Practical Knowledge?

Granted that there is such a thing as practical wisdom (phronesis) and deliberating well about actions, should it be called “knowledge” in the sense of episteme as used by Plato and Aristotle?

Episteme is generally associated with reason rather than with experience. It is supposed to have a kind of permanence. I have previously argued that the empirical “knowledge” associated with so-called justified true belief should instead be called a kind of well-founded belief, because it is subject to revision.

Aristotle distinguishes phronesis from episteme by saying that the former is concerned with (contingent) particulars, whereas the latter is concerned with universals (subject to necessity). He calls something a universal if it is said in the same way of multiple things, and necessary if there are no counter-examples. He is very careful to point out that wise ethical judgment is not characterized by the kind of “precision” or univocal interpretation that would characterize, say, a geometrical proof.

Kant makes a provocative counter-case for the possibility of unconditional universals in ethics, which could be said to potentially constitute ethical knowledge after all. But something like Aristotelian practical wisdom is still required to close the gap between those universals and real-world cases, and so if “practical” has to do with actions, this ethical knowledge would still not be practical in Aristotle’s sense.

Hegel points out that nothing in human experience is a pure particular, that some form of non-empirical judgment about the applicability of some universals is always mixed in. But it seems very doubtful that anything in experience would for Hegel qualify as purely universal, either. We come back again to the Platonic theme of the irreducibility of mixture and mixed things.

Pippin seems to imply that Hegel claims there is such a thing as practical knowing. But Pippin says “Practical knowing consists both in acknowledging the ‘reality of the good’ and in participating in the world’s own constant realization of its ‘purpose’ by acting”. If that is what that means, that is fine. But it does not remotely sound like knowledge in the sense of episteme. Rather, it captures some aspects of a good ethical stance.

Unconditioned Knowledge?

Kant speaks of reason’s dissatisfaction with “conditioned” knowledge, and of a practical necessity for us to posit the existence of some unconditioned knowledge (e.g., about God, the soul, and the world), even though we can only posit it and it remains finally unavailable to us as knowledge.

Hegel, though well aware of the limits of the knowledge we have, wants to decisively reject the idea that “knowledge” could exist that is in principle beyond the capabilities of finite beings. Leibniz had already suggested that if we take the universality of reason seriously, this means there ought to be nothing, even in divine understanding, that would be in principle beyond the ability of finite rational beings to understand. Hegel claims that such a view ought to be compatible with Kant’s critical principles, even though Kant does not seem to think it is.

“In the realm of finite objects, any specification of determinate intelligibility, even if relatively successful, is still limited, or in Kant’s sense ‘conditioned’…. Since any such rendering intelligible must be self-conscious to be such a judging, such conditionedness and limitation are inseparable from determinate intelligibility itself, and so can be said to ‘demand’ completion in an unconditioned…. With this established, however, we seek a higher degree of intelligibility (one not subject to such limitations), indeed the highest. And so the concept itself, or conceptuality itself, the truth of finite objectivity, is now our object. In this sense, pure thinking’s determination of itself, not just qua the truth of objects, but qua itself as its own object, represents, ultimately, Hegel’s unconditioned” (Pippin, Hegel’s Real of Shadows, p. 252).

“Hegel… goes on to note the many Kantian affinities of his project. The concept of the concept, or conceptuality, or conceiving as the truth of being, is the ‘”I” or pure self-consciousness‘… and he notes Kant’s own version of the truth of any object: Kant defined the object as ‘the concept in which the manifold is united’…. Being as such a ‘positedness’, which is nevertheless being-in-and-for-itself, means that the objectivity of any concept is ‘none other than the nature of self-consciousness, has no other moments of determination than the “I” itself'” (p. 253).

We could equally say that for Hegel, it is the concept of the concept — or the self-referentiality in apperceptive judgment — that says “I”.

Objectivity is not a matter of conformity to something given that could serve as a standard. It is ultimately a matter of good judgment that can be recognized as such and shared by others. It is up to us rational beings to work out the detail of what that means.

Hegel’s approach to the unconditioned is enabled by his removal of the qualifications Kant had placed on his revival of Aristotelian teleology in the Critique of Judgment. Implicitly in his works overall and more explicitly in the logic of the concept, Hegel seems to follow the same kind of top-level explanatory strategy as Aristotle, combining teleology and hypothetical necessity.

“[I]f we understand the structure of [Hegel’s] Logic as some kind of ascent or progress, and if we think of that progress as measured by degrees of any rendering intelligible, the former stage always requiring the latter as a condition, then the essential predicative forms we study in the Logic‘s three books will be (i) S is P, (ii) S is essentially P, and (iii) S is a good P. Teleological explanation (for artifacts, actions, and organic beings) is the beginning of wisdom about such a higher degree of intelligibility…. (On this scale the ‘absolutely’ intelligible would be, to use Aryeh Kosman’s phrase for a similar claim in Aristotle, ‘thinking thinking thinking’)” (pp. 254-255).

We should not be put off by the apparent impersonality of “thinking thinking thinking” or the Hegelian “concept”. The very abstractness of the Kantian “I” serves to make it a transparent vehicle for our most deeply held (i.e., most “actual”) values. Aristotle and Kant and Hegel are bypassing the petty foibles and opacity of an empirical ego in order to bring to the fore what I would call our deep ethical essence.

“Hegel tells us that, with the topic of the concept as such, we are entering ‘the realm of subjectivity and freedom’…, a language that has an unmistakable but mysterious practical air…. [H]e moves immediately to explain that metaphor with several other metaphors…. There is, he notes, a textbook understanding of concepts and their roles in judgments and the role of judgments in syllogisms. But he complains that such ‘material’ is not only ‘finished’… and ‘entrenched’… but ‘ossified’…. His task, he says, is to introduce a ‘fluidity’… into such material and to spark or ignite or animate… a living concept in such dead matter…. He then complains about the difficulty of his task, switching metaphors again, and compares his project to building a new city in a ‘devastated’ land…, a task rendered all the more difficult when the land is occupied by an ancient and ‘solidly constructed’ city. One must decide above all, he insists, not to make use of what is already there, ‘not to make use of much otherwise valued stock” (p. 255).

There is a great deal that is perfectly unobjectionable from the point of view of common sense that turns out to be incompatible with the self-determination of reason.

“[B]eing is conceptuality, not a material ‘made’ intelligible by the exercise of a subjective power…. What a thing is, in truth, is its intelligibility…. In the Logic, the question is dual: What is being such that it is intelligible? What is the intelligibility of being? For us, Hegel complains, the question seems to live on only in religion” (p. 257).

“The chief task of philosophy is to account for this conceptuality” (p. 258).

This accounting — a kind of articulation — is key. Philosophy does not make mere assertions.

“[Hegel] will say things like: philosophy (and he seems to be thinking of philosophy as exhibited in the Phenomenology of Spirit) is interested not in a simple factual narrative of what happened but instead in what ‘is true in what happens’, where that seems to mean what, in what happened, reveals something about what it is to be Geist [spirit]” (ibid).

“In [Kant’s] sense a cognitive mental act is neither mere ‘activity’, in the sense in which we might speak of a computer’s processing as its current activity (cognitive activity is norm responsive), nor an intentional action (one does not perceive or believe ‘on purpose’)…. We may intentionally or ‘on purpose’ take up the task of trying to understand why something happened, but as we gather evidence and test hypotheses, we are not — in, say, perceiving, or in judging on the basis of perceiving — intentionally doing something for the sake of something. The power of perceiving or the power of knowing (or their failure) is what it is (has its distinct end) in independence from whatever else we may also be trying to accomplish. According to Aristotle, for example, the actuality of an axe, its formal and final cause, is cutting, the actuality of the eye is seeing. None of this implies that the axe or the eye is purposively acting in its proper actualization. Cognitive activity is an actualization in that sense. But it is also true that the capacities of the eye are for an end, its distinct end as what it is, or qua eye. And in that sense the capacities for knowing are for an end which knowing has, qua knowing. (The spontaneous capacity too has a formal and final causality, not serial or successive, but immanent and simultaneous.)” (p. 259).

Individual perceptions, judgments, and thoughts thus occur in us “spontaneously”, even though at a higher level reason is purposeful. For long I’ve been mystified by Kant’s choice of the term “spontaneity” for our self-conscious doings. (As I am accustomed to using the word, it seems more to apply to something like the pre-conscious syntheses of imagination.) Pippin provides a valuable clue to Kant’s thinking about spontaneity here, when he points out that perceiving and judging are not doing something for the sake of something in the way that ordinary actions are for the sake of something.

“The understanding and reason (and finally, reflective judgment) are manifestations of one capacity, thinking, the spontaneous faculty…. There is understanding, Verstand, or thinking, considered with respect to what is the case, or in terms of the possible objects of thought, in the basic sense of claiming or judging about objects other than thought, objects that must be provided to such thinking, cannot be self-given, all on the one hand; and, on the other, reason, Vernunft, thinking considered without restriction, or thinking in so far as it is purely self-determining, thinking whose object is itself. In this latter sense, one thinks first, of course, of pure practical rationality, self-determining both in the sense that only reason can determine what the exercise of practical reason consists in, and in the sense that to act is to have a maxim one must give oneself, or it is to have a reason for the action that one counts as a reason. But reason in its theoretical use, what Kant calls its ‘hypothetical use’, is also self-determining” (p. 260).

“And in general, reason in this hypothetical use results in descending or ascending specifications…. But understanding… cannot be a distinct object for or to reason, as such objects are normally understood. That would be psychology. Reason’s determination of the unity of the ‘manifold cognitions’ of the understanding is the determination by thought of itself, of its own unity. (This perfectly parallel’s the Analytic’s claim that experience, the possible representation of an object at all, requires a unity that cannot be supplied by experience. Thinking provides this unity for itself, by itself.) Any such higher unity can never be an object of experience, but it is also the case that such postulations are not mere heuristic posits, dispensable or alterable as practical needs dictate. Every exercise of reason qua reason is a necessary self-determination” (p. 261).

Such a necessity of reason is still hypothetical, not categorical — if this, then that, never simply “that” as a conclusion out of the blue.

“All thinking is a spontaneity, an activity, not a perceiving or grasping. This is true for reflective judging as well” (ibid).

“Kant is interested in the Critique of Pure Reason in what he says our ‘cognitive faculty… provides out of itself’…. Hegel will ask why we should not also say that the categorical structure of experience is what reason requires of itself, with no threat of subjectivism if understood properly; why not say that the moral law is what reason requires of itself?” (p. 262).

Hegel is using deeply Kantian principles to question Kant’s conclusions about the inaccessibility of the unconditioned for us.

“Since, according to Kant’s apperception requirement, any judging is also the consciousness of judging (no one can be claiming something without knowing what she is doing), judging must be implicitly a subscription to the requirements of any such judging (thus including a commitment to be able to provide reasons for the judgment, to be denying anything inconsistent with the judgment and so forth, to be able to integrate the judgment in a consistent whole of other beliefs held), and more broadly, any putative act of knowing involves apperceptively a putative realization of what knowing should be. In this sense the attempt to know, as centrally a judging, is also a self-consciously purposive activity, end-directed (it aims at knowledge, unqualifiedly and unconditionally knowledge) and self-constituting (only reason can determine what the removal of such qualifications would amount to). In the case of the understanding, or judging informed by sensible intuition, this means that any instance of judging is an awareness that judgment is a piece of conditioned knowledge, and no such awareness, since it is an awareness of an attempt to know, can avoid in the completion of the pursuit of such an end this ‘need’ to seek the unconditioned. Such an end is inseparable from any pursuit of the end of knowing itself” (pp. 263-264, parenthesized German words omitted).

“[Kant] is suggesting that our relation to these issues is not a relation of knowing in the experiential or empirical sense…. The relation is some sort of practical relation, … which carries with it its own sort of practical necessity, one that can be said to have a priority — again a practical priority — over the capacities and limitations of reason in its theoretical use” (p. 264).

With respect to the strict self-determination of reason and the reality of this practical necessity to seek the unconditioned, Pippin says he cannot see any essential difference between Kant and Hegel. But “Hegel certainly has a different evaluation of the results…. He sees them not as self-imposed limitations on reason, but as constituting the intelligible structures of reality, and there is a radical boldness in his rejection of the idea of a reality or truth beyond any ability of ours to determine what it is” (p. 268).

“If we keep in mind this Kantian context, recall the essentially practical and productive character of the power of reason, recall that the sense-bearing unit of intelligibility for both Kant and Hegel is the judgment, and that judgments are necessarily self-conscious judgments, and so claimable only in the context of some awareness of their finitude or conditioned nature, then claims like these by Hegel look less mysterious” (ibid).

Pippin says the biggest difference between Kant and Hegel in this area is Hegel’s idea that the progress of the self-determination of reason is somehow driven by contradiction. But “the contradiction that Hegel is referring to is always an essentially practical contradiction, an activity’s contradiction of its own end, something that gets clearer, I hope, if we recall Kant’s account of the inherent purposiveness of reflective judgment and the hypothetical use of reason” (ibid; see Reflection and Dialectic).

“[Hegel] will often say things that seem outrageous [, for instance] that philosophy gives the form of necessity to what would otherwise appear merely contingent…. This can sound as if Hegel wants to say that the actual course of that development, philosophy can prove, could not have happened otherwise, as if, in science as well as philosophy (logic), there is a development over time that could not have been otherwise. If that sort of claim is supported by a claim about a self-transforming, underlying metaphysical entity, ‘cosmic spirit’, or ‘God’, developing according to some necessary law of internal teleology, then the claim seems hopeless” (p. 269).

I thoroughly agree that this kind of necessity — a purely deterministic unfolding of events in the world — is as foreign to Hegel as the idea of unlimited free will.

“At a more modest level, though, (and this is very much how I think he wants to be understood), he could mean that a significant transition in art history, or political history, or religious history, a shift in collective ethical commitments, or a development in a speculative logic (that the content of some determinate concept cannot be fixed without reliance on a successor, more comprehensive concept) can all be rendered intelligible by a philosophical account” (ibid).

“This account is based on a form of practical contradiction that introduces a more familiar form of necessity and one different from logical necessity or material necessity, the form appropriate to ‘he who wills the end must will, or necessarily wills, the means’ (otherwise we have evidence that he has not truly willed the end)” (ibid; see Hegel on Willing).

Any kind of historical interpretation — indeed any interpretation whatsoever, insofar as it aims to reach firm conclusions — ultimately faces the “problem” of the unconditioned. Pippin’s previous example of interpreting the actuality of a person’s character helps to bring all this down to earth. Hegel’s argument is that we do this kind of interpretation all the time, so whatever that necessarily presupposes must be possible.

Deeper Truth

Hegel’s Logic, it now seems to me, is an exploration of what contemporary philosophers call the space of reasons, with the practical aim of eliciting and exhibiting what it is to move toward deeper truth.

He wants to focus our attention on how reasoning and judgment are transformed as they move toward deeper truth. He wants to say that the deeper meaning of truth is the movement toward deeper truth.

For Hegel, reason attains to deeper truth mainly by experiencing failure of the truth that it thought it had. Such failure has nothing to do with being “vanquished” by an opposing view.

Brandom argues that we can understand such failure in terms of the unsettling of beliefs about how things are in the world, by some unaccounted-for difference or new evidence in ordinary experience.

Pippin argues that the Logic aims at something hugely more ambitious — still not some master key to the explanation of things or events in the world, but an account of the forms of the movement of reason toward deeper truth that ought to be applicable to any thinkable thinking being.

The way that Pippin is arguing Hegel combines Kant and Aristotle I find tremendously exciting. For now I’m reserving judgment on his apparent claim that the movement Hegel describes succeeds in being unconditionally universal.

Emancipatory Logic?

When it comes to Hegel’s “logic” the first question is, what does it really aim at? What is it even trying to do? Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows (2019) is the best attempt to answer this I have found so far.

“[Hegel] seems to promise something quite extraordinary and, no doubt to contemporary ears, something quite implausible, a treatment of ‘logic’ in some way in service of an emancipatory ideal — an emancipatory logic, of all things” (p. 24).

To briefly anticipate, it will be emancipatory in addressing the Aristotelian actualization of Kantian freedom.

“[T]he most important element in Hegel’s fulfilling such an ambition… is a ‘science of pure thinking’. What any thinking does is to render something intelligible, a task that, as we shall see, has many different dimensions and is inseparable from the giving of reasons. But, as we have also noted, to say what something is, or to explain why something happened, or to understand the point or purpose of anything, is not just to present a picture or grasp a content. It is to judge, something always open to challenge and interrogation” (p. 20).

What Hegel calls pure thinking is concerned with and exhibits the general shape of the space of reasons.

“Eventually… we would need a fully reflective account of the ‘ground of giving grounds’…. In the practical domain, in Kant and the post-Kantians, I am free when I am acting on reasons about what ought to be done. This is a form of self-consciousness that, according to Kant, is paradigmatically embodied when I act wholly on reasons, and not just prudently or instrumentally, as when I act for the sake of ends I have not rationally determined I ought to have” (p. 21).

Put another way, all our reasons ought to trace back to the highest good. When our reasons stop at some partial good, we are not yet free.

“[I]n just the same sense as Hegel will want to treat concept and intuition in experience as distinct but inseparable, he will want to say that so-called ‘material’ issues… are inseparable from forms of self-understanding, as inseparable as such forms are from their material embodiment” (p. 22).

Hegel’s strong emphasis on actuality and actualization leads him to see something like Aristotelian hylomorphism (inseparability of form and matter) in places where Kant tended to see dualities. For Hegel as for Aristotle, our true intent is expressed by what we actually did.

Pippin quotes the Phenomenology Preface’s statement that the task of modernity “consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal by means of the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts” (p. 24).

“Hegel’s unease with [the dominance of fixed representations] is what begat those familiar later claims about the ‘ideological’ nature of bourgeois philosophy, the one-dimensionality of modern societies, the dominance of ‘identity thinking’, the crisis of the European sciences, the colonization of the life-world, and so forth. And while all such critiques can be traced back to Hegel, he does not make the case for such limitations by contrast with a positive or utopian theory, as is the case in many of these examples” (p. 25).

Hegel aims at a purely immanent development of self-critical understanding, in which forms of spirit all on their own eventually exhibit their own incompleteness and one-sidedness, rather than being claimed to fall short of some external ideal.

“Stated in the simplest possible terms, Hegel’s diagnosis of the fix we have gotten ourselves into consists in the claim that we have not properly understood how to understand ourselves and the social and natural world in which we dwell. This is not, though, because we have simply been regularly mistaken, the victim of false philosophies, wrong ideas. It is due to the inevitable partiality and one-sidedness of various ruling concepts (let us say, for shorthand, norms for explanation and justification, the normative structures of the ‘space of reasons’)” (p. 26).

The solution is not a matter of simply substituting more correct first-order beliefs. Of far greater import are our higher-order ways of thinking, judging, and assessing.

“Moreover, the problem is not the contents of our beliefs but the way we have come to collectively regulate what is believable…. Our norms for authoritative explanations and for how we justify ourselves to each other are imbricated in the everyday fabric of a form of life” (p. 28).

“Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Hegel’s basic claim… is that we have not properly understood the ‘grammar’ of spirit (the logic of self-relation, both individual and collective, that makes up spirit), and this is connected with our failure to understand the grammar of possible renderings-intelligible or account-givings in general…. And it would also not be an exaggeration to say that, for Hegel, once we do understand it, we (at least we philosophers) will be freed from the illusion that some particular form of account-giving (like modern Verstand [understanding based on simple fixed predications]) could be taken to be ‘absolute’; the proper relativization (historically and systematically) of different accounts of account-giving will have been made. Or, stated in its most surprising form: Hegelian philosophy has no distinct doctrine of its own; its content is the right understanding of past attempts at account-giving in their limitations and interconnection” (p. 30).

This notion of a “grammar” of spirit is quite fascinating. “Self-relation” is at the heart of Hegel’s often misunderstood talk about the “true infinite”. Hegel wants to say that the ordinary grammar of subject and predicate as fixed terms is not a very good form for expressing thought, because it lacks “life”. Pure thought for Hegel involves moving beyond all fixed terms. Self-relation involves no substantive “self”, only the purely relational character of an always re-emerging unity of apperception. Freedom for Hegel has a kind of grounding in the “true infinite”, but this has nothing to do with an infinite power. What makes self-relatedness “infinite” is its relations-first character, which does not depend on any pre-given fixing of ground-level terms. For Hegel, higher-order form is more primary than first-order form. First-order terms are degenerate cases, not foundational instances.

“Apperceptive spontaneity is not understood as a subjective mental activity, opposed to or addressed to or imposed on what there is…. If we understand this properly, we understand apperceptive spontaneity ‘in its actuality’, as having ‘given itself’ its own actuality, the actuality of the intelligibles, what there is” (p. 35).

What is free in us is not a separate faculty of decision-making, but the open-endedness of the basis of our understanding. For Hegel, there is no gap between understanding and action. What we really understood or didn’t understand is made publicly interpretable by our action. Meanwhile, what there is is inseparable from the intelligibility of that “what”.

Pippin notes that the original context for talk about “spontaneity” in Kant was the latter’s insistence against the tradition that thought is entirely active in character. Thought for Kant includes no moment of passive receptivity, and therefore generates and is responsible for all of its own content. Hegel adopts this perspective.

“Put in terms of the history of philosophy, what all of this will amount to is an attempt by Hegel at a highly unusual synthesis of the Kantian revolution in philosophy, especially the anti-empiricist, self-grounding character of reason (aka ‘the Concept’), and the most important Kantian innovation, the spontaneity of thinking, together with essential elements of Aristotle’s understanding of metaphysics, especially the Aristotelian notions of energeia, which Hegel translates as Wirklichkeit, actuality, the proper object of first philosophy, and, as we have seen, the core of the classical view that ‘nous’ [intellect] rules the world, all in contrast to the rationalist metaphysics of nonsensible objects accessible to pure reason alone. Hegel is no metaphysician in this rationalist sense, but he is most certainly a metaphysician in the Aristotelian sense. That is, at any rate, the thesis of the following book” (ibid).

It is refreshing to see metaphysics treated as something other than an ahistorical lump extending from Parmenides to the present. Later common usage has diverged so far from the meaning of Aristotelian first philosophy that I prefer not to call the latter “metaphysics” at all, but that term loses its objectionable connotations insofar as the reference is tied to something specifically Aristotelian.

I think recognizing that Hegel fundamentally aimed to combine Kantian and Aristotelian insights in a principled way is essential for grasping what he was really about. But to even have the perspective that such an aim makes sense requires work on the interpretation of both Aristotle and Kant; one would never come up with it based on textbook stereotypes.

More than any other commentator, Pippin has developed both the Kantian and the Aristotelian dimensions of Hegel. Later in the current book, he will have more to say specifically about Hegel’s post-Kantian recovery of Aristotelian teleology.

(He says in passing that the earliest precedents for Kant’s view that thought and reason are never purely passive are from the late 16th century. That is not quite right. Alain de Libera has documented that the foremost medieval commentator on Aristotle, Averroes, explicitly interpreted Aristotle as saying that the so-called potential intellect has an “activity” of its own and is not purely passive. In fact, even sense perception is not just passive in Aristotle. Aristotle’s remarks about the synthesizing role of the “common” sense and “inner” sense are unfortunately extremely sketchy, but it seems beyond doubt that they do have a synthesizing role.)

Di Giovanni on Hegel’s Logic

“The subject matter of the Logic is not the ‘thing-in-itself’ or its phenomenal manifestations, whether one conceives the ‘in-itself’ as a substance or as freedom, but is discourse itself…. The Logic itself is a discourse about discourse” (George di Giovanni, translator’s introduction to Hegel, The Science of Logic, p. xxxv).

Writing about Hegel’s development, di Giovanni says that by 1803/04, “Consciousness is where organic nature acquires its highest point of concentration by reflecting upon itself and where nature as such becomes spirit. When this consciousness develops into language, and language in turn becomes the language of a people, the social character of spirit is then revealed” (ibid, p. xix).

“[W]hile in 1803/04 Hegel provided a smoother transition from nature to spirit by introducing the factor of consciousness and thus adding to nature, so to speak, a new dimension of depth, [in 1805/06/07] he adds to it yet another dimension by conceiving spirit as the place where nature becomes conscious of its being conscious, that is to say, the place where it becomes deliberate about itself or, again, where it becomes a product of spirit” (p. xxi).

“[Kant’s] notorious ‘thing-in-itself’, instead of being understood as an ideal term of reference that generates a universal space of reason… could be taken instead — as it in fact was by many contemporaries — as a sort of hyper-physical entity…. In a critical context, however, any appeal to causality… would have to fall on the side of a physiological pre-history of experience” (p. xxx).

“It was to remedy this failure that Fichte undertook his thought experiment [with pure freedom], asking his auditors to simply think for the sake of thinking and to reflect on the result…. The net result is that the whole of experience becomes colored with a moral tinge, exactly what Fichte had of course intended from the start. Experience is a call to transform the otherwise merely brute facts of experience…. The idea of construing objects of experience by applying categories to a presupposed given content loses all its meaning…. One must rather interpret experience” (pp. xxxi-xxxii).

(It always seemed to me that even the “application” of pre-existing categories to the sensible manifold implicitly requires interpretation in order to judge which categories are applicable in each specific context of the manifold, and how they are applicable in each case. To my knowledge Kant does not speak of this explicitly, but I don’t think he ever explicitly assumes specific contents in the manifold either. What would then be “given” for Kant ought to be just the manifold as a potentially differentiable lump. Following the principle of charitable interpretation, then, I read Kant as a bit closer to Fichte on this point. The implicit interpretation I want to attribute to Kant would probably operate via the pre-conscious figurative synthesis of imagination though, whereas I think Fichte has a more conscious process of interpretation in mind.)

“On Hegel’s analysis of both Kant and Fichte, the problem is that the ‘I’ that figures so prominently in their theories is too abstract a product…. Therefore, according to Hegel, it lets the content of experience… escape from it and fall, so to speak, on the side of a beyond from which it is retrievable only by means of such non-conceptual means as intuition…. And if Hegel did not want to travel the way of Schelling, which would have taken him to a pre-Kantian Spinozism, then the only avenue open to him was to comprehend facticity discursively, without intuition or myth-making” (pp. xxxiii-xxxiv).

“I have been deliberately using ‘discourse’ and ‘discursiveness’ instead of ‘dialectic’ (a term, incidentally, that Hegel uses sparsely in the Logic) in an attempt to demystify the latter term. But it should be clear that the meaning is the same” (p. xxxix).

“[W]e do not have anything that would amount to McTaggart’s Absolute Idea from which, allegedly, every minute detail of reality can in principle be deduced. This is a position that Hegel unequivocally rejected and even found infuriating…. As for Hegel, the strength of his Logic lies in that it finds a ground for this contingency in the indeterminacy necessarily inherent in the structure of things that are in becoming” (p. lviii).

Hegel takes us beyond sterile debates about freedom versus determinism by means of a novel account of determinacy itself as including built-in indeterminacy. Aristotle of course preceded him in this, albeit with a different account of determination-including-indeterminism.

“[I]t is nature which in the abstract medium of logical discourse attains the self-comprehension, and the efficacy, which we attribute to spirit. Nature is for Hegel, just as it was for Schelling, the ‘pre-self’ of the ‘self’, not just the ‘other-than-self’ of Fichte” (p. lix).

Incidentally, di Giovanni dedicates his 2010 translation of the Science of Logic to his “mentor and friend” H. S. Harris, whose unique literal commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology I previously treated at length.

Zambrana on Actualization

Building on the interpretations of Pipppin and Brandom, Rocío Zambrana in Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility (2015) argues that Hegel’s logic is based around the same notion of actualization that orients his ethics, and that actualization is none other than Hegel’s reformulation of Kantian synthesis. This is a fascinating complement to my previous focus on the Aristotelian background of Hegelian actualization. She argues that the main significance of the theory of the “absolute” idea in the Science of Logic is to make intelligibility a function of normativity.

She begins, “To be is to be intelligible, according to Hegel” (p. 3). Plato and Aristotle would concur.

Zambrana agrees with Pippin that Hegel defends the complete autonomy of reason, thus radicalizing Kant’s critical project. “For Kant, the sensible given and the postulates of practical reason (freedom, God, the immortality of the soul) are touchstones of knowledge, morality, faith. For Hegel, the only legitimate touchstone of a thoroughgoing critical philosophy is reason itself” (p. 4).

She suggests that intelligibility and normativity for Hegel are a matter of binding between ideality and reality that is always subject to renegotiation.

“In the Logic, Hegel pursues an immanent critique of classical ontology, philosophies of reflection, and transcendental idealism that allows him to elaborate his distinctive view of determinacy as a matter of the dialectical relation between ideality and reality” (p. 6).

“In what is perhaps the most puzzling passage of the Logic, Hegel describes the absolute idea as personality (Persönlichkeit). While puzzling, this passage is not mystifying. It is in fact key. It helps us specify the status of the absolute idea as the concept that elaborates the view that intelligibility is a matter of normative authority. It indicates that binding is the structure of intelligibility” (pp. 5-6; see also Substance and Subject).

“Hegel argues that form is nothing but negation(ibid).

That form is negation for Hegel seems clear. But I constantly struggle to clarify the real meaning of negation in Hegel. For sure, it is not classical negation. But what exactly is it? To me, many of Hegel’s usages of negation and related terms seem metaphorical. Ordinarily, people use concrete metaphors to circuitously express more abstract things, but Hegel often uses the extreme abstraction of negation or negativity as a metaphor for various more concrete things or conditions. Negativity in Hegel therefore doesn’t seem to me to have a single fixed meaning. This ought not to be surprising, given Hegel’s strong opposition to single fixed meanings in general.

I sometimes think Hegel goes too far in this direction. Good definitions retain value for clarity of thought, even if they are always provisional and context-bounded. Hegel himself seems to recognize something like this when he emphasizes that understanding, despite its limitations, plays an essential role. I prefer Aristotle’s style of approaching things as “said in many ways” — where each of the ways is potentially definable, but there may be real question which is applicable in any given case — over unspecified generalized fluidity.

“Negation is necessarily a negation of something — whether a logical category, a philosophical position, a historically specific identity or institution. Form thus requires content in order to be negation. The central claim of Hegel’s theory of determinacy, then, concerns the negativity of form and the necessity of content” (ibid).

I am also very sympathetic to the importance of content, but a bit in doubt about the argument that negation in and of itself straightforwardly requires content to which it is applied. That would be true for negation in a formal sense that is not Hegel’s, but Hegel does not put much stock in fixed definitions, and he often speaks of a pure negativity that doesn’t seem to depend on anything else or refer to anything external to it. This I take to be part of what he calls the “inverted” perspective of otherness.

“Negativity is the inner determination of the way in which intelligibility is articulated within practices and institutions” (p. 7).

“Inner determination” here would be the purely “logical” aspect, as distinct from the social and historical.

“[N]egativity calls into question the assumption that the content of any normative commitment retains authority or stability within a historically specific form of life…. [Concrete forms of intelligibility] are subject not only to reversals of meanings and effects but also to coextensive positive and negative meanings and effects. For these reasons, no determination can be understood as final or fully stable” (ibid).

She seems to think this latter point is implicit but insufficiently emphasized in the readings of Pippin and Brandom. I think they already make it explicit. How much relative emphasis to give to determination versus fluidity is a delicate matter subject to considerations of context.

“[T]he key to Hegel’s idealism and its emphasis on negativity is his treatment of the Kantian problem of synthesis” (p. 12).

“Hegel follows Fichte’s reading of Kantian autonomy [as positing], yet he stresses that positing is a matter of actualization, which he understands in terms of normative authority. The activity of reason is a matter of distinction-making” (p. 37).

Provocatively, she suggests that Hegel makes a three-way identification of reason, imagination, and synthesis.

“Recall that Hegel suggests [in his early work Faith and Knowledge] that the transcendental unity of apperception and the figurative synthesis are one and the same synthetic unity. Hegel calls this one and the same synthetic unity ‘reason’. In fact, he argues that ‘the imagination is nothing but reason itself’…. Reason for Hegel, I want to suggest, is neither an epistemic faculty nor an ontological principle. It is the work of synthesis” (p. 40).

My instinct is still to distinguish reason from imagination, thinking of reasoning as mainly conscious and deliberate and imagination as mainly pre-conscious. Similarly, I am doubtful about early Hegel’s identification of Kantian unity of apperception and figurative synthesis. Both are forms of synthesis, but following Brandom I take the unity of apperception to be a kind of moral imperative, whereas I take the figurative synthesis of imagination to be something that happens pre-consciously. This seems like an important difference.

That the activity of reason in general is one of synthesis, however, is an excellent point.

“A totality of relations of negation is gathered together by inferential patterns that thereby institute a concrete determination of reason. Reason can thus be thought of as concrete forms, figures, or shapes of rationality articulated by a process of actualization” (ibid).

“A logic of actualization indicates that intelligibility is not only historically specific but also precarious and ambivalent” (p. 41).

She points out that for Kant, an individual concept is not itself a product of synthesis, whereas for Hegel it is.

“That a thing, event, idea is always already outside of itself… is not to the detriment of the thing. Rather, it is the thing’s way of becoming what it is” (p. 42).

She recognizes that Hegel’s teleology is Aristotelian rather than “classical” in form, and that teleology for both Aristotle and Hegel is inherently subject to contingency in its actualization. In neither Aristotle nor Hegel is the working out of teleology underwritten by an omnipotent power.

“Hegel does not articulate reason’s purposiveness in terms of a goal that is unambiguously realized, thereby affirming a classical teleology of reason. Hegel argues that reason is purposive ‘in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive activity'” (ibid).

She recognizes that the import of Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” is not an assertion of some cosmic mind, but rather is intended at a much more elemental level.

“The ‘tremendous power of the negative’ is accordingly the capacity of things to unfold in and through conditions that exceed them…. The actualization of reason is the subjectivity of things themselves” (p. 43).

The “subjectivity of things themselves” testifies that we have here moved beyond the opposition of subject and object that Hegel attributes to ordinary consciousness.

“Establishing the objectivity of subjectivity requires action (Handeln)…. Hegel’s appeal to action introduces the thought that Kant’s signature problem of objectivity is in effect a problem of normative authority” (p. 118; see also Hegel on Willing).

I would prefer to say activity rather than action, but in this context that is a nuance.

Teleology After Kant

Kant is responsible for recovering something like the modesty stemming from deep seriousness with which Plato and Aristotle approached claims of knowledge, though I don’t think he realized just how far they were from the dogmatism that broadly characterizes the intervening tradition. Kant indeed often speaks as if all previous philosophy had a dogmatic cast. I don’t think the tradition between the times of Aristotle and Kant was the uniform sea of dogmatic positions that Kant makes it out to be, either, but I agree that a dogmatic cast was dominant.

Kant also goes further than Aristotle or even Plato in positively asserting a principled basis for limiting claims to knowledge. Plato emphasizes sharp distinctions between appearance and reality. Aristotle is more inclined to emphasize that we do after all indirectly encounter something real in and through appearances, but he is in agreement with Plato (and Kant) that there is no magical overleaping of the fact that what we experience directly are only appearances.

For all three of them, knowledge in a strong sense could only be a product of the indirect work of reason reflecting on experience. Aristotle further emphasizes the variability of things in the world, and the large role of ambiguity in experience. Kant on the other hand is still beholden to the early modern assumption that knowledge ought to be subject to a completely univocal account. But his notions of synthesis are a great contribution to the understanding of how experience works — how “immediate” experience is a result of pre-conscious processes of constitution. In a nutshell, this is the additional principled basis for limiting knowledge claims that we owe to Kant.

With extremely broad brush, it could be said that Hegel takes up the Kantian emphasis that experience is a result of processes of synthesis but, unlike Kant, he also wants to emphasize that synthesis is not a self-contained activity of each individual. At the same time, he takes the more Aristotelian perspective that we really do indirectly encounter reality in and through appearances. For Hegel, to deny this would be to deny the possibility of knowledge altogether.

Hegel sees synthesis taking place at the level of what he calls spirit — i.e., the level of the universal community of rational beings across space and time, of shareable thought contents, and of broadly (but not entirely) shared values. But he also recognizes Aristotelian variability and ambiguity. At this extremely high level of generality, Hegel is a Kantian Aristotelian or an Aristotelian Kantian. Spirit for Hegel transcends nature, without being opposed to it.

In the Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel glosses reason as purposeful activity, while sympathetically referring to Aristotle’s view of nature as purposeful activity. In the Science of Logic, he carefully distinguishes the internal kind of teleology Aristotle attributed to nature from the external kind that refers particular events to the will of God. He distinguishes three kinds of determination. Mechanism and “spiritual mechanism” determine things from outside, in ways that are indifferent to their specific character or content. An intermediate form he calls “chemism” determines things from outside in ways that do involve their specific character or content. These are both contrasted to teleology, which according to Hegel is the internal determination of things by what I at least would call their nature or essence.

For Hegel, mechanism and chemism together represent means by which ends are realized. He explicitly identifies these with efficient causes operating in ways ultimately subordinate to final causes. I was unaware of this when I previously glossed the Aristotelian efficient cause as fundamentally a means by which an end is realized, but it is nice to know it has Hegel’s concurrence.

For Hegel, the external determination of things is subordinate to their internal or “self”-determination. Self-determination meanwhile is anything but the result of arbitrary will; it develops out of the concrete detail of the “self-relatedness” in which the very forms of things consist. He treats this as an elaboration of the Phenomenology Preface’s assertion that “substance is also subject”.

The very essence or substance of things is able to act in subject-like ways, because form for Hegel is explainable in terms of self-relatedness. Meanwhile, Science of Logic translator George di Giovanni notes that Hegel’s selbst or “self” has no interpretation in German as a noun. As I would put it, “self” is purely adverbial and relational, and therefore is constituted in what Hegel in the Phenomenology Preface calls otherness. So, for Hegel the primacy of internal determination is perfectly compatible with the logical primacy of otherness. “Self” refers to a constitution in otherness, rather than being opposed to it. From the start, Hegelian otherness is conceived as beyond any naive opposition between a substantive self and what is other than it.

Thus Hegel can be seen as more thoroughly vindicating the content of Aristotelian internal teleology from a Kantian point of view. Kant himself made an important start at this in the Critique of Judgment, but qualified the legitimate application of internal teleology to nature as ultimately only having a heuristic value useful to our understanding, that would not be literally applicable to nature as it is in itself. Hegel in the Science of Logic carefully and at length develops objectivity out of something like what I would call reasonable interpretation, and on this basis recovers a valid notion of internal teleology as something real. This notion of objectivity as something constituted is a further development of another Kantian theme. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity.)


Spontaneity has a technical meaning in Kant and Husserl that is at odds with common usage. In ordinary speech, we are said to do something “spontaneously” when we do it on the spur of the moment, without a previous plan. But Kant and Husserl call everything guided by reason “spontaneous”, even though reason is involved with conscious deliberation and thinking things through.

According to an older usage, things in nature were said by some to occur “spontaneously” when they had no discernible cause. In the scholastic tradition, others argued that “nothing comes from nothing”, and rejected the assumption that things with no discernible cause really happen without a cause, as was purported to occur in what was called “spontaneous generation”.

Leibniz embraced and codified the “nothing from nothing” argument as the principle of sufficient reason. The principle of sufficient reason does not itself imply the kind of particular providence associated with the popular expression “everything happens for a reason”. It just says that everything has some kind of reasonable explanation, not that what we subjectively perceive as cosmic injustice is part of a divine plan, even though Leibniz separately argued for that as well.

Of course, it matters a lot what kinds of causes or reasonable explanations we recognize. In Leibniz’s time, the notion of cause had already been greatly contracted by early modern writers, who further transformed the late scholastic notion of efficient cause in a mechanistic direction, while accentuating the late scholastic tendency to reduce all other causes to efficient causes. Leibniz himself recommended the use of only mechanistic explanations in natural science, but did not see natural science as all-encompassing, and defended the use of teleological explanation in broader philosophy. He compensated for the narrowness of mechanistic causality by speaking of sufficient reason rather than sufficient cause, and kept a place for form and ends as reasons.

Kant ultimately also defended a kind of teleology, especially in biology and in his account of beauty, but he was much more reserved about using it in general explanation than Leibniz, due to his scruples about grounding all “theoretical” explanation in experience. However, he assigned all ethical matters to a separate “practical” domain, which he wanted to exempt from the kind of narrow causal explanation that he considered the norm for physics, and he argued that for us humans, “practical” reason is more fundamental.

Human action for Kant belongs to the practical domain, which he famously argued is governed by “spontaneity” and “freedom”. I now think “spontaneous” and “free” for Kant simply mean not subject to mechanistic explanation. Thus insofar as we are positively motivated by moral imperatives or values, he would say we act spontaneously and freely. I think he also believed that all human thinking is ultimately motivated by ultimate ends, and therefore called it spontaneous and free.

Kant confused generations of scholars by borrowing voluntaristic rhetoric, which he did with the aim of emphasizing that human thought and action are not reducible to mechanistic physics. But freedom and spontaneity in Kant do not mean arbitrariness, as they effectively do for defenders of voluntarism. Rather, they are meant to allow room for positive motivation by moral imperatives or values.

Another confusing move Kant made was to argue for a special “causality of freedom” that he never explained adequately. Due to its contrast with physical causality, it sounded at times like a kind of supernatural break in the natural order he otherwise recognized. Many commentators thought Kant contradicted himself in arguing both that the natural order is self-contained and that there is a separate causality of freedom. I think these problems are ultimately explained by the narrowness of the mechanical concept of causality in nature. The “causality of freedom”, I want to say, simply means motivation by moral imperatives or values rather than by impulse. Kant considered impulse to be within the realm of natural-scientific causality, and therefore opposed it to spontaneity, whereas contemporary common usage associates “spontaneity” with acting on impulse.

(Aristotle, with his much broader notion of cause that essentially identifies causes with any kinds of “reasons why”, would treat values and moral imperatives as one kind of final causes, or what I have been calling “ends”.)

Husserl’s way of speaking about these matters is to contrast human motivation with causality. For him, “causality” is exclusively the causality of modern physical science, but human thought and action are to be explained by “motivation” rather than causality. Husserl’s use of “spontaneity” is related to that of Kant, and applies to everything that he explains in terms of motivation. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Allison on Kant on Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?.)

“Moral”, “Judgment”

Hegel regarded a forgiving stance as transcending what he called the Moral World-View. Other writers have made distinctions between “ethics” and “morality”. I used to distinguish “morality”, as reducing ethics to simple compliance with externally given norms, from “ethics”, as concerned with inquiry into what really is right. But as a result of engagement with the literature on Kant, I have adopted a more Kantian usage that makes “morality” too a subject of inquiry in the best Socratic sense. I now use the word “moral” in the broad sense of what used to be called “moral philosophy”.

However sophisticated the underlying judgment may be, any unforgivingly judgmental attitude is prone to find fault with the world and with others. The Moral World-View in Hegel is several steps removed from the traditional attitude that norms are simply given. Its presentation is implicitly a critique of Kantian and Fichtean ethics. Here the judgment is rational. We are seriously thinking for ourselves about what is right. We are sincerely seeking to develop a point of view that is globally consistent and fair, and that takes everything relevant into account. But however nuanced a point of view we develop, it is still ultimately only a single point of view.

Hegel’s approach to ethics is singularly attuned to avoiding self-righteousness in all its forms. Hegelian forgiveness involves the recognition that no single point of view — no matter what subtleties it encompasses — is ever by itself finally adequate in the determination of what is right. For Hegel the ultimate arbiter of what is right is the universal community consisting of all rational beings everywhere, past, present, and future. Because it includes the future, the last word is never said.

This is far removed from the banality that all points of view are equally valid. Rather, everyone gets or should get an equal chance to participate in the dialogue, to be heard and to have their voice considered. But for each of us, the validity of our point of view is subject to evaluation by others, as Brandom has emphasized. We don’t get to individually self-certify. Nor is the validity of a point of view decidable by majority vote. Validation is not a matter of tallying up the conclusions of individuals, or of achieving consensus in a present community. It involves assessment of how the conclusions were reached. Previously accepted conclusions are always implicitly subject to re-examination.

On an individual level too, I like to stress the open-endedness of Aristotelian (and Kantian) practical judgment. The need to act requires that deliberation be cut short at some point. We aim to act with relatively robust confidence that we are doing the right thing, but the best practical confidence is not knowledge. Aristotle takes care to remind us that ethics is not a science. There are many things in life that we do not know, but in which we have justified practical confidence. Ethical judgment is like that.

Properly Human, More Than Human?

The conclusion of Aubry’s essay has a very different character from what preceded it. It rejoins her development elsewhere of a purely Aristotelian theology, and provides an interesting complement or contrast to the medieval debates about the spiritual significance of Aristotelian “intellect” that I have reviewed recently. As usual, in reading this it is best to forget what we think we know about what “intellect” is. It also seems to me there are a few resonances here with Harris’ reading of Hegel’s views on religion.

“Aristotelian ethics poses the possibility, for every human, of acceding to the divine in oneself. Far from being the prerogative of luck and of the blessings of the gods, this possibility is inscribed in the essence of every rational being: it demands to be developed and modified by virtuous work, the exercise of reason and of freedom. Thus, the access to this immanent transcendence, instead of being a natural gift or the effect of a divine inspiration, requires the mediation of the specifically human faculties: it is in being fully human that one can, for Aristotle, accede to the divine in oneself” (Aubry in Dherbey and Aubry, eds., L’excellence de la vie, p. 91, my translation).

I very much like the formulation “it is in being fully human”. This is an ethical criterion. Being human for Aristotle has little to do with biological species — any rational animal would be human. I have noted that being a rational animal is only having a certain potential. To be fully human is to actualize that potential.

Aubry notes that Aristotle “rejects the ethics of privilege and election as well as that of the natural good and of talent: he does not believe in conversion, in a first choice to which one can only, throughout one’s life, remain faithful” (ibid).

Aristotelian potentiality in its ethical dimension, Aubry says, is a conceptual translation of the figure of the Platonic daimon. This suggestion is new to me. She particularly refers to the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic, in which the human is said to choose her daimon rather than being chosen by it. In the same way, she says that for Aristotle the human chooses her potentiality instead of being determined by it.

She credits her colleague Dherbey at the end, and I think Dherbey’s remark that for Aristotle choice is more a matter of character than of punctual decision is highly relevant here. Putting the two together suggests a kind of reciprocal determination between character and this sort of nonpunctual choice. Paul Ricoeur has richly developed this kind of reciprocal relation, with explicit reference to Aristotle’s notion of character.

Next she moves to Aristotle’s brief explicit discussion of a kind of immortality, which does not seem to me to be an immortality of the soul. Aristotle linked immortality to what he calls intellect (nous) but left many details open, which later led to extensive debates between Thomists, Averroists, and Alexandrists like Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525).

“One could even say that Aristotle radicalizes the Platonic project: for the Platonic injunction to ‘immortalize oneself insofar as it is possible’ becomes, in Aristotle, an invitation to ‘immortalize oneself according to potentiality’. The divine is not in the human as a simple possibility, but indeed as a real potential. The human contains by nature her beyond-nature: she bears within herself an immanent principle of [self-] exceeding” (p. 92, emphasis in original).

This would seem to be a reference to the potential intellect, much discussed by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Averroes, Aquinas, and others. Despite their differences, these writers all basically agreed that potential intellect is fundamental to what distinguishes rational animals. For all of them, to be a fully realized rational animal is to have a certain relation to “intellect”, which transcends the biological organism.

Aubry continues, “One has seen in effect that the definitional dunamis [potentiality] that the ethical effort aims to realize is reason…. To the definitional dunamis of the human corresponds a double ergon [work] — for, if the first is properly human, the other is a bit more than human” (ibid). She had introduced the idea of “definitional potentiality” earlier in the essay. I think this just means the potentiality inherent to any rational animal. As noted above, the commentary tradition links this specifically to potential intellect.

Next she quotes from Nicomachean Ethics book 10 chapter 7. I will substitute a slightly longer version of the quote from Joe Sachs’ translation:

“But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue. So if the intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with the intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful [Aubry has “noble”, and I don’t have my Greek text handy] thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part; it would be strange, then, if anyone were to choose not his own life but that of something else. What was said before will be fitting now too: what is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest” (Sachs trans., p. 193).

Aristotle compresses a tremendous amount into a few lines here. Many have found him too minimalist on these topics. I take his minimalism as reflecting an admirable intellectual modesty, carefully avoiding claims that are beyond human knowledge.

Traditional scholastic readings expanding on this aspect of Aristotle narrowly emphasize elaborating his very schematic, sketch-like remarks about intellect. I think the work of Paul Ricoeur (and of Hegel, particularly as read by Brandom, Pippin, and Harris) provides rich, multidimensional alternative expansions of Aristotle’s minimalist formulations on the ultimate ends of human life that are genuinely Aristotelian in spirit.

Aubry continues, “To be human in act, therefore, can signify being human among humans, or being a bit divine. One is certainly far, here, from the tragic wisdom, from an ethic of resignation and of limit. The Aristotelian ethic includes rather an irreducible dimension of [what from the tragic point of view would be] hubris [pride]. Divine knowledge is not posed as a simple ‘ideal’, nor divinization as a ‘regulative, not constitutive, principle’: on the contrary, and we underline it, the divine element that nous [intellect] is in the human, this immanent transcendent, is indeed a constitutive potentiality, a faculty to be actualized, and not a simple possibility. This actualization is nonetheless mediated: it is by the intermediary of humanity that the human rejoins the divine in herself, in exercising her reason, her virtue, her freedom. If the Aristotelian ethic is an ethic of surpassing, it passes nonetheless through full humanity: the daimon of Aristotelian eudaimonism [pursuit of happiness] is not enthusiasm, delirium, possession, or an irrational guide, arbitrary and infallible…. [I]t is possible, at the end of becoming virtuous, to be perfect and happy, even though this accomplishment, hindered by matter, broken by fatigue, is only ephemeral.”

“To the God of pure act of the Metaphysics, that God without power who has no other force than the desire he arouses, thus corresponds, in the Ethics, the divine posed in human potentiality” (p. 93).

Later religious traditions have often regarded talk about divinization of the human as objectionable. The great Persian Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922 CE) was stoned to death for saying “I am the Real”. Teachings of the great Christian theologian-philosopher-mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) were condemned in the West.

Aristotle, however, has a very positive concept of a kind of pride that he calls “greatness of soul” (see Magnanimity), which he actually makes into a key virtue. He sees it as as promoting other virtues, and as prompting people to help others and be forgiving. Alain de Libera and Kurt Flasch have emphasized that the affirmative view of human life in Aristotelian ethics found a significant audience even in the middle ages.

All this provides an interesting contrast to both sides of the debate about humanism in 1960s France.