Observing Reason

Hegel had suggested that a Fichtean idealism ends up attempting to fill out its extreme abstraction by ad hoc adoption of a complementary Lockean empiricism. He goes on to treat something like Lockean empiricism, under the title of “Observing Reason”. The bulk of Hegel’s discussion ends up focusing on the empirical study of organic nature, with brief remarks on attempts to define psychological “laws of thought” and other psychological “laws”. Then he turns to physical anthropology, polemicizing at length against the old pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology, which purported to make predictions about human character from body types and skull shapes. Here we also reach the end of the first volume of Harris’ commentary on the Phenomenology, subtitled “The Pilgrimage of Reason”. The concluding second volume will be “The Odyssey of Spirit”.

Hegel dwells at length on the concept of organism, taking up Kant’s practical vindication of Aristotelian teleology in biology. The unity of an organism has to do with a pure “purpose” internal to the organism. None of its particular observable characteristics turn out to be essential in themselves; rather, they all have a fundamentally relational character. In Force and Understanding he had argued that mathematical physical law is purely relational; here he treats an organism as a purely relational unity held together by an internal “purpose”. Force and Understanding had been concerned with the formal unity of the physical world; the notion of organism introduces the notion of individuation within a world. Hegel picturesquely says that animals actively individuate themselves — distinguish themselves from the surrounding world — by means of their teeth and claws. By comparison, plants in their “quiescence” have only a minimal kind of individuality. Previously, he had quipped that animals must be unimpressed by the putative separateness of objects, because without ceremony they fall to and gobble them up.

Harris says in his commentary, “Observing Reason is a ‘return’ of Sense-Certainty and Perception together, because it is concerned with the ‘essence’ of real things. It wants to conceptualize them, but it is naive, like the Understanding” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 474).

“Locke’s standpoint differs from that of Sense-Certainty and Perception, both because he insists that the mind can know only its own ideas, and because what he calls the ‘plain historical method’ is a descriptive technique that aims to uncover the universal laws and principles of rational epistemology” (p. 475). The world is “stripped” to the pure concept of “matter or extension” (p. 476). “Here at the beginning we are faced by a Reason that wants to know not itself, but the world of things” (p. 477).

In the context of organic nature, “[Hegel] is now going to show us that the Kantian concept of mathematical schematism (which is a direct descendant of Gailleo’s distinction [between primary and secondary qualities of bodies]) fails completely as a bridge between the observed data and the conceptual structures used by the scientific ‘observers’. The observing consciousness of Reason itself is now going to learn what we learned when we observed the perceptual consciousness. It will learn that the thing is a Hegelian concept, (not a Galilean or Lockean one). The consciousness we are observing will discover that the [Galilean or Lockean “thing”] cannot correspond to Reason because it is essentially and necessarily dead” (p. 478).

(I confess I don’t recognize the reference to Kantian “schematism” as mathematical; I think of Kantian schematism more generally as a mediation between sensible “intuition” and conceptual thought through imagination.)

“Everywhere it observes things; but what it seeks is their Concept, or the law of their behavior…. It will observe first the natural world, then itself (as subjective spirit); and finally it will observe the relation between subjective spirit and its natural embodiment. But because the object of observation must always be a stably inert Gestalt, an observable thing, the results achieved become less satisfactory at every step” (pp. 478-479).

“[T]he ‘immediacy’ of the standpoint means that we are not observing it in the proper way…. Consciousness must first descend ‘into its own depth’. Thinking must discover what it is, as an activity; it must discover the dialectical logic that is its own ‘living spirit'” (p. 479). But this is only a beginning.

“The logical priority of ‘consciousness’ as the ‘own proper shape’ of Reason can only be established by the reductio ad absurdum of the alternate route through ‘things’. It must be established in this way, because the structure of ‘consciousness’ determines that Reason will naturally begin by trying to find itself in ‘things’…. Hence it is part of the object of the present chapter to show that we cannot make a direct descent into the depths of consciousness as subjectivity. If we try to do this (as Kant and Fichte did) what we discover is only an abstract essence of Reason that is perfectly valid, but almost completely useless. Its only real use will be to serve as the guiding light for the subsequent descent into the depths of our cultural world. We have to experience both the quest for the ‘essence of things’ and the quest for the ‘essence of consciousness’ before we can properly embark upon the discovery of the self in its thing-world” (ibid).

Harris develops Hegel’s distinction between inert “representations” of “things” and active thought. “The controlling conception in Hegel’s mind is the self-individuation of the Aristotelian form” (p. 486).

In this context of organic nature, Harris notes Hegel’s general preference for Plato and Aristotle over Newton, and thinks Hegel also takes from Aristotle the less fortunate view that nature has no history. I take Aristotle’s remarks about the “eternity” of species, the motions of the stars, etc., as having the valid pragmatic sense that such things had not been observed to change within living social memory. (I note also that Plato in the Laws already suggested that organic species do in fact come to be and perish.) Hegel defends Aristotelian “internal” teleology, while rejecting both the biological mechanism of Descartes and the “external” teleology of the argument from design used by Newton and others. Purposefulness for Hegel does not presuppose a mind (p. 502).

In spite of his criticisms of philosophical empiricism, Hegel defends the importance of empirical verification of hypotheses. Harris actually calls Hegel a “spiritual empiricist” in both natural science and ethics (p. 490). He says that Hegelian “necessity” is neither physical nor formal, but “logical” in Hegel’s sense. Hegel is much more concerned to criticize the “formalism” of philosophies of nature developed by followers of Schelling than actual scientific work.

In spite of the importance of “Life” in contrast to “dead” things in Hegel’s view, he has no use for vitalism. “Life is not more on the ‘inside’ of the organism than it is on the ‘outside’…. It is the ‘general fluidity’ within which the parts and organs of the body are formed and dissolved…. Observing Reason makes the Newtonian mistake of granting priority to visible stability” (p. 507). Hegel discusses notions of “sensibility” and “irritability” current in the biology of his time, adding in his own notions of “fluidity” and “elasticity”. He is very skeptical about “laws” in biology.

Between remarks on zoology and psychology, Hegel briefly (and dismissively) discusses so-called “laws of thought”. These relate to the early modern tradition of psychologizing in logic. With somewhat different motivation, Hegel anticipates Frege and Husserl’s rejection of such “psychologism”.

He also has no use for early modern psychology. In Harris’ summary, “Observational psychology operates with a mechanical toy that is all in pieces, so that the soul is observed and discussed like a bag full of loose bits” (p. 562). Hegel adds some sympathetic remarks on biography before launching a devastating critique of the now-forgotten pretensions of physiognomy and phrenology to discern purely physical indications of human character. What is important in the last is his general contention that even animal behavior cannot be adequately explained in a purely mechanistic way.

In spite of all of this, the idea of “observing” the objective dimension of a self in its concrete actualization in the world as contrasted with any direct intuition of pure interiority will turn out to have pivotal importance in the development to come. This is in fact how we experience others, and how others experience us. For Hegel it is our shared experience of one another rather than anyone’s private experience that is the basis of ethics. (See also Individuality, Community.)

Historiography, Inferentialism

Having laid out some preliminaries, I’ve begun to circle back to more questions of historical detail related to the development here, and it seems fitting to summarize the motivations driving these more historical notes. History is all about the details, but in any inquiry, what are actually higher-order questions about methodology ought to inform primary investigations. We never just have data; it always has to be interpreted, and this involves questions about methodology. With history, this often involves critical examination of the applicability of categories that may tend to be taken for granted. Thus, I am adding notes about the application of various categories or concepts in particular historical settings, and about historical details that seem to have larger methodological significance.

I’m looking back at the history of philosophy (and, to some extent, broader cultural developments) from a point of view inspired by the “inferentialism” of Brandom (taking this as a general name for his point of view), as well as by my own ideas for a revitalized Aristotelianism. In Tales of the Mighty Dead and elsewhere, Brandom himself has effectively placed the historical roots of his development in the broad tradition of early modern philosophical rationalism, including the work of Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz. I find standard connotations of the term “rationalism” rather problematic, and want to separate Descartes — of whom I am much more sharply critical than Brandom seems to be — from Spinoza and Leibniz, for whom I find additional reasons to be sympathetic. Brandom has contributed to a new understanding of Kant, and has developed a landmark reading of Hegel. I want to help support the broad thrust of these with historical considerations, while reconnecting them with fresh readings of Aristotle, Plato, and other historical philosophers. With some caveats and in spite of Brandom’s own brief comments, I also want to suggest a possible rapprochement with key insights of 20th century French “structuralism”.

A key point common to most of the tendencies mentioned above is an emphasis on the role of difference in making things intelligible. In the context of philosophical arguments, this means that critical distinctions are as important as positive assertions. Contrasts not only greatly facilitate but largely shape understanding. Brandom himself has developed the contrast between inferentialism and the representationalism of Descartes and Locke. He has made large use of Wilfrid Sellars’ critique of a “Myth of the Given” associated with most varieties of empiricism, and has also referenced the critique of psychologism developed by Frege and others in a logical context.

I have been using the term “mentalism” for a privileging of contents that are supposed to be immediately present to a personal “mind” that is itself conceived mainly in terms of immediate awareness. It seems to me that Descartes and Locke’s version of this was a historically specific combination of all the above notions from which an inferentialism would seek to distinguish itself — representationalism, the Myth of the Given, and psychologism. I have been concerned to point out not only that Cartesian-Lockean mentalism has historically specific antecedents that long predate modernity (going back to Augustine, with some foreshadowing in Plotinus), but also that a proto-inferentialist countertrend is actually even older, going back to Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on the primacy of reason and reasoned development.

In A Spirit of Trust, Brandom has among many other things expanded on Hegel’s critique of Mastery. I find this to be of tremendous importance for ethics, and consonant with my structuralist sympathies. I have been concerned to point out how extreme claims of mastery are implicit in the various historical kinds of voluntarism, which all want to put some notion of arbitrary will — or authority attributed one-sidedly to such a will — ahead of consideration of what is reasonable and good.

Usual generalization caveats apply to statements about “isms”. In any particular case where the terms seem to apply, we need to look at relevant details, and be alert to the possibility that all aspects of a generalized argument may not apply straightforwardly. (See also Historiography; History of Philosophy.)