Emancipatory Logic?

When it comes to Hegel’s “logic” the first question is, what does it really aim at? What is it even trying to do? Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows (2019) is the best attempt to answer this I have found so far.

“[Hegel] seems to promise something quite extraordinary and, no doubt to contemporary ears, something quite implausible, a treatment of ‘logic’ in some way in service of an emancipatory ideal — an emancipatory logic, of all things” (p. 24).

To briefly anticipate, it will be emancipatory in addressing the Aristotelian actualization of Kantian freedom.

“[T]he most important element in Hegel’s fulfilling such an ambition… is a ‘science of pure thinking’. What any thinking does is to render something intelligible, a task that, as we shall see, has many different dimensions and is inseparable from the giving of reasons. But, as we have also noted, to say what something is, or to explain why something happened, or to understand the point or purpose of anything, is not just to present a picture or grasp a content. It is to judge, something always open to challenge and interrogation” (p. 20).

What Hegel calls pure thinking is concerned with and exhibits the general shape of the space of reasons.

“Eventually… we would need a fully reflective account of the ‘ground of giving grounds’…. In the practical domain, in Kant and the post-Kantians, I am free when I am acting on reasons about what ought to be done. This is a form of self-consciousness that, according to Kant, is paradigmatically embodied when I act wholly on reasons, and not just prudently or instrumentally, as when I act for the sake of ends I have not rationally determined I ought to have” (p. 21).

Put another way, all our reasons ought to trace back to the highest good. When our reasons stop at some partial good, we are not yet free.

“[I]n just the same sense as Hegel will want to treat concept and intuition in experience as distinct but inseparable, he will want to say that so-called ‘material’ issues… are inseparable from forms of self-understanding, as inseparable as such forms are from their material embodiment” (p. 22).

Hegel’s strong emphasis on actuality and actualization leads him to see something like Aristotelian hylomorphism (inseparability of form and matter) in places where Kant tended to see dualities. For Hegel as for Aristotle, our true intent is expressed by what we actually did.

Pippin quotes the Phenomenology Preface’s statement that the task of modernity “consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal by means of the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts” (p. 24).

“Hegel’s unease with [the dominance of fixed representations] is what begat those familiar later claims about the ‘ideological’ nature of bourgeois philosophy, the one-dimensionality of modern societies, the dominance of ‘identity thinking’, the crisis of the European sciences, the colonization of the life-world, and so forth. And while all such critiques can be traced back to Hegel, he does not make the case for such limitations by contrast with a positive or utopian theory, as is the case in many of these examples” (p. 25).

Hegel aims at a purely immanent development of self-critical understanding, in which forms of spirit all on their own eventually exhibit their own incompleteness and one-sidedness, rather than being claimed to fall short of some external ideal.

“Stated in the simplest possible terms, Hegel’s diagnosis of the fix we have gotten ourselves into consists in the claim that we have not properly understood how to understand ourselves and the social and natural world in which we dwell. This is not, though, because we have simply been regularly mistaken, the victim of false philosophies, wrong ideas. It is due to the inevitable partiality and one-sidedness of various ruling concepts (let us say, for shorthand, norms for explanation and justification, the normative structures of the ‘space of reasons’)” (p. 26).

The solution is not a matter of simply substituting more correct first-order beliefs. Of far greater import are our higher-order ways of thinking, judging, and assessing.

“Moreover, the problem is not the contents of our beliefs but the way we have come to collectively regulate what is believable…. Our norms for authoritative explanations and for how we justify ourselves to each other are imbricated in the everyday fabric of a form of life” (p. 28).

“Thus, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Hegel’s basic claim… is that we have not properly understood the ‘grammar’ of spirit (the logic of self-relation, both individual and collective, that makes up spirit), and this is connected with our failure to understand the grammar of possible renderings-intelligible or account-givings in general…. And it would also not be an exaggeration to say that, for Hegel, once we do understand it, we (at least we philosophers) will be freed from the illusion that some particular form of account-giving (like modern Verstand [understanding based on simple fixed predications]) could be taken to be ‘absolute’; the proper relativization (historically and systematically) of different accounts of account-giving will have been made. Or, stated in its most surprising form: Hegelian philosophy has no distinct doctrine of its own; its content is the right understanding of past attempts at account-giving in their limitations and interconnection” (p. 30).

This notion of a “grammar” of spirit is quite fascinating. “Self-relation” is at the heart of Hegel’s often misunderstood talk about the “true infinite”. Hegel wants to say that the ordinary grammar of subject and predicate as fixed terms is not a very good form for expressing thought, because it lacks “life”. Pure thought for Hegel involves moving beyond all fixed terms. Self-relation involves no substantive “self”, only the purely relational character of an always re-emerging unity of apperception. Freedom for Hegel has a kind of grounding in the “true infinite”, but this has nothing to do with an infinite power. What makes self-relatedness “infinite” is its relations-first character, which does not depend on any pre-given fixing of ground-level terms. For Hegel, higher-order form is more primary than first-order form. First-order terms are degenerate cases, not foundational instances.

“Apperceptive spontaneity is not understood as a subjective mental activity, opposed to or addressed to or imposed on what there is…. If we understand this properly, we understand apperceptive spontaneity ‘in its actuality’, as having ‘given itself’ its own actuality, the actuality of the intelligibles, what there is” (p. 35).

What is free in us is not a separate faculty of decision-making, but the open-endedness of the basis of our understanding. For Hegel, there is no gap between understanding and action. What we really understood or didn’t understand is made publicly interpretable by our action. Meanwhile, what there is is inseparable from the intelligibility of that “what”.

Pippin notes that the original context for talk about “spontaneity” in Kant was the latter’s insistence against the tradition that thought is entirely active in character. Thought for Kant includes no moment of passive receptivity, and therefore generates and is responsible for all of its own content. Hegel adopts this perspective.

“Put in terms of the history of philosophy, what all of this will amount to is an attempt by Hegel at a highly unusual synthesis of the Kantian revolution in philosophy, especially the anti-empiricist, self-grounding character of reason (aka ‘the Concept’), and the most important Kantian innovation, the spontaneity of thinking, together with essential elements of Aristotle’s understanding of metaphysics, especially the Aristotelian notions of energeia, which Hegel translates as Wirklichkeit, actuality, the proper object of first philosophy, and, as we have seen, the core of the classical view that ‘nous’ [intellect] rules the world, all in contrast to the rationalist metaphysics of nonsensible objects accessible to pure reason alone. Hegel is no metaphysician in this rationalist sense, but he is most certainly a metaphysician in the Aristotelian sense. That is, at any rate, the thesis of the following book” (ibid).

It is refreshing to see metaphysics treated as something other than an ahistorical lump extending from Parmenides to the present. Later common usage has diverged so far from the meaning of Aristotelian first philosophy that I prefer not to call the latter “metaphysics” at all, but that term loses its objectionable connotations insofar as the reference is tied to something specifically Aristotelian.

I think recognizing that Hegel fundamentally aimed to combine Kantian and Aristotelian insights in a principled way is essential for grasping what he was really about. But to even have the perspective that such an aim makes sense requires work on the interpretation of both Aristotle and Kant; one would never come up with it based on textbook stereotypes.

More than any other commentator, Pippin has developed both the Kantian and the Aristotelian dimensions of Hegel. Later in the current book, he will have more to say specifically about Hegel’s post-Kantian recovery of Aristotelian teleology.

(He says in passing that the earliest precedents for Kant’s view that thought and reason are never purely passive are from the late 16th century. That is not quite right. Alain de Libera has documented that the foremost medieval commentator on Aristotle, Averroes, explicitly interpreted Aristotle as saying that the so-called potential intellect has an “activity” of its own and is not purely passive. In fact, even sense perception is not just passive in Aristotle. Aristotle’s remarks about the synthesizing role of the “common” sense and “inner” sense are unfortunately extremely sketchy, but it seems beyond doubt that they do have a synthesizing role.)


Spontaneity has a technical meaning in Kant and Husserl that is at odds with common usage. In ordinary speech, we are said to do something “spontaneously” when we do it on the spur of the moment, without a previous plan. But Kant and Husserl call everything guided by reason “spontaneous”, even though reason is involved with conscious deliberation and thinking things through.

According to an older usage, things in nature were said by some to occur “spontaneously” when they had no discernible cause. In the scholastic tradition, others argued that “nothing comes from nothing”, and rejected the assumption that things with no discernible cause really happen without a cause, as was purported to occur in what was called “spontaneous generation”.

Leibniz embraced and codified the “nothing from nothing” argument as the principle of sufficient reason. The principle of sufficient reason does not itself imply the kind of particular providence associated with the popular expression “everything happens for a reason”. It just says that everything has some kind of reasonable explanation, not that what we subjectively perceive as cosmic injustice is part of a divine plan, even though Leibniz separately argued for that as well.

Of course, it matters a lot what kinds of causes or reasonable explanations we recognize. In Leibniz’s time, the notion of cause had already been greatly contracted by early modern writers, who further transformed the late scholastic notion of efficient cause in a mechanistic direction, while accentuating the late scholastic tendency to reduce all other causes to efficient causes. Leibniz himself recommended the use of only mechanistic explanations in natural science, but did not see natural science as all-encompassing, and defended the use of teleological explanation in broader philosophy. He compensated for the narrowness of mechanistic causality by speaking of sufficient reason rather than sufficient cause, and kept a place for form and ends as reasons.

Kant ultimately also defended a kind of teleology, especially in biology and in his account of beauty, but he was much more reserved about using it in general explanation than Leibniz, due to his scruples about grounding all “theoretical” explanation in experience. However, he assigned all ethical matters to a separate “practical” domain, which he wanted to exempt from the kind of narrow causal explanation that he considered the norm for physics, and he argued that for us humans, “practical” reason is more fundamental.

Human action for Kant belongs to the practical domain, which he famously argued is governed by “spontaneity” and “freedom”. I now think “spontaneous” and “free” for Kant simply mean not subject to mechanistic explanation. Thus insofar as we are positively motivated by moral imperatives or values, he would say we act spontaneously and freely. I think he also believed that all human thinking is ultimately motivated by ultimate ends, and therefore called it spontaneous and free.

Kant confused generations of scholars by borrowing voluntaristic rhetoric, which he did with the aim of emphasizing that human thought and action are not reducible to mechanistic physics. But freedom and spontaneity in Kant do not mean arbitrariness, as they effectively do for defenders of voluntarism. Rather, they are meant to allow room for positive motivation by moral imperatives or values.

Another confusing move Kant made was to argue for a special “causality of freedom” that he never explained adequately. Due to its contrast with physical causality, it sounded at times like a kind of supernatural break in the natural order he otherwise recognized. Many commentators thought Kant contradicted himself in arguing both that the natural order is self-contained and that there is a separate causality of freedom. I think these problems are ultimately explained by the narrowness of the mechanical concept of causality in nature. The “causality of freedom”, I want to say, simply means motivation by moral imperatives or values rather than by impulse. Kant considered impulse to be within the realm of natural-scientific causality, and therefore opposed it to spontaneity, whereas contemporary common usage associates “spontaneity” with acting on impulse.

(Aristotle, with his much broader notion of cause that essentially identifies causes with any kinds of “reasons why”, would treat values and moral imperatives as one kind of final causes, or what I have been calling “ends”.)

Husserl’s way of speaking about these matters is to contrast human motivation with causality. For him, “causality” is exclusively the causality of modern physical science, but human thought and action are to be explained by “motivation” rather than causality. Husserl’s use of “spontaneity” is related to that of Kant, and applies to everything that he explains in terms of motivation. (See also Kantian Freedom; Kantian Will; Allison on Kant on Freedom; Freedom Through Deliberation?.)

Allison on Kant on Freedom

Eminent Kant scholar Henry Allison writes in the introduction to his Kant’s Theory of Freedom (1990), “Kant’s theory of freedom is the most difficult aspect of his philosophy to interpret, let alone defend. To begin with,… we are confronted with the bewildering number of ways in which Kant characterizes freedom and the variety of distinctions he draws between various kinds or senses of freedom” (p. 1).

Kant advocates “not only a strict determinism at the empirical level but also a psychological determinism” (p. 31) at the level of desires and beliefs. Nonetheless he also famously argues for the pure spontaneity of reason at a transcendental level, and wants to link this to a distinctive “causality of reason” entirely separate from empirical causality. As I’ve said before, I think Kant often presents both the determinist part of this and the indeterminist part in terms that are too strong.

Kant intensifies this difficulty by apparently arguing that the very same human reason that is transcendentally utterly free also has an empirical character that is completely determined. According to Allison, Kant distinguishes between empirical and intelligible “character” (considered as general ways of being, not implying personality) in two different ways. Empirical character is sometimes presented as merely the phenomenal effect of intelligible character, but at other times as the sensible schema of intelligible character. The latter version is interpreted by Allison as implying that “empirical character involves not simply a disposition to behave in certain predictable ways in given situations but a disposition to act on the basis of certain maxims, to pursue certain ends, and to select certain means for the realization of those ends…. Clearly, the causality of reason, even at the empirical level, is inherently purposive. Consequently, explanations of its activity must be teleological rather than mechanistic in nature” (p. 33).

Allison argues that for Kant, not only moral but also prudential judgments exhibit a teleological causality of reason. An end understood in a context generates a moral or prudential “ought”. Allison says that acting on the basis of an ought is for Kant (at least in the first Critique) the defining characteristic of free agency.

“A helpful way of explicating what Kant means by the spontaneity of the understanding in its judgmental activity (epistemic spontaneity) is to consider judgment as the activity of ‘taking as’ or, more precisely, of taking something as a such and such” (p. 37). “[E]ven desire-based or… ‘heteronomous’ action involves the self-determination of the subject and, therefore, a ‘moment’ of spontaneity” (p. 39). “[T]he sensible inclination, which from the point of view of the action’s (and the agent’s) empirical character is viewed straightforwardly as cause, is, from the standpoint of this model, seen as of itself insufficient to determine the will. Moreover, this insufficiency is not of the sort that can be made up for by introducing further empirically accessible causal factors. The missing ingredient is the spontaneity of the agent, the act of taking as or self-determination. Since this can be conceived but not experienced, it is once again something merely intelligible” (ibid).

The association of spontaneity with “taking as” (which is Kant’s independent reinvention of Aristotelian practical judgment) rather than some kind of arbitrariness is a breath of fresh air. (See also Freedom Through Deliberation?)

For Aristotle, there could be no contradiction between determination by ends and a complementary determination by “efficient causes” or means. But for Kant, ends are noumenal or intelligible, while means are phenomenal or empirical.

But in his previous work Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Allison argued that Kant wanted to distinguish between phenomenal and noumenal interpretations rather than to assert the literal existence of ontologically separate phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The noumenal or the intelligible is not otherworldly, but a different way of interpreting the same world we experience.