The Ladder Metaphor

Hegel’s figure of a “ladder”, adopted by H.S. Harris in the title of his commentary on the Phenomenology, stands in contrast to the notion of a metaphorically life-risking intuitive leap of faith or salto mortale that had been popularized by the fideistic proto-existentialist German literary figure F. H. Jacobi. Harris has not said it yet and I don’t recall whether he will, but it seems clear to me that the ladder is a metaphor for dialectic.

He emphasizes that for Hegel, except in his very early period, “knowledge is actual only as system” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 63) and “Only a community of knowers can constitute the presence of the Spirit to itself as science” (p. 64).

What will turn out to be essential to Hegel’s notions of “system” and “Science” is neither a foundationalist construction nor some kind of closure, but the much more modest idea that (as Brandom might say) meaning has its basis in mutual recognition and shareable inferential articulation.

Harris’ abstract of paragraph 26 reads in part, “The element of Wissen [knowledge] is self-cognition in otherness. This conceptual soil is the substance of spirit. So Science presupposes that we self-consciously exist in this element; but we have a good right to ask for the ladder by which to get into heaven where it is” (ibid).

He comments that “from 1797 onwards, Hegel was explicating the religious experience of ‘love’…. [H]e expounded religion philosophically because he regarded the intuitive leap to the awareness of living, moving, and having one’s being in God as the sin qua non of all speculative insight…. It was through long meditation upon Greek religion, and upon the experience of the religious founders Moses and Jesus, that Hegel’s concept of philosophic science was shaped. But from about the middle of 1803 onwards, he had begun to believe that the leap could be replaced by a ladder of explanatory discourse” (p. 65). For the mature Hegel, religion gives an accessible imaginative representation to what philosophy develops in thought.

In the course of this exposition, Harris notes that “The ‘antithesis’ between consciousness and its objects arises from the concern with controlling or being controlled; no matter how much ‘self-control’ we have, or how much control we are consequently able to exercise over our environment, what we desire and what we fear controls us. ‘Science’ transcends this relationship; it inverts control into freedom. When Jesus claimed identity with ‘the Father’…, he was not claiming to control anything. He was not even claiming to control his own thinking…. Rather, he was adopting a noncontrolling attitude towards experience; and in so doing he ceased to be controlled by it in any practical sense” (ibid).


In the last post I gave positive mention to an “instrumentalist rather than realist view of scientific explanation”. I think an instrumental view of science is the natural one from an engineering point of view, which the philosophy of science ought to take very seriously. I actually work as an engineer in my day job, and have a bit of engineering education. Though these days I privately think of myself mainly as a moral philosopher, I truly enjoy engineering for its practical orientation. Engineers learn that the real world doesn’t always conform to theoretical simplifications, and they have to make what are actually value judgments all the time.

Curiously, it seems to me that in spite of our culture’s obsession with technology and all the stereotypes about nutty scientists, engineering as a discipline doesn’t have nearly as much social prestige as science. For the reasons just mentioned, I think engineering deserves the higher status, as the actually more comprehensive concern. Modern science is first and foremost a tool used in engineering. But in our culture’s mythology of science, there is a popular prejudice that engineers — unlike real scientists — just make rote applications of formulae developed by scientists. Meanwhile science students — if I may be forgiven a broad-brush picture — all too often seem to get the message that the latest Science is Truth, and everything else is irrelevant. This can unfortunately make them arrogant and dogmatic in later life. I think engineers on the whole are more attuned to the provisional status of assumptions.

On the historiographical side, I think the over-propagandized scientific revolution was actually more of an engineering revolution. The design of experiments can be considered a kind of engineering, as can the development and use of therapeutic techniques in medicine. The very practical, experiment-oriented work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) in its broad parameters at least is a much better model for science in the modern sense than the new mechanist/voluntarist dualist world view promoted by Descartes, or even the empiricism of Locke. In terms of the long time-scale of human development, engineering long predates science, and I think that generally speaking, historical causality flows that way, with engineering driving science rather than following it.

These varied considerations seem to me to jointly favor an “instrumentalist” view in the philosophy of science. This is another example of the mediated or “long detour” type of approach to knowledge that seems most sound to me.

In analytic philosophy in recent decades, there has been a big debate about realism versus anti-realism. Implicitly, this mainly applies to the philosophy of science, but in many circles there are still prejudices that theory of knowledge comes first in philosophy, and that science is the most important kind of knowledge. This can make it seem as if realist or anti-realist positions in the philosophy of science must be applied across the board at a sort of ontological level, but I want to argue against that.

I think that ethical reason and interpretation come before the theory of knowledge in the overall order of explanation relevant to human life, and that normative practical judgment actually grounds what we think of as exact knowledge. From an ethical standpoint, it is vitally important to recognize there is a “push-back” of reality we need to respect and take into account, so I want to argue for a kind of realism. The true home for a respect for realism, I want to say, should be ethics and not the philosophy of science. We can meet all the ethical needs related to concern for objectivity in a way that is entirely compatible with an instrumentalist and “anti-realist” philosophy of science. Meanwhile, a more modest view of science — as a valuable tool rather than a source of ultimate truth — can help heal the false rift between science and values that permeates our culture. Further, if science is a tool and we also say that higher forms of faith are expressed not in propositions but in action and attitude (as I would respectfully suggest), then in the world of what should be, there is no possibility of conflict from either side. (See also Kinds of Reason.)

Demonstrative “Science”?

The “historiographical” notes on the history of philosophy I offer here from time to time are a sort of compromise. For much of my life, I’ve been very concerned with the fine grain of such history, and with casting a broad net encompassing many historical figures. Here, I made a strategic decision to focus instead on a mere handful of philosophers I consider most important.

Discussion of actualization in Hegel led to actualization in Aristotle, which led me to indulge my fascination with the Aristotelian commentary tradition. To the extent that it is possible to generalize about the historic readings discussed in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin commentaries, my own view of Aristotle is quite different on a number of key points, having more in common with some modern readings. Nonetheless, I am enormously impressed by the levels of sophistication shown by very many writers in this tradition.

I just mentioned al-Farabi again. As previously noted, al-Farabi (10th century CE) played a great historic role in the formulation of Arabic (and consequently, Hebrew and Latin) views of Aristotle. The Syrian Christians who did the majority of the translating of Aristotle to Arabic from Syriac had access to most of Aristotle’s works, but publicly only taught from the logical treatises. It was al-Farabi who initiated public teaching of the full range of Aristotelian philosophy in the Islamic world. He flourished during the so-called Islamic golden age, a time of tremendous interest in ancient learning not only by aristocrats but by many literate skilled crafts people. The political climate of the Islamic world at the time was much more embracing of secular learning than it came to be between the 13th and 19th centuries CE.

One unfortunate aspect of al-Farabi’s reading was a very strong privileging of a notion of demonstrative “science” over Aristotle’s own predominant use of dialectic in philosophical development. This was based on a reading of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics as propounding a model of “science” as a deductive enterprise expected to result in certain knowledge, which is still dominant today, but which I (following a number of modern interpreters) think involves a misreading of the basic aims of Aristotelian demonstration.

The idea that Aristotle was fundamentally concerned to develop “sciences” yielding certain knowledge gave a more dogmatic cast to his whole work, which has been a contributing factor in common negative stereotypes of Aristotle. Many modern commentators who still accept this reading of Posterior Analytics have been puzzled by the huge gap between this and Aristotle’s actual practice throughout his works, which in fact is mainly dialectical. I think a careful reading of the Topics (on dialectic) and Posterior Analytics (on demonstration) with consultation of the Greek text on the originals of some key phrases yields a view that is far more consistent with Aristotle’s actual practice.

Demonstration is a pedagogical way of showing very clear reasons for certain kinds of conclusions. It works by assuming some premises are true, whereas dialectic makes no such assumption. Thus the only necessity that results from demonstration is the “hypothetical” one that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is also true. But the more important point in regard to the classic syllogistic form is that the common “middle term” that allows the major and minor premises to be both formally and materially composed together illuminates why we ought to consider it appropriate to assume the conclusion is true if we believe the premises are true.

Dialectic, as I have said, is cumulative, exploratory discursive reasoning about meanings in the absence of initial certainty. This is how Aristotle mainly approaches things. Dialectic implicitly relies on the same logical form of syllogistic argument explicitly used in demonstration, but Aristotle distinguishes dialectic and demonstration by whether premises are treated as hypotheses to be evaluated, or as hypothetically assumed “truths” to be interpreted.

It is also important to note that in the Latin scholastic tradition, the dogmatic trend resulting from wide acceptance of claims about demonstrative science was significantly mitigated by a strong counter-trend of evenhandedly analyzing arguments pro and con, which effectively revived a form of dialectic. (See also Foundations?; Fortunes of Aristotle; Scholastic Dialectic.)

Modern Science

My main concern here is with a sort of meta-ethical discourse, and my critical remarks on topics like modern univocal causality should be taken in that context. Though I have deep appreciation for the cultural accomplishments of antiquity and even the middle ages, I am not any kind of Luddite. I am interested in science; admire higher mathematics; work with high technology; and use univocal causality in an instrumental way on a daily basis.


Renaissance Aristotelianism has finally at least become a subject of specialized scholarship. Decades ago, John Herman Randall Jr. put forth the thesis that modern science actually originated from Italian Renaissance secular Aristotelianism, especially in the University of Padua. Consensus seems to be that Randall overstated his case, but he put it in very strong terms. A weaker version of that seems a lot more plausible to me than what are still more common attempts to associate modern science with Renaissance Platonism. Renaissance Platonism was interesting, but not remotely scientific or mathematical. People like Ficino and Pico and Bruno were actually more interested in magic.

Even theological Aristotelianisms always preserved a fair amount of naturalistic content. Unlike most medieval and Renaissance universities, the Italian ones were dominated by the faculties of medicine and law rather than the faculty of theology. Italian scholasticism therefore developed in a more secular context. Secular masters of arts played an important role across Europe, and theologians too addressed many philosophical concerns in a sophisticated way, so the distinction is relative. But especially strong currents of largely naturalistic scholasticism developed in Italy.

It is also a little known fact that more commentaries on Aristotle were produced in the 16th century than in all previous history. There is a good high-level overview in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (See also Languages, Books, Curricula.)