Hegelian Semantics

Brandom begins his second Brentano lecture saying, “On the ground floor of Hegel’s intellectual edifice stands his non-psychological conception of the conceptual. This is the idea that to be conceptually contentful is to stand in relations of material incompatibility and consequence (his “determinate negation” and “mediation”) to other such contentful items. The relations of incompatibility and consequence are denominated “material” to indicate that they articulate the contents rather than form of what stands in those relations. This is his first and most basic semantic idea: an understanding of conceptual content in terms of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion” (p. 39).

I think Aristotle and even Plato would have agreed with all of this: both the nonpsychological nature of concepts and the fundamental role of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion in determining meaning. But the Latin medieval to European early modern mainstream was in this regard much more influenced by the Stoic explanation of meaning by representation, and by the “psychological” cast of Augustine’s thought.

Brandom goes on to characterize Hegel’s position as a “bimodal hylomorphic conceptual realism”, carefully unpacking each part of this dense formula. The two modalities in question are the two fundamental ways in which things have grip on us: the “bite” of reality and the moral “ought”. Brandom holds that there is a deep structural parallel or isomorphism between these two kinds of constraints that affect us. Further, the isomorphism is also a hylomorphism in the sense that the two modalities are not only structurally similar, but so deeply intertwined in practice as to be only analytically distinguishable. Concepts and normativity are interdependent. Finally, it is through concepts and normativity that all our notions of the solidity of reality are articulated.

This kind of conceptual realism in Hegel is complemented by what Brandom calls a conceptual idealism. “At the grossest level of structure, the objective realm of being is articulated by nomological relations, and the subjective realm of thought is articulated by norm-governed processes, activities or practices. It can be asked how things stand with the intentional nexus between these realms. Should it be construed in relational or practical-processual terms?” (p. 43). “Hegel takes there to be an explanatory asymmetry in that the semantic relations between those discursive practices and the objective relations they know about and exploit practically are instituted by the discursive practices that both articulate the subjective realm of thought and establish its relations to the objective realm of being. This asymmetry claim privileging specifically recollective discursive practices over semantic relations in understanding the intentional nexus between subjectivity and objectivity is the thesis of conceptual idealism.” (p. 44).

Plato had talked about recollection in a mythical or poetic way in relation to paradoxes of learning. Hegel’s more “historiographical” recollection is also related to a kind of learning, but Hegel specifically stresses the importance of error as the stimulus to learning. Brandom says there is both a “subjunctive sensitivity of thought to things” (ibid) and a “normative responsibility of thought to fact. What things are for consciousness ought to conform to what things are in themselves.” (p. 45). This translates into a central obligation to repair our errors, and for Hegel the specific way to do this is through a recollective account of what was right in our previous stance; how we came to realize that it went wrong; and what we did to fix it.

“The normative standard of success of intentional agency is set by how things objectively are after an action. The idea of action includes a background structural commitment to the effect that things ought to be as they are intended to be. Conceptual idealism focuses on the fact that all these alethic and normative modal relations are instituted by the recollective activity that is the final phase of the cycle of cognition and action” (ibid).

“Conceptual realism asserts the identity of conceptual content between facts and thoughts of those facts. (Compare Wittgenstein: ‘When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we—and our meaning—do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this—is—so.’ [PI§95]) Conceptual idealism offers a pragmatic account of the practical process by which that semantic-intentional relation between what things are for consciousness and what they are in themselves is established. Pragmatics, as I am using the term, is the study of the use of concepts by subjects engaging in discursive practices. Conceptual idealism asserts a distinctive kind of explanatory priority (a kind of authority) of pragmatics over semantics. For this reason it is a pragmatist semantic explanatory strategy, and its idealism is a pragmatist idealism. The sui generis rational practical activity given pride of explanatory place by this sort of pragmatism is recollection” (pp. 45-46).

Brandom says that Hegel’s notion of experience has two levels, corresponding to two top-level kinds of concepts he distinguishes: ordinary practical and empirical concepts, and meta-level philosophical, categorial or “logical” concepts.

“The master-strategy animating this reading of Hegel (and of Kant) is semantic descent: the idea that the ultimate point of studying these metaconcepts is what their use can teach us about the semantic contentfulness of ground-level concepts, so the best way to understand the categorial metaconcepts is to use them to talk about the use and content of ordinary concepts… The pragmatic metaconcept of the process of experience is first put in play in the Introduction, at the very beginning of [Hegel’s Phenomenology], in the form of the experience of error. It is invoked to explain how the consciousness-constitutive distinction-and-relation between what things are for consciousness and what things are in themselves shows up to consciousness itself. Hegel assumes that, however vaguely understood it might be at the outset, it is a distinction-and-relation that can at least be a topic for us, the readers of the book” (pp. 47-48).

The most naive human awareness already implicitly recognizes a distinction between appearance and reality. “The question is how this crucial distinction already shows up practically for even the most metatheoretically naïve knowing subject. How are we to understand the basic fact that ‘…the difference between the in-itself and the for-itself is already present in the very fact that consciousness knows an object at all’… Hegel traces its origin to the experience of error” (p. 48).

“Hegel finds the roots of this sort of experience in our biological nature as desiring beings…. What a creature practically takes or treats as food, by eating it, can turn out not really to be food, if eating it does not satisfy the hunger that motivated it…. This sort of experience is the basis and practical form of learning” (p. 49). This is “the practical basis for the semantic distinction between representings and representeds, sense and referent” (pp, 49-50).

“[A]n essential part of the acknowledgment of error is practically taking or treating two commitments as incompatible. Such genuinely conceptual activity goes beyond what merely desiring beings engage in. The origins of Hegel’s idea here lie in Kant’s earlier broadly pragmatist account of what knowing subjects must do in order to count as apperceiving” (p. 50).

“Hegel breaks from the Kantian picture by adding a crucial constraint on what counts as successful repairs…. Successful repairs must explain and justify the changes made, in a special way” (p. 52). This takes the form of a historical recollection. “To be entitled to claim that things are as one now takes them to be, one must show how one found out that they are so. Doing that involves explaining what one’s earlier views got right, what they got wrong, and why…. This is the progressive emergence into explicitness, the ever more adequate expression, of what is retrospectively discerned as having been all along implicit as the norm governing and guiding the process by which its appearances arise and pass away” (p. 53). “Recollection… turns a past into a history” (p. 54).

All this serves as an explanation of how we come to have representations that actually refer to something, in terms of how we express our concerns. “In general Hegel thinks we can only understand what is implicit in terms of the expressive process by which it is made explicit. That is a recollective process. The underlying reality is construed as implicit in the sense of being a norm that all along governed the process of its gradual emergence into explicitness” (p. 56).

“Kant had the idea that representation is a normative concept. Something counts as a representing in virtue of being responsible to something else, which counts as represented by it in virtue of exercising authority over the representing by serving as a standard for assessments of its correctness as a representing. It is in precisely this sense that a recollective story treats the commitments it surveys as representings of the content currently treated as factual” (p. 58). Brandom says that Hegel reconstructs in expressive terms what the representationalists were right about, while strongly contrasting this way of thinking with representationalism.

“Hylomorphic conceptual realism then underwrites the idea of the categorial homogeneity of senses as graspable thoughts and their referents (what they represent) as correspondingly conceptually contentful, statable facts. This makes intelligible the idea that thoughts are the explicit expressions of facts. They make explicit… how the world is” (p. 60).

“The plight of finite knowing and acting subjects metaphysically guarantees liability to empirical error and practical failure. The experience of error is inescapable. What I earlier called the ‘false starts, wrong turns, and dead ends’ of inquiry can be retrospectively edited out of the sanitized, Whiggish vindicating recollective narrative, but they cannot be avoided going forward.

“Why not? In short because the rational, conceptual character of the world and its stubborn recalcitrance to mastery by knowledge and agency are equally fundamental primordial features of the way things are” (pp. 61-62).

“For Hegel, the experience of error requires not just the revision of beliefs… but also of meanings” (p. 62). “The manifestation of stubborn, residual immediacy in thought is the inevitability of the experience of error…. [T]he ineluctability of error and the realistic possibility of genuine knowledge [both] express valid perspectives on what is always at once both the experience of error and the way of truth. The important thing is not to seize exclusively—and so one-sidedly—on either aspect, but to understand the nature of the process as one that necessarily shows up from both perspectives” (p. 63).

“One of Hegel’s animating ideas is that the independence of immediacy (its distinctive authority over structures of mediation) is manifested in its role as a principle of instability, as providing a normative demand for change, for both rejection and further development of each constellation of determinate concepts and commitments articulated by them. The independence of mediation (its distinctive authority over immediacy) is manifested in all the retrospective recollective vindications of prior constellations of commitments as genuine knowledge, as resulting from the expressively progressive revelation of reality by prior claims to knowledge.” (pp. 64-65).

“The forward-looking obligation to repair acknowledged incompatibilities of commitment acknowledges error and the inadequacy of its conceptions. The backward-looking recollective obligation to rationalize as expressively progressive previous, now superseded, repairs and recollections institutes knowledge, truth, and determinate concepts whose incompatibilities and consequences track those articulating (in a different modal key) the objective world…. The recollective process is also what Hegel calls ‘giving contingency the form of necessity.'” (p. 65).

“The key in each case is to understand [truth and error] not as properties, states, or relations that can be instantiated at a single time, but as structural features of enduring experiential processes” (p.66).

This is to move from what Hegel calls Understanding to what he calls Reason. Understanding focuses on the fixity of concepts; Reason also has regard for their malleability. To think of experience as asymptotically approaching objective facts and relations belongs to the Understanding that disregards the mutation of meanings.

“The world as it is in itself as distinct from how it is for consciousness is not a brute other, but in that distinctive sense the product of its own recollective activity in experience” (p.72).

Instrumentalism?

In the last post I gave positive mention to an “instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation”. I think an instrumental view of science is the natural one from an engineering point of view, which the philosophy of science ought to take very seriously. I actually work as an engineer in my day job, and have a bit of engineering education. Though these days I privately think of myself mainly as a moral philosopher, I truly enjoy engineering for its practical orientation. Engineers learn that the real world doesn’t always conform to theoretical simplifications, and they have to make what are actually value judgments all the time.

Curiously, it seems to me that in spite of our culture’s obsession with technology and all the stereotypes about nutty scientists, engineering as a discipline doesn’t have nearly as much social prestige as science. For the reasons just mentioned, I think engineering deserves the higher status, as the actually more comprehensive concern. Modern science is first and foremost a tool used in engineering. But in our culture’s mythology of science, there is a popular prejudice that engineers — unlike real scientists — just make rote applications of formulae developed by scientists. Meanwhile science students — if I may be forgiven a broad-brush picture — all too often seem to get the message that the latest Science is Truth, and everything else is irrelevant. This can unfortunately make them arrogant and dogmatic in later life. I think engineers on the whole are more attuned to the provisional status of assumptions.

On the historiographical side, I think the over-propagandized scientific revolution was actually more of an engineering revolution. The design of experiments can be considered a kind of engineering, as can the development and use of therapeutic techniques in medicine. The very practical, experiment-oriented work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in its broad parameters at least is a much better model for science in the modern sense than the new mechanist/voluntarist dualist world view promoted by Descartes, or even the empiricism of Locke. In terms of the long time-scale of human development, engineering long predates science, and I think that generally speaking, historical causality flows that way, with engineering driving science rather than following it.

These varied considerations seem to me to jointly favor an “instrumentalist” view in the philosophy of science. This is another example of the mediated or “long detour” type of approach to knowledge that seems most sound to me.

In analytic philosophy in recent decades, there has been a big debate about realism versus anti-realism. Implicitly, this mainly applies to the philosophy of science, but in many circles there are still prejudices that theory of knowledge comes first in philosophy, and that science is the most important kind of knowledge. This can make it seem as if realist or anti-realist positions in the philosophy of science must be applied across the board at a sort of ontological level, but I want to argue against that.

I think that ethical reason and interpretation come before the theory of knowledge in the overall order of explanation relevant to human life, and that normative practical judgment actually grounds what we think of as exact knowledge. From an ethical standpoint, it is vitally important to recognize there is a “push-back” of reality we need to respect and take into account, so I want to argue for a kind of realism. The true home for a respect for realism, I want to say, should be ethics and not the philosophy of science. We can meet all the ethical needs related to concern for objectivity in a way that is entirely compatible with an instrumentalist and “anti-realist” philosophy of science. Meanwhile, a more modest view of science — as a valuable tool rather than a source of ultimate truth — can help heal the false rift between science and values that permeates our culture. Further, if science is a tool and we also say that higher forms of faith are expressed not in propositions but in action and attitude (as I would respectfully suggest), then in the world of what should be, there is no possibility of conflict from either side. (See also Kinds of Reason.)

Things in Themselves

I never understood why people would object to Kant’s thesis of “things in themselves”, or find it inconsistent with his epistemological scruples. I take this just to mean that there are ways that things are. This is an entirely separate question from whether we have perfect or certain knowledge of those ways. All that is ruled out by Kant’s Critical perspective is claims that we have knowledge of things just as they are in themselves. This just calls for a kind of epistemic modesty. (See also Kantian Discipline; Copernican; Dogmatism and Strife; Transcendental?)

People who rejected things in themselves included Fichte and the important early 20th century English translator and interpreter of Kant, Norman Kemp Smith, who was sympathetic to the phenomenalism then fashionable among empiricists (see brief discussion under Empiricism).

Hegel too was very critical of the phrase “things in themselves”, mainly because he thought the wording implied a kind of artificial isolation, but he by no means wanted to throw out the realist moment that Kant always wanted to affirm — quite the opposite. Discussions about realism and idealism get rather complicated, especially where Kant and Hegel are concerned, but Kant repeatedly affirmed a kind of empirical realism. I take this to have been a sort of pragmatic vindication of common sense with respect to ordinary experience, coupled with respect for Newtonian science. What Kant and Hegel both objected to — each in their own different terms — were strong traditional metaphysical claims. Whatever their other many differences, commentators are basically unanimous in taking Hegel to have wanted to be at least as “realist” as Kant.

Leibniz had suggested that God’s single eternal act is the selection of the best of all possible worlds from all possible worlds, and that in this context the complete essence of a thing is foreseen by God, allowing for a version of particular providence. Even though he worked out an alternative scheme for more concretely relational determination of essences in late correspondence with the Jesuit theologian Bartholomew Des Bosses, Leibniz preferred to stress the predetermination of each individual monad by God, as part of a comprehensive pre-existing harmony that put the reality of relations in the mind of God rather than in the world. In this context, Leibniz also famously suggested that monads do not really interact and “have no windows”. For Leibniz, “windows” to the outside are not really needed, because each monad contains within itself a reflection of the entire universe.

One of Kant’s earliest moves, however — long before publication of the First Critique — was to argue against Leibniz for common-sense real interaction among things in the world. It is doubtful that Kant knew of Leibniz’s alternative scheme for real relations, but in any case, Kant throughout his career stressed immanent relations among things in the world, rather than transcendent relations realized primarily in the mind of God. Since even the pre-Critical Kant had thus already undone the basis for treating each monad in splendid isolation, it seems very unlikely that the Critical Kant meant to imply any strong monadic properties when he spoke of things “in themselves”.

Saying that there are ways that things are does not have to mean that everything is determined down to the last detail. (See Equivocal Determination.)

Nominalist Controversies

Especially in the 14th century, controversies associated with the opposition between nominalism and realism greatly exercised philosophers and theologians in the Latin West. These terms have been been variously understood, but as a first approximation, nominalism wants to deny claims about the real basis of abstractions that the realism of this context wants to affirm.

In this case, a polar opposition is concealed behind a pair of concrete terms (nominalism, realism), where in context one is understood as the simple negation of the other. As usual with debates around distinctions based on polar opposition rather than more limited and definite determinate negation, the greatest interest often lies in the way each side tries to recover something like the strong points of the other side, but in its own terms.

These controversies are worth lingering over for several reasons. For one thing, they help illustrate the great diversity, subtlety, and liveliness of medieval thought. For another, they develop many fine distinctions that are of lasting value in talking about human knowledge and understanding. We would all like to rightly apprehend things, whatever that means. The waters are commonly muddied not only by insufficient distinctions among things, but also by fundamental unclarity or ambiguity on the meaning of “existence” or “reality”, which gets worse where abstract things are involved. Who we might think was right in the debates is of secondary importance compared to clarifications of this kind. Finally, these debates involved much discussion of mental representation, its origins, and its role in thought.

Speaking with very broad brush, nominalism begins as a critique of a sort of “platonism”. Such platonism wants to say the universal is more real than the particular. It may go on to claim that abstract entities are as real as — or more real than — concrete ones. It may extend to further claims that universals simply “exist” in some pure way, independent of space and time. Nominalism in general wants to say the opposite, that universals are actually not real at all.

Aristotle already criticized platonist views of the sort just mentioned, while still maintaining that the development of universals is essential to knowledge. I think that in the big picture, he wanted to recommend an essentially even-handed approach, recognizing both universals and particulars as necessary to any developed view of experience, while pointing out their very different and complementary roles. Whatever we may think about the reality or unreality or existence or nonexistence of given things or of various kinds of things, we need universals to support the implicit reasoning standing behind any developed knowledge. We also need particulars as practical starting points, and as cross-checks to keep us honest. This does not yet make any claim about reality or existence that might support such needs. Aristotle often practiced a careful minimalism, sticking to essentials and leaving other questions open, and this is a good case in point.

Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas wanted to develop Aristotle’s position into a firmer doctrine, classically called moderate realism. Most people agree that Aristotle thought universals do not “exist” independently of particular things and thought. Albert and Thomas argued that implicitly, what Aristotle said committed him to 1) a claim that universals are real and 2) a claim that universals exist, but only in concrete things and in thought.

Nominalists especially disputed the claim that universals exist in concrete things. They most commonly advocated a mental origin of universals, while differing on the precise status attributed to them. Already in the 12th century, Roscellinus had argued that universals are mere names (root of the word “nominalism”). Whether or not the great Peter Abelard should be interpreted as a nominalist or a middle-of-the road “conceptualist” is contested among scholars.

The theologian William of Occam (1285 – 1347) was the most famous medieval nominalist. Early in his career, he argued that universals were ficta (“fictions”) of the mind. Later, he worried that this still tacitly presupposed they were representations, which would seem to still imply something corresponding to them in external objects. He then argued that external objects have causal impact on the mind, but not by representation.

The important secular master John Buridan (1301 – 1358) is usually also called a nominalist. Buridan was one of the leading logicians of the middle ages, and wrote on a wide range of philosophical questions. He had several noteworthy students who are also considered nominalists, including the logician, natural philosopher, and bishop Albert of Saxony (1320 – 1390). Marsilius of Inghen (1340 – 1396) was another nominalist who wrote on logic, natural philosophy, and theology. The theologian Gregory of Rimini (1300 – 1358) is also considered a nominalist.

The great theologian John Duns Scotus (1265 – 1308) was a commited realist who nonetheless influenced Occam on some relatively unrelated points. The influential Walter Burley (1275 – 1344) is sometimes called an extreme realist. Paul of Venice (1369 – 1429) was formerly classed as a nominalist, but is now considered a realist.

Among those who were called nominalists, there were many different views and distinctions related to the complex medieval theories of sensible and intelligible “species”. In one aspect, these were mental representations, but theories of sensible species usually had a physical component loosely inspired by Stoicism. Occam denied species, while Buridan made use of them.

From the 12th century onward, Latin philosophers developed sophisticated original theories of the different kinds of “supposition”, or generic ways in which something said can be meant. The general notion was that the kind of supposition that should be read into a concrete utterance should be determined by analyzing the context of the utterance in various ways. This was basically a kind of semantics. What is perhaps surprising is that broadly similar supposition theories were largely shared by dedicated nominalists like Occam and commited realists like Walter Burley, providing a common vocabulary.

On a side note, Occam’s causal impact theory seems problematic from the point of view of the development here. While its avoidance of dependence on representation is attractive, a direct causal link from external objects to thoughts does not seem adequate to account for the full range of diversity of thoughts. Also, there seems to be an incipient mentalism already at work here, related to that of Avicenna.

Occam was a theological voluntarist and a fideist. Fideism is the belief that faith offers a kind of knowledge superior to reason, an extreme position that was repeatedly condemned by the Church. Occam has nonetheless often been named as a major precursor of the point of view of modern science. Even though some connections can be made, this seems questionable as well, given his mainly theological intent and the character of the theology he promoted.

Constructive Realism?

I’ve previously suggested there should be an overlap between non-naive realism and non-subjective idealism, and indicated a preference for constructive reasoning in formal contexts. The other day I referred in passing to the “constructive-flavored” character of the principle of sufficient reason or “nothing comes from nothing”. The “flavored” suffix refers to the fact that the contexts in which the principle applies are not formal, so the application of “constructive” is somewhat metaphorical. But the connection with sufficient reason is easy to see. In constructive reasoning, every step requires evidence. Therefore, all assumptions are hypothetical or defeasible. No valid assertion “comes from nothing”. I was talking about secondary causes and neoplatonic “procession” and what not as a sort of illustration of this on the side of the development or unfolding of conceptual content. In another recent post, I was stressing the role of dialectic and practical judgment over pure deductive reasoning in Aristotle. Putting all this together, it occured to me that “non-naive realism” might be further specified as “constructive realism” (now dropping the suffix for convenience) in which the constructively flavored activity consists of said dialectic and practical judgment.

In contrast to Michael Dummet, I don’t at all see why constructive needs to mean “anti-realist”, and I don’t like such dichotomous divisions in general. A constructive realism would be about achieving realism through the mediation of concrete dialectic and practical judgment and development of content (the only way it really can be done, I think). It would thus be a mediated realism, in which the thickness of the mediation yields the substantiality of the reality.

Weak Nature Alone

Adrian Johnston’s latest, A Weak Nature Alone (volume 2 of Prolegomena to Any Future Materialism) aims among other things at forging an alliance with John McDowell’s empiricist Hegelianism, and gives positive mention to McDowell’s use of the Aristotelian concept of second nature. Johnston is the leading American exponent of Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian Hegelian provocations, and a neuroscience enthusiast. He wants to promote a weak naturalism that would nonetheless be directly grounded in empirical neuroscience. He claims neuroscience already by itself directly undoes “bald” naturalist philosophy from within natural-scientific practice. That sounds like a logical confusion between very different discursive domains, but I am quite interested in a second-nature reading of Hegel.

Broadly speaking, the idea of a weak naturalism sounds good to me. I distinguish between what I think of as relaxed naturalisms and realisms of an Aristotelian sort that explicitly make a place for second nature and assume no Givenness, and what I might privately call “obsessive-compulsive” naturalisms and realisms that build in overly strong claims of univocal causality and epistemological foundations.

Johnston likes McDowell’s rejection of the coherentism of Donald Davidson. McDowell’s basic idea is that coherence can only be a subjective “frictionless spinning in a void”, and that it thus rules out a realism he wants to hold onto. I enjoyed McDowell’s use of Hegel and Aristotle, but thought the argument against Davidson the weakest part of the book when I read Mind and World. If you circularly assume that coherentism must be incompatible with realism, as McDowell tacitly does, then his conclusion follows; otherwise, it doesn’t.

Nothing actually justifies the characterization of coherence as frictionless spinning. This would apply to something like Kantian thought, if it were deprived of all intuition, which for Kant is never the case. Kant sharply distinguishes intuition from thought or any other epistemic function, but nonetheless insists that real experience is always a hylomorphic intertwining of thought and intuition. Brandom brilliantly explains Kantian intuition’s fundamental role in the progressive recognition of and recovery from error, which — along with the recursively unfolding reciprocity of mutual recognition — is essential to the constitution of objectivity.

I want to tendentiously say that as far back as Plato’s account of Socrates’ talk about his daimon, intuition among good philosophers has played a merely negative and hence nonepistemic role. (By “merely” negative, I mean it involves negation in the indeterminate or “infinite” sense, which in contrast to Hegelian inferential determinate negation could never be sufficient to ground knowledge.) On the other hand, that merely negative role of intuition has extreme practical importance.

The progressive improvement of (the coherence of) a unity of apperception that is essential to the distinction of reality from appearance is largely driven by noncognitive mere intuition of error. Intuitions of error or incongruity explicitly bring something like McDowell’s “friction” into the mix.

Charles Pierce reputedly referred to the hand of the sheriff on one’s shoulder as a sign of reality. Like an intuition of error, this is not any kind of positive knowledge, just an occasion for an awareness of limitation. It is just the world pushing back at us.

According to Johnston, McDowell stresses “the non-coherentist, non-inferentialist realism entailed by the objective side of Hegel’s absolute idealism” (p.274). Johnston wants to put results of empirical neuroscience here, as some kind of actual knowledge. But there could be no knowledge apart from some larger coherence, and we are clearly talking past one another. Neuroscience is indeed rich with philosophical implications, but only a practice of philosophy can develop these. (See also Radical Empiricism?)

Johnston wants to revive the Hegelian philosophy of nature. Very broadly speaking, I read the latter as a sort of Aristotelian semantic approach to nature that was also actually well-informed by early 19th century science. I could agree with Johnston that the philosophy of nature should probably get more attention, but still find it among the least appealing of Hegelian texts, and of less continuing relevance than, say, Aristotle’s Physics.

Johnston also likes Friedrich Engels’ Dialectics of Nature. In this case, I actually get more takeaway from Engels than from Hegel. Engels was not a real philosopher, but he was well-read and thoughtful, and a brilliant essayist and popularizer. His lively and tentative sketches were ossified into dogma by others. He did tend to objectify dialectic as happening in the world rather than in language, where I think Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel all located it.

But “dialectic” for Engels mainly entails just a primacy of process; a primacy of relations over things; and a recognition that apparent polar opposites are contextual, fluid, and reciprocal. However distant from the more precise use of dialectic in Aristotle and Hegel, these extremely general principles seem unobjectionable. (The old Maoist “One divides into Two” line, explicitly defended by Badiou and implicitly supported by Žižek and Johnston, not only completely reverses Engels on the last point, but also reverses Hegel’s strong programmatic concern to replace “infinite” negation with determinate negation.)

Engels did infelicitously speak of dialectical “laws” governing events, but his actual examples were harmless qualitative descriptions of very general phenomena. Much of 19th century science outside of physics and chemistry was similarly loose in its application of exact-sounding terms. In Anti-Dühring, however, Engels argued explicitly that Marx never intended to derive any event from a dialectical “law”, but only to apply such “laws” in retrospective interpretation. The “dialectics of nature” is another exercise in Aristotelian semantics. (See also Aristotelian Matter; Efficient Cause.)

It sounds like Johnston wants ontologized dialectical laws of nature, and will want to say they are confirmed by neuroscience results. Johnston also highlights incompatibilities between Brandom and McDowell that are somewhat hidden by their mutual politeness. This in itself is clarifying. I now realize McDowell is further away than I thought, in spite of his nice Aristotelian references. (See also Johnston’s Pippin.)