For Itself

Hegel’s distinctive phrase “for itself” (für sich, literally “for self”) always seemed a little mysterious to me. It seems to refer to a self-aware being’s taking itself to be this or that, following a more or less Kantian model of judgment. That part is clear enough. But what in the world is something like “the concept in and for itself”?

Once again, the simple Kantian/Hegelian notion of reflection sheds a great deal of light on this. It applies on two levels.

First, there is a purely relational one that applies to anything that may be conceived as having characteristics that are mutually related to one another. These in turn may be construed in terms of a kind of self-relatedness of the underlying thing. In this sense, “for itself” would apply to things that have self-relatedness. This means practically everything, except perhaps some abstractly simple things like points in geometry.

Second, there is the level of self-relatedness that is internal to a reflective judgment or unity of apperception, and to the value-oriented self-consciousness arising from mutual recognition. Self-consciousness is not a detached spectator beholding multifarious relations, but has its very being within and amidst all those relations. We might say, then, that in this context the relations themselves are “self-conscious”. Similarly, concepts involved in reflective judgment are in a way necessarily “self-conscious” concepts.

In a way, our essence as human beings is the integral whole that results from — or is teleologically aimed at by — the self-consciousness of our concepts. This whole would be the totality of our commitments — everything we hold to be good, true, or beautiful.

For Hegel as for Aristotle, what count as “our” commitments and “our” concepts are not just whatever we assert are ours. The measure of what commitments and concepts are truly ours lies in what we do in life. And what we really did in any particular case is not just what we say we did or meant to do, but also what others can observe and evaluate.

In this way, to be “for oneself” is simultaneously to be for others, because what counts as one’s deed — and ultimately as oneself — is partly up to all those others who experience us. This doesn’t mean we are not entitled to make contrary assertions of our own that may be right; maybe in some particular case, the others affected by our deeds are prejudiced. For Hegel, the bottom line is that everyone affected gets a hearing in such cases, and the outcome — what is ultimately right — is not subject to a predetermined formula, but rather follows from all the fine details of each case. This is characteristic of the openness by which Kant first distinguished reflective judgment. It is also characteristic of Aristotelian practical judgment.

To be “for itself” or “for oneself” is to be a subject of reflective judgment. For humans, it is also to be a subject of mutual recognition.

At least in the first instance, “subject” here need not imply a self-conscious subject, just a thing with properties with which the judgment is concerned. But perhaps the human case suggests something about how a self-conscious subject could be thought of as a special case or elaboration of a simple Aristotelian “subject” or underlying thing.

What distinguishes Aristotle’s view of the higher levels of subjectivity (and, I think, Hegel’s too) from typical modern ones is that self-consciousness inheres not in the subject per se as a special kind of entity, but rather in the activity of reflection (contemplation, thought thinking itself, deliberation) in which the subject is involved.

Pure Reason?

Hegel’s “logic” takes what Kant calls pure reason as its subject matter. Hegel regards Kantian pure reason as a world-changing revolution, because in contrast to early modern views, it seeks not to imitate the formal character of mathematical reasoning, but rather to achieve the discipline of a kind of self-sufficiency that does not appeal to anything external to it. Kant and Hegel differ on the scope of this self-sufficiency, but that is a different matter.

Early modern views of the world generally rely on many substantive assumptions. There is strong motivation for them to do so, because in order to yield any substantive conclusions, reasoning of a broadly formal kind requires substantive assumptions. The assumptions are typically of a sort analogous to those that Aquinas regards as grounded in the natural light of reason, which is not itself reason, but a kind of originating intuition of truth given to us by God. Descartes, for example, explicitly appeals to a variant of the Thomistic doctrine of natural light.

(The strong Thomistic notion of the natural light of reason and of reason’s relative autonomy from the simple dictates of authority is itself a development of almost inestimable importance, compared to completely authority-bound views of religion such as present-day fundamentalism. Indeed, something like the natural light of reason was never completely absent from the earlier medieval tradition either.)

But for Kant, reason is purely discursive, and cannot appeal to any intuitive source of truth like a natural light. Pure reason is nonetheless supposed to be able to stand on its own. In Kant’s language, it is “autonomous” (see also Kant’s Groundwork; Self-Legislation?). Kant’s critique of dogmatism especially targets assumptions that are naively realistic in the sense of claiming direct knowledge of external or inner objects, but it is broader than that.

Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason is most directly responding to empiricist views broadly associated with Locke, which were dominant in England and France, and popular in Germany in his day; but even more so to the rationalist system of Christian Wolff (1679-1754), which then dominated German academic teaching. (Wolff was an accomplished mathematician who had corresponded with Leibniz, and greatly contributed to popularizing the part of Leibniz’s philosophy that Leibniz had published in his own lifetime. Like Leibniz, he is associated with moderate Enlightenment, while at the same time showing a degree of sympathy for scholastic philosophy.)

Kantian pure reason effectively aims to be free of unnecessary assumptions, especially those of the Wolffian system, but also those of the empiricists. Kant also criticizes Wolff’s and Spinoza’s idea that philosophical reasoning should as much as possible resemble mathematical reasoning. What makes it possible for Kant to avoid assumptions beyond the famous “God, freedom, and immortality” (and for Hegel to avoid any assumptions at all) is a move away from the early modern ideal of reason as formal.

Without ever explicitly saying so, Kant in fact takes up and works with a notion of reason that is close to aspects of Plato and Aristotle that were generally neglected in the intervening tradition. Reason in Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel is not limited to formal reasoning. It includes what in more recent times Sellars and Brandom have elaborated under the name of material inference.

Formal reasoning is called formal because it is supposed to apply to all things, independent of any analysis of meaning. But this makes it dependent on assumptions in order to yield conclusions. Material inference — which was also present as a minor theme in scholastic logic — is on the contrary grounded in the interpretation of meaning. It is this reflective grounding that can enable reason to be autonomous and “pure”, with no reliance on anything external to it.

Sellars illustrates material inference with examples like “there are dark rain clouds in the sky, so I should take my umbrella when I go out”. Brandom elaborates with an account of how such judgments may be successively refined based on additional information. In general, if I strike a match correctly, it will light. But under certain conditions, it will not light. But under yet more specific additional conditions, it will in fact still light.

Both Sellars and Brandom — working within the tradition of contemporary analytic philosophy — tend to reach for examples that involve empirical facts, and relations of cause and effect in the broad modern sense. But material inference is more general than that. It is grounded in meaning as we encounter it in real life. Its scope is not limited to any particular kind of meaning, nor does it assume any particular theory of meaning.

Pure reason, then — far from excluding meaning, as formal logic does — is concerned with the progressive self-clarification of meaning — or Kantian “taking as”, or judgment — in a reflective context.

For Hegel, “logic is to be understood as the system of pure reason, as the realm of pure thought” (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., introduction, p. 29). This is what he calls the “concept of science”, and also “absolute knowledge” (p. 28). As I’ve pointed out before, in Hegel these terms have specialized meanings that are far from their ordinary connotations in English. Science need not be empirical, and “absolute” in this context just means the same thing as “pure” or “autonomous” — that reflective judgment need presuppose nothing outside itself.

For Hegel, the standpoint of pure reason (or “science”, or “absolute” knowing) is that of reflective judgment. The whole effort of the Phenomenology of Spirit is required to reach this point, which he then uses as a starting point in the Logic.

“Pure science thus presupposes the liberation from the opposition of consciousness [between itself and its object]…. As science, truth is pure self-consciousness as it develops itself and has the shape of a self, so that that which exists in and for itself is the conscious concept and the concept as such is that which exists in and for itself” (p. 29, emphasis in original).

The reflective concept has the shape of a “self” — a reflexivity — that is not to be identified with our empirical self, but rather is related to the reflective character of self-consciousness, which overcomes the simple opposition between consciousness and its object.

“This objective thinking is thus the content of pure science. Consequently, far from being formal, far from lacking the matter for an actual and true cognition, it is the content which alone has absolute truth” (ibid).

He calls reflective judgment objective thinking, precisely because it begins only after the separation of consciousness from its object ends. Reflective judgment and self-consciousness will not be separated from “the concept” in which they are embodied. Rather, we have here a case of the Aristotelian identity of pure thinking with what it thinks.

“Logic has nothing to do with a thought about something which stands outside by itself as the base of thought; nor does it have to do with forms meant to provide mere markings of the truth; rather, the necessary forms of thinking, and its specific determinations, are the content and the ultimate forms of truth itself.”

“To get at least some inkling of this, one must put aside the notion that truth must be something tangible. Such tangibility, for example, is carried over even into the ideas of Plato which are in God’s thought, as if they were, so to speak, things that exist but in another world or region, and a world of actuality were to be found outside them which has a substantiality distinct from those ideas and is real only because of this distinctness” (pp. 29-30).

Truths are not objects, and they are not given to us in the way that ordinary consciousness takes objects to be. For Hegel, moreover, spiritual values do not have to do with turning away from this world in favor of another one. They are intended to guide us in life.

“There will always be the possibility that someone else will adduce a case, an instance, in which something more and different must be understood by some term or other” (p. 28).

Reflection and interpretation are inherently open-ended.

“How could I possibly pretend that the method that I follow in this system of logic, or rather the method that the system itself follows within, would not be capable of greater perfection, of greater elaboration of detail? Yet I know that it is the one true method. This is made obvious by the fact that this method is not something distinct from its subject matter and content — for it is the content in itself, the dialectic which it possesses within itself, which moves the subject matter forward. It is clear that no expositions can be accepted as scientifically valid that do not follow the progression of this method and are not in tune with its simple rhythm, for it is the course of the fact [Sache] itself” (p. 33).

Translator di Giovanni comments in his glossary, “In non-technical contexts, [Sache] can and should be translated in a variety of ways, such as ‘substance’, or even ‘thing’. As category, however, ‘fact’ seems to be the best rendering. Sache, like ‘fact’, denotes a thing or a situation which we understand to implicitly contain all the factors required for an explanation of its existence. Its presence therefore cannot be doubted even when those factors have yet to be made explicit. The related word, Tatsache, was first coined… in order to translate the English term ‘matter of fact'” (pp. lxxi-lxxii).

To me, these sound like reasons for calling Hegel’s Sache something other than “fact”. Especially in a work of “logic” that invokes “science”, the English word “fact” would most commonly be taken taken to mean an unambiguous empirical truth. Both what I think Hegel means and the explanation di Giovanni gives of it seem better suited by the more open connotations of an English phrase like “the concrete case” or “the matter at hand”. The Sache is something objective, but it is objective in the indefinite sense of a Gegenstand [“object” in the sense of something standing over and against us, but whose nature has yet to be determined].

I used to think that reason that would be applicable to life (or to anything like Hegel’s Sache) could not possibly be pure. I now think that with the inclusive character of reflective judgment and material inference, it can be pure.

Reflection, Judgment, Process

Reflection is a key concept both for later Kant and for Hegel (see, e.g., Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity; More on Contemplation). We have seen that it led Kant to deepen the notion of judgment he had already used in the Critique of Pure Reason, giving more explicit attention to what I have called the process of interpretation, in contrast to the eventual conclusions that had been the exclusive preoccupation of early modern logic. He had already criticized the latter for confusing judgment with predication.

When judgment is identified with simple predication, the process of interpretation entirely disappears. Indeed, both early modern and contemporary formal logic are explicitly concerned with mechanical syntactic manipulation of uninterpreted terms.

Kant’s narrower point in the first Critique had been that only categorical judgments (those having the simple form A is B) can be analyzed as linguistic predications. Against the early modern tradition, Kant pointed out that neither hypothetical judgments (if A then B) nor disjunctive judgments (if A then not-B) can be understood in this way.

Whereas the early modern tradition strongly privileged categorical judgments, taking simple predications straightforwardly as simple assertions, Kant argues that hypothetical and disjunctive judgments have at least equal significance for thought, if not more. Hypothetical and disjunctive judgments are irreducibly inferential, as can be seen from the presence of “if” and “then” in their forms. What Kant suggests about this in the first Critique is that the inferential aspect of judgment is more fundamental than its assertive aspect. Brandom makes the further suggestion that the kinds of inferences Kant is primarily concerned with in this context are informal “material” inferences, which are grounded in the meanings of terms rather than in formal syntax.

With the enhanced concept of reflective judgment developed in the Critique of Judgment, Kant begins to take an even wider range of interpretive processes into account in his view of judgment overall. Reflective judgment is primarily focused on the process of interpretation, though it also reaches conclusions. This makes the contrast between Kantian judgment and judgment in early modern logic even more profound. Early modern logic codifies a “conclusory” notion of judgment grounded in simple assertion, and makes the formal manipulation of such assertions the paradigm for all reasoning. Kantian judgment on the other hand begins as primarily inferential, and comes to emphasize the wider, open-ended, reflective process of interpretation.

The “logic of being” that Hegel presents as a kind of necessary preliminary failure in his Logic is precisely the logic of simple assertion. From any arbitrary assertions, we can deductively generate more assertions that will be consistent with these, and we can classify other assertions according to whether they are consistent with the accepted ones or not. But Hegel is concerned with the possibility of genuine intelligibility and knowledge. Starting only from mere assertions, we can never reach these. The most we can achieve is some kind of relational discrimination between the implications of different assertions, whose meaning is merely assumed.

Kantian reflection is the main theme of Hegel’s “logic of essence”. Hegel’s conclusion is that the ultimate ground of essence is none other than pure reflection, which embodies a kind of reflective infinity of mutually referencing relations, that presupposes no fixed terms. Essence, as a kind of deeper truth of things than the shallow one of logical consistency alone, is not based on “fixed” concepts of the sort that are always assumed in formal logic. Rather, essence for Hegel is grounded in reflection all the way down, which we can pursue as deeply as we like. Socratic inquiry can be seen as a foreshadowing of this.

I see an important parallel to book Lambda of Aristotle’s Metaphysics here. There, the ground of the what-it-is of things is the pure contemplation of thought thinking itself. In other words, the ground of essence is pure reflection, just as Hegel says. The pure actuality or pure entelechy of Aristotle’s first cause is an actuality or entelechy of what Hegel calls pure reflection.

A major difference between Aristotle’s first cause and ourselves, as I read it, is that the purity of the first cause makes it only concerned with essence or deep truth, whereas we rational animals also live in a world of appearances, and therefore also have to deal with these. Because we live in a world of appearances, we humans have a need for judgment that Aristotle’s first cause does not share.

In the “logic of the concept” with which he concludes his Logic, Hegel gives a thoroughly Kantian treatment of judgment, effectively identifying all judgment with reflective judgment in Kant’s sense. If the logic of essence was concerned with the objective determination of essence from pure reflection, the “subjective” logic of the concept is concerned with applying reflection to particular appearances that we encounter in life. This is something we rational animals have to do that Aristotle’s first cause does not.

Pure reflection is a kind of ideal thing that is analytically separable from process, but the kind of reflection that we embodied beings engage in only occurs as part of a concrete process that involves particular appearances and development in time.

More on Contemplation

I’m still, as it were, contemplating Aristotelian contemplation or theoria (see also But What Is Contemplation?; Kantian “Contemplation”?).

The two main English meanings of theoria — “contemplation” and “theory” — have a rather different connotative feel. What is tricky is that by all accounts, contemplation is also an activity. But it is not grammatically obvious that the English “theory” is an activity. Indeed, a theory is commonly taken to be a kind of inert representation, and not an activity.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to say that “theory” by itself can also refer to a corresponding activity. Theory’s activity would be contemplative, and would not in itself aim at any external result. At least on a relative scale applicable to humans, it would be pure thinking. Meanwhile, contemplation for Aristotle is a kind of activity that does not in itself have an external result.

In the contemporary revival of American pragmatist philosophy, figures like Brandom and Pippin insist that thinking is a kind of doing. Rather than a distinction between theory and practice, this leads to a distinction between specifically “contemplative” or “theoretical” practice, and practice in general. Doing and practice in English can thus have the full generality that activity has in Aristotle. Not all doing is “external” doing; not all practice is “external” practice.

Human pure thinking may implicitly issue in a kind of result — a relatively coherent representation, or broadly speaking a “theory” of what it holds to be the case — but it may still be said that this implicit result is “internal”, until some additional external action gives the representation some kind of embodiment.

However, Hegel might remind us that the very distinction between “internal” and “external” is problematic. He argues that it is not really possible to draw an unambiguous line between them, and that internal and external are instead related by a kind of continuity.

(Hegel confusingly calls this a speculative “identity”, though he is very clear that a speculative identity is not a formal, exact identity. Having come to see the value in what Paul Ricoeur calls narrative identity — another “identity” that is not a formal, exact identity — I don’t object as strenuously to Hegel’s nonstandard uses of “identity” as I once did, though I still prefer to use some other word when what is meant is anything weaker than exact isomorphism or substitutional equivalence.)

The continuity of internal and external seems to me like a very Aristotelian point, albeit one that Aristotle does not himself make. But unlike Hegel, Aristotle has no need to respond to a sharp Cartesian or Lockean dualism between consciousness and its representations on the one hand, and everything else on the other.

I think most people would allow that contemplation may involve representations, but contemplation itself is neither an activity of representing, nor a simple consciousness of static representations.

The English connotations of contemplation and reflection are closely aligned. Connotations of words do not count as a philosophical argument for identifying terms that might be claimed to stand for different concepts, but such alignment is nonetheless helpful, because in doing philosophy we are also concerned with communicating clearly, and there are always issues with translated terms not meaning quite the same thing on the two sides of a translation.

Aristotle identifies contemplation with thought thinking itself. I am suggesting that thought thinking itself can be strongly identified with reflection in the sense discussed by Kant, Hegel, Ricoeur, and Pippin, which builds on the common one. That would mean that contemplation can be identified with reflection.

Though the precise meanings of reflection and apperception in Kant are debated by scholars, there seems to be broad agreement that Kant strongly connects pure reflection with pure or transcendental apperception, and a more empirical reflection with a more empirical apperception. (See also Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity).

These same concepts are fundamental to Hegel’s Logic. The three “logics” he develops there concern mere assertion; reflection or reflective constitution; and reflective or apperceptive judgment. Hegel innovatively explains the constitution of essence in terms of a pure reflective determination that presupposes no fixed terms, but builds determination from relations between terms. Then he explains judgment as normatively applying reflective determination to appearances.

I want to suggest that Hegelian reflective or apperceptive judgment should be considered as a more detailed elaboration of Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment.

All of this leads to the conclusion that Aristotelian contemplation — at least the contemplation that he explicitly makes the goal of human life — can be explained as the exercise of reflective or apperceptive judgment. It is not clear to me that the contemplation attributed to the first cause also issues in judgment, but it certainly does seem to be a kind of pure reflection such as Hegel associates with the determination of essence, and this tracks with Aristotle’s claim that the what-it-is of things depends on the first cause.

The Goal of Human Life

Book X of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with the ultimate goal of human life. Things said here about the key undefined terms of “intellect” and “contemplation” provide important background for what is said about them in book Lambda of the Metaphysics.

He begins with a discussion of pleasure. “For some people say that pleasure is the good, while others at the opposite extreme say it is completely base, some of them perhaps being convinced that it is that way, but others believing that it is better for our life to make pleasure appear to be something base, even if it is not, on the grounds that most people are heavily inclined toward it and are enslaved to their pleasures” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 181).

First, he suggests that it is not pleasure in its own right that is base, but a kind of enslavement to its pursuit.

Still referring to those who say pleasure is base, he continues, “But it may well be that this is not a good thing to say. For words that concern things in the realm of feelings and actions are less believable than deeds are…. For if someone who condemns pleasure is seen sometimes going after it, he seems to incline toward it because all of it is good, since making distinctions is not something that most people do. So true statements seem to be the most useful ones, not only for knowing but also for life; for since they are in tune with one’s deeds they are believed, and they encourage those who understand them to live by them” (ibid).

Saying that words are less believable than deeds expresses in very simple language the same point for which I have repeatedly cited Robert Pippin’s account of the ethical consequences of the Aristotelian priority of actuality in Hegel.

In passing, Aristotle observes that most humans over-generalize, whereas the philosopher is careful to make distinctions.

“Now Eudoxus believed that pleasure is the good, because one sees that all beings, both rational and irrational, aim at it, while in all things what is choiceworthy is good and what is most choiceworthy is best; so the fact that all things are carried to the same goal reveals that this is the best thing for them all (for each thing discovers what is good for itself, just as it discovers its food), and what is good for all things, and at which all things aim, is the good. His arguments were convincing on account of the virtue of his character, more than on their own account, since he seemed to be an exceptionally temperate man, so that he seemed to be saying these things not as a lover of pleasure but because that is the way things are in truth” (ch. 2, p. 181).

Here Aristotle again concretely applies the priority of actuality or being-at-work. In disputed ethical matters, the character of the speaker as observable by others in her deeds often has even greater importance than the quality of the speaker’s arguments.

“But what is most choiceworthy is what we choose neither on account of anything else nor for the sake of anything else; and such, by general agreement, is pleasure, since no one asks for what purpose one feels pleasure, because pleasure is chosen for itself. And when pleasure is added to any good thing whatever, such as acting justly or being temperate, it makes it more choiceworthy, but it is by itself that the good is augmented.”

It is always a key distinction for Aristotle whether something is chosen for its own sake or for the sake of something else.

“But surely the latter argument, at any rate, seems to show that pleasure is among the things that are good, but no more so than any other, since every one of them is more choiceworthy along with another good thing than when it is alone. Indeed, Plato argues in rebuttal by that sort of argument that pleasure is not the good, since a pleasant life is more choiceworthy along with intelligence than apart from it, but if the mixture is better, then pleasure is not the good, for the good does not become more choiceworthy when something is added to it. And it is clear that nothing else that becomes more choiceworthy along with any of the things that are good in themselves would be the good either” (pp. 181-182).

With the help of Plato, he leads us through a dialectical reversal of the apparent endorsement of Eudoxus’ position above. This last argument about pleasure holds true for any particular good, and therefore does not suffice to establish that pleasure is the good in an unqualified sense. We need to distinguish between any particular end that may be sought and the good in its own right, which he also calls beautiful.

He continues, “But what is of that sort, that we have any share in? For that is the sort of thing being sought. On the other hand, those who argue in opposition that what all things aim at is not good are not saying anything; for those things that seem so to all people, we declare to be so, and someone who destroys that trust will not very likely say anything that is more to be trusted” (p. 182).

Those who argue that what all things aim at is not the good are “not saying anything”. Here he seems to make two separate points. First, by calling this “not saying anything”, he implies that a denial that all things aim at the good ought to be considered as leading to debilitating incoherence. Such a denial does not just contradict the contrary view shared by Eudoxus and Plato, that the good (whatever else it may be) is that at which all things aim. What supports the view of Eudoxus and Plato is the possibility of mutual articulation and clarification between the what-it-is of the good and the what-it-is of the aims of things. The contrary view rejects that correlation, and offers nothing in its place to support articulation and clarification. In that way, it undermines intelligibility and discourse. This is not a proof that all things aim at the good, only a rationally persuasive argument.

Second, he claims that people in general — or what we might call common sense — in fact presuppose the correlation between the good and aims posited by Eudoxus and Plato. Again, this is only a rationally persuasive argument, not a proof.

He continues, “For if it were only things without intelligence that desire pleasant things, there would be something in what they say, but if beings with judgment desire them as well, how could they be saying anything? And perhaps even in the lower animals there is something naturally good that is stronger than they themselves are, that aims at their proper good” (ibid).

Here he tacitly equates intelligence with good judgment. Most things in life cannot be adequately dealt with using only logical reasoning from what can be known in a strict sense. In animals that do not have the ability to deliberate and make judgments of what ought to be done, he suggests that their nature as their indwelling source of motion takes the place of judgment.

“Nor is it the case that, if pleasure is not classed among the qualities, it is for that reason not among good things either; for the ways of being-at-work that belong to virtue are not qualities, and neither is happiness” (ch. 3, p. 182).

Pleasure, virtue, and happiness are not simple qualities. As was said more generally about states of things in the Physics, they involve complex relations.

“To those who bring up pleasures that are matters of reproach, one might say that these are not pleasant (for just because they are pleasurable to people who are in a bad condition, one ought not to suppose that they would also be pleasant to anyone except these…), … or else pleasures differ in kind, for the ones that come from beautiful things are different from the ones that come from shameful things, for it is not possible to feel the pleasure that comes from something just without being a just person, or the pleasure that comes from something musical without being a musical person, and similarly in the other cases. And the fact that a friend is different from a flatterer seems to make it clear that pleasure is either not good or varies in kind” (p. 184).

He concludes, “It seems to be clear, then, that pleasure is not the good and that not every pleasure is choiceworthy, and that there are some pleasures that are choiceworthy in themselves, differing in kind or in the things they come from” (ibid).

Pleasure is not the good, but pleasures associated with that he calls “beautiful” things, which are those that are good in their own right, are nonetheless choiceworthy in their own right.

“Now the activity of seeing seems to be complete over any time whatever, for there is nothing it lacks which would complete its form by coming about at a later time; pleasure too is like something of this sort. For it is something whole, and there is no time at which one could take a pleasure, the form of which would become complete after it went on for a longer time. Hence pleasure is not a motion…. But all the motions that are in parts of time are incomplete, and are different in form from the whole and from one another. For setting stones together is different from making grooves in a column, and these motions differ from the making of a temple; the making of the temple is something complete (for it is lacking in nothing in relation to what was intended), but the making of the foundation or of a decorative tablet is incomplete, since each of these is the making of a part. They are different in form, then, and it is not possible to find a motion complete in its form in any time whatever except in the whole” (ch. 4, pp. 184-185).

“But the form of a pleasure is complete in any time whatever…. [I]t is not possible to be in motion except in a stretch of time, but it is possible to feel pleasure, for what is in the now is something whole” (p. 185).

Pleasure, like seeing, is its own entelechy (something complete in itself), and not a motion. In the Physics, he treats the continuity of any given motion as itself a kind of imperfect entelechy, but here he emphasizes the contrast between motion and any more perfect entelechy.

“Now since every one of the senses is at work in relation to something perceptible, and is completely at work when it is in its best condition and directed toward the most beautiful of the things perceptible by that sense (for it seems that its complete being-at-work is of this sort most of all, and let it make no difference to speak of the sense itself, or of the organ in which it is present, as being-at-work), for each sense, that way of being-at-work is best that belongs to what is in its best condition, directed toward the best of what is perceptible by it. This would be most complete and most pleasant” (p. 186).

It is common to hear claims that perception for Aristotle is unequivocally passive. It does have a passive aspect that he emphasizes in On the Soul. But here he emphasizes that all perception is a being-at-work or actuality, and thus also an entelechy, by way of his identification of actuality with entelechy.

“[F]or there is a pleasure that goes with each of the senses, and similarly with thinking and contemplation, and its most complete activity is most pleasant, and it is most complete when it belongs to a power that is in good condition directed toward that which is of most serious worth among the things apprehended by it, and the pleasure brings the activity to completion” (ibid).

The greatest pleasure accompanies the most complete entelechy. This also applies to the first cause, which he conceives as an entelechy that is complete in an unqualified sense.

“When the thing perceiving and the thing perceived are at their best, there will always be pleasure when what acts and what is acted upon are present to one another. But the pleasure brings the activity to completion not as an active condition present within it all along, but as something that comes over it, like the bloom of well-being in people who are at the peak of their powers” (ibid).

Pleasure follows from the fulfillment of nature. But it is something that supervenes on that fulfillment.

“So as long as the intelligible or perceptible thing, and the power that discerns or contemplates it, are such as they ought to be, there will be pleasure in their being-at-work, for while the thing acted upon and the thing acting remain as they are and have the same relation to one another, the same thing comes about…. [But] it is impossible for anything belonging to human beings to be at-work continuously” (p. 187).

Being-at-work and entelechy inherently generate pleasure.

“But one might assume that all beings reach out for pleasure because they all desire to live. Life is a certain kind of being-at-work…. The pleasure brings the activities to completion and hence brings living to completion, which is what they all strive for…. For without being-at-work, no pleasure comes about, and pleasure brings every way of being-at-work to completion” (ibid).

All life is being-at-work and entelechy. There is no genuine pleasure apart from these.

“[W]ays of being-at-work that are different in kind are brought to completion by means that differ in kind…. [E]ach of the pleasures is bound up with the activity it completes, since the appropriate pleasure contributes to the growth of the activity. For those who are at-work with pleasure discern each sort of thing better and are more precise about it” (pp. 187-188).

To be at-work and to feel pleasure in it makes us better at whatever we are doing.

“Now since ways of being-at-work differ in decency and baseness, and since some are to be chosen, others are to be avoided, and still others are neutral, their pleasures also differ similarly, since a special pleasure goes with each activity. The special pleasure in an activity of serious worth is decent, and the special pleasure in a base activity is corrupt” (p. 188).

Here he distinguishes what I above called “genuine” pleasure from spurious apparent pleasure associated with a corrupt nature.

“Decency” (epieikeia) means ethical sensitivity. More specifically, for Aristotle it is an attitude that tempers the strict application of rules or laws with kindness and charitable interpretation. Leibniz also emphasized this in his philosophy of jurisprudence. Ethics answers to a higher calling than mere rules or law. This doesn’t mean that all rules and law should be thrown out. It does mean that within reason, kindness and charity and attention to particulars should take precedence over the rigid application of rules.

“But in all such matters, it seems that a thing is what it shows itself to be to a person of serious moral stature. And if this is beautifully said, as it seems to be, then the measure of each thing is virtue, or a good person, insofar as he is good, and what appear to be pleasures to this person would be pleasures, and the things he enjoys will be pleasant. And if some things that are hard for this person to endure appear pleasant to someone, that is nothing to be wondered at, since many kinds of corruption and damage happen to human beings” (p. 189).

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle interprets Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things” as a subjectivism that undermines any possibility of discourse. Here is Aristotle’s positive alternative: the virtue of a good person is the measure of all things. Intelligibility depends on normativity.

“[B]ut among the pleasures that seem to be decent, which sort or which one ought one to say is that of a human being? Or is this clear from the ways of being-at-work, since the pleasures follow upon these? So if there is one or more than one activity belonging to the man who is fulfilled and blessed, the pleasures that bring them to completion should be spoken of, in the governing sense, as the pleasures of a human being, while the rest are pleasures in a secondary and greatly diminished sense, corresponding to their activities” (pp. 189-190).

The highest pleasure of a human being will turn out to come from the entelechy of contemplative intellect.

“Now that the things having to do with the virtues, with friendships, and with pleasures have been discussed, what remains is to go through in outline what has to do with happiness, since we set this down as the end at which human beings aim. And the account of it would be shorter for those who take up again what has been said before” (ch. 6, p. 190).

The virtues and friendship are discussed in earlier books of the Ethics. Now he turns from pleasure to eudaimonia or “happiness”, which for Aristotle is a condition to be judged objectively, and not a subjective feeling.

“[O]ne ought… to place happiness in some form of being-at-work…. [O]ne ought to place happiness among those that are chosen for their own sake and not among those that are for the sake of something else, since happiness stands in need of nothing but is self-sufficient. And those activities are chosen for their own sake from which nothing is sought beyond the being-at-work; and actions in accord with virtue seem to be of this sort, since performing actions that are beautiful and serious is something chosen for its own sake” (ch. 6, p. 190).

Happiness comes from a substantial engagement in activities chosen for their own sake. No human gets to do this exclusively, but we do have the ability to choose some things only for their own sake.

“Even children believe that the things valued by themselves are the best things. So it is reasonable that, just as different things appear worthwhile to children and to men, so too do different things appear worthwhile to people of a low sort and to decent people…. [T]o each person, the way of being-at-work that results from his own active condition is the most choiceworthy, and to a person of serious worth that is the activity that results from virtue” (pp. 190-191).

At a certain level, we cannot avoid dealing with apparent goods. The way he approaches these is to focus on what seems good to fundamentally kind, reasonable people who take ethics seriously.

“But to be earnest and to labor for the sake of play seems foolish and too childish. But to play in order to be serious… seems to be right, since play seems like relaxation, and since people are incapable of laboring continuously, they need relaxation. So relaxation is not the end, since it comes about for the sake of being-at-work. And the happy life seems to be in accord with virtue, and this involves seriousness and does not consist in play” (p. 191).

He argues against the shallow association of happiness with play. Seriousness means not a dour attitude, but caring about what is reasonable and ethical.

“But if happiness is being-at-work in accord with virtue, it is reasonable that it would be in accord with the most powerful virtue, and this would belong to the best part. Now whether this is intellect or some other part that seems by nature to rule and lead and have a conception about things that are beautiful and divine, and to be either divine itself or the most divine of the things that are in us, the being-at-work of this part in accord with its own proper virtue would be complete happiness. That this way of being-at-work is contemplative has been said. And this would seem to be in agreement with the things said before and with the truth. For this way of being-at-work is the most powerful (since the intellect is the most powerful of the things in us, and the things with which the intellect is concerned are the most powerful of the things that can be known); it is also the most continuous, for we are more able to contemplate continuously than to act in any way whatever” (ch. 7, pp. 191-192).

This helps fill out what is said about the nature of the first cause in book Lambda of the Metaphysics. I think it tends to support the identification of contemplation with thought thinking itself.

“And we believe that pleasure must be mixed in with happiness, and by general agreement the most pleasant of the ways of being-at-work in accord with virtue is that which goes along with wisdom; at any rate, philosophy seems to have pleasures that are wonderful in their purity and stability…. And what is referred to as self-sufficiency would be present most of all in the contemplative life, for… the wise person is able to contemplate even when he is by himself, and more so to the extent that he is more wise. He will contemplate better, no doubt, when he has people to work with, but he is still the most self-sufficient person” (p. 192).

The highest pleasure is being-at-work in accordance with wisdom. Contemplation is more complete in itself (more of an entelechy) than anything else.

“And contemplation seems to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake, for nothing comes to be from it beyond the contemplating, while from things involving action we gain something for ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent, beyond the action” (ibid).

Contemplating is distinguished from the kind of acting that is the official concern of practical judgment (phronesis), as well as from any kind of making. For Aristotle, it is a more pure example of being-at-work than acting or making.

“So if, among actions in accord with the virtues, those that pertain to politics and war are pre-eminent in beauty and magnitude, but they are unleisured and aim at some end and are chosen not for their own sake, while the being-at-work of the intellect seems to excel in seriousness, and to be contemplative and aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its own pleasure (which increases its activity), so that what is as self-sufficient, leisured, and unwearied as possible for a human being, and all the other things that are attributed to a blessed person, show themselves as the things that result from this way of being-at-work, then this would be the complete happiness of a human being, if it takes in a complete span of life, for none of the things that belong to happiness is incomplete” (pp. 192-193).

For Aristotle, happiness or its absence is a characteristic of a whole life viewed in its completion.

“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” (p. 193).

Intellect “surpasses the compound being”. Once again, this suggests that for Aristotle, intellect is more than just a part of the soul that is a constituent of that compound.

“So if intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with 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 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 even seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part” (ibid).

For Aristotle, intellect is immortal, although memory depends on the body. He is suggesting that we identify as much as we can with the immortal thing that both is within us and surpasses us. (See also Properly Human, More Than Human?.)

“[W]hat 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” (ibid).

The same thing — intellect — that was said to be greater than what accords with an empirical human being, is now said to be “most of all” a human being in a non-empirical, normative sense.

“The life in accord with the rest of virtue is happy in a secondary way, since the activities that result from it are human ones…. Some of them even seem to derive from the body, and in many respects virtue of character is bound up together with our feelings. And practical judgment is linked together with virtue of character, and it with practical judgment, if the sources of practical judgment are dependent on virtues of character, while the right thing belonging to virtues of character is dependent upon practical judgment” (ch. 8, p. 193).

Here we have the source of claims that Aristotle regards practical judgment (phronesis) as distinctly inferior to contemplative intellect. This ought to be considered carefully.

It is true that practical judgement is inseparable from how we deal with our emotions, whereas he wants to say that intellect is not. But being inseparable from how we deal with our emotions need not at all imply being compulsively driven by the raw emotions we are dealing with. In passing, we feel all sorts of things that we do not act upon, because we judge that it would not really be appropriate to do so. We can have various degrees of detachment from things that we feel, even though we still feel them.

I want to say that there is a kind of contemplative, reflective, deliberative, interpretive judgment that is like practical judgment in that it is primarily concerned with particulars, but different in that its primary outcome is interpretation rather than action. I think that practical judgment about the right action could not function without relying on many interpretive judgments about relevant details, and indeed that such interpretive judgment is what does all the deliberative work in practical judgment, independent of whether that work results in action or not.

“But the happiness that belongs to the intellect is separate…. And it would seem to have little need of external props, or less than virtue of character has…. For the generous person will need money for performing generous acts…, and a courageous person will need strength, … and a temperate person will need opportunity” (p. 194).

He points out that the outcome of actions depends on circumstances. Contemplation has some minimal conditions too, but once those are met, its outcome does not depend on circumstances. But it is only the actions that have these additional dependencies on circumstance, not interpretive judgments as such.

“It is also a matter of dispute whether the choice or the actions are more determining of virtue, since it is present in both; it is clear that the completeness of it would consist in both together” (ibid).

Both intentions and outcomes are important for any normative appraisal of actions. Good intentions may warrant forgiveness for bad outcomes. But at the same time, deeds count more than words in the assessment of what someone’s intentions and values really were.

“[B]ut for the actions many things are needed, and more of them to the extent that the actions are of greater magnitude and more beautiful. But for someone who contemplates there is no need of such things for his being-at-work; rather, one might say that they get in the way of his contemplating. But insofar as he is a human being and lives in company with a number of people, he chooses to do the things that have to do with virtue, and thus will have need of such things in order to live a human life” (ibid).

A contemplative human being will almost always also be involved in non-contemplative actions and social interactions. For Aristotle, involvement in social relations is an essential aspect of what it is to be human.

“That complete happiness is a contemplative activity would also be made clear by the following consideration: we assume that the gods are most of all blessed and happy, but what sort of actions will it be right to attribute to them?… And for someone who goes through them all, it would be obvious that the things involved in actions are small and unworthy of the gods. But surely everyone supposes that they are alive at any rate, and are therefore at work…. But when someone who is living is deprived of acting, and still more of making anything, what remains except contemplation? So the being-at-work of a god, surpassing in blessedness, would be contemplative, and so among human activities, the one the most akin to this would be the most happy” (pp. 194-195).

Here he says that the being-at-work of a god is contemplation, and cites this as an additional reason why contemplation is the happiest human activity.

“For the gods, the whole of life is blessed, and for human beings it is so to the extent that there is in it some likeness to such a way of being-at-work…. But there will also be a need of external prosperity for one who is a human being, since nature is not self-sufficient for contemplating, but there is also a need for the body to be healthy and for food and other attentions to be present. But one certainly ought not to suppose that someone who is going to be happy will need many things or grand ones…; for self-sufficiency does not consist in excess any more than action does, and it is possible for one who is not a ruler of land and sea to perform beautiful actions. For one would be capable of acting in accord with virtue from moderate means (and it is possible to see this plainly, since private people seem to perform decent actions not less than powerful people but even more), and it is sufficient if that much is present, since the life of someone who is at-work in accord with virtue will be happy” (p. 195).

The happiness of a human life also has material prerequisites, but they are relatively modest. He suggests that the rich and powerful may be less virtuous and therefore less happy than others.

“And Anaxagoras, too, seems to have believed that the happy person is neither rich nor powerful, when he said it would be nothing to wonder at if such a person would appear strange to most people, since they judge by externals, perceiving these alone. So the opinions of the wise seem to be in harmony with our arguments” (ibid).

A person living a life that would ultimately be judged to be happy in the Aristotelian sense will have priorities that will appear strange to people who have no serious involvement with contemplation.

“Now such things have some trustworthiness, but the truth in matters of action is discerned from deeds and from life…. So we ought to examine the things that have been said by applying them to deeds and to life, and if they are in harmony with the deeds one ought to accept them, while if they are out of tune one ought to consider them just words” (pp. 195-196).

Having just cited the authority of a reputedly wise man for additional persuasion, he again points out that deeds observable by others are more trustworthy than anyone’s mere words, including those of an authority we respect.

“But the person who is at-work with intellect and takes care of this and is disposed in the best way toward it seems also to be most dear to the gods. For if some care for human beings comes from the gods, as is believed, then it would be most reasonable for them to delight in what is best and most akin to them (and this would be the intellect), and to do good in return to those who love and honor this most, since such people care for the things that are dear to them, and also act rightly and beautifully” (p. 196).

Here he argues that intellect and contemplation are what is most dear to the gods — even more dear, that is, than virtuous actions. This need not imply that particular virtuous actions are not dear to them also, only that the intellect, contemplation, and wisdom that among other things guide virtuous action are even more so.

“Now if what has to do with happiness as well as with the virtues, and also with friendship and pleasure, has been sufficiently discussed in outline, ought one to assume that our chosen task has its end? Or, as has been said, is the end in matters of action not contemplating and knowing each of them but rather doing them? Then it is not sufficient to know about virtue, but one must try to have it and use it” (ch. 9, p. 196).

Once again, he balances the emphasis on contemplation with an emphasis on complete ethical doing. This kind of careful concern for a balanced, multi-dimensional view of things is why I keep coming back to Aristotle.

“[A]s things are, discourses appear to have the power to encourage and stimulate open-natured young people, … but they are unable to encourage most people toward what is beautiful and good…. For it is not possible, or not easy, to change by words things that have been bound up in people’s characters since long ago…. [I]t is necessary for the soul of the listener to have been worked on beforehand by means of habits, with a view to enjoying and hating in a beautiful way, like ground that is going to nourish the seed” (pp. 196-197).

Here he repeats a point made in an earlier book about the extreme ethical importance of people’s emotional dispositions, and consequently of the way children are raised. Insofar as people have acquired a disposition for disordered emotions, it can be nearly impossible to have dialogue with them at the times when it matters most.

I don’t think it is ever acceptable to hate people as people. But someone who loves the good may legitimately hate actions and circumstances that are truly bad, just because they are bad. And those who stubbornly refuse to recognize others deserve to be harshly dealt with.

“For someone who lives by feeling could not hear the words that would turn him away, nor could he even understand them; when someone is in that condition, how is it possible to change his mind? And in general, feeling seems to yield not to reasoned speech but to force. So it is necessary for a character to be present in advance that is in some way appropriate for virtue, loving what is beautiful and scorning what is shameful” (ibid).

I prefer to use the English word “feeling” in a more positive way, and would substitute “disordered emotion” for it in the above. (See also Virtue Not a Potential.)

Practical Wisdom

Practical “wisdom”, as I would use the term, would be an excellence in practical judgment. Aristotle says that practical judgment is neither knowledge nor opinion, but something grounded in deliberation that has an outcome in action. Such deliberation is a kind of doing that uses the the best resources available to it to determine the best action in concrete circumstances. Aristotle uses the Greek phronesis for both practical judgment and what I am distinguishing as practical wisdom.

Joe Sachs says in his glossary to Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics that phronesis is “The active condition by which someone discerns the right means to the right end in particular circumstances. Hence the intellectual virtue of practical judgment and the whole of virtue of character are mutually dependent and must develop together, since the right end is apparent only to someone of good character, while the formation of good character requires the repeated choice of the right action, which is impossible without practical judgment” (p. 209).

We might notice that this sort of pattern of mutual dependence between good judgment and good character is exactly the same as that of several mutual dependencies that are emphasized by Hegel in his discussions of what intelligibility in general requires. Of course this is no accident; Aristotle is Hegel’s inspiration for this kind of idea.

“Apart from virtue of character, the capacity to reason from ends to means is mere cleverness; practical judgment involves skill in making distinctions and seeing connections, but if one does not recognize that such thinking imposes upon oneself an obligation to act, that skill is merely astuteness” (ibid).

“The translation ‘practical judgment’ is chosen here as the best way of conveying Aristotle’s central understanding that ethical choices can never be deductions from any rules, principles, or general duties, but always require a weighing of particular circumstances and balancing of conflicting principles in a direct recognition of the mean” (p. 210).

Phronesis is a weighing, and not a deduction. This is extremely important, though I would use some other words than “direct recognition” in regard to the mean.

Aristotle is not qualifying a more general, pre-existing notion of “judgment” by calling it “practical”. We should not take literally this implication of the grammar of the English phrase “practical judgment”, which diverges from the Greek, in which phronesis is a single noun. As far as I can tell, phronesis just is Aristotle’s notion of what I have been calling “judgment”. Sachs also calls it “practical”, using the ethical connotations of that word from Kant. That is consonant with Aristotle’s meaning, though not literally present in the Greek.

I am fascinated by the possibility of a mutual inter-articulation of Aristotelian phronesis and the “reflective judgment” extensively dwelt upon by Kant and Hegel. It seems to me that the kind of weighing Aristotle emphasizes is inherently reflective in Kant and Hegel’s sense. (See also Reflective Grounding; Life: A Necessary Concept?; Reflection and Higher-Order Things; Reflection and Dialectic; Hegel on Reflection; Apperceptive Judgment.)

“Practical judgment is acquired primarily by experience of particulars, but also involves a knowledge of things that are universal” (p. 209).

This last qualification is important. Phronesis is directed at particulars first, but Aristotle never considers particulars in complete abstraction from applicable universals. The emphasis on particulars tells us that practical judgment will require open-ended interpretation, not a mechanical application of rules. But the reflective “knowledge of things that are universal” that contributes to practical wisdom includes not just classifications, but potentially, for example, all the lessons of Hegel’s Logic about interpretation and intelligibility in general, as well as any Kantian ethical universals that may be applicable.

(Most of the Logic’s development is an articulation of higher-order concepts, but the final stage of “the idea” explicitly involves a return to the concrete world, in which reflective judgment weighs particulars and higher-order concepts together. I want to suggest that this is Hegel’s own development of genuinely Aristotelian practical judgment. Properly understood, Hegel’s “absolute knowing” is nothing more than a making explicit of general conditions for practical “wisdom” in the sense above, fully compatible with the free play of Aristotelian phronesis in relation to particulars.)

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.

Hegel on Reflection

Continuing a walk-through of Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, we are now trying to understand what grounds the possibility of non-misleading appearances of an essence or ground or reality, which is to say those in which aspects of the essence or ground or reality are said to be genuinely made manifest.

It seems to me Hegel is suggesting that what distinguishes actual knowledge is its reflective, “mediated” character. This is what makes knowledge more than just mere appearance or mere assertion. Real knowledge is not just a one-off that “happens” sometimes, by a sort of happy coincidence.

On the side of judgment, reflection corresponds to the self-relation and self-referentiality on the side of content that were mentioned before. In terms of Hegel’s Phenomenology, it corresponds to self-consciousness. There, it involves a very nonstandard kind of “infinity” that Hegel insists is a “result” and not anything pre-existing. In the Logic, Hegel very sharply distinguishes such an infinity of reflection from any one-dimensional infinity of magnitude or quantity, as “good” infinity from “bad” infinity.

Hegel’s “good” infinite is infinite in dimensionality, not in extension or even in intensity. Extension and intensity both apply only to single dimensions. The good infinite is not a kind of pseudo-quantity that is beyond measure, not something that is not a number that we nonetheless use in place of a number. It is intended to be compatible with definiteness in any given dimension.

This, I think, is what earns it Hegel’s characterization as “good”. A “bad” or one-dimensional infinite “swallows up” and makes to be as nothing any definite determination within its scope; Hegel’s “good” infinite multiplies related dimensions but preserves distinctions in each dimension. Indeed, by combining determinations across dimensions, it not only preserves each determination but potentially strengthens their robustness and resilience. (See also Reflective Grounding.)

Pure relation or pure negativity has its correlate in “absolute” reflection, or reflection as a single act of “self-conscious” synthesis spanning potentially infinite dimensions of meaning, any one of which is in principle subject to definite characterization. With the caveat that the dimensional infinity is potential in an Aristotelian sense, this puts partial realizations of “absolute” reflection within the reach of us rational animals. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?.)

The potentially infinite dimensionality of reflection is thus what grounds the possibility of real knowledge for Hegel. The next level of detail will concern Hegel’s notion of the identity of contents of possible knowledge in this reflective context.

Pippin notes that “Plato, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, and others can all be cited in various ways as expressive of the reflective logic of the appearances of essence, the manifestation of something substantial that is nevertheless not manifest as it is in itself. To understand how this is possible, Hegel argues that it has become necessary to understand the content of and relation among the ‘determinations of reflection’ by means of which essence can be established (qualitative identities fixed and differentiated from others) and a proper relation to appearances established: ‘identity, difference, and contradiction'” (p. 231).

“It would be wrong to say that Hegel will ‘derive difference from identity’…. This is basically a deductive model of systematicity and it is not Hegel’s” (ibid).

“He argues that [the ‘A’ in ‘A = A’] can be understood in its self-identity only determinately, and that means by something not-A, and the context makes clear that he means, not the mere repetition of A itself as that determination, but determinate predicates that, we would say, do not mean the same thing as A. So not ‘human being is human being’, but something like ‘human being is rational animal’, where ‘rational animal’… has a different meaning” (pp. 231-232).

According to Pippin, Hegel very clearly distinguishes the “is” of identity from the “is” of predication.

“We have not derived ‘difference’ in this sense from ‘identity’, but the exposition has shown that identification (identity at work, one should say) requires already, in itself, just by being thought through, an appeal to differentiating factors. Otherwise, nothing is determinately identified” (p. 232).

Pippin’s phrase in the style of Aristotle, “identity at work”, captures the background of a Kantian unity of apperception. We are headed toward Hegel’s notion of apperceptive judgment, which Pippin has already characterized in a preliminary way.

To say identity at work “requires… an appeal to differentiating factors” is not only not to derive difference from identity. It is to explicitly say that identity depends on difference, just as much as vice versa. Pippin says that for Hegel, identity and difference are equally primordial. I think it is impossible to have one without the other.

“‘The pure movement of reflection which identity is‘ (identity understood actively as the power to successfully identify) is to be understood by reference to ‘the simple negativity which is contained in a more developed form by the just stated second formulation of the principle‘ (A’s being A by already not being ~A, such that the determinate predicates by which A is specified actually do specify it)” (p. 233, Pippin’s emphasis).

Identity itself for Hegel is a “movement of reflection”. Unities at the level of thought arise out of apperceptive judgment, rather than coming to us ready-made.

As to A being A only by also not being anything materially incompatible with A, Pippin says this is one version of the most important thought in Hegel’s Logic. The logic of being’s lesson of the inseparability of affirmation and negation is one version of it. In the part of the logic of being Pippin skipped over, he notes there is a related development of the “co-definability of qualitative independence and dependence (substance independence and relational dependence” (p. 234). Also related are “the identity within difference of essence and appearance, and so ultimately of ground and what is grounded in the logic of essence; and the way in which Hegel understands the concrete universal, that is, the inseparability of particular and universal in the logic of the Concept” (ibid).

“Hegel’s suggestion that Kant’s concept-intuition distinction should be understood as primarily a logical or conceptual problem, that we do not yet know how to think together their inseparability with their distinctness, reaches its most crucial turning point in the logic of essence in his account of reflection. The ‘immediacy’ of Schein as nevertheless also mediated, determinate even when the skeptic insists on the absence of a determining essence, is a pivot of the book” (ibid; see Toward Essence).

“If we think of the account in terms of our example of the relation between a person’s character/essence and her particular deeds, the character or essence must be in some way ‘posited’ (rather than apprehended or seen). But the positing cannot be arbitrary; what guides our positing is what we think the deeds must ‘presuppose’ to be the deeds they are” (p. 235).

“Hegel implies that the way Kant has described the situation — given a particular, find the universal — is misleadingly ‘external’. For what we are supposed to ‘ascend to’ and discover is not really external to the instance being reflected on…. There is no credible way to understand the particular as ‘external’ to the power of reflection like this. As… ‘waiting’ for its universal, it isn’t anything determinate at all; as provoking a universal-search, on the assumption that it has not been classified as a kind, it has nothing determinate to guide us or direct such a search. It could be said to have scores of properties. Which are relevant?” (p. 236).

He continues, “What Hegel calls ‘reflection in general’ must rather be characterized as ‘determining reflection’, a term he wants to cover both determining and reflective judgment. This is to be understood, in his terms, as the unity of positing and external reflection. What is external, say, the deeds in our example, are not just uniform repetitions of the self-same essence; they are all other than essence” (ibid).

“Yet again we encounter a mutually presupposing relation, here in ‘determinate reflection'” (p. 237). “If we don’t know how to connect in any determinate way the deed with the inward character being manifested (or not), then our positing/presupposing is just a form of ‘external’ reflection” (ibid).

In summary then, non-misleading appearances will be those that are understood reflectively in this mutually determining way. The inter-relations of many appearances taken together — e.g., in a unity of apperception — are what ground the robustness and resiliency of any given appearance.

He quotes Hegel, “Essence as such is one with its reflection, inseparable from its movement. It is not essence, therefore, through which this movement runs its reflective course; nor is essence that from which the movement begins, as from a starting point. It is this circumstance that above all makes the exposition of reflection especially difficult, for strictly speaking one cannot say that essence returns into itself, that essence shines in itself, for essence is neither before its movement nor in the movement: this movement has no substrate on which it runs its course” (p. 238).

This “movement that has no substrate”, I would say, is also the movement of the Aristotelian potential intellect that “is nothing at all before it begins to think”.

Reflective Grounding

In Essence and Explanation, I introduced Hegel’s generalization from essence to “ground”, which is anything that explains something else and could be said to metaphorically “underlie” it.

Essence and ground in Hegel’s sense are not simply definable once and for all. Instead, he emphasizes dynamic relations of “grounding”, in accordance with his unusual notion of truth as a process. These dynamic relations correlate with movements of the reflective judgment that Kant discusses in the Critique of Judgment.

Kant distinguishes “determinative” judgment — corresponding to ordinary predicative assertions like “S is P“, and to the subsumption of individuals under universal concepts — from “reflective” judgment, which open-endedly looks for universals appropriate to the individual. Pippin suggests there is a kind of reciprocal dependency involved in the actual working of these two kinds of judgment.

It seems to me that reflective judgment has a great deal in common with the deliberation that lies behind Aristotelian practical judgment, even though Aristotle speaks of these as concluding in action rather than knowledge or opinion. Perhaps we might also say with Brandom that undertaking a commitment about how things are is a kind of action.

Hegel argues that even determinative judgments presuppose a reflective component, and speaks at length of “reflective determination”.

This use of “reflective” has nothing to do with the immediate inspection or direct consciousness of some content, or even with any single stage of reflection, or indeed any kind of move that could be completed all at once.

Paul Ricoeur’s works make a similar point, in tying the term “reflective” closely to his other notion of the “long detour” needed for philosophical understanding, which is itself very Hegelian in spirit. This is anything but a rabbit-out-of-hat “reflexivity at a glance”.

If there is a metaphor here, it is not gazing in a mirror to see something, but finding an orientation within the potentially infinite reflections of a hall of mirrors. Note also that we see the potentially infinite reflections in an “immediate” representation, even though each layer of reflection is an additional mediation when we interpret what we are seeing.

At the level of nature, similar potentially infinite reflection occurs in biological and ecological processes that achieve stability through feedback cycles.

Free Play

A central concept of Kant’s Critique of Judgment is that of a free play of imagination and understanding, associated with what he calls reflective judgments of beauty. “[I]t is precisely in this divorce from any constraint of a rule… where taste can show its greatest perfection in designs made by the imagination” (Hackett edition, p. 93). He also associates this with looking for a universal when we don’t already have one. (See also Searching for a Middle Term.)

This seems to be just what was missing from his account of ethical deliberation, reviewed in Kantian Maxims. It seems to me that the emergent synthesis of a unity of apperception must also involve something like this free play, and that ethical judgment should be considered as involving a whole unity of apperception. (See also Beauty, Deautomatization; Kant and Foundationalism; Kant’s Recovery of Ends; Truth, Beauty; Interpretation.)

Alongside the autonomy of reason, the notion of free play also seems to me to add a resource for nonvoluntarist readings of Kantian freedom.