Intangible Truth

Hegel wants to teach us to put aside the prejudice that a truth must be something “tangible” or discrete in itself, and thus capable of being viewed in isolation, in the way that a Platonic form is commonly supposed to be. He says that ordinary logic already gives us a clue to an alternate view of truth. Indeed, Plato’s own literary depictions of Socratic inquiry and dialogue already suggest a deeper notion of essence and truth than is promoted by standard accounts of Platonic forms.

“The Platonic idea is nothing else than the universal, or, more precisely, it is the concept of the subject matter; it is only in the concept that something has actuality, and to the extent that it is different from its concept, it ceases to be actual and is a nullity; the side of tangibility and of sensuous self-externality belongs to this null side. — But on the other side one can appeal to the representations typical of ordinary logic; for it is assumed that in definitions, for example, the determinations are not just of the knowing subject but are rather determinations of the subject matter, such that constitute its innermost essential nature. Or in an inference drawn from given determinations to others, the assumption is that the inferred is not something external to the subject matter and alien to it, but that it belongs to it instead, that to the thought there corresponds being” (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., introduction, p. 30).

There is a glimmer of a deeper truth even in the naive belief that ordinary logic can tell us about how the world really is (not of course how the world is, full stop, just some important things “about” how it is). What we infer by a good inference is at least as real as whatever is intuitively present to us. Neither of these is an infallible source of knowledge. Hegel’s main point, though, is that being immediately present to us is not a criterion of deeper truth.

He continues, “Everywhere presupposed by the use of the forms of the concept, of judgment, inference, definition, division, etc., is that they are not mere forms of self-conscious thinking but also of objective understanding” (ibid).

This leads to a criticism of Kant, which implies that Kant’s famous critique of dogmatism remains incomplete.

“Critical philosophy… gave to the logical determinations an essentially subjective significance out of fear of the object…. But the liberation from the opposition of consciousness that science must be able to presuppose elevates the determination of thought above this anxious, incomplete standpoint” (ibid).

The “opposition of consciousness” Hegel speaks of is its division into subject and object. For Kant, this distinction is interwoven with what Kant takes to be an uncrossable gap between knowledge on the side of the subject, and being on the side of the object. Hegel argues that we can avoid the dogmatism Kant means to criticize, without positing an uncrossable gap between knowledge and being. For him, the works of Aristotle are decisive proof of this.

Kant seeks to ensure the avoidance of dogmatism by treating logical determinations exclusively as attitudes actively taken up by a thinking being. Hegel points out that this leads inevitably to the unknowability of the Kantian thing-in-itself. In Kant, these are two sides of one coin. Thus cut off from logical determination, the thing-in-itself can only be unknowable, just as Kant says it is. According to Hegel’s analysis yet to come, meaning is grounded in judgments of determination, and so to be cut off from determination is to be devoid of meaning.

In criticizing Kant on this score, Hegel speaks of a Kantian “fear of the object”. Elsewhere he specifies that what is wrong with the Kantian thing-in-itself has nothing to do with its resemblance to a kind of essence, but rather with the putative self-containedness of that essence, and with the fact that for Kant the true essence is unknowable as a matter of principle.

Leibniz had earlier concluded that in order for the world to be intelligible in terms of self-contained essences or monads, each monad had to include within itself a microcosmic mirror of the entire universe and all the other monads, each of which also includes all the others, and so on to infinity. For Leibniz, things in the world are really only related to one another indirectly, via their individual immediate relations to God. God is ultimately the entire source of the world’s coherence.

At the very beginning of his career, Kant had argued against Leibniz that interactions and inter-relations between things are real and not just an appearance. The world therefore has a kind of objective coherence in its own right. This is a stance that Aristotle clearly would endorse.

Hegel strongly agrees with Kant on this, but thinks that Kant did not take his critique of Leibniz far enough. (I don’t mean to identify Kant’s critique of dogmatism with his earlier critique of Leibniz, only to suggest that there is a connection between the two.) Hegel in effect argues that no essence is ever really self-contained, and that once we also drop the Leibnizian notion that essences are each supposed to be self-contained in splendid Hermetic isolation, there is nothing left in Kant’s philosophy that would require them to be unknowable as a matter of principle.

Dogmatism for Hegel refers — as it also implicitly would for Plato and Aristotle — to any claim that we somehow know the things we believe to be true, when in reality the basis of our belief is potentially refutable. Dogmatism is claiming the necessity characteristic of knowledge for conclusions that Aristotle would at best call merely probable.

(For Aristotle, “necessary” is just a name for whatever always follows from certain premises; “probable” is the corresponding name for what follows most of the time. Whether or not something always follows is a disputable question. New information might require that we re-classify what previously seemed to be a necessary conclusion as a merely probable one. I would add that what therefore seemed to be knowledge — because it seemed to follow necessarily — may turn out to be only a relatively well-founded belief. Individual humans do have genuine knowledge, but no individual knower can legitimately certify herself as a knower in any specific case.)

(Beyond this, even the historic mutual recognition of any individual concrete community can also turn out to be seriously wrong on particular matters. Widespread and longstanding social acceptance does not guarantee that certain things that are believed to be known are not just shared prejudice. Just consider the history of inferences from race, sex, religion, etc., to characteristics claimed to hold for all or most individuals subject to those classifications.)

(This does not mean we should indiscriminately throw out all claims that are based on social acceptance. That would result in paralyzing skepticism. To avoid dogmatism, we just have to be open in a Socratic way to honestly, fairly examining the basis of our beliefs about what meaning follows from what other meaning, in light of new perspectives. For what it’s worth, I say that once exposed to the light, prejudice against people based on shallow classification of their “kinds” can only be perpetuated through — among other things — an implicit repudiation of fairness and intellectual honesty in these cases.)

(Hegel the man was not immune to the various social prejudices of his time and place. According to his own philosophy, we would not expect him to have been. Outside the context of his main philosophical works, he is recorded to have made a few utterly terrible prejudiced remarks, and a number of other bad ones. In cases like this, we should give heed to the philosopher’s carefully developed philosophical views, and blame the time and place for the philosopher’s spontaneous expression of other particular views that seem out of synch with these. Every empirical community’s views are subject to adjudication in light of the ethical ideal of the truly universal community of all talking animals. The core of Hegel’s philosophy provides unprecedented resources for this.)

Kant’s own response to the issue of dogmatism is to maintain that strictly speaking, certainty and necessity apply only to appearances, which he does understand in a relational manner, but not to the things-in-themselves, which — following Leibniz — he still regards as self-contained and therefore non-relational.

Kant and Hegel seem to share the view that the very nature of necessity is such that it applies to things only insofar as they are involved in relations, and is only expressible in terms of relations. Where they differ is that Hegel sees not only appearances but also reality itself fundamentally in terms of relations.

For Hegel, there is no self-contained “thing in itself”, because the world is made up of what things are “in and for themselves”. Hegel introduces the notion of what something (relationally) is “for itself”, in the context of a reflective concept, and precisely as an alternative to the still-Leibnizian self-containedness of the Kantian “in itself”. What things really are “for themselves” turns out to undo the assumption of their essences’ self-containedness.

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.

New State Not a Change?

“Of all cases it would be most natural to suppose that there is alteration in figures and shapes, and in states and in the process of acquiring and losing these; but as a matter of fact in neither of these two cases is there alteration” (Aristotle, Physics book VII ch. 3, Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 412).

What the translator calls a matter of fact, I would call a matter of terminology. All specialties tend to develop their own terminology, and philosophers do likewise. Aristotle uses many Greek terms with meanings that were already specialized in his day. Modern disciplines and common speech have evolved their own choices using different criteria.

“[T]here is alteration only in things that are said to be affected in their own right by sensible things…. For when anything has been completely shaped or structured, we do not call it by the name of its material: e.g. we do not call the statue bronze or the candle wax or the bed wood, but we use a paronymous expression and call them brazen, waxen, and wooden respectively. But when a thing has been affected or altered in any way we still call it by the original name: thus we speak of the bronze or the wax being fluid or hard or hot…, giving the matter the same name as the affection” (ibid).

Aristotle makes his usual semantic distinction between the matter, the form, and the composite of both. He wants to specialize the term that is translated as “change” or “alteration” to apply only to the matter, and to use different locutions with regard to the form and the composite.

“Again, states, whether of the body or of the soul, are not alterations. For some are excellences and some are defects, and neither excellence nor defect is an alteration: excellence is a perfection (… since it is then really in its natural state: e.g. a circle is perfect when it becomes really a circle and when it is best), while defect is a perishing of or departure from this condition. So just as when speaking of a house we do not call its arrival at perfection an alteration…, the same holds good in the case of excellences and defects and of the things that possess or acquire them” (ibid).

As we might also anticipate, he strongly emphasizes a teleological and normative perspective on these matters.

“Further, we say that all excellences depend on particular relations. Thus bodily excellences such as health and fitness we regard as consisting in a blending of… elements in due proportion, in relation either to one another within the body or to the surrounding; and in like manner we regard beauty, strength, and all other excellences and defects. Each of them exists in virtue of a particular relation and puts that which possesses it in a good or bad condition with regard to its proper affections” (pp. 412-413).

Most fascinating of all is this emphasis on particular relations. Good and bad conditions are explained in terms of these.

“Since, then, relatives are neither themselves alterations nor the subjects of alterations or of becoming or in fact of any change whatever, it is evident that neither states nor the process of losing and acquiring states are alterations, though it may be true that their becoming or perishing, like that of form and shape, necessarily involves the alteration of certain other things…. For each defect or excellence involves a relation with those things from which the possessor is naturally subject to alteration: thus excellence disposes its possessor to be unaffected or to be affected thus and so, while defect disposes its possessor to be affected or unaffected in a contrary way” (p. 413).

Relations in themselves are static abstractions of conditions. But some of the things involved in these relations are subject to change or alteration. This is a sophisticated way of approaching the matter.

“And the case is similar in regard to the states of the soul, all of which too exist in virtue of particular relations…. Consequently these cannot be alterations either, nor can the process of losing and acquiring them be so, though their becoming is necessarily the result of an alteration of the sensitive part of the soul, and this is altered by sensible objects…. Consequently, although their becoming is accompanied by an alteration, they are not themselves alterations” (ibid).

States of the soul are to be viewed in this relational way. Their becoming is said to be accompanied by an alteration, not itself to be an alteration.

“And again, the states of the intellectual part of the soul are not alterations; nor is there any becoming of them. For the possession of knowledge most especially depends on a particular relation” (ibid).

Knowledge also “most especially” involves being in a particular relation. It is not just the possession of some content.

“It is evident, then, from the preceding argument that alteration and being altered occur in sensible things and in the sensitive part of the soul and, except accidentally, in nothing else” (p. 414).

Force and Understanding

After Perception, Hegel discusses what is basically the attitude of mathematical physics. Harris in his commentary notes that Hegel is much more sympathetic to natural science than some of his supporters have seemed to recognize. Hegel accepts mathematical physics as an authoritative account of the physical world, and is impressed by the concept of mathematical natural law.

More generally, this is where Hegel introduces what he calls Understanding, which seeks to give a fully univocal (thus also formalizable) account of things. Understanding will have permanent value in securing definiteness and discipline of thought. Hegel often makes sharp remarks about its limitations, so it is important to recognize that he also respected its strengths.

Perception already took a relational approach to the properties of things, but still held fast to the idea that its objects were independent things. Newton’s concept of force as characterized by mathematical law effectively takes a relational approach to determination in the physical world as a whole. Mechanics treats force subject to mathematical laws as the objective reality underlying the world of Perception and “things”, which it treats as Appearance rather than an immanent truth.

Force for Hegel is a supersensible rational construct. For the Newtonian physicist, it is a supersensible reality. Hegel approves of the physicist’s recognition that sensible reality is not all there is, and applauds what he sees as the physicist’s thoroughgoing relational approach. His main caveat is just that what the physicist sees as an independent physical necessity that is only described by mathematics, Hegel see entirely in terms of the formal necessity of the mathematics and logic used in the physicist’s theory.

This concludes the “Consciousness” section of the Phenomenology, where “consciousness” for Hegel is the attitude that treats objects and objectivity in a “pre-Kantian” way, as just being out there. The physicist’s thoroughly relational approach to the external world takes this to its highest sophistication. What remains is to examine the ways in which there is actually continuity and reciprocity between “us” and the world we inhabit, and the role that we play in its development.