Imagination, Emotion, Opinion

In humans, the ethos associated with cultural, ethical, and spiritual life comes interwoven with what I have called “animal imagination”, tied to our organic being. The kind of imagination at issue here is not the modern, post-Romantic notion associated with artistic creativity, but part of the basic functioning of many animals. Aristotle associates it with what he calls the “common” sense, which again is not what we call common sense, but rather something fundamental to all perception, that also comes into play in the formation (what Kant would call synthesis) of perceptual wholes from the input of multiple senses. Aristotelian “imagination” involves activations of the common sense in the absence of inputs from external sense. It plays an essential role in memory and dreams. Like much in Aristotle, this is not really an explanatory theory, just an interpretive description of things we experience in ordinary life.

Aristotle is concerned to distinguish imagination from opinion, precisely because there is a close connection between the two. Much later, Spinoza essentially identified opinion with imagination. Aristotle emphasizes that opinion involves an additional element of belief that is not inherent to all imagination. He says there are animals that have imagination but no belief.

Opinion is closely related to Aristotelian practical judgment, although the latter classically refers to a deliberative process whose outcome is action rather than belief, whereas opinion is a kind of belief that is not knowledge. Opinion may be a result of past deliberation or reflection, but very often it is more or less spontaneous. I think Spinoza means to suggest that our less reflective opinions arise from a kind of imagination. Like practical judgment, imagination is concerned with particulars.

Spinoza especially brings out the connection of imagination with emotion. It seems to me these are strongly interdependent. Our emotions both shape our imaginings and are shaped by them. These are what mainly guide our initial responses to things, and we have this in common with other animals.

Even after we have more developed, reflective views of things, there is still an element of spontaneous imagination in any application of those views to new particulars.

Emotion is strongly connected with our apprehensions of value. Again, there are dependencies in both directions. Emotion is a source of many valuations, especially initial ones; but valuations also help shape emotion.

Being a rational animal is mainly a matter of potential. Degrees of actual reasonableness have to do mainly with our emotional constitution, not how much we know.

Subject and Substance, Again

In the area I have been exploring most recently, we are rather far from the notions of subject and substance that I think Hegel worked back to in the course of asserting that “substance is also subject”, as if this were something new and unheard of.

It was unheard of in the context of relatively standard modern notions of substance and subject. But it is trivially true that “substance” (ousia) in the logical sense of Aristotle’s Categories (as distinct from the much deeper and more interesting sense developed in the Metaphysics) is a “subject” in the Aristotelian sense of “thing standing under”.

It is also true, I think, that substance in the deeper Aristotelian sense is the kind of thing that what I call the human essence or ethical being is, and the latter, I want to contentiously claim, actually deserves to be called a truer form of “subject” than the more standard modern notion of a psychological or spiritual subject-agent.

I’m very aware that I haven’t adequately explained what I mean by human essence, even if I gesture at something by equating it with ethical being. It is important to recognize that most 20th century philosophers rejected the very idea of a human essence. In the course of rejecting it, they made a lot of valuable criticism of notions of human essence that were too easy or had overly specific, arbitrary implications. But essence in general in the best Platonic sense ought to be taken as an open question. And by human, I just mean all of us animals that participate in meaningful language, as Aristotle said.

In having meaningful dialogue at all, we implicitly acknowledge some sort of ethics and standards of reasonableness, even if they are underdeveloped or poorly practiced). We become a “who” through participation in language and the elementary practices of mutual recognition that are entailed by such participation.

Hegel talks about “ethical substance” as the basis of traditional culture. Its “substantial” character is both a strength and a shortcoming. It is unalienated, but ultimately limited by the fact that it just “is what it is”. In his view, this kind of life comes to be eclipsed by modern individualism with its focus on the subject-agent ego, which (to simplify greatly) in turn can potentially be eclipsed or overcome by mutual recognition and “substance that is also subject”. (See also Substance and Subject.)

Reason, Feeling

Reason is grounded not in the false start of the apparent immediacy of Consciousness and its objects, but in the “long detour” of mediated reflexivity. It can begin anywhere, and finds its own stability in the course of its development. Nonetheless (I want to say), it never loses touch with something grounded in feeling that I have called reasonableness. Both Reason and feeling involve meaning, which involves mediation.

Hopes Dashed

The Dash — The Other Side of Absolute Knowing (2018), by Rebecca Comay and Frank Ruda, advertised itself as a tour de force vindication of absolute knowing in Hegel, but hardly even mentions absolute knowing. Thick rhetoric rehearsing common Žižekian themes introduces more rhetoric and a few bits of Hegelian trivia. This little book is organizationally reminiscent of middle-period Derrida’s focus on obscure “minor” points, but lacks the redeeming grace of Derrida’s literary sparkle and prolonged thoughtfulness. I am terribly disappointed, and must beg forgiveness from my readers for another defensive response to what come across as very unfair comments about the kindly Brandom, who may be as misunderstood as Hegel himself.

According to the authors, “self-avowed Hegelian pragmatism — undoubtedly the most influential form of Hegelianism today” constrains us to remain within an allegedly preestablished “space of reasons” (scare quotes in original) “legitimized within a restricted sphere” that “cannot be fundamentally changed” (emphasis in original) “with all exits and entrances sealed” so that “the terms of rational agency are already determined such that alternate forms of practical rationality are ruled out from the outset”. I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what planet these people live on. They make something beautiful sound like a source of oppressive conformism.

The “space of reasons” introduced by Sellars and promoted by Brandom simply names the abstract possibility of ethical reasoning and dialogue. It is the wide open space of all possible Socratic questioning (see What and Why; Context). It is not the shared beliefs of some empirically existing community. Existing unjust practices are an affront to reason.

Because the space of reasons is not an empirically existing thing to begin with, talk about changing it or opting out reflects a complete misunderstanding. We could opt out from the established practices of an existing community, or change them. But it doesn’t make any sense to talk about “opting out” from an abstract possibility of questioning. In fact, those who want to opt out from the possibility of questioning are those who want to claim special privilege or to abuse others. (See also Stubborn Refusal.)

By the same token, “alternate forms” of rationality are automatically ruled in to the space of reasons. The autonomy of reason means that no one gets to dictate. Ethically speaking, there is an implied, rather minimal standard of reasonableness and good faith. However, as an abstract thing, the space of reasons can’t enforce anything at all. The social danger is not that reason could possibly oppress us, but that it is too often ignored. (See also Recognition; Fragility of the Good.)


Evil has no place in the natural order, and still less in the transcendental. The most admirable forms of traditional “metaphysics” — Platonic and Leibnizian — gave it no place there, either. Yet, alongside much beauty and good, there is undeniably an abundance of empirical evil in the world.

Among the various kinds of bad things, there is pain or misfortune; there is merely unreasonable or selfish human behavior; and there is real evil.

On one level, misfortune is a subjective interpretation based on a particular point of view, but having a particular point of view is intrinsic to the kind of beings we are, and calling misfortune subjective does not make it hurt less. Good is a formative influence spanning both the natural and transcendental orders, but it is not omnipotent, and even if it were, there would still be misfortune from particular points of view.

Unreasonable or selfish behavior comes from a lack of good emotional development. While bad, in itself it is not truly evil.

Malicious lies and hypocrisy, pathological cruelty, and systemic social ills are all things that cannot be adequately explained in terms of immoderate emotion or desire. Unfortunately, these all really occur. They are not illusory, and could never be part of a greater good. These I call truly evil. As with misfortune, real evil is possible because good is not omnipotent.

Deep malice and cruelty belong to individual pathology.

Systemic social ills such as extreme inequality and the oppression of groups belong to a kind of social pathology that may be aided and abetted by individual pathologies or by ordinary selfish or narrow-minded behavior, but social ills as such cannot be blamed only on the bad behavior of individuals. Their sources are wider and deeper than that, extending to the contingent factual structure of historical societies. On Brandomian principles, the whole community shares responsibility for combating things like this, over which no individual has control. (See also Stubborn Refusal; Fragility of the Good.)

Dogmatism and Strife

Dogmatism is different from conviction. Dogmatism is the failure to recognize assumptions as assumptions, whether or not this is accompanied by other vices. It was famously denounced by Kant.

To simply blame all the world’s ills on dogmatism would be an intellectualist error, but it does play a very great part in them. Every kind of arrogance and evil also involves a kind of dogmatism.

Some kinds of “dogmatic” behavior are benign. In the course of living our lives, we make countless practical assumptions about the regularity of the world that help us, without causing any harm. Even in interactions with others, we make countless assumptions that facilitate communication, without causing any harm.

Nonetheless it is safe to say that where there is conflict, some dogmatism must be involved. If we are not dogmatic on the question of the moment, we are at least willing to sincerely listen to reasonably presented alternatives, even if we are quite strongly convinced we are already right. We should also have some patience in answering questions about the basis of our own conviction.

Sometimes but not always, our willingness to listen or to answer questions may encourage others to be more willing to reciprocate than they might otherwise be. Sometimes something good comes just from listening, even if the other is initially not very reasonable. Of course, this does not mean we should just let others walk all over us. Also, using Kantian terms of obligation, we are only obligated to listen to what is reasonable, although the Leibnizian principle of charity — doing more and demanding less than what is nominally required of us — suggests that within reason, we should go some distance beyond that. An example of something that calls for Aristotelian practical judgment is deciding when we have sufficiently met our responsibility to avoid prejudice in judging that the other’s presentation is unreasonable. This can only be done on a case-by-case basis. (See also Copernican; Dialogue.)