At Home in Otherness

This is part 3 of my direct walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology. It seems that the phrase “being at home in otherness” originated in my own notes on H.S. Harris’ commentary, and literally occurs neither in Hegel nor in Harris. Nonetheless, I still want to suggest that the underlying idea is central to the perspective Hegel wants to recommend. Hegel speaks at length about what might be called thinking in the element of otherness, and provocatively ties it to the overcoming of alienation, thereby seeking to transform our pre-existing notions of what that might mean.

More conventionally, the overcoming of alienation has been represented as the recovery of a lost possession or lost innocence that we originally had, like a figurative return to the garden of Eden. The German Romantics of Hegel’s time had popularized this sort of comfortable and reassuring notion. Hegel wants to give it an altogether different and much more challenging meaning.

He points out the inherent weakness of all isolated theses and unelaborated statements of principle.

“[A]ny further so-called fundamental proposition or first principle of philosophy, if it is true, is for this reason alone also false just because it is a fundamental proposition or principle. — It is consequently very easily refuted. Its refutation consist in demonstrating its defects; however, it is defective because it is only the universal, or, only a principle, or, it is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, then it is derived from and developed out of that fundamental proposition or principle itself — the refutation is not pulled off by bringing in counter-assertions and impressions external to the principle. Such a refutation would thus genuinely be the development of the fundamental proposition itself” (Pinkard trans., p. 15).

No matter how good the principle, a shallow statement of it will be “false”.

“Conversely, the genuinely positive working out of the beginning is at the same time just as much a negative posture toward its beginning; namely, a negative posture toward its one-sided form, which is to be at first only immediately” (p. 16).

Everything that Hegel would recognize as genuine development and improvement begins with thoughtful criticism of what went before.

“[Spirit] must be, to itself, an object, but it must likewise immediately be a mediated object, which is to say, it must be a sublated object reflected into itself” (ibid).

“To sublate” translates German aufheben, a famous Hegelian term that means simultaneously to absorb and to transform (literally, “to on-lift”).

“Pure self-knowing in absolute otherness, this ether as such, is the very ground and soil of science, or knowing in its universality. The beginning of philosophy presupposes or demands that consciousness is situated in this element. However, this element itself has its culmination and its transparency only through the movement of its coming-to-be. It is pure spirituality, or, the universal in the mode of simple immediacy. Because it is the immediacy of spirit, because it is the substance of spirit, it is transfigured essentiality, reflection that is itself simple, or, is immediacy; it is being that is a reflective turn into itself” (pp. 16-17).

In a very characteristic gesture, he begins to point out that in human life, even mediation and immediacy don’t just stand alongside each other as statically independent opposites. Rather, we end up with all sorts of mixed forms of “mediated immediacy” and “immediatized mediation”. This interweaving is especially typical of what he calls “spirit”.

By “science”, once again, he means mediated rational understanding. “Absolute otherness” is the antithesis of the identity-oriented simplicity and rigidity of the point of view of ordinary consciousness. What we mainly encounter in life are mixtures of these two, with a tilt toward the ordinary. I’m inclined to think there could be no human experience at all without some admixture of otherness. A stronger otherness disturbs our complacency and takes us out of our comfort zone, but Hegel wants to gently suggest that this can be a good thing.

“However much the standpoint of consciousness, which is to say, the standpoint of knowing objective things to be opposed to itself and knowing itself to be opposed to them, counts as the other to science — the other, in which consciousness is at one with itself, counts instead as the loss of spirit — still, in comparison, the element of science possesses for consciousness an other-worldly remoteness in which consciousness is no longer in possession of itself. Each of these two parts seems to the other to be an inversion of the truth” (p. 17).

Here he acknowledges that what he is recommending must seem incredibly strange from the perspective of ordinary consciousness.

He continues, “For the natural consciousness to entrust itself immediately to science would be to make an attempt, induced by it knows not what, to walk upside down all of a sudden. The compulsion to accept this unaccustomed attitude and to transport itself in that way would be, so it would seem, a violence imposed on it with neither any advance preparation nor with any necessity. — Science may be in its own self what it will, but in its relationship to immediate self-consciousness, it presents itself as an inversion of the latter…. Lacking actuality, science is the in-itself, the purpose, which at the start is still something inner, at first not as spirit but only as spiritual substance. It has to express itself and become for itself, and this means nothing else than that it has to posit self-consciousness as being at one with itself” (ibid).

Hegel’s own favored attitudes, like rationality or “science”, are not exempt from the general requirement of development. To simply try to foist “science” or our favored view of rationality or the value of otherness on the public as ready-made conclusions differs little from attempts to socially impose any arbitrary prejudice. It is a means not at all suited to the ends of philosophy.

In speaking of “immediate self-consciousness”, he applies another paradoxical mixed form. The very essence of self-consciousness for Hegel is mediation, or the opposite of immediacy. But even the most highly mediated form can also be named, pointed at, presented, represented, or recalled in a more immediate way. Every level of development has its own characteristic reflection in relative immediacy.

He continues, “This coming-to-be of science itself, or, of knowing, is what is presented in this phenomenology of spirit” (ibid).

“Knowing, as it is at first, or, as immediate spirit, is devoid of spirit, is sensuous consciousness. In order to become genuine knowing, or, in order to beget the element of science which is its pure concept, immediate spirit must laboriously travel down a long path…. In any case, it is something very different from the inspiration which begins immediately, like a shot from a pistol, with absolute knowledge, and which has already finished with all other standpoints simply by declaring that it will take no notice of them” (pp. 17-18).

Immediate spirit is devoid of spirit in the deeper sense that travels down a long path. But still it contains a beginning.

“The aim is spirit’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience demands the impossible, which is to say, to achieve the end without the means. On the one hand, the length of the path has to be endured, for each moment is necessary — but on the other hand, one must linger at every stage along the way, for each stage is itself an entire individual shape” (p. 19).

Rational understanding has to grow organically — to be actively taken up and worked over by its participants — to realize its value. Once again, it is never enough to just present summary conclusions and expect the world to agree, no matter how right they are. A long, patient working out is essential to achieving the goal he has in mind.

“In this movement… what still remains is the representation of and the familiarity with the forms” (ibid).

“The element thus still has the same character of uncomprehended immediacy, or, of unmoved indifference as existence itself, or, it has only passed over into representational thought. — As a result, it is at the same time familiar to us, or, it is the sort of thing that spirit has finished with, in which spirit has no more activity, and, as a result, in which spirit has no further interest” (ibid).

Familiarity is an issue because it leads us to take things for granted and become inattentive. Hegel contrasts all forms of static representation of knowledge with the kind of active coming-to-be of knowing he is aiming at.

He continues, “However much the activity, which is finished with existence, is itself the immediate, or however much it is the existing mediation and thereby the movement only of the particular spirit which is not comprehending itself, still in contrast knowing is directed against the representational thought which has come about through this immediacy, is directed against this familiarity, and it is thus the doing of the universal self and the interest of thinking” (ibid).

In more Aristotelian language, once an understanding is acquired, it becomes passively available for easy use. The mode of this availability and easiness is a kind of habit. Habits have a great utility for action and responding to the world, but in exercising a habit we are not learning anything new. The active becoming of knowing, on the other hand, demands continuous learning.

“What is familiar and well-known as such is not really known for the very reason that it is familiar and well-known. In the case of cognition, the most common form of self-deception and deception of others is when one presupposes something as well known and then makes one’s peace with it. In that kind of back-and-forth chatter about pros and cons, such knowing, without knowing how it happens to it, never really gets anywhere. Subject and object, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are, as is well known, all unquestioningly laid as foundation stones which constitute fixed points from which to start and to which to return…. Thus, for a person to grasp and to examine matters consists only in seeing whether he finds everything said by everybody else to match up with his own idea of the matter, or with whether it seems that way to him and whether or not it is something with which he is familiar” (p. 20).

“To break up a representation into its original elements is to return to its moments, which at least do not have the form of a representation which one has merely stumbled across, but which instead constitute the immediate possession of the self. To be sure, this analysis would only arrive at thoughts which are themselves familiar and fixed…. However, what is separated, the non-actual itself, is itself an essential moment, for the concrete is self-moving only because it divides itself and turns itself into the non-actual” (ibid).

Actualization as a process is not just the tranquil extension of what is already actual. The emergence of new actuality essentially depends on what is currently non-actual.

He continues, “The activity of separating is the force and labor of understanding, the most astonishing and the greatest of all the powers, or rather, which is the absolute power” (ibid).

Hegel is better known as a sharp critic of the limits of the understanding that divides and sees only fixed things. But here, against the Romantics he defends analytical understanding’s creatively disruptive role in unsettling our complacency.

He continues, “The circle, which, enclosed within itself, is at rest and which, as substance, sustains its moments, is the immediate and is, for that reason, an unsurprising relationship. However, the accidental, separated from its surroundings, attains an isolated freedom and its own proper existence only in its being bound to other actualities and only as existing in their context; as such, it is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thinking, of the pure I” (ibid).

Just as new actualization depends on what is non-actual, the complacency of substantial existence is only spurred to new learning by what first appears as accident.

“Spirit only wins its truth by finding its feet in its absolute disruption” (p. 21).

To “find its feet in absolute disruption” is to be at home in otherness.

He continues, “Spirit is not this power which, as the positive, avoids looking at the negative, as is the case when we say of something that it is nothing, or that it is false, and then, being done with it, go off on our own way on to something else. No, spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face and lingering with it” (ibid).

“Negation” for Hegel is not the simple thing that it is in Boolean logic. Boolean negation is purely formal, and yields the exact opposite of its input. For Hegel, every manifestation of otherness is a sort of “negation”. Personally, I prefer the language of otherness. Thus I would say, “looking otherness in the face and lingering with it”. This involves looking beyond fixed thoughts and everything that has the form of givenness.

“[I]n modern times, the individual finds the abstract ready-made…. Nowadays the task before us consists not so much in purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate and in making him into a thinking substance… It consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal through the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts. However, it is much more difficult to set fixed thoughts into fluid motion than it is to bring sensuous existence into such fluidity” (ibid).

Ready-made abstractions are the bane of deeper understanding. It is far easier to announce that we ought to overcome them than to actually succeed in doing so.

“Thoughts become fluid by pure thinking, this inner immediacy, recognizing itself as a moment, or, by pure self-certainty abstracting itself from itself — it does not consist in only omitting itself, or, setting itself off to one side. Rather, it consists in giving up the fixity of its self-positing as well as the fixity of the purely concrete…. Through this movement, pure thoughts become concepts, and are for the first time what they are in truth: self-moving movements” (pp. 21-22).

In Hegel’s usage, a “concept” is not a fixed thought but an active rational disposition. Further, he suggests that real immersion in active thought implicitly involves letting go of a fixed presupposed self separate from the activity of thinking. At the same time thoughts, instead of being identified with inert fixed contents, become “self-moving movements” (see Ideas Are Not Inert).

“[I]t ceases to be the type of philosophizing which seeks to ground the truth in only clever argumentation about pros and cons or in inferences based on fully determinate thoughts and the consequences following from them. Instead, through the movement of the concept, this path will encompass the complete worldliness of consciousness in its necessity” (p. 22).

The “complete worldliness” of consciousness is the overcoming of the habitual duality of consciousness and object in which consciousness “sets itself off to one side” from everything else.

“Consciousness knows and comprehends nothing but what is in experience, for what is in experience is just spiritual substance, namely, as the object of its own self. However, spirit becomes the object, for it is this movement of becoming an other to itself…. And experience is the name of this very movement in which the immediate, the non-experienced, i.e., the abstract (whether the abstract is that of sensuous being or of ‘a simple’ which has only been thought about) alienates itself and then comes around to itself out of this alienation” (pp. 22-23).

“The inequality which takes place in consciousness between the I and the substance which is its object is their difference, the negative itself. It can be viewed as the defect of the two, but it is their very soul or is what moves them” (p. 23).

Here inequality manifests otherness. Notably he refers to it “taking place” rather than simply existing.

Even the core defect of the standpoint of ordinary consciousness — its duality, in which consciousness stands “off to one side” of its objects — in its capacity as a source of unrest already points beyond itself, kicking off the whole long movement that the Phenomenology aims to characterize.

“However much this negative now initially appears as the inequality between the I and the object, still it is just as much the inequality of the substance with itself. What seems to take place outside of the substance, to be an activity directed against it, is its own doing, and substance shows that it is essentially subject” (ibid).

Unqualified “substance” in Hegel’s sense really encompasses everything there is, even though we imagine that we are somewhere off to the side. Thus the apparent duality between us and substance that we think about turns out to be internal to substance itself. What seemed to be “our” separate activity turns out to be equally the activity of substance that is no longer “just” substance. The substance that is thought of loses its fixity and becomes an active thought.

“Why bother with the false at all?…. Ordinary ideas on this subject especially obstruct the entrance to the truth…. To be sure, we can know falsely. For something to be known falsely means that knowing is unequal to its substance. Yet this very inequality is the differentiating per se, the essential moment. It is indeed out of this differentiation that its equality comes to be, and this equality, which has come to be, is truth. However, it is not truth in the sense that would just discard inequality, like discarding the slag from pure metal, nor even is it truth in the way that a finished vessel bears no trace of the instruments that shaped it. Rather, as the negative, inequality is still itself immediately present, just as the self in the true as such is itself present” (pp. 23-24).

Hegel’s usage of “knowing” is much more inclusive than the strict Platonic or Kantian sense that I have been recommending here.

Here we reach another delicate point. What is false, he is saying, is not purely and simply false, because it also creates the unrest that is the impetus for further development. But this is very easily misunderstood, and can lead to complete nonsense.

To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, he continues, “For that reason, it cannot be said that the false constitutes a moment or even a constitutive part of the true. Take the saying that ‘In every falsehood, there is something true’ — in this expression both of them are regarded as oil and water, which cannot mix and are only externally combined. It is precisely for the sake of pointing out the significance of the moment of complete otherness that their expression must no longer be employed in the instances where their otherness has been sublated. Just as the expressions, ‘unity of subject and object’ or of ‘the finite and the infinite’, or of ‘being and thinking’, etc., have a certain type of clumsiness to them in that subject and object, etc., mean what they are outside of their unity, and therefore in their unity, they are not meant in the way that their expression states them, so too the false as the false is no longer a moment of truth” (pp. 24-25).

Here he is employing an Aristotelian “said in many ways” distinction to avoid confusion and nonsense. It remains the case that everything for Hegel being more than it “just” is requires a great wakefulness on the part of the reader, to avoid slipping into just the kind of nonsense he is warning about.

Incidentally, he suggests that “otherness” is a better alternative to talk about the unity of subject and object, finite and infinite, being and thinking, etc.

Wrapping up this part of the argument, he continues, “The dogmatism of the way of thinking, in both the knowing of philosophy and the study of it, is nothing but the opinion that truth consists either in a proposition which is a fixed result or else in a proposition which is immediately known…. [E]ven bare truths… do not exist without the movement of self-consciousness…. Even in the case of immediate intuition, acquaintance with them is linked to the reasons behind it” (p. 25).

Ockham on Reference

William of Ockham (1285-1347) is the most famous so-called “nominalist” in Latin medieval philosophy. He sought to explain our practical and theoretical uses of universals entirely in terms of our relations to existing singular things.

Without losing sight of Plato’s emphasis on the value of pure thought, Aristotle had adopted a broader perspective, starting from the generality of human life. In this context, in contrast to Plato he had emphasized the genuine importance, positive role, and irreducibility of singular beings or things that we encounter in life. “For us” singular beings and things come first, even if they do not come first in the order of the cosmos.

Singular beings and things are more concretely “real” than any generalizations about them. But Aristotle simultaneously upheld the “Platonic” view that knowledge in the strong sense can apply only to generalizations of necessary consequences between things, and not to our experiences of singulars. There can be no necessity in our experience of something purely singular. What I would call the extraordinarily productive tension between Aristotle’s fundamental views of reality (putting singulars first) and of knowledge (putting universals first) created an appearance of paradox that later commentators sought to resolve, often by favoring one side at the expense of the other.

Ockham wanted to explain universals entirely in terms of singulars. In the Cambridge Companion to Ockham, Claude Panaccio summarizes that “Ockham’s project is to explicate all semantical and epistemological features — truth values, for instance — in terms of relations between sign-tokens and singular objects in the world” (p. 58).

Ockham built on the work of many less well-known figures. The Latin world had seen lively inquiries about logic and semantics since the 12th century, when Arabic learning first began to be disseminated across Europe. Within this tradition, there is more than one approach to meaning.

The technical notion of “signification” was a development inspired largely by Augustine’s theory of “signs”. Unlike more recent usages (e.g., in Saussurean linguistics), this kind of signification involves a simple relation of correspondence between a thing taken as a “sign” and some other thing.

Ockham and many of his predecessors held that there is such a thing as natural signification, independent of any language. In this sense, smoke is taken to be a “sign” of a fire. This relation of smoke signifying fire is called “natural”, because in our experience smoke only exists where there is fire, and this has to do with how the world is, rather than with us. This is very different from the conventional imposition of the word “fire” to refer to a fire.

At the same time, this notion of signification also seems to have an irreducible “psychological” component. It has something to do with how the world is, but in a more direct sense, it has to do with something like what the British empiricists later called the association of ideas. Our “natural” association of smoke with fire is not arbitrary. As the empiricists would say, it is grounded in experience. As the Latin scholastics would say, the soul “naturally” tends to associate smoke with fire, and this is as much a truth about the soul — or about the soul existing in the world — as it is a truth about the world.

For Ockham, natural signification applies to concepts, which constitute the core of a sort of “mental language” that is in many ways analogous to spoken or written language, but is more original and does not depend on convention. Concepts on this understanding are subject to all the same kinds of syntactical relationships as individual words in speech.

In this tradition, the meaning of concepts is analyzed by analogy with the role of individual words in speech. This presupposes a view that linguistic meaning overall is founded on the meanings of individual words. The individual concepts of “mental language” that apply to individual real-world things are analogously supposed to have pre-given, natural meanings. Logic and semantics are then a sort of mental hygiene with respect to their proper use.

Ockham offers a rich analysis of connotative terms that modify the concepts corresponding to things.

Again building on the work of many authors in the Latin tradition, he develops the theory of logical “supposition”, which contemporary scholars associate with semantic discussions of reference to real-world objects. This has nothing to do with supposition in the sense of hypothesis; rather, it relates etymologically to a notion of something “standing under” something else.

Notably, Ockham and this whole tradition insist that while individual words independently have signification, only in the context of propositions or assertions expressed by whole sentences do words have the kind of reference associated with supposition. I suspect this is ultimately grounded in Aristotle’s thesis that truth and falsity apply only to whole propositions or assertions; “supposition” is to explain not just meaning, but also truth and falsity. This tradition develops a much more explicit theory of reference than Aristotle did, and the kind of reference it develops is tied to contexts of assertion, or true assertion.

The idea that reference to real-world things should be approached at the level of propositions rather than individual words or concepts has much to recommend it. But for Ockham and the tradition he continued, supposition is still fundamentally governed by signification, and signification begins with individual words or concepts. Individual words or concepts are thought to have pre-given meanings, and Ockham attempts to give this a theoretical grounding with his notion of “mental language”.

As Ockham suggests, there is a way in which notions of syntactic relations apply to pure concepts. But I take this to be an abstraction from actual usage in spoken or written language, and I don’t believe in any pre-given meanings.

Ockham’s general strong privileging of individual things over universals has a deep relation to his voluntarist and fideist theology, which owes much to his fellow Franciscan Duns Scotus. In logic, Scotus is considered a defender of “realism” about universals as opposed to nominalism, but in his theology he developed a strong notion of individuation, tied to a very radical notion of divine omnipotence that refused to subordinate it in any way, even to divine goodness (see Aquinas and Scotus on Power; Being and Representation). Essentially, from this point of view, every single thing that happens is a miracle coming directly from God, and all observed regularity in the world pertains only to a sort of divine “habit” that could be contravened at any moment.

Aquinas aimed at a sort of diplomatic compromise between this extreme theistic view that makes everything solely dependent on God, and Aristotle’s unequivocal assertion of the reality of “secondary” causes. Scotus and Ockham applied high levels of logical sophistication in defense of the extreme view.

Ockham also denied the reality of mathematical objects. Together with his extreme view on divine power, this makes very unlikely the view promoted by some scholars that Ockham in particular represented the strand of medieval thought that most helped promote the emergence of modern science. Ockham’s undeniable logical acumen was dedicated to downplaying rather than elaborating the practical importance of order in nature.

It does seem, though, that views like Ockham’s contributed to the shaping of British empiricist philosophy. Here is another chapter in the complex history of notions of reference and representation. Ockham’s very strong notion of reference as directly grounded in singular real-world objects — combined with that of the natural signification or pre-given meaning of concepts in “mental language” — helped lay the ground for what modern empiricism would treat as common sense.

For most of the 20th century, the mainstream of analytic philosophy seemed to be inseparable from a strongly empiricist direction. But Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Brandom, and others have initiated a new questioning of the assumptions of empiricism from within contemporary analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy is no longer nearly so opposed to the history of philosophy or to continental philosophy as it was once assumed to be. It is in this context that we can begin to look at a sort of Foucaultian or de Libera-esque “archaeology” of empiricism, in which Ockham certainly deserves an important place.

Descartes Revisited

Descartes is among my least favorite of those conventionally termed great philosophers. My treatment to date has been mainly limited to a few dismissive remarks. Here I’d like to add a few “historiographical” points of demarcation.

Insofar as there is general consensus among scholars, Descartes (1598-1650) first and foremost has claim to fame as a very influential promoter of something recognizably close to modern scientific method. He is often credited with the invention of analytic geometry, based on an early recognition of the systematic isomorphism between geometry and algebra. Galileo (1564-1642) had already taken up an approach to natural science based on mathematical analysis, which Descartes enthusiastically adopted. Descartes particularly promoted a methodology based on clear and distinct ideas, which he held to give certain knowledge. He advocated an orderly progression from the simple to the complex.

On a broad social level, Descartes is remembered for promoting the independence of scientific investigation, particularly from the doctrinal concerns of the Catholic Church. But he was also a religious thinker. While confessing in a private letter that he did not literally believe various details of received scripture, he was very engaged with proofs of the existence of God.

Numerous scholars have pointed out that outside the domains of mathematics and natural science, Descartes in many ways remained close to the Latin scholasticism of which he has been commonly regarded as the slayer. In Descartes and the Modern Mind (1952), for example, Albert Balz argued at length that the thought of Thomas Aquinas was an essential precursor to Descartes. I note that Augustine had already emphasized the importance of the interpretive role of reason, even in matters of faith. On Aquinas’ account, God gives us not only revelation, but also the natural light of reason. In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas addressed questions of philosophy and theology entirely from the point of view of that “natural light”, while aiming to show that the natural light of reason independently leads to many of same truths he attributed to revelation. Descartes makes great use of a similar concept of the natural light of reason.

Both Descartes and Aquinas thought the natural light of reason, properly understood, gives us truths, full stop. I think it gives us invaluable criteria for judgment and interpretation, while always in principle leaving room for discussion about what conclusions should be drawn. I also think the “natural light” itself comes to us in degrees, and is never a simple or unproblematic possession.

A different strand of Latin scholastic thought tended to claim that all human knowledge originates in sensible images, while attributing such a view to Aristotle. (I think this is overly strong, and that Aristotle only meant to defend the pragmatic value of sensation against Platonic skepticism about all deliverances of sense.) Descartes famously argued that sensible images are not the only source of knowledge, and I think that is true, as far as it goes.

Here is where Descartes’ theses about clear and distinct ideas come into play. A methodological discipline based on examining whether our ideas are clear and distinct is an important source of human knowledge. Again, this much I can agree with, but I think clarity and distinctness are relative criteria and not absolutes. As relative criteria, they have been implicitly employed by most if not all serious thinkers. I take such evaluations to have been a major implicit concern of Platonic and Aristotelian dialectic, which in part aims to discern meanings that are more clear and distinct.

Descartes effectively claimed that clarity and distinctness are absolute, decidable properties of ideas. One of the broadly scholastic views he sharply criticized was that our best knowledge of sensible things is only “probable”. Descartes claimed that the results of his methodological analyses were certain, in the same way that mathematical conclusions follow with certainty from their premises. This goes well beyond the claim that there is practical value in such methodology.

Building on arguments of Augustine and Avicenna, he also famously gave great importance to the claim that immediate contents of the mind give evidence of unconditional certainty of the abstract existence of something. The very possibility that I could be deceived implies the abstract existence of an abstract something that could be deceived. Further, if something in any way appears to me to be such and such — even if I am wrong about all the details — independent of all the details, the barest fact of the appearance implies that some appearance generically “exists”.

The “I” that is in this way proven to exist and the appearance that is proven to exist are both extreme abstractions. Even Descartes did not claim that either of these existences by itself gives us any further knowledge. From this basis alone, I could still be entirely mistaken about the kind of being that I am, and about every detail of what appears to me to be the case. In spite of the famous Cartesian doubt, Descartes actually wanted to makes strong claims of certainty and to refute skepticism. Many readers have concluded, though, that he opened the door for a new, more global form of skepticism, because what he clearly establishes as certain seems so utterly lacking in content.

I would hasten to add that unreasonable, excessive skepticism about human knowledge is best refuted by successful achievements of goals in real-life situations. Only a hypocrite could claim to live in the world with no well-founded beliefs whatsoever. The ancient Skeptics were only “skeptical” about theoretical accounts of things, not about practical concerns of everyday life.

By setting the bar too high and aiming at absolute certainty, Descartes actually opened the door for more radically subjectivist views that no one in the ancient world would have taken seriously (and not just because ancient people were naive). At the same time, he was very impatient with “dialectic”, and tended to foreshorten discussions of meaning and interpretation, in favor of claims that certain contents are unequivocally clear and distinct. Thus the ultimate result of his thought oscillates unstably between extremes of “Cartesian” skepticism and dogmatism.

Another point on which Descartes has been very influential is his strong representationalism. For Descartes, strictly speaking we never have practical knowledge of things in the world, only knowledge about contents of our mental representations, insofar as they are clear and distinct. In particular, we only know bodies through our mental representations of them. Rather than consisting in an interpretive stance of a situated being in the world, the Cartesian cogito achieves its purely subjective certainty in a way that is supposed to be peculiarly “outside” the real world altogether.

Unlike the representationalism of Locke, which is grounded in a kind of empirical psychology, that of Descartes is closely bound up with an ontological mind/world dualism more radical than anything Plotinus, Augustine, or Avicenna ever contemplated. For Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna, the soul was a very special kind of “something” existing in the real world, even if for Plotinus and Augustine it was not a “subject” in the sense of something underlying something else. For Locke — the other great early modern promoter of representationalism — our mental worlds are ultimately contained within the natural world. For Descartes, there is the world and there is the soul, and never the twain shall meet. The soul has its own mental world where it seems to relate directly only to God, and human knowledge occurs only in that mental world.

It is due to this unprecedentedly radical mind/world dualism of Descartes, I think, that virtually no one — even among his admirers — wants to uphold his metaphysics. This is an extreme example of what Hegel called “alienation”.

Being and Representation

In L’Être et représentation (1999), Olivier Boulnois documents the emergence of “metaphysics” in its distinctively non-Aristotelian modern sense among various 13th century authors, including Roger Bacon, Henry of Ghent, and Siger of Brabant, leading to its decisive formulation by the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus in the 14th century. Avicenna had already claimed that metaphysics is about “being in general”, whereas Aristotle himself had emphasized that “being is said in many ways”, which implies that there is no “being in general”.

Boulnois suggests that the 13th century authors just mentioned paved the way for Scotus’ innovations by already treating being as a concept. We are so used to that, that it is hard for us to grasp what Aristotle means in suggesting that “being in general” is not a proper concept at all.

Scotus argued against Aristotle that there is a unifying, logically minimal criterion of being, and it is representability. To be representable is to be “not nothing”. Unicorns and other imaginary creatures are representable, whereas Aristotle would not have called them beings. Scotus’ concept of representation seems to be purely logical; to have a representation of something is not necessarily to have understanding of it. For Scotus, God and creatures are equally representable, even though creatures, as finite, can be properly understood by the human mind and God, as infinite, cannot. Whereas Aristotle never speaks of an infinite being — only of a perfect one — Scotus’ generic concept of being is very explicitly indifferent to distinctions between finite and infinite.

It is one thing to acknowledge representation as a logical concept among others, and quite another to give it the kind of special first place status that Scotus does in his ontology, and that Locke does in his epistemology.

Boulnois says it is with Scotus that metaphysics became linked to what Kant later called ontotheology. While separating metaphysics as the account of being from theology as the separate account of God, Scotus also made God indifferently one of the objects of metaphysics, along with all the other beings. The combination of these changes actually brought metaphysics closer to revealed theology, and helped it to be perceived as the safe handmaiden of the later Latin tradition, rather than as independent philosophical theology that some found threatening.

If one speaks of a subject of representation, it could be — in a sense of “subject” closer to that of Aristotle — that in which something stands for something, or it could be — in a modern sense — the one who represents. “In the context of representation, the soul is not the content of its thought, but rather has a representation, distinct from itself” (Boulnois, op. cit., p. 152, my translation).

It seems that for both Scotus and Locke, the mind has representations. The soul in Aristotle is thoughts and feelings and capabilities, not something standing behind them. (See also Repraesentatio; Ontology; Being, Existence.)

Spinoza on Human Confusion

Spinoza strikes a rather Platonic note in suggesting that insofar as we live by perception and imagination we are reactive, confused, and unfree, but insofar as we have genuine ideas or concepts, we are active and free. This last part depends on his rather unusual take on what ideas are.

“I say expressly that the Mind has, not an adequate, but only a confused… knowledge, of itself, of its own Body, and of external bodies, so long as it perceives things from the common order of nature, i.e., so long as it is determined externally, from fortuitous encounters with things, to regard this or that, and not so long as it is determined internally, from the fact that it regards a number of things at once, to understand their agreements, differences, and oppositions. For so often as it is disposed internally, in this or another way, then it regards things clearly and distinctly, as I shall show below” (Spinoza, Ethics, book II, proposition 29, scholium, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., p. 471, brackets in original).

The actual nature of “Mind” for Spinoza has yet to be made clear. So far it seems straightforwardly individual; there is nothing here like the Aristotelian and Hegelian notion of Reason as a socially and linguistically grounded ethos. On the other hand, we soon will turn out to be very far indeed from a standard modern or early modern notion of mind. I am almost reminded of the non-private interiority that connects us to God in Augustine. But either way, the practical result is that we get to an antidote for confusion, thanks to participation in a Reason that is takes us beyond what is merely subjective or self-seeking.

Again like Plato, he emphasizes that ideas are different both from images and from words, implicitly taking both of the latter as examples of mere representation. To regard a number of things at once and understand their agreements, differences, and oppositions is to ground one’s perspective in relations of Reason rather than in mere representations of singular things.

“I begin, therefore, by warning my Readers, first, to distinguish accurately between an idea, or concept, of the Mind, and the images of things that we imagine. And then it is necessary to distinguish between ideas and the words by which we signify things. For because many people either confuse these three — ideas, images, and words — or do not distinguish them accurately enough, or carefully enough, they have been completely ignorant of this doctrine concerning the will. But it is quite necessary to know it, both for the sake of speculation and in order to arrange one’s life wisely.”

“Indeed, those who think that ideas consist in images which are formed in us from encounters with… bodies, are convinced that those ideas of things… of which we can form no similar image… are not ideas, but only fictions which we feign from a free choice of the will. They look on ideas, therefore, as mute pictures on a panel, and preoccupied with this prejudice, do not see that an idea, insofar as it is an idea, involves an affirmation or negation.”

“And then, those who confuse words with the idea, or with the very affirmation that the idea involves, think that they can will something contrary to what they are aware of, when they only affirm or deny with words something contrary to what they are aware of. But these prejudices can be easily put aside by anyone who attends to the nature of thought, which does not at all involve the concept of extension. He will then understand clearly that an idea (since it is a mode of thinking) consists neither in the image of anything, nor in words. For the essence of words and of images is constituted only by corporeal motions, which do not at all involve the concept of thought” (book II, proposition 49, scholium 2, pp. 485-486).

To stress the separateness of thought from extension is yet again to direct us away from mere representation of things, and from taking the represented things for granted.

When he says that an idea involves an affirmation or negation, he means that unlike an isolated word, an idea in his particular sense is something we can assert or deny (it has propositional content). If it’s actually not a representation, an idea must be an inferential meaning, and that would be something we can affirm or deny.

He had just argued that “In the Mind there is no volition, or affirmation and negation, except that which the idea involves insofar as it is an idea” (proposition 49, p. 485). He goes on to strictly identify “the Mind” with its “ideas”, i.e., with what it affirms, and contrariwise with what it rejects. This is what I meant earlier in suggesting that what he means by “Mind” turns out to be quite different from standard modern notions.

In effect he identifies “us” not with our consciousness as Locke does, but rather by what we affirm and what we reject. On this point at least, he comes out close to both Aristotle and Hegel.

I do think Aristotle and Hegel are a little more explicit than Spinoza that what is most authoritative with respect to what we really affirm or deny is what we actually do, as witnessable by others.

Fichte’s Ethics

Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798) has been called the most important work of moral philosophy between Kant and Hegel. Unavailable in English till 2005, it is apparently a source for some key themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology. It also shows the more nuanced side of Fichte that impressed Paul Ricoeur. Fichte was an unusually powerful speaker, reportedly electrifying audiences with his intensity and bold rhetorical strokes. His thought greatly influenced German Romanticism.

Fichte begins by asking, “how can something objective ever become something subjective; how can a being for itself ever become something represented (vorgestellt)?” (p. 7). He continues, “No one will ever explain how this remarkable transformation takes place without finding a point where the objective and the subjective are not at all distinct from one another…. The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason, or whatever one wishes to call it.”

“This absolute identity of the subject and the object in the I can only be inferred; it cannot be demonstrated, so to speak, ‘immediately’, as a fact of actual consciousness. As soon as any actual consciousness occurs, even if it is only the consciousness of ourselves, the separation [between subject and object] ensues…. The entire mechanism of consciousness rests on the various aspects of this separation of what is subjective from what is objective, and, in turn, on the unification of the two” (ibid; brackets and emphasis in original).

Fichte revives an explicit appeal to “intellectual intuition” that Kant had proscribed and I find untenable, but carefully limits its scope, mainly using it for the existence of “the I”. Importantly, as the above quote shows, he does not claim to have a direct intuition of the identity of subject and object.

Next he asks, “how we ever come to take some of our representations to be the ground of a being” (p. 8), and answers, “I find myself to be acting efficaciously in the world of sense” (ibid).

This seems like a good pragmatist insight. Here and above, he asks questions about the status of representation and how it comes to be that anticipate aspects of Brandom’s work in this area.

“Insofar as I know anything at all I know that I am active” (p. 9). “I posit myself as active” (p. 10). Hegel criticized Fichte’s reliance on “positing” or postulation of various key notions.

Fichte goes on to specify that “I ascribe to myself a determinate activity, precisely this one and not another” (p. 11), and determinate activity implies resistance. “Wherever and whenever you see activity, you see resistance as well, for otherwise you see no activity” (p. 12). “[F]reedom can never be posited as able to do anything whatsoever about this situation, since otherwise freedom itself, along with all consciousness and all being, would fall away” (p. 13).

Throughout his career, while picking up and intensifying Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric and even aiming to build a system around it, Fichte made things more interesting and complicated by emphasizing that objectivity always involves a resistance to free action. Fichte goes on to specify that activity involves a kind of agility — i.e., ways of acting successfully in spite of the the object’s or the world’s resistance. Here we find ourselves on the threshold at least of the territory more fully explored by Ricoeur in Freedom and Nature (see Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action).

“I posit myself as free insofar as I explain a sensible acting, or being, as arising from my concept, which is then called the ‘concept of an end'” (p. 14). “[T]he concept of an end, as it is called, is not itself determined in turn by something objective but is determined absolutely by itself” (p. 15).

Freedom here is acting in accordance with concepts or ends. While Kant and Fichte both tended to identify this with a kind of exemption from the natural order, this second move is separable from the first. The need to treat freedom as an exemption presupposes a view of natural causality as completely rigid. But more fluid “tendencies” also exhibit the resistance that Fichte makes characteristic of objectivity.

He then claims in effect that the resistance we encounter in the world of sense is actually nothing but an appearance. “[N]othing is absolute but pure activity…. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency” (p. 17). I think Hegel and Ricoeur would each in their own way regard formulations like this as one-sided, and as a step back from his previous acknowledgement of resistance to our action as a basic fact of life, but that is in part because Hegel and Ricoeur both in a sense vindicate appearance itself as being something more than mere appearance.

Fichte is not actually contradicting himself or going back on a promise here, but moving to a different level. I think his point is that objects as separate are ultimately always a matter of appearance. I would agree as far as strictly separate objects are concerned, but I see objectivity in the first instance as a resistant but non-rigid sea of non-separate relations, tendencies, and currents that is not just an appearance, and is only secondarily divided into separate objects that insofar as they are separate are just appearances.

He comes a bit closer to Hegel again when he says “it is the character of the I that the acting subject and that upon which it acts are one and the same” (p. 28; emphasis in original).

But a few pages later he concludes that “all willing is absolute” and that the will is “absolute indeterminability through anything outside itself” (p. 33). “As an absolute force with consciousness, the I tears itself away — away from the I as a given absolute, lacking force and consciousness” (p. 37). One of Hegel’s main concerns in the Phenomenology was to show the inadequacy and undesirability of this ideal of total “independence”. I take “absolute force” as a kind of poetic language in Fichte’s rhetorical style that I would not adopt.

He repeats Kant’s claim that the will has “the power of causality by means of mere concepts” (p. 41). I agree that concepts can have a kind of efficacy in the world, though I would not call it causality in the narrow modern sense. On the other hand, I think talk about will as if it were a separate power not encompassed by the union of feeling and reason is misguided. I don’t think there is any will-talk that doesn’t have a better analogue in feeling-and-reason talk. So the question of the will’s causality does not even come up for me.

“According to Kant, freedom is the power to begin a state [Zustand] (a being and subsistence) absolutely” (p. 41). I don’t consider formulations like this to be typical of Kant’s thought as a whole. It rhetorically recalls voluntarist views in the Latin medieval tradition that saw human freedom as a sort of microcosmic analogue of creation from nothing. The notion of literal creation from nothing, though it achieved wide circulation in the monotheistic traditions, is actually an extreme view in theology whose main use has been to support radically supernaturalist claims of all sorts that are entirely separable from the broader spiritual purport of the world’s religions. Scholars have pointed out that creation from nothing is not inherent to the Old Testament text, and only emerged as an interpretation in the Hellenistic period with figures like Philo of Alexandria. One of Kant’s great contributions was actually to have developed other ways of talking about freedom that do not presuppose any of this kind of strong supernaturalism. (I adhere to the view commonly attributed to Aristotle in the Latin tradition that nothing comes from nothing in any literal sense.) Fichte of course was not at all a supernaturalist like Philo; but like Kant and even more so, in relation to freedom he nonetheless used some of the same rhetorical strategies originally developed to “rationalize” supernaturalism. (And if nature already participates in divinity, supernaturalism is superfluous.)

Fichte improves things by specifying, “It is not the case that the state that is begun absolutely is simply connected to nothing at all, for a finite rational being thinks only by means of mediation and connections. The connection in question, however, is not a connection to another being, but to a thinking” (ibid).

Much as I welcome this emphasis on mediation and connections, it is important to mention that he earlier strongly relied on the claim of a limited kind of direct intellectual self-intuition (pp. 25ff). Fichte was honest enough to acknowledge that he did not have inferential grounds for his strong notion of “I-hood”. The texture of his thought is a unique hybrid of a sort of inferentialism about things in general with an intuitionism about self. The points at which he relies on intuition are the same places where he applies the bold rhetorical strokes for which he initially became famous and popular with the Romantics. But in the long run, it is his emphasis on mediation — both in the form of inference and in the form of resistance to our projects — that holds the greatest value.

In a somewhat Kantian style that seems both more abstract and more simple and direct than that of Kant himself, Fichte sets out to “deduce” first the principle of morality, then the reality and applicability of the principle. For Fichte, the single principle of morality is the “absolute autonomy of reason” (p. 60). Reason is finite, but depends on nothing outside itself. Consciousness is always limited and in that sense determined by the objects it “finds”, but in conscience there is a pure identity of subject and object. Here again we can see how Hegel was in part taking up Fichtean ways of speaking.

Unlike Hegel, though, for Fichte “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness. Conscience is itself the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself” (p. 165).

From this it seems clear that Fichte recognizes no standpoint higher than that of Conscience. He identifies morality with good will (p. 149). Hegel on the other hand regards mutual recognition as a higher standpoint than that of the autonomy of Conscience. Although Fichte briefly refers to the concept of mutual recognition he had developed in Foundations of Natural Right (1797), the System of Ethics revolves mainly around a version of Kantian autonomy: “the formal law of morals [Sitten] is…. do what you can now regard with conviction as a duty, and do it solely because you have convinced yourself that it is a duty” (p. 155).

Surprisingly, he says “all free actions are predestined through reason for all eternity” (p. 216), and claims to have reconciled freedom with predestination. This provides a noteworthy additional perspective on his earlier love-hate relation with Spinoza.

“The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it,…. This process of drawing nearer to my final end is my finite end.”

“The fact that nature placed me at one point or another and that nature instead of me took the first step, as it were, on this path to infinity does not infringe upon my freedom” (pp. 217-218). This theme of “drawing nearer” and the “path to infinity” was sharply criticized by Hegel, but I rather like it.

I worry a bit when he says “The necessary goal of all virtuous people is therefore unanimous agreement [and] uniformity of acting” (p. 224). He did however also say that “anyone who acts on authority necessarily acts unconscionably” (p. 167; emphasis in original).

“I possess absolute freedom of thought… freedom before my own conscience…. [I]t is unconscionable for me to make the way in which I tend to the preservation of my body dependent on the opinions of others” (p. 225).

“What lies outside my body, and hence the entire sensible world, is a common good or possession” (ibid). “[I]n communal matters, I ought to act only in accordance with the presumptive general will” (p. 228). “I should… act in such a way that things have to become better. This is purely and simply a duty” (ibid). “As a means for bringing about the rational state, I have to take into account the present condition of the makeshift state” (ibid). In the case of unjust tyranny and oppression, “every honorable person could then in good conscience endeavor to overthrow this [makeshift] state entirely, but only if he has ascertained the common will” (ibid; emphasis in original).

“How then can one become aware of that upon which everyone agrees? This is not something one could learn simply by asking around; hence it must be possible to presuppose something that can be viewed as the creed of the community or as its symbol.”

“It is implicit in the concept of such a symbol or creed that it presents something not in a very precise or determinate manner, but only in a general way…. Moreover,… the symbol is supposed to be appropriate for everyone…. [T]he symbol does not consist in abstract propositions but rather in sensory presentations of the latter. The sensible presentation is merely the costume; what is properly symbolic is the concept. That precisely this presentation had to be chosen is something that was dictated by need… because they were not yet capable of distinguishing the costume that the concept had received by chance from the essence of the concept” (p. 230).

“[W]hat is most essential about every possible symbol or creed is expressed in the proposition, ‘there is something or other that is supersensible and elevated above all nature’…. What this supersensible something may be, the identity of this truly holy and sanctifying spirit, the character of the truly moral way of thinking: it is precisely concerning these points that the community seeks to determine and to unify itself more and more, by mutual interaction” (pp. 230-231).

Here we see some anticipation of Hegel’s account of religion in the Phenomenology.

“Not only am I permitted to have my own private conviction concerning the constitution of the state and the system of the church, I am even obliged by my conscience to develop this same conviction just as self-sufficiently and as broadly as I can.”

“Such development… is possible, however, only by means of reciprocal communication with others.” (p. 233).

Like Hegel, he makes mutual recognition a foundation of religion.

“The distinguishing and characteristic feature of the learned public is absolute freedom and independence of thinking” (p. 238). “Since scholarly inquiry is absolutely free, so must access to it be open to everyone” (p. 239).

“No earthly power has the right to issue commands regarding matters of conscience…. The state and the church must tolerate scholars” (ibid).

“All of a person’s efficacious acting within society has the following goal: all human beings are supposed to be in agreement; but the only matters that all human beings can agree on are those that are purely rational, for this is all they have in common” (p. 241).

“Kant has asserted that every human being is himself an end, and this assertion has received universal assent” (p. 244).

“The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of being perfected and remaining so, and this same law absolutely prohibits us from treating human beings in the opposite manner” (p. 229). Fichte argues at some length that this last point would be true no matter how dismal we might judge actual history to be.

Unfortunately, Fichte retained some of the prejudices of his time and place. He thought women should be subordinate to men, and his contribution to early German nationalism was not without a chauvinistic side.

On the Threshold of “Absolute” Knowing

We have reached the final chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology, in the good company of H. S. Harris’ unique paragraph-by-paragraph commentary, Hegel’s Ladder. This has been a long journey, but I at least have found it eminently worthwhile. Reading through Harris’ book for a second time, with Hegel’s own work in hand, and recording my own notes on the detailed development of Hegel’s actual literal argument has greatly improved my apprehension of the overall structure and movement of Hegel’s work. I first looked at the Phenomenology more than 45 years ago, and — like most people, I think — really failed to coherently grasp the forest, becoming lost in the trees. Now I think I understand the forest.

Of course, no one should regard my notes as a replacement for the original, either of Hegel’s or Harris’ work. But I hope they provide some helpful orientation.

I had thought this project was nearly done, but on rereading Hegel’s chapter on “Absolute Knowledge” this morning, most of the individual sentences strike me as potentially deserving their own posts. Though it presupposes the entire preceding development, this is perhaps the most lucid part of Hegel’s whole book, containing innumerable riches (even in the old Baillie translation, which I again apologize for using here — my copies of Miller and Pinkard are still MIA). It is where everything comes together. So, I will probably end up lingering on it longer than expected. (For my own earlier take on this, see “Absolute” Knowledge?)

The first paragraph of Hegel’s chapter reads, “The Spirit manifested in manifest [Baillie has “revealed”] religion has not as yet surmounted its attitude of consciousness as such; or, what is the same thing, its actual self-consciousness is not at this stage the object it is aware of. Spirit as a whole and the moments distinguished in it fall within the sphere of figurative thinking, and within the form of objectivity. The content of this figurative thought is Absolute Spirit. All that remains now is to cancel and transcend this bare form; or better, because the form appertains to consciousness as such, its true meaning must have already come out in the shapes or modes consciousness has assumed” (Baillie trans., p. 791). So far, this is just a summary of what went before, but there is more yet to come.

For now it is worth noting again that the “attitude of consciousness as such” is to focus on the presented or represented object as if it were self-contained and purely external, i.e., fully independent of us and our purposes. There is indeed truth in this, even from the beginning. It is a necessary partial perspective that recurs over and over again on many different levels. Since how things are is never just up to us to characterize in whatever way we might wish, a recognition of the “independence” of objects plays a salutary role. Moreover, every formulation of a view of the world necessarily takes a stance on how things “really are”.

What is naive is to think that the content of such a stance is the only story that needs to be told, or that we ever have completely isolated, pure “content”.

This is a completely general point that also applies to religion. Kant and Hegel have taught us that nothing that is an object for us is ever entirely separated from us. The main attitude and value of religion is a recognition of something greater than ourselves, but the quality and manner of our recognition of something greater than ourselves is nonetheless of central import. The further implications of this reach into territory that can easily become socially divisive, so they call for sensitive treatment.

Harris’ commentary on this paragraph begins, “Hegel’s Absolute Knowledge is simply the self-conscious awareness of what the ‘manifest religion’ of the universal human community really means as a concretely logical experience of the individual thinker in (and for) the community. We have now understood that the function of Religion in human life and experience is to express the universally shared consciousness that a community must have (if it is a community of rational consciousness). Religion is the consciousness of the community’s relation to the world, and of its own self-cognitive structure (as a unity with many members). When that actual structure is fully consistent with itself as cognition, then the community is rational. Knowing this, we can see that, if there is to be any ‘absolute knowledge’ it has to be the knowledge expressed in the religion of a community which has arrived a rational relationship with the world, and with itself; it is the knowledge that is finally and demonstrably necessary (in a logical sense, and not just as a matter or received general conviction) for the complete realization of human Reason. Reason is not ‘common’ to humans in the way that their body skeletons are. It is communally recognized, because it is the constructive achievement of the human community, by the community” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 709).

This seems technically correct to me, if a little cold. I would emphasize that we are talking about ethics here, not just cognition, and I think the message is better conveyed by Hegel’s own highlighting of mutual recognition and forgiveness. I somewhat prefer my own formula that religion for Hegel is ultimately what keeps conscience honest.

“The idea that we are all endowed with Reason ‘by nature’ and that it unfolds ‘naturally’ in us, is an error of the Enlightenment, from which the speculative recollection of the history of how our Reason has actually developed, decisively frees us. If we were not the spiritual offspring of a religion that teaches us that all human beings are the children of a God who is supremely rational, and who loves us all equally to the point where He took our nature (with all of its limits and sufferings) upon Him in order to exist for us as ‘Spirit’, we would not have the concept of human rationality (theoretical and practical) that we do have” (ibid).

The first part of this I think is extremely important. Reason is not innate.

Historically specific features of Christianity play an important role in Hegel’s overall narrative. I am myself still doubtful about claims privileging one particular tradition as a unique source or necessary prerequisite for what ought to be universal human values. Harris follows the common opinion that necessary ingredients are simply not there in Aristotle, for instance. While Kant historically heightened sensitivity to universal humanity in the form of equality, I contend that the idea is implicitly already there in Aristotle’s recommendation to broadly apply norms of friendship, and his clear recognition that social status should not affect our judgment of individuals.

“Having identified that form for us, Hegel must now show us that the consensus involves an unselfconscious recognition of what we know the rational function of religion in society to be; and secondly, that when this unselfconscious knowledge is logically interpreted, it provides a functionally complete and coherent concept of what human rationality is….. Reason is the living substance that becomes subjectively self-conscious in these mortal organisms whose intercommunication constitutes the distinctively ‘human’ (or free spiritual) world.”

“Religion continually refers to the eternal aspect of Reason in its purity, as if it were a supersensible Beyond…. but the Hegelian concept of ‘Spirit’ — combined with the concept of ‘the Spirit’ that we find empirically in our religion — sublates this necessity, and makes ‘eternity’ a moment of ‘time’, just as ‘time’ is a moment of ‘eternity’. [See Time and Eternity in Hegel.] By bringing out this identity, the philosophical interpretation of God’s Incarnation sublates His absolute otherness.”

Throughout Hegel’s Ladder, Harris has regularly alternated between religious forms of expression and “Enlightened” criticism of religion. In general I think he does an excellent job of steering a middle course through these difficult waters. In a number of cases he uses language that is more overtly religious than Hegel’s own. In the following he goes in the opposite direction.

“Scientifically there is no need to use the name ‘God’ at all” (p. 710).

Harris’ statement technically concerns the name only, and is probably technically correct when construed narrowly. Historically, though, statements of this kind have been considered inflammatory, and Hegel did not actually express himself this way. The passage in Hegel that Harris cites (paragraph 66 in the Miller numbering used by English-speaking scholars) is concerned with the general logical fact that proper names are not interchangeable with concepts, which I would fully endorse. Harris previously remarked that God seems to disappear in the Reason section of the Phenomenology, but then “appears” again in the Spirit section.

“Hegel always maintained that Religion and Philosophy were the knowledge of the ‘same’ content in different ‘forms’. But those who think that the change of ‘form’ leaves the truth of ‘Religion’ effectively untouched, are deceiving themselves either about what Hegel meant, or else about their own (not yet properly Hegelian) relation to the faith of the religious tradition from which Hegel’s language is derived” (ibid).

“Hegel accepts the claim of his religious tradition that ‘Faith is a kind of knowledge’; and we have seen what a vitally important ‘kind of knowledge’ it is. It is the universal context of all the ‘knowledge’ that saves us from a Hobbesian chaos. But equally Hegel accepts that faith is an imperfect kind of knowledge; and when he claims to turn it into absolute knowledge, he is quite consciously and deliberately claiming to do away with its ‘imperfect’ character as ‘faith’ altogether….” (p. 711).

This seems well balanced and textually accurate.

“[N]o ‘postulates’ that transcend experience are necessary. Specifically Hegel does away with the Kantian postulates (God, freedom, and immortality) by showing what the rational interpretation of the terms in actual experience is…. [O]f them all, the postulate of ‘God’ is the one that is the most radically affected” (ibid).

This is a technical point about postulation, which has to do with Kant’s particular approach to these matters.

“Faith knows that God is Man, that the eternal Reason is necessarily embodied” (p. 712). But “The surrendering of the human will to God’s Will is only possible because God’s real identity as human Reason, his necessary humanity, is recognized” (p. 713).

“[Faith] takes the home of its longing to be elsewhere than here” (ibid). A certain common traditionally accepted notion of faith treats it as a kind of other-worldly “knowledge”, but there are also grounds for arguing — even in a traditional context — that this is not its highest form. Elsewhere, I have suggested viewing faith as more primarily a way of being in real life rather than an abstract belief or knowledge claim.

“The whole journey of the Phenomenology is necessary in order to disabuse ‘Reason’ of this dialectical illusion” (ibid).

As a student of Plato, Aristotle, and Hegel, I don’t believe in dialectical illusion. This was Kant’s overly polite way of pointing out how Reason needs to be carefully separated from the dogmatic received “truths” accepted by Cartesians and Wolffians. The whole issue of the relation between philosophy and religion is difficult, not least because it embraces substantial social concerns. But it is true that Hegel wants to direct our attention to Spirit incarnate in this life.

Observing Reason

Hegel had suggested that a Fichtean idealism ends up attempting to fill out its extreme abstraction by ad hoc adoption of a complementary Lockean empiricism. He goes on to treat something like Lockean empiricism, under the title of “Observing Reason”. The bulk of Hegel’s discussion ends up focusing on the empirical study of organic nature, with brief remarks on attempts to define psychological “laws of thought” and other psychological “laws”. Then he turns to physical anthropology, polemicizing at length against the old pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology, which purported to make predictions about human character from body types and skull shapes. Here we also reach the end of the first volume of Harris’ commentary on the Phenomenology, subtitled “The Pilgrimage of Reason”. The concluding second volume will be “The Odyssey of Spirit”.

Hegel dwells at length on the concept of organism, taking up Kant’s practical vindication of Aristotelian teleology in biology. The unity of an organism has to do with a pure “purpose” internal to the organism. None of its particular observable characteristics turn out to be essential in themselves; rather, they all have a fundamentally relational character. In Force and Understanding he had argued that mathematical physical law is purely relational; here he treats an organism as a purely relational unity held together by an internal “purpose”. Force and Understanding had been concerned with the formal unity of the physical world; the notion of organism introduces the notion of individuation within a world. Hegel picturesquely says that animals actively individuate themselves — distinguish themselves from the surrounding world — by means of their teeth and claws. By comparison, plants in their “quiescence” have only a minimal kind of individuality. Previously, he had quipped that animals must be unimpressed by the putative separateness of objects, because without ceremony they fall to and gobble them up.

Harris says in his commentary, “Observing Reason is a ‘return’ of Sense-Certainty and Perception together, because it is concerned with the ‘essence’ of real things. It wants to conceptualize them, but it is naive, like the Understanding” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 474).

“Locke’s standpoint differs from that of Sense-Certainty and Perception, both because he insists that the mind can know only its own ideas, and because what he calls the ‘plain historical method’ is a descriptive technique that aims to uncover the universal laws and principles of rational epistemology” (p. 475). The world is “stripped” to the pure concept of “matter or extension” (p. 476). “Here at the beginning we are faced by a Reason that wants to know not itself, but the world of things” (p. 477).

In the context of organic nature, “[Hegel] is now going to show us that the Kantian concept of mathematical schematism (which is a direct descendant of Gailleo’s distinction [between primary and secondary qualities of bodies]) fails completely as a bridge between the observed data and the conceptual structures used by the scientific ‘observers’. The observing consciousness of Reason itself is now going to learn what we learned when we observed the perceptual consciousness. It will learn that the thing is a Hegelian concept, (not a Galilean or Lockean one). The consciousness we are observing will discover that the [Galilean or Lockean “thing”] cannot correspond to Reason because it is essentially and necessarily dead” (p. 478).

(I confess I don’t recognize the reference to Kantian “schematism” as mathematical; I think of Kantian schematism more generally as a mediation between sensible “intuition” and conceptual thought through imagination.)

“Everywhere it observes things; but what it seeks is their Concept, or the law of their behavior…. It will observe first the natural world, then itself (as subjective spirit); and finally it will observe the relation between subjective spirit and its natural embodiment. But because the object of observation must always be a stably inert Gestalt, an observable thing, the results achieved become less satisfactory at every step” (pp. 478-479).

“[T]he ‘immediacy’ of the standpoint means that we are not observing it in the proper way…. Consciousness must first descend ‘into its own depth’. Thinking must discover what it is, as an activity; it must discover the dialectical logic that is its own ‘living spirit'” (p. 479). But this is only a beginning.

“The logical priority of ‘consciousness’ as the ‘own proper shape’ of Reason can only be established by the reductio ad absurdum of the alternate route through ‘things’. It must be established in this way, because the structure of ‘consciousness’ determines that Reason will naturally begin by trying to find itself in ‘things’…. Hence it is part of the object of the present chapter to show that we cannot make a direct descent into the depths of consciousness as subjectivity. If we try to do this (as Kant and Fichte did) what we discover is only an abstract essence of Reason that is perfectly valid, but almost completely useless. Its only real use will be to serve as the guiding light for the subsequent descent into the depths of our cultural world. We have to experience both the quest for the ‘essence of things’ and the quest for the ‘essence of consciousness’ before we can properly embark upon the discovery of the self in its thing-world” (ibid).

Harris develops Hegel’s distinction between inert “representations” of “things” and active thought. “The controlling conception in Hegel’s mind is the self-individuation of the Aristotelian form” (p. 486).

In this context of organic nature, Harris notes Hegel’s general preference for Plato and Aristotle over Newton, and thinks Hegel also takes from Aristotle the less fortunate view that nature has no history. I take Aristotle’s remarks about the “eternity” of species, the motions of the stars, etc., as having the valid pragmatic sense that such things had not been observed to change within living social memory. (I note also that Plato in the Laws already suggested that organic species do in fact come to be and perish.) Hegel defends Aristotelian “internal” teleology, while rejecting both the biological mechanism of Descartes and the “external” teleology of the argument from design used by Newton and others. Purposefulness for Hegel does not presuppose a mind (p. 502).

In spite of his criticisms of philosophical empiricism, Hegel defends the importance of empirical verification of hypotheses. Harris actually calls Hegel a “spiritual empiricist” in both natural science and ethics (p. 490). He says that Hegelian “necessity” is neither physical nor formal, but “logical” in Hegel’s sense. Hegel is much more concerned to criticize the “formalism” of philosophies of nature developed by followers of Schelling than actual scientific work.

In spite of the importance of “Life” in contrast to “dead” things in Hegel’s view, he has no use for vitalism. “Life is not more on the ‘inside’ of the organism than it is on the ‘outside’…. It is the ‘general fluidity’ within which the parts and organs of the body are formed and dissolved…. Observing Reason makes the Newtonian mistake of granting priority to visible stability” (p. 507). Hegel discusses notions of “sensibility” and “irritability” current in the biology of his time, adding in his own notions of “fluidity” and “elasticity”. He is very skeptical about “laws” in biology.

Between remarks on zoology and psychology, Hegel briefly (and dismissively) discusses so-called “laws of thought”. These relate to the early modern tradition of psychologizing in logic. With somewhat different motivation, Hegel anticipates Frege and Husserl’s rejection of such “psychologism”.

He also has no use for early modern psychology. In Harris’ summary, “Observational psychology operates with a mechanical toy that is all in pieces, so that the soul is observed and discussed like a bag full of loose bits” (p. 562). Hegel adds some sympathetic remarks on biography before launching a devastating critique of the now-forgotten pretensions of physiognomy and phrenology to discern purely physical indications of human character. What is important in the last is his general contention that even animal behavior cannot be adequately explained in a purely mechanistic way.

In spite of all of this, the idea of “observing” the objective dimension of a self in its concrete actualization in the world as contrasted with any direct intuition of pure interiority will turn out to have pivotal importance in the development to come. This is in fact how we experience others, and how others experience us. For Hegel it is our shared experience of one another rather than anyone’s private experience that is the basis of ethics. (See also Individuality, Community.)

Hegel on Skepticism

The next shape of self-consciousness after “Stoicism” in Hegel’s Phenomenology is “Skepticism”. H. S. Harris in his commentary thinks some of Hegel’s remarks apply specifically to Carneades, perhaps the best known “Academic” Skeptic, who shocked the Romans by arguing for opposite theses on alternating days, as an exercise on Platonic dialectic. Carneades also wrote a work arguing in detail against the great early Stoic Chryssipus. Although I like to stress the less textually obvious role of Aristotelian dialectic in Hegel’s work, Hegel’s explicit remarks emphasize a kind of Platonic dialectic with Skeptical inflections (see Three Logical Moments).

For Hegel, neither pure Understanding — which excels in clarity, utility, and systematic development but tends toward dogmatism — nor a skeptically inclined Dialectic, whose movement undoes everything that is apparently solid — is adequate to characterize what he wants to call Thought. Thought ought to involve a sort of Aristotelian mean that combines the insights of both.

Hegel writes, “Skepticism is the realization of that of which Stoicism is merely the notion, and is the actual experience of what freedom of thought is…. [I]ndependent existence or permanent determinateness has, in contrast to that reflexion, dropped as a matter of fact out of the infinitude of thought” (Baillie trans., p. 246). “Skeptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self…. [This] consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this melée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved…. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an entirely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder” (pp. 248-249).

Harris comments, “[T]he Stoics had to be taught by the Sceptics that no Vorstellung [representation] (not even that of the great cosmic cycle) could comprehend Erscheinung [appearance]” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 393). “[Skepticism] knows that ‘language is truer’… than the simple assumption that truth is the name of an extralinguistic Sache [thing or content]” (ibid).

“The Sceptic ideal is to be untroubled in the face of the sensory flux. Sceptical reason tells us not to worry about what we cannot help” (ibid). But “Far from behaving like one who is undisturbed, [Carneades] enjoys being an active disturber; and on the practical side his life has to be controlled by the felt motive actually present at a given moment” (p. 394). “Achieving ‘suspension of judgment’, by setting whatever contingent arguments one can discern in the whirl against those that someone else offers, is a cheat. The Sceptic lives in the world, and allows himself to be guided by senses which he says we ought not to trust” (ibid).

“Every effort the Stoic makes to realize his freedom is tantamount to a serf’s fantasy that he really owns the land” (p. 395). “The Sceptic is a laughing sage because he has the Stoic to laugh at. We laugh at both of them” (ibid).

“[The Skeptic] has not recognized that the [self] he identifies with is only a formal ideal by which the concretely actual self can measure itself. Nobody is that ideal self. No finite consciousness can be that self (by definition). There is no Lord walking the earth: not the one that the serf fears; not the Stoic who thinks he is free; and not the Sceptic who knows what thinking is, and what it is not” (p. 396).

Consciousness in Locke and Hegel

It is not unreasonable to broadly associate the notion of consciousness invented and promoted by Locke with the “Consciousness” whose inadequacies are exposed across the development of Hegel’s Phenomenology. This is probably not clear from my very selective recent mention of Locke, which was focused on his novel approach to personal identity rather than his overall empiricist theory of knowledge, to which I have not done justice either. In addition, Hegel abstracts away Locke’s very prominent emphasis on what he called “ideas”, which are mental representations that Locke takes to be simply given to us in experience. Hegel is able to do this because what Locke calls ideas are supposed to transparently convey whatever they are supposed to represent.

In Hegel’s version, a naive standpoint of everyday “consciousness” is presented as understanding itself as confronting ready-made external objects. These, I take it, are among the things that are supposed to be transparently referred to by Locke’s simply given mental representations. The standpoint of Consciousness in Hegel is entirely superseded from the point of view of its self-understanding, but its practical import is substantially preserved, being refined rather than superseded. The identities and natures of things we interact with — even their qualities — are not simply given to us, but things we interact with do constrain us. That is the push-back of reality that we all genuinely engage with, despite our misapprehension of many subtleties.

One of Hegel’s major points is that any valid discussion of human freedom has to take acknowledgement of that push-back of reality as a starting point. This rules out any notion that we could act with complete arbitrariness, as if in a vacuum. One of Hegel’s other major points is that concrete human capabilities are grounded not in a vacuum, but in concrete potentials already implicit in the reality that also pushes back at us.

Locke’s famous (and in my opinion, broadly sound) polemic against innate ideas often overshadows his implicit reliance on a simple givenness of perceptual contents and other items in experience.