a notion of good as affirmativeness, but that is contrary to what he says explicitly.

Objectivity of Objects

Things like objectivity (see also Ethics; Reason; Semantics; Historiography; Philosophy of Math etc.) and subjectivity are potent, ultra-high-level abstractions that remain highly ambiguous until meanings are made more explicit in particular contexts of application. Objectivity and subjectivity are constituted through very involved processes, and their real meaning is about the detailed working out of particular cases.

Objects generically are abstract referential placeholders at which we can figuratively “point”. What is really of interest with objects, though, is not this susceptibility to being pointed at, but their implicit content, which can be elicited in particular cases by developing the context in which the pointing occurs (see Substance; Material Inference). The implicit content of objects is made progressively more objective through such development.

Such a development of the objectivity of objects eventually entails not only a movement toward unity of apperception, but (since objectivity with regard to content concerns shareable content), engagement with a larger, ongoing movement of mutual recognition among talking animals across history. (See also Truth, Beauty.)

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.)

Coherence

Aiming at coherence is a moral necessity. Serious people are serious about avoiding material inconsistency, as Aristotle noted in the Metaphysics, and Brandom has more recently thematized. (Unity of apperception is a moral imperative, not a fact, and certainly not something that could be simply possessed.)

Reality or objectivity is measured by the counterfactual robustness of our generalizations; our ability to recognize incongruities; and our commitment to resolving them. This one way of formulating what is sometimes referred to as a coherence theory of truth, or “coherentism”. Reality is not something you could point at, but a normative criterion, admitting of degree. (See also Objectivity of Objects; Foundations?)

The thing that complements coherence is not correspondence, but rather non-correspondence. Putative correspondence provides no additional assurance of veracity, but non-correspondence tells us something is wrong with our conceptions, which is valuable information. From an intuition of incongruity arises a task to improve our understanding. (See also Error; Obstacles to Synthesis.)