Circling Toward Absoluteness

Hegel prominently refers to “absolute” knowledge as a kind of circle. Here I think he has in mind Aristotle’s notion of the “perfection” of circular motion. This in turn presupposes a Greek notion of “perfection” that — unlike the more theological sense it acquired later — is intended to be something realizable or finitely achievable, a kind of completeness within itself of a finite essence with respect to its ends that is still compatible with life and motion, and indeed requires the latter. The perfection of absolute knowledge also has to be construed in a way that is modest enough to allow for the contingency that comes with inhabiting a world. It is actually much more ethical than epistemological.

The circle metaphor here also involves an aspect of returning to the beginning. The immediate subjective “certainty” that throughout Hegel’s long development has been distinguished from real essential “truth” finally becomes adequate to the expression of “truth”, in part by going through development and learning from its mistakes, and in part by letting go of its self-centered pretensions.

The specific kind of completeness within itself involved here has to do with the way knowing, doing, and forgiving are brought together. Harris in his commentary says that for Hegel the putting together of knowing and doing — when its implications are followed out — leads “logically” to what Hegel has been calling the breaking of the hard heart, which Hegel also identifies with the forgiveness stressed in historic religious traditions.

“‘Immediate Dasein‘ [concrete, implicitly human being] already has no other significance than that of ‘pure knowing’ for the active Conscience. My conscientious conviction is that I have done the best I can in the circumstances as they are known to me; my ‘pure knowledge’ is precisely that it is my duty to do that. We expect, in simple justice, to be forgiven for the errors caused by ignorance; the [Sophoclean tragedy] Oedipus at Colonus already makes this point quite clearly. Of course, in my uneasy ‘shifting’, I do learn how ‘impure’ my motives always are. But the forgiving community comprehends and forgives the fact that I saw the whole situation in my way, and defined my duty according to some personal interest that is not universally (or as Kant would say ‘categorically’) imperative. Thus the community reduces ‘actuality’ to the pure knowledge of what the inevitable conditions of acting are.”

“The ‘determinate Dasein‘ that arises from action and judgment in their ‘relationship’ is the forgiving that comprehends the action in its concreteness. The acceptance of the action as ‘conscientious’ — or as objectively rational — involves as its ‘third moment’ the Spirit that says ‘Yes’ (rather than ‘No’, as the moral spirit must say). When the two sides are thus reconciled, the ‘universality’ or ‘essence’ in which both are comprehended is the ‘I = I’ or ‘the Self’s pure knowing of itself’.”

“This ‘pure knowing’, as a concrete experience, is necessarily both an achievement (for the two sides do indeed clasp hands in reconciliation) and an end or goal to be achieved (for we may spend a lifetime trying to comprehend the objective rationality of the other’s act or judgment)…. [I]n principle, this is how the singular rational self — the recognized Conscience or justified sinner, simul peccator et justus [simultaneously sinner and justified] in Luther’s phrase — both constitutes the community, and is constituted by it” (Hegel’s Ladder II, pp. 720-721).

“If consciousness is to come to the comprehension of what ‘truth’ is, (or what the word signifies) through a process of self-criticism that we [readers of the Phenomenology] simply observe, then we must necessarily begin from the side of the ‘for-itself’. The communal substance of our rationality is the ‘in-itself’ which can only gradually come to be ‘for itself’; and its last step must be later….”

“It is, of course, the motion of ‘the Concept’ as self-critical that drives both sides onward; but it is a mistake to identify the motion of the Concept with philosophy as speculation (or even as both speculation and critique) because the concrete historical movement of the whole world… is so essential to it. The lesson that philosophy is not to be understood apart from its history is widely understood; what Hegel’s science of experience teaches us is the much more demanding imperative that philosophy and religion must be comprehended together in the context of the actual history of the human community” (p. 722).

“The Concept” is Hegel’s term for concrete human thought for which there is none of the separateness that the object always has for what he calls Consciousness. This realizes Aristotle’s suggestion that in the case of pure thought, we ought not to separate the act of thinking or the thinker from the thing thought.

In the corresponding part of his separate quick overview Hegel: Phenomenology and System, Harris says, “The Self of Cognition has been shown to be the mediating moment between the finite spirit and the absolute Spirit. It is the self of the infinite community — the incarnate Logos, the ‘I that is We’. Now we have to show (on the one hand) how this absolute Concept comprehends all the experiences that have led us to it and (on the other hand) how we, as singular consciousness, actually comprehend it. We all embody the Concept (before we do any philosophizing at all) because it comprehends us — that is, it provides the context of all that we intelligently say and do, and of everything that we understand about what is unintelligent.” (p. 92).

“The human self is Yorick [the skull contemplated by Hamlet, as Hegel recalls]; our singularity is identical with our ‘thinghood’…. Finally, the sensible thing has to be understood as the essence of the self. This happened for us in the stabilization of the moral self as Conscience” (p. 93).

Conscience already identifies (its own point of view on) what it actually does as a direct expression of its essence. But what Conscience actually did and its consequences also have the same kind of retrospective, socially available “objective” status as Yorick’s skull.

Finally “It is the perfection of Conscience in Forgiveness that gives rise to the singular self as the pure knowing of the community” (ibid).

Poetry and Mathematics

Philosophy is neither poetry nor mathematics, but a discursive development.  Poetry may give us visionary symbolism or language-on-language texturings that deautomate perception.  Mathematics offers a paradigm of exactitude, and develops many beautiful structures.  But philosophy is the home of ethics, dialogue, and interpretation.  It is — dare I say it — the home of the human.

Poetry and mathematics each in their own way show us an other-than-human beauty that we as humans can be inspired by.  Ethics on the other hand is the specifically human beauty, the beauty of creatures that can talk and share meaning with one another.

Summing Up So Far

A philosophical approach to ethics brings in many considerations that may initially seem remote from the question of what to do, but can greatly enrich our ability to think about it.

Philosophy is not just any view of the world, but an inquiry into the meaning of things that is sustained and free. It also could not be the activity of an isolated individual. It is an intrinsically historical development, because it is a cumulative achievement of the virtual universal community of talking animals across space and time, through various ups and downs. The best way into it is through a kind of dialogue with the great philosophers. Pursuing this in depth turns out to involve many historiographical questions.

Truth does not come to us ready-made. What we take as truth is always the provisional result of a development. The primary activity of reason is the determination of meaning through a kind of open-ended interpretation. It is therefore involved with a kind of hermeneutics.

Ethics involves us as whole beings. Subjectivity is manifold. Its ethically important aspects have to do both with our acquired emotional constitution and with shareable contents and commitments.

Kantian Discipline

The Discipline of Pure Reason chapter in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason makes a number of important points, using the relation between reason and intuition introduced in the Transcendental Analytic. It ends up effectively advocating a form of discursive reasoning as essential to a Critical approach.

If we take a simple empirical concept like gold, no amount of analysis will tell us anything new about it, but he says we can take the matter of the corresponding perceptual intuition and initiate new perceptions of it that may tell us something new.

If we take a mathematical concept like a triangle, we can use it to rigorously construct an object in pure intuition, so that the object is nothing but our construction, with no other aspect.

However, he says, if we take a “transcendental” concept of a reality, substance, force, etc., it refers neither to an empirical nor to a pure intuition, but rather to a synthesis of empirical intuitions that is not itself an empirical intuition, and cannot be used to generate a pure intuition. This is related to Kant’s rejection of “intellectual” intuition. We are constantly tempted to act as if our preconscious syntheses of such abstractions referred to objects in the way that empirical and mathematical concepts do, each in their own way, but according to Kant’s analysis, they do not, because they are neither perceptual nor rigorously constructive.

All questions of what are in effect higher-order expressive classifications of syntheses of empirical intuitions belong to “rational cognition from concepts, which is called philosophical” (Cambridge edition, p.636, emphasis in original). This is again related to his rejection of the apparent simplicity and actual arbitrariness of intellectual intuition and its analogues like supposedly self-evident truth. It opens into the territory I have been calling semantic, and associating with a work of open-ended interpretation. (See also Discursive; Copernican; Dogmatism and Strife; Things In Themselves.)

I am more optimistic than Kant that something valuable — indeed priceless — can come from this sort of open-ended work of interpretation. Its open-endedness means no achieved result is ever beyond question, but I think we implicitly engage in this sort of “philosophical” interpretation every day of our lives, and have no choice in the matter. I also think serious ethical deliberation necessarily makes use of such interpretation, and again we have no choice in the matter. So, pragmatically speaking, defeasible interpretation is indispensable.

Kant goes on to polemicize against attempts to import a mathematical style of reasoning into philosophy, like Spinoza tried to do. Spinoza’s large-scale experiment with this in the Ethics I find fascinating, but ultimately artificial. It does make the inferential structure of his argument more explicit, and Pierre Macherey used this to great advantage in his five-volume French commentary on the Ethics. But there is a big difference between a pure mathematical construction — which can be interpreted without remainder by something like formal structural-operational semantics in the theory of programming languages, and so requires no defeasible interpretation of the sort mentioned above, on the one hand — and work involving concepts that can only be fully explicated by that sort of interpretation, on the other. Big parts of life — and all philosophy — are of the latter sort. So it seems Kant is ultimately right on this.

Kant points out that definition only has precise meaning in mathematics, and prefers to use a different word in other contexts. I make similar well-intentioned but admittedly opinionated recommendations about vocabulary, but what is most important is the conceptual difference. As long as we are clear about that, we can use the same word in more than one sense. As Aristotle would remind us, multiple senses of words are an inescapable feature of natural language.

Kant says that unlike the case of mathematics, in philosophy we should not put definitions first, except perhaps as a mere experiment. Again, he probably has Spinoza in mind, and again — personal fondness for Spinoza notwithstanding — I have to agree. (Macherey in his reading of Spinoza actually often goes in the reverse direction, interpreting the meaning of each part in terms of what it is used to “prove”, but the order of Spinoza’s own presentation most obviously suggests the kind of thing to which Kant is properly objecting.) More than anything else, meanings are what we seek in philosophical inquiry, so they cannot be just given at the start. We can certainly discuss or dialectically analyze stipulated meanings, but that is strictly secondary and subordinate to a larger interpretive work.

Following conventional practice, Kant allows for axioms in mathematics, but says they have no place in philosophy. He has in mind the older notion of axioms as supposedly self-evident truths. Contemporary mathematics has vastly multiplied alternative systems, and effectively treats axioms like stipulative definitions instead. If we have in mind axioms as self-evident truths, Kant’s point holds. If we have in mind axioms as stipulative definitions, then his point about stipulative definitions in philosophy applies to axioms as well.

A similar pattern holds for demonstration or proof. Mathematics for Kant always has to do with strict constructions, which do not apply in philosophy, where there is always matter for interpretation. (From the later 19th century, mathematicians began increasingly to invent theories that seemed to require nonconstructive assumptions — transfinite numbers, standard set theories, and so on. This is currently in flux again. Contrary to what was thought at an earlier time, it now appears that all valid “classical” mathematics, including transfinite numbers, can be expressed in a higher-order constructive formalism. Arguments are still raging about which style is better, but I am sympathetic to the constructive side.) Philosophical arguments are informally reasoned interpretations, not proofs.

Kant says that speculative thought in general, because it does not abide by these guidelines, unfortunately ends up full of what he does not hesitate to call dishonesty and hypocrisy. (When I occasionally ascribe honesty or dishonesty to a philosopher, it is with similar criteria in mind — especially the presence or absence of frank identification of speculation as such when it occurs. See also Likely Stories.)

The kind of philosophy I am recommending is concerned with explication of meanings, not a supposed generation of truths, so it is not speculative in Kant’s sense. What may not be obvious is just how large and vital the field of this sort of interpretation really is in life. The most common and compact form by which such interpretations are expressed in the small looks syntactically like ordinary assertion, and in ordinary social interaction, mistaking one for the other has little effect on communication. When the focus is not on practical communication but on improving our understanding, we have to step back and look at the larger context, in order to tell what is a speculative assertion and what is an interpretation expressed in the form of assertion. (See also Pure Reason, Metaphysics?; Three Logical Moments.)

(In the present endeavor, the great majority of what look like simple assertions are actually compact expressions of interpretations!)

The Style of Albert

Along with the more Augustinian Roger Bacon, in the mid-13th century Albert the Great was among the first of the Latins to lecture on works of Aristotle newly translated from the Arabic. Reportedly, he dressed as an Arab while doing so. In the late 20th century, Pope John Paul II singled out Albert as a patron of the reconciliation of science and religion.

Albert was also the teacher and mentor of Thomas Aquinas. Commentaries on Aristotle by the young Aquinas include lengthy sections largely borrowed from the commentaries of Albert. After Aquinas had died at a relatively young age, some of his teachings were included by the bishop of Paris in the sweeping condemnation of 1277 (see Errors of the Philosophers), and the elderly Albert traveled from Germany back to Paris to defend his student.

Unlike Aquinas, Albert developed a pattern of distinguishing between purely philosophical and theological discourses. He would say, “now I speak as a philosopher”, and then “now I speak as a theologian”. There was still significant overlap between the two, but this lent authority to the idea of allowing space for purely philosophical discourse. Some later scholastics preferred Albert to Aquinas for this reason.

Among the German Dominicans, there was a significant “Albertist” school. The independent-minded Albertist Dietrich of Freiberg (1250 – 1310), who also made scientific contributions, criticized Aquinas for misusing Aristotelian concepts in his theological account of the Eucharist. Contemporary scholars like Alain de Libera and Kurt Flasch have also brought to light broadly Albertist roots of the profound Christian neoplatonic spirituality of figures like the great Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1328). (See also Fortunes of Aristotle.)

Philosophy

No mere expression of opinion counts as philosophy, as Plato was wont to remind us. One minimal necessary (but not sufficient) identifying mark of philosophy seems to me to be the recognition of at least some questions as genuine questions — that is to say, questions for which we explicitly acknowledge that we do not have immediate answers.

I also have a candidate for a necessary and sufficient condition. It now seems to me that all the questions that have traditionally been regarded as philosophical can be interpreted as at least indirectly having normative import, regardless of whether all those discussing them thought in that way. So we could say philosophy as a practice is the recognition of questions with normative import as genuine questions (and this is the way to the good life for a rational animal).

By this definition, we should expect to find no philosopher in any time exemplifying the attitude that all normative questions are already settled. I believe this is also true for all those who have in fact been commonly called philosophers in any serious sense (but see Antiphilosophy). If modernity is defined typologically as any step away from the attitude that all normative questions are already settled, then all philosophy would be “modern” in this somewhat unusual sense. (I’m not a big fan of the pre-Socratics, but I do think they fit this description. Most serious theology through the centuries has been enough influenced by philosophy to recognize that there are genuine normative questions, and in that measure I count it too as philosophy.) (See also History of Philosophy.)

I’m almost tempted to suggest substituting “philosophy” for “modernity” in the discussion of the history of normativity. But there may be unphilosophical modernity. The Sophists strike me as “modern” under this criterion and I don’t consider them philosophers, since I am taking Plato and Aristotle at their word that the Sophists claimed either to have all the answers or that there were no real answers. (I have not examined recent literature on the Sophists, some of which I believe argues for a different assessment.)

I suspect the first glimmerings of typological modernity (as distinct from philosophy) go back at least as far as the first cities, and possibly as far as the relatively long-distance trade in the late Upper Paleolithic that began to put people raised in traditional attitudes face-to-face with others reared with different traditional attitudes. However, Aristotle and Hegel would remind us that fully fledged forms are more relevant than origins for most purposes. (See also Interpretation; Ethical Reason.)

Neurophilosophy?

Aristotle would be fascinated by recent developments in neuroscience. I even imagine there is some connection between these developments and the general spirit of Aristotelian biology, with its emphasis on contingency and emergence.

Some enthusiasts seem to think that all these exciting discoveries make traditional philosophy obsolete. Nothing could be further from the case. Philosophy is pursuit of wisdom, not just knowledge. New empirical discoveries may be endlessly suggestive of philosophical implications and stimulating to thought. They are not a replacement for thought.

There is also a danger that too much dwelling on physiology — no matter how fascinating its implications — may lead by default back to a very old-fashioned physiological determinism that ignores linguistic, social, historical, cultural, and ethical considerations. What is needed is a balanced integration of reflection on these new discoveries with broader philosophical concerns.