Back to Ethical Being

I think Hegel’s notion of concrete “ethical being” (sittliches Wesen), which has been particularly well explicated by Robert Pippin, does an immeasurably better job of unfolding what I will provocatively call the human “essence” — which the explicit level of Aristotle’s notion of talking animals only extensionally picked out — than its more famous 20th century “ontologically” flavored competitors like Heidegger’s Dasein or Sartre’s “being for itself”. In an immeasurably richer and more subtle way, concrete ethical being addresses the order of explanation relevant to human life. It is also happily free of existentialist bombast and melodrama. (See also Beings; Hegel on Willing; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation.)

Pippin on Mutual Recognition

Hegel’s ethical, epistemological, and political notion of mutual recognition has its roots in his early writings, predating the Phenomenology of Spirit, and is most famously developed in the Phenomenology itself. Some older commentators claimed that in the late period of the Encyclopedia and Philosophy of Right, Hegel turned his back on this grounding in intersubjectivity in favor of what Robert Pippin calls “a grand metaphysical process, an Absolute Subject’s manifestation of itself, or a Divine Mind’s coming to self-consciousness” (Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, p. 184). Pippin thinks those writers were “insufficiently attentive to the unusual foundations of the mature theory of ethical life, or to Hegel’s theory of spirit (Geist) and so the very unusual account of freedom that position justifies” (p. 185; for other aspects of Pippin’s reading, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom; Hegel on Willing).

What Hegel calls “true” or “concrete” individuality “should not be confused with questions of pre-reflexive self-familiarity, self-knowledge, existential uniqueness, personal identity, psychological health, and so forth” (pp. 185-186). The concrete individual for Hegel is an ethical being, i.e., a being to be understood through her actions and commitments, and as such embedded, ramified, and temporally extended — anything but an atom “acting” instantaneously in a vacuum. It is this ethical being — not factual existence — that is constituted by mutual recognition.

Pippin notes that recognition of others as “free” as an ethical aim is not directed at meeting any psychological need for recognition. (Certainly it is also not about believing they have arbitrary free will. Rather, it is to be identified with an elementary requirement of Kantian respect for others as a starting point for ethics.)

Pippin agrees with Ludwig Siep — a pioneer of scholarship on recognition in Hegel — that Hegel “understood himself to have clarified and resolved the great logical problems caused by the sort of relational claim implicit in a radical theory of the constitutive function of recognition (wherein the relata themselves, or agents, are ultimately also relational) in his account of ‘reflection’ in particular and the ‘logic of essence’ in general” (p. 183n).

The freedom said to be the essence of spirit — which emerges concretely from mutual recognition — involves a mediated relation to one’s own “individual immediacy”. Mediation grounds reason, which grounds universality (in the mid-range Aristotelian rather than the unconditional Kantian sense, as distinguished in Self-Legislation?), which grounds the actualization of freedom.

Hegel is quoted saying “in an ethical act I make not myself but the issue itself the determining factor” (p. 192). This is the perspective he identifies with “ethical life”. “When I will what is rational, I act not as a particular individual, but in accordance with the notions of ethical life in general” (ibid).

To interpret ourselves and others as ethical beings or “respectfully” is to understand ourselves and them as each “freely” acting from an ethos, in the sense that we genuinely share in it by virtue of “willingly” and actually acting on it — and that is genuinely ours by the fact that we have thus willingly taken it up, whoever “we” may turn out to be — rather than treating action as a matter of our empirical selves causing things and/or being caused to be in a certain way, and freedom as a matter of power-over.

Hegelian freedom is never an intrinsic property of a substance or subject; it is an achievement, and what is more, that achievement always has a certain fragility, or possibility of losing itself. The acting self “can only be said to be such a self when [it acknowledges] its dependence on others in any determination of the meaning of what is done” (p. 200). For Hegel, what agency consists in is thus not a “metaphysical or substantive question” (p. 204). Instead, it involves a kind of non-arbitrariness or responsiveness to reasons. It seems to me one might say it is a sort of procedural criterion.

Hegel is quoted saying “In right, man must meet with his own reason… The right to recognize nothing that I do not perceive as rational is the highest right of the subject” (p. 244). Pippin continues, “Further, it is not sufficient merely that subjects actually have some sort of implicit, subjective faith in the rectitude of their social and political forms of life, that they in fact subjectively assent….. What I need to be able to do to acknowledge a deed as my own… is in some way to be able to justify it” (pp. 245-246). “It is never a good reason simply to say, ‘This is how we do things'” (p. 266). For Brandom’s take on the same aspects of Hegel, see Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Mutual Recognition.)

Hegel on Willing

Chapters 5 and 6 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy address psychological and social dimensions of willing. Hegel is generally close to Aristotle on these matters. Pippin also makes the interesting remark in the introduction that among philosophers, it is actually Spinoza whose approach to freedom most resembles Hegel’s. (For notes on earlier chapters, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom.)

He quotes Hegel’s remark that “the will is a particular way of thinking — thinking translating itself into existence — thinking as the drive to give itself existence” (p. 129). “He seems to be saying that the right way to understand the subject’s basic relation to her deeds… is a matter primarily of comprehension or an experiential understanding, and not at all the experience of a power successfully executed” (p. 130).

Pippin says that for Hegel, “the picture of being simply assailed by unmotivated desires and seeking only to satisfy them, is as false as is the picture of the pure contemplator-of-the-good, necessarily and unavoidably moved to act by such contemplation alone” (p. 136). Freedom will involve not some kind of freeing of ourselves from desire, but rather a desire manifested in a form that is also one of reason.

Hegel wants to reconnect the inner and the outer. In particular, the relation between inner state and outer deed will be interpreted as one of continuity, or what he will call speculative “identity”, rather than any kind of causality. What is actually expressed in our actions is according to Hegel the best guide to understanding what we truly wanted.

Self-knowledge for Hegel therefore cannot be separated from knowledge of the world. Moreover, “my relation to myself is mediated by my relation to others” (p. 149). Hegel thinks one deliberates “qua ‘ethical being’ (Sittliches Wesen), not qua rational agent, full stop” (p. 150). He does not accept the “standard picture of individuals exercising an exclusively and uniquely first-personal and self-certifying intra-mental deliberative faculty” (p. 150). “[S]elf-ascriptions of intentions are not to be understood as based on observation; they are not reports of mental items…. When I express an intention, even to myself, I am avowing a pledge to act, the content and credibility of which remains (even for me), in a way, suspended until I begin to fulfill the pledge” (p. 151; emphasis in original).

Hegel “makes clear that he is quite opposed to the most widespread understanding, …the subjective sense that nothing will happen until I resolve to act, understood as something like engaging the gears of action and propelling oneself forward into action” (p. 129). He thinks there is a “defect at the core of a modern notion of agency based on ontologically distinct individual centers of unique intra-mental causal powers” (p. 155).

Instead, he “is asking that we in effect widen our focus when considering what a rational and thereby free agent looks like, widening it so as to include in the picture of agency itself a contextual and temporal field stretching out ‘backwards’ from… the familiar resolving and acting subject, and stretching ‘forward’… such that the unfolding of the deed and the reception and reaction to it are considered a constitutive element of the deed, of what fixes ultimately what was done and what turned out to be a subject’s intention” (p. 152; emphasis in original).

“The proper act-description partly depends on the established context of deliberation and action (what having this or that practical reason for doing this or that could mean in such a context) and partly on what intention and what act-description are attributed to you by others. If that is so, then no trumping priority can be given to the agent’s own expression of intention” (p. 153). (I would prefer to just say “context” rather than “established context”.) This also makes all such assessments “provisional and temporally fluid, unstable across time and experience” (ibid).

The “unfolding of a deed in time and for others, after an agent has begun to act, is as essential a dimension of what makes agency agency as what precedes the putative moment of decision” (p. 156). Hegel is quoted saying “Ethical Self-consciousness now learns from its deed the developed nature of what it actually did” (p. 157; emphasis in original).

“Knowing one’s mind, then, turns out to be ‘having a mind of one’s own’, which, in turn, must be wrested from others and protected in ways neither indifferent to nor submissive to the demands and interpretations of others, and it means a form of mindedness that one must also be able to express and act out, successfully ‘realize’ in the world” (p. 178). (See also What We Really Want. For my notes on Brandom’s coverage of this same Hegelian territory, see Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Actualization of Freedom

Chapter 4 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy is concerned with the actualization of freedom.  Hegel makes abundant use of the Aristotelian concepts of actuality and actualization.  To begin with, Pippin wants to resolve worries that Hegel’s emphasis on the actuality of Spirit submerges the agency of individuals, or that it gives too strong a “providential” sanction to existing states of affairs.  Hegel indeed had little use for the narrow “self-will” of individuals, and in his semi-popular lectures on the philosophy of history applied potentially misleading metaphors of providence and theodicy to history.  As Pippin observes, the meaning especially of some of Hegel’s more rhetorical statements is sometimes “profoundly unclear”, and apparently at odds with his more careful articulations.

If we step back and consider what actuality is in both Aristotle and Hegel, individualization is one of its fundamental characteristics.  Actual things are specific, concretely embodied, and indeed particular.  The actuality of spirit is not some ghostly presence over and above things, but lies rather in the concrete actions of individual people as ethical agents.  And actuality, as Pippin notes, “is not merely a question about whether a concept does or does not have instances corresponding to it in the real world” (p. 95).  

Hegel distinguished “ideas” from mere concepts precisely as taking into account their actuality and embodiment.  In language that could very easily be misunderstood, he also spoke of the concept giving itself its own actuality.  Pippin begins to explain this by noting that concepts for Hegel always involve an “ought”.  They are “rules telling us how to make categorical distinctions, principles that govern material inferences, that prescribe what ought or ought not to be done” (p. 97), and “the Concept” with a capital “C” just is normativity.  All concept use is involved with considerations of rightness.  “By virtue of what is one inferential move legitimate, another not?” (ibid).  To be able to judge what anything is, we must be able to distinguish it from what it is not.  

Hegel gives unqualified praise to Kant’s thesis that the unity of the concept is none other than the unity of apperception.  Pippin says this gives the concept a non-empirical origin that ties it to self-legislation.  “[A]ll judgment rests on excluding and inferring relations [Brandom’s material incompatibility and material consequence] that constrain what we can intelligibly think and articulate by normatively constraining ‘what we ought to think’, not by being psychological propensities or limits” (p. 99).  This all has to do with the determination of what is right, not with any causing of things to exist in a certain way.  

Pippin says the whole third part of Hegel’s Logic – the “logic of the concept” – is concerned with these Kantian considerations related to self-legislation.  He concludes that actuality for Hegel especially refers to the objective validity of a normative status, not simple existence.  This is what is behind Hegel’s famous and tremendously misunderstood phrase “the rational is the real, and the real is the rational”.  Both reason and actuality or reality for Hegel are normative concepts.  

Here we have an answer to the worries about a conservative providential seal on factual existence.  What is metaphorically said to be governed by something like rational providence is not factual existence but normative validity.  “The Science of Logic’s argument suggests that… such a responsiveness to reason… is neither an imposition nor an unreflective subordination to the ‘practically given’” (p. 102). 

In talk about self-legislation “The point being made is about the autonomy of the normative domain, in both theoretical and practical contexts.  It is because of this claim that Hegel is completely untroubled by the threat of scientific or any other form of determinism….  This is not a claim about the theoretical requirement of an uncaused spontaneity of thought, as Kant flirted with…, but a claim about the space of reasons itself and what could and could not in the Hegelian sense be ‘logically’ relevant to it” (p. 103).  

For Hegel, conceptual determinacy is not separable from conceptual legitimacy.  Normative authority is “constructed we might even say, not discovered” (p. 104).  Pippin says Hegel’s notion that the concept should be understood as a “free” structure only makes sense in these terms.  “Conceptual legitimacy is not secured by being shown to be hooked onto the world in a certain way, but by virtue of its being instituted and sustained in the right way” (p. 105).

Hegel is concerned to develop “a theory of the possibility of content in general – how concepts in their judgmental use and claims to normative authority, might successfully pick out and re-identify an aspect of reality” (p. 107).  For both Kant and Hegel, objectivity is no longer a matter of representation, but rather a matter of a kind of legality.  “[W]e will not be searching about in the metaphysical or empirical world for the existent truth-makers of such claims” (p. 109).

“Whereas Kant held out some hope for a deductive demonstration of a notion’s or a norm’s actuality, or objectivity or bindingness, Hegel’s procedures in all his books and lectures are developmental, not deductive….  The proof procedure shifts from attention to conceptually necessary conditions and logical presuppositions to demonstrations of the partiality of some prior attempt… and the subsequent developments and reformulations necessary to overcome such partiality” (pp. 109-110).

“I am only subject to laws I in some sense author and subject myself to.  But the legislation of such a law does not consist in some paradoxical single moment of election….  The formation of and self-subjection to such constraints is gradual and actually historical” (p. 117).

Self-Legislation?

In chapter 3 of Hegel’s Practical Philosophy, Robert Pippin develops a contrast between Kantian and Hegelian approaches to “self-legislation”. “What spirit legislates for itself are laws, not cultural preferences and so the binding and non-arbitrary nature of such self-legislating must find a place in any account” (p. 65). Another important consideration related to this was mentioned in the introduction. “[I]t can fail, go dead, lose its grip, and a very great deal of what interests Hegel is simply what such shared practical meaningfulness must be that it could fail, and how we should integrate our account of action into a fuller theory of the realization of such a condition and its failure” (p. 6).

In Kant’s original version, self-legislation is practiced separately by each individual, but under strict conditions of universality that ideally should make it valid for all. In Hegel’s version, “spirit” is said to do the legislating. Spirit is metaphorically said to be the product of successive historical self-modifications, but it is still people who are the concrete agents in the vast ensemble of relations of mutual recognition that gives form to spirit.

It should be noted that the way Kant talks about universality is very different from the way that Aristotle usually talks about “universals”. The key feature of Kantian universality is that it is supposed to be unconditional. Also, it mainly applies to people, with the aim of rooting out privilege, discrimination, and special pleadings or excuses. Aristotle and Hegel, on the other hand, are mainly concerned with universals in the sense of intermediate abstractions on the model of ordinary words or concepts, which are “said of many things” but not of all. Insofar as we take ourselves seriously and are committed to our abstractions, these are also binding, precisely because we have bound ourselves to them. At the same time, such intermediate abstractions ground a kind of freedom by the incompleteness of their determination.

Kant’s approach has the merit of putting “democratic” considerations first, while emphasizing something like the rule of law in a way that staves off Plato’s objections to a “democracy” that might better be called unprincipled populism. As many — starting with Aristotle — have noted, though, in the real world it is very hard to move back and forth directly between single individuals and unconditional generalizations, if we take ourselves seriously. Intermediate abstractions smooth the path.

Aristotle’s emphasis on constitutional government — in which all both participate in some way in the process of government, and are governed — is incipiently democratic while emphasizing the rule of law, but has historically sometimes been distorted and abused by ruling minorities. With intermediate abstractions, there is always a similar risk that some prejudice will be incorporated. Aristotle preferred to dwell on more optimistic scenarios, so he only deals with prejudice in a very general way. Hegel’s explicit concern with the possibility of failure in spirit’s self-legislation effectively combines Aristotelian and Kantian insights.

As Pippin points out, Hegel is commonly said to have a social role theory of right human conduct, but this immediately raises problems. Putative entitlements associated with social roles must be able to survive a full “reflective endorsement” that does not presuppose the roles in question. Merely “being in a social role could never of itself count as a reason to do anything” (p. 67; emphasis in original). This kind of consideration leads back to a Kantian position on obligation. Pippin says that for Hegel, though, any complete abstraction from our ongoing ways of life, attachments, and dependencies results in an artificial construct amounting to a philosophical fantasy world. Also, to understand one another as merely passively shaped by social roles is to fail to accord appropriate respect to one another. For Hegel too, Pippin says there must be a reflective endorsement, but such endorsements are not simply made by individuals. Rather, they stem from broader concrete practices of giving and asking for reasons.

“Kant’s solution to the problem of obligation descended from the dead ends created by the divine command and natural law traditions” (p. 69) had been to ground an unconditional obligation in one’s own first-person reflective endorsement, under requirements of strong self-consistency and deep honesty with oneself. For Hegel, this is still too Cartesian. None of our reasoning takes place in true isolation, but he very much wants to hold on to Kant’s emphasis on actual reasoning and the autonomy of reason in the determination of what is right.

Pippin quotes the eminent Kant scholar Christine Korsgaard saying that for Kant, reflective endorsement is not a way of justifying morality; rather, reflective endorsement is morality itself. (I think Plato and Aristotle would agree.) But Pippin goes on to note that Kant’s talk about self-legislation is clearly metaphorical. If we literally legislated everything for ourselves as individuals, it would be paradoxically up to a kind of lawless selves to inaugurate the process. As Pippin points out, this sounds more like Kierkegaard or Sartre than Kant. According to Pippin, Hegel here aims in a way to be more Kantian than Kant, by avoiding this kind of dilemma. Holding on to the essential point about reflective endorsement, Hegel deepens Kant’s move away from the atomistic and overly simplistic Cartesian model of subjectivity.

Pippin notes that Kant says uncritically accepting the authority of a command negates our very status as agents. He quotes Korsgaard’s maxim that soldiers should obey orders, but humans should not massacre people. Pippin says that for Kant, the mere act of obedience involves taking responsibility. Responsibility and respect for others morally take precedence over obedience, even to duly constituted authority. Laws state principles, but commands are particular. Even principles can conflict with one another, though this can to some extent be resolved with higher-order rules, such as that one’s responsibilities as a human in at least in some circumstances take precedence over one’s responsibilities as a soldier.

“[W]hile this picture of self-legislation has the appearance of something radical and potentially paradoxical, it is not crazy. It does not suggest: ‘I am only bound because I bound myself, so I hereby unbind myself’…. [If] someone playing chess… moved his rook diagonally…. The point is not that he is violating what everyone sees is this ideal object, ‘Chess’, but that he is contradicting himself, his own agreement to play chess and all that that commits him to” (p. 74; emphasis in original).

On Hegel’s account, once practices are instituted, people often “see” what to do without deliberation, and certainly without having to invent everything for themselves. However, norms also change, and they change because we change them. Pippin says that Hegel saw a coming major breakdown in the modern attempt to found morality on a purely individualist basis.

Pippin goes on to criticize part of the detail of Korsgaard’s argument about what happens when we fail to do what is right. For Korsgaard, this will be fundamentally a failure of our reason, but Pippin suggests that her description of a case involving fear sounds more like an instance of disease or outside interference than a failure of our reason that would make us cease to be rational agents in that moment. He is unsatisfied with Korsgaard’s Kantian appeal to weakness. Instead, he suggests, “Someone simply finds out that she wasn’t who she thought she was; all these years firmly convinced that she was seeking A; it turns out she wasn’t…. It seems more appropriate… to concentrate on what her actions reveal about the ends she really does care about. That is just what we shall see Hegel doing in his reflections on the ‘self-legislated’ view of normative authority” (p. 85). I would add that it is also in accordance with what Aristotle says about assessing a life.

“This makes it unlikely that there could be any deductive account of someone’s core moral or practical identity… whatever legitimating account there might be will probably be developmental, not deductive, and whatever self-legislation is going on it will be collective and specific to some stage or other of this development, and never from the ground up” (p. 90). Hegel “focuses our attention on the experience of normative insufficiency, on a breakdown in a form of life… and thereby, through such a via negativa [negative path], tries to provide a general theory of re-constituted positive normative authority out of such breakdowns” (p. 91; emphasis in original). (See also Autonomy, Normativity.)

Naturalness, Mindedness

I’ll be devoting several posts to Robert Pippin’s important book Hegel’s Practical Philosophy: Rational Agency as Ethical Life (2008). Pippin suggests we translate “philosophy of Geist (Spirit)” in a non-metaphysical way as “practical philosophy”, taking “practical” in the ethical sense. He will be centrally concerned to elaborate Hegel’s notion of freedom — which avoids any kind of dualism or voluntarism — and to explore the significance of Hegel’s claims that freedom is the most important thing in ethics. He calls Hegel’s account of the real possibility of freedom the most ambitious in the history of philosophy.

Pippin says he wants to suggest with Hegel that we are free when we can recognize our deeds and projects as expressing our own meaningful agency. According to Hegel, even organic life already involves purposes as distinct from causal relations, but freedom in the sense of arbitrary choice is a delusion. Rather, freedom for Hegel involves “a certain sort of self-relation and a certain sort of relation to others; it is constituted by being in a certain self-regarding and a certain sort of mutually recognizing state” (p. 39). Hegel’s name for these normative relations is Spirit.

For Hegel, things like spirit and individual soul are distinguished from simple nature “logically” rather than ontologically or metaphysically. They are not separate “substances” in the medieval or early modern sense, but “way[s] of being” (pp. 39-40). Freedom — said to be the essence of spirit — does not involve “having a special causal origin or being undertaken by a causally exempt being” (p. 40).

Pippin suggests that when Hegel talks about “the concept”, he effectively means normativity. Freedom involves a kind of normative self-determination. “[T]he truth that will set spirit free will not be a revelation or a discovery but its coming to act as fully what it is, a being constrained and guided by self-imposed norms” (ibid). He quotes Hegel saying it is freedom that makes spirit true, and that the philosophy of spirit can be neither empirical nor metaphysical.

Kant’s dualism was ethical rather than metaphysical, Pippin says, but it was strict. Hegel develops a continuity between nature and spirit, while enthusiastically embracing Kant’s critique of so-called rational psychology and his conclusion that the soul is not a thing, but rather to be identified with the “I” and with freedom. Hegelian Spirit is a form of activity .

Hegel says in freedom we are “with self in another” (p. 43). Pippin says this means “an achievement in practices wherein justificatory reasons can be successfully shared” (ibid). What could count as free action depends on this achievement of shareability of reasons.

Spirit’s self-legislation — in which we participate — can be identified with “the unconditioned”. Spirit as realized freedom is a historical achievement, related to the extension of freedom from a few to all. Spirit’s “production of itself”, while not reducible to natural terms, occurs as a result of the agency of natural beings. This must be distinguished from all empirical or philosophical psychologies. Hegel is quoted saying reason constitutes the substantial nature of spirit.

Nature is not a manifestation of cosmic spirit, or a mere appearance or illusion. Hegel’s complex view of teleology is not as a sort of providence or any kind of neoplatonic unfolding. Hegelian Spirit always presupposes nature. “Natural beings begin to understand themselves in ways not explicable as self-sentiment or mere self-monitoring because the form of their reflexive self-relation is an aspect of what is to be represented, not a separable, quasi-observational position” (p. 46). Once we begin talking about what a being takes itself to be, we have moved beyond simple nature. Wilfrid Sellars is quoted saying to think of someone as a person is not to “classify or explain, but to rehearse an intention” (p. 61).

Hegel vindicates “the oldest and original premise of ancient rationalism, that to be is to be intelligible” (p. 49; emphasis in original). Pippin characterizes his reading as “clearly neo-Aristotelian”. He concludes that there is no “missing ontology” in a position like this. Moreover, “the issues that dominate so much of the modern post-Cartesian, post-Kantian discussion about nature and mentality do not ever arise for Hegel: subjective self-certainty, raw feels, intentional states, mental objects, … and the problem of spontaneous causation in action” (p. 57).

Pure Thinking?

Another recent article by Adrian Johnston continues his polemic against Robert Pippin — as well as Brandom — on the reading of Hegel, addressing Pippin’s 2019 book on Hegel’s Logic and his review of Slovoj Žižek’s book on Hegel, Less than Nothing. Among other things, Johnston takes aim at Pippin’s talk about “pure thinking”, claiming that any such emphasis must necessarily reflect a subjective idealism, like that which Johnston attributes to Kant and Fichte.

Johnston takes Pippin and Brandom’s appeals to unity of apperception in a Hegelian context as prima facie evidence of subjective idealism. This does not follow at all. He objects to Pippin’s emphasis on intelligibility as opposed to sheer “being”. Here I have to agree with Pippin — real philosophers have always been more concerned with intelligibility, and there is nothing subjective about that, either. Intelligibility is the basis of objectivity.

I don’t think Kant’s concern with subjectivity was at all subjectivist. Even Fichte, despite his tendency to ontologize a transcendental Subject, was no garden-variety subjectivist. Johnston rightly points out that Fichte talked about an “I” that “cannot be gone behind”, and that Hegel regarded this as a very one-sided point of view. He is right that the young Hegel briefly aligned himself with Schelling against Fichte. But as much as I find Fichte’s subject-centeredness antithetical, and in spite of a few interesting bits in Schelling, Schelling’s metaphysics of a self-dividing Absolute seems to me but a shallow imitation of neoplatonism, much less worthy of philosophical attention than either the original neoplatonists or Fichte’s objectionably subject-centered point of view. Žižek and Johnston, however, want to use a valorized Schelling to help prop up a metaphysical Hegel.

Johnston claims that Pippin and Brandom end up with a dualism of reasons and causes, and argues that their defense of a kind of modified naturalism is not strong enough to prevent a lapse into subjective idealism. For Johnston, it seems the only way to avoid this would be a direct causal derivation of the “space of reasons” from something physical. I occasionally worry myself that some of Pippin and Brandom’s remarks on naturalism dwell too much on a very narrow if influential kind of naturalism that wants to reduce everything to physical causes. I also want to go a bit further than they do in affirming a nonreductive naturalism. Johnston says he wants to be nonreductive, but many of his remarks (e.g., about reasons vs. causes) seem reductive to me.

I see causes in the modern narrow sense as just one kind of reasons why (see Free Will and Determinism; Aristotelian Causes; Why by Normative Pragmatics). Through the diffuse influence of early modern mechanism, modern people have become conditioned to thinking of causation in what are really just metaphors of some kind of impulse. But in modern physics, serious discussions of causality have much more to do with mathematical law. Mathematical law is a specific kind of reason. So to me, the requirement to explain reasons in terms of causes has things somewhat backwards.

Ultimately, Johnston and Žižek are interested in the emancipatory potential of a kind of materialism broad enough to take in Hegel along with neuroscience or quantum mechanics. At this very generic level I have no issue, but it seems to me that the kind of examination of material conditions that has the most emancipatory potential is directed at things historical, social, and cultural, rather than physiological or physical. Also, it is broadly hermeneutic rather than merely concerned with facts. Overall, Žižek’s prodigous output reflects this, but Johnston’s texts seem curiously removed from such considerations.

Johnston objects that Pippin narrows Hegel’s focus to ethics and epistemology. I’m actually content with just ethics, as it seems to me that already indirectly includes everything else (see Practical Reason). (See also Johnston’s Pippin; Weak Nature Alone.)

Negativity in Experience

A first collection of critical responses to Brandom’s landmark work on Hegel has recently appeared (Reading Brandom: On A Spirit of Trust, Routledge 2020). Leading Hegel scholar Robert Pippin’s contribution takes issue with Brandom’s methodology of “semantic descent”, and argues that Brandom’s account of negation in Hegel is incomplete.

While Kant and Hegel both focused most of their explicit philosophical attention on very high-level concepts that help explain the meaning of other concepts, I think they nonetheless intended their thought to have practical relevance to life. (Pippin himself wrote a book I cannot recommend too highly, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy.) Brandom goes a step further than Kant and Hegel did, and explicitly claims that the same kinds of considerations they found relevant to the interpretation of what he calls expressive metaconcepts are always already involved in kinds of questions that a philosophically inclined person can see as implicitly arising in ordinary life. I find this thesis of the rich philosophical import of interpretations in ordinary life very appealing, and take it as expansive rather than reductive in intent.

Pippin quotes Brandom to this effect, but somehow still seems to think there is a reduction involved in Brandom’s semantic descent. In a related move, Pippin first commends Brandom’s analysis of Hegelian negation in terms of material inference and modality, but then goes on to argue that this still only addresses the concerns of the first of three parts of Hegel’s Logic — what Hegel called a logic of being, as distinguished from a logic of essence or a logic of the concept.

Very schematically, for Hegel, a logic of being addresses facts about presumed existing things, in this way resembling the approach of standard contemporary formal logic. This turns out to presuppose a logic of essence, which is concerned with higher-level judgments about the natures or ways of being of things, like the inquiries of Plato and Aristotle. This in turn implicitly presupposes a logic of the concept, which leads from something like Kantian synthesis to Hegel’s so-called “Absolute” as a sort of ultimate horizon, under which the context-dependence of the most objectively valid particular determinations is to eventually become explicit.

I think that Brandom’s modal realism already involves what Hegel would call a logic of essence, and that Brandom’s notions of forgiveness, magnanimity, and truth-as-process operate at the level of what Hegel would call a logic of the concept.

Part of the significance of modal realism is as a grounding for concepts of natural law employed by modern science, which do still belong to what Hegel would call a logic of being, as Pippin says. But for Brandom, modal realism also plays the even more important role of grounding Kantian moral necessity. Brandom does not use the term “essence” in his semantics, but I would say that judgments of Kantian moral necessity are concerned with essence rather than mere fact. While it is not quite the same thing, I also think that in a Hegelian context, they belong on the level of a logic of essence.

Whereas I have worried a little about passages in Brandom that exclusively associate truth with truth-as-process — which seems to me not to give enough weight to the positive value Hegel recognized in Understanding, alongside his famous criticism of its limitations — Pippin has an opposite worry, that Brandom ends up reducing Hegelian Reason to Understanding.

Pippin seems to construe what Brandom refers to as “ground-level empirical concepts” in an overly narrow way. Pippin glosses these as “cases of, largely, matters of fact known empirically”, and then refers to “empirical discovery” as the “engine generating incompatible commitments”. While he quotes Brandom’s reference to “ground-level empirical and practical concepts” [emphasis added], he ignores the “practical” part of Brandom’s formula, which presumably refers to concepts used in concrete ethical judgments. It is true that Brandom uses “red” as his canonical example of a ground-level empirical concept, but I think this choice is only meant to provide opportunities to point out the already inferential character of the use of such an apparently simple perceptual term, rather than in any way to undo his explicit inclusion of ground-level practical concepts.

Surprisingly, Pippin also seems to blur together talk about Kantian empirical concepts; talk about Kantian empirical intuition, to which Brandom attributes a key “negative” role providing occasions for recognition of error; and talk about matters of empirical fact. This results in what I think is an unfair characterization of Brandom’s interpretation as reducing Hegelian good negativity to matters of empirical discovery, external to Reason.

To say, as Brandom effectively does, that the main role of the element of immediacy or Kantian intuition in experience is “negative” rather than “positive”, while also in a different context saying that ground-level empirical and practical concepts always already involve the kinds of complexity and nuance associated with expressive metaconcepts, does not imply that Brandom’s strategy of semantic descent reduces Hegelian negativity to anything empirical. I strongly believe that for Brandom, critical thought and dialogue provide additional sources for the good kind of “negativity” of Reason that Hegel thematized in contrast to the “positivity” of things merely taken as given.

Pippin wants to emphasize that Hegelian negativity is an internal feature of Hegelian Reason, not something that comes to it only from an external empirical source. So far, I agree, and I think Brandom would as well. But then, to my surprise, Pippin seems to take up an old-school, very literal reading of Hegel’s metonymies of logical “motion” and an associated “life” of the negative. To me, the better reading is to take these rather obvious metonymies as metonymies. Logic in itself does not move, and negativity in itself is not a form of life. It is we who move and are alive. (Who we are is another complicated story; see under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Johnston’s Pippin

Adrian Johnston’s A New German Idealism just arrived, and I’m taking a quick look. It is mainly concerned with Slavoj Žižek’s work. But for now, I’m just concerned with chapter 2 — where Johnston launches a broadside against “deflationary” readings of Hegel, particularly the one he attributes to Robert Pippin — and the preface.

Johnston can be forgiven for not addressing Pippin’s 2018 work on the Logic, but I do not understand why he ignores my favorite book by Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy (2008).

There, Pippin dwells extensively on Hegel’s Aristotelian side. Much of interest could be said on what it means to be Aristotelian in a post-Kantian context. Many received views will be challenged by such an examination. (For a beginning, see Aristotle and Kant.) As I have said, I read Hegel as both Kantian and Aristotelian (as well as original).

In any case, Johnston seems to think Pippin in Hegel’s Idealism (1989) was intent on reducing Hegel to Kant. That book was indeed concerned to show a strong Kantian element in Hegel. But I did not think of it as reductive. If anything, I read Pippin’s book as a salutary response to those who want to reduce Hegel to a pre-Kantian, and to read Hegel as rolling back from Kant rather than moving forward from Kant. Because he assumes a bad old subjectivist reading of Kant, Johnston seems to think Pippin’s reading of Hegel necessarily rules out the possibility of seeing a realist side to Hegel.

The whole challenge of Hegel is to understand how it it is possible in his terms to be both Critical and realist, without engaging in logical nonsense. (But see Realism, Idealism.) This sort of thing typically requires significant semantic labor, but the achievement of such semantic elaboration is the whole point. Here I worry where Johnston intends to go with his defense of “undialectical” distinctions in the preface. It is one thing to recognize that Hegel does not intend to just do away with Understanding and its distinctions, and quite another to treat those distinctions as final. (See also Univocity.)

Johnston’s lengthy discussion of the positive value of Understanding in the preface does not address how it relates to dialectical transitions. He mainly wants to defend Žižek’s tactic of presenting forced binary choices at particular moments. In particular cases and circumstances this conceivably can be good pedagogy, but it is the details that matter, and Johnston offers no advice on how we are to distinguish a pedagogically good forced choice from a bad one.

(I suspect Žižek’s tactic may be related to his friend Badiou’s defense of the Maoist “One divides into Two” line, which always seemed like blustering nonsense to me. There have been some very rational strands within Marxism; I do not comprehend why someone as intelligent as Badiou would prefer to apologize for the coarsest and most anti-intellectual, but to a lesser extent Althusser did as well. See also Democracy and Social Justice.)

(Worlds away from this, Brandom has a wonderfully clear account of the nonfinality of Understanding’s particular conclusions, illustrated precisely by its very important positive role in the recognition and resolution of error, in which the operations of the Understanding on its own terms give rise to dialectical transitions at the level of Reason, understood in terms of the revision of commitments and possibly of concepts.)

Johnston also seems to assume there is something necessarily reductive about a non-ontological (or not primarily ontological) reading of Hegel. Again, I don’t see why.

I think Aristotle’s metaphysics was basically a semantic investigation, just like his physics. It is the historic forcing of this inquiry back from the wide universe of meaning onto narrow registers of being and existence that I see as reductive.

Based on the work of Olivier Boulnois on the role of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus in the reinterpretation of metaphysics as ontology, I have come to think that in general, modern emphasis on ontology tends to reflect what I take to be historically a medieval Scotist mystification of things Aristotle approached in clearer terms we should recognize today as mainly semantic. (For what it’s worth, the homonymous use of “ontology” in computer science is also mainly semantic.)

Metaphysics or “first philosophy” or “wisdom” was supposed to help us with higher-order understanding, not to be a place where strange existence claims are made.