Intangible Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The” Concept?

Whenever we are deeply engaged in reflection, we tend to “lose ourselves” in the subject matter. At the same time, what we are thinking about becomes a part of “us”. This kind of immersive unity that we can experience affords a glimpse of what Aristotle and Hegel are talking about when they speak of “thought thinking itself”.

This kind of inquiry will not directly answer any questions about how things are in the world, but Hegel implies it has the potential to make us wiser, in the same sense in which Aristotle associates first philosophy with wisdom.

Pippin has been arguing that Hegel’s Logic really is fundamentally about the kinds of questions Aristotle associated with first philosophy, and especially “What is it to say what something is?” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 251).

This is an example of what I would call a “higher-order” question, as opposed to a relatively lower-order question like “What is that thing?”. What makes it higher-order is its reflective or self-referential character, here a “saying about saying”.

We have now reached the third and final part of the Logic, the “logic of the concept”. The logic of the concept is about “thinking about thinking” (and implicitly, I think, aims to address a yet higher-order concern for an account of higher-order questioning).

In short, “the” concept, or the Concept with a capital “C”, is for Hegel the concept of the concept, or conceptuality itself. Here we will be concerned no longer with the conditions of possible intelligibility of objects, but with conditions of the possibility of intelligibility as such.

The logic of being through its failure indirectly showed the conditions of possibility for merely identifying objects. The logic of essence asked what makes it possible to know or judge what something really is. Now that we are turned toward thought itself, the concern is how to judge well, and correlatively, what makes something a good whatever-it-is.

At the level of what Hegel calls the concept, we have left the subject-object split behind, and rejoined Aristotle’s perspective that what makes “pure” thought pure is that it “just is” what it is “about” — the thought is “identical” with what it thinks. (Recall again the experience of being immersed in reflection.) At the same time, Hegel’s Kantian “I” is something that emerges out of the self-reference in thinking about thinking, as a kind of name for the implicit unity of apperception in thinking about thinking.

Instead of a pre-existing substantive “I” entity confronting a pre-existing substantive object entity, the “I” and the object become meaningful signs both associated with what I would call the real or true “substantiality” that fills the whole space that is figuratively “in between”, while reaching vertically and horizontally far beyond any direct relations of “I” and object.

(That substantiality, I would say, is grounded in mutual relational articulation and in processes of constitution and synthesis of meaning, value, and form that cumulatively define what I really care about, as shown in my actions in the overall course of a life, which in turn defines who I am. At the same time, nothing that is is really external to it. Spinoza, Leibniz, and Fichte each in their own very different way are Hegel’s partial precursors in developing this kind of insight.)

Reflection and Dialectic

As with dialogue, reflection provides a kind of model for dialectic. Reflection can be understood as an either metaphorical or literal dialogue with ourselves. We “question ourselves”, which is to say we examine and potentially criticize or refine the basis of our own commitments. Further, actual dialogue is always implicitly dialogue among fellow rational beings, all of whom are engaged at least to some extent in their own reflective activity, just by virtue of being rational beings, so dialogue implicitly presupposes reflection.

Pippin quotes Hegel: “But at issue here is neither the reflection of consciousness, nor the more specific reflection of the understanding that has the particular and the universal for its determination, but reflection in general…. For the universal, the principle or the rule and law, to which reflection rises in its process of determination is taken to be the essence of the immediate from which the reflection began…. Therefore, what reflection does to the immediate, and the determinations that derive from it, is not anything external to it but is rather its true being” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, pp. 238-239).

And again: “In general, this means nothing but this: Anything which is, is to be considered to exist not as an immediate, but as a posited; there is no stopping at immediate determinate being [Dasein] but a return must rather be made from it back into its ground, and in this reflection it is a sublated being and is in and for itself. What is expressed by the principle of sufficient reason is, therefore, the essentiality of immanent reflection as against mere being” (p. 239).

In the first quote, Hegel is again emphasizing that what he means by reflection is not just looking in a figurative mirror, but rather something more like finding an orientation among (or building a synthesis of) the potentially infinite mutual reflections in a hall of mirrors. Reflection “in general” is a name Hegel gives to reflection with this kind of potentially infinite dimension. (That the infinity here should be called potential is my friendly Aristotelian interpolation.)

In the second quote, he is saying that this kind of reflection — lifted out from the distinction between reflective activity and what it reflects upon — is what he would call the “truth” of everything that appears to be immediately determinate.

The principle of sufficient reason as formulated by Leibniz effectively says that for everything that is in some definite way, there is a reason why it is that way. Hegel is saying more specifically that such “reasons why” emerge immanently from the reflective grounding of what he is in a nonstandard way calling essence. What Leibniz cannot show is how a particular essence or monadic point of view results in certain predicates and not others; despite great sophistication, he is still to some extent using essence and monads as unexplained explainers to avoid what Hegel calls the “problem of indifference”. Hegel on the other hand explicitly makes essence and explanation interdependent.

“[T]he ‘principles’ of identification and differentiation are deeply intertwined, not independent of each other” (p. 240).

“[A] thing’s determinate properties are not, cannot be, a mark of that thing’s unlikeness from other things, just by being those properties…. If one thing is red and another square, we do not thereby know one is unlike the other; they are just two different things. A locomotive has nothing to do with a melody; it is not unlike a melody. We are trying to account not for determinate otherness, as in the logic of being, but for how objects that share properties (are like) could be, even with an extraordinary degree of such likeness, still unlike” (p. 241).

“Some of this anticipates topics in the logic of the Concept. Two trees are alike in being trees but unlike in being two individual trees. The idea will be that just in their likeness, their way of being alike, that they are unlike (different trees), just in the way each distinctly instantiates ‘treeness’ that they are unlike. Such a different ‘way of being a tree’ is not another property but the way the tree-properties are ‘had’ by the individual” (p. 242).

“Hegel is thinking of the way in which the specifying work of ‘unlikeness’ cannot be a matter of individual properties, atomistically conceived, but unlikeness within likeness is best understood as some content, the unlikeness of which is strict, even within such likeness. Some charge can be both positive and negative; some number, 4, can be both +4 and -4; some quantity of money can be an asset and also a debt pending; some force can be attractive and repelling; some distance marched east is canceled by the same distance marched west, and all these are ‘opposed’ only within some common likeness” (ibid).

I find “either-or” language more appropriate to these cases than the “both-and” language above, but the intent is the same. The distinctions in each sub-case are concrete “opposites” applicable to some specific context, and each definable only in reference to the other. In each case, it is possible to abstract an indifferent thing being measured or assessed — “positive-or-negative-quantity” for the one, and “virtue-or-vice” for the other.

“The ‘world’s being contradictory’ means nothing more than that, as he says, virtue cannot be virtue just by being other than, different from, in comparison with, vice, but only by ‘the opposition and combat in it’ against vice” (p. 243, emphasis in original).

Pippin complicates the matter with this example, because “relative” seems to have a different significance in the context of virtue and vice than it does in, say, that of positive and negative numbers. But the intended point is a very abstract one about constitution of meanings that is common to both cases. Whatever the difference between the two “oppositions” (positive/negative, virtue/vice), in each case the two sub-terms are somehow measured or assessed “against” one another.

“Hegel is trying to specify how affirming contrary predicates (‘in opposition’) does not amount to a logical contradiction. That is the point of his discussion, to make this distinction, not to treat such oppositions as if they were logically contradictory and then to affirm them anyway. As [Michael] Wolff puts it, Hegel’s orientation… is not from sentence or predicate negation, but from developments in the understanding of negative numbers and from Kant’s defense of Newton on positive and negative magnitudes. In general, then, mathematical, not logical negation” (pp. 243-244).

This is extremely important. The status of negative numbers was still controversial in Hegel’s time. Kant and Hegel contributed to their acceptance. Hegel struggled to invent new language to distinguish ambiguous cases in his Logic and to say reasonable things about them, but readers (certainly including myself) have found his unique idioms very hard to follow. Most of the ink spilled over “contradiction” in Hegel has been based on fundamental misunderstandings. (See also Negation and Negativity.)

“To use an empirical example, if the question is something like ‘Why did the ball fall to the ground?’ we want to avoid two kinds of answers: ‘because whenever a heavy object is dropped from a height, it falls’; and ‘it is in the nature of heavy things to fall’. Doing so, avoiding these alternatives, will allow us to see that the relation between a ‘ground’ and ‘what it grounds’ must be understood as a dynamic relation, one whereby the determinacy of the ground and that of the grounded cannot be fixed in isolation from each other” (pp. 245-246).

He quotes Hegel: “But the being that appears and essential being stand referred to each other absolutely. Thus concrete existence is, third, essential relation; what appears shows the essential, and the essential is in the appearance. — Relation is the still incomplete union of reflection into otherness and reflection into itself; the complete interpenetrating of the two is actuality” (p. 246).

“The general point [Hegel] keeps making is: a strict separation of the two moments, and an insistence that the nature of an appeal to an essence, or to a causal law, or to someone’s reason for acting cannot be understood as punctuated moments on the billiard-ball model of causation, but involve a kind of unity, the development of a kind of unity, much closer (yet again) to Aristotle on energeia. This essential-being-as-activity, manifesting itself in its appearances, is what should count as ‘actuality’. This has the implication that many existing things have no actuality, are not really ‘anything’. A lump of dirt, a cough, a strand of wire” (ibid).

“The question for Hegel is the question of ‘actuality’, not ‘existence’, or the sensibly apprehensible, just as for Aristotle, the question is the ‘really real’, to ontos on.” (p. 247).

Pippin quotes from the Encyclopedia Logic, “The logical is to be sought in a system of thought-determinations in which the antithesis between subjective and objective (in its usual meaning) disappears. This meaning of thinking and of its determinations is more precisely expressed by the ancients when they say that nous [“intellect”, or thought in a non-psychological sense] governs the world” (p. 248).

Here “governs” is meant in a constitutive sense. The important point is that the “thought-determinations” here are indifferent to the ordinary distinction between a subjective “thinker” and an objective “thought content”.

In this context he speaks of “this dynamical relation, this Ur-relation of all relations” (ibid).

“I have tried to show in another book that the most important, most clarifying implications of this Ur-relation occur in Hegel’s practical philosophy, both in his account of human agency, and in the implications of that account for the practical theory of freedom in his Philosophy of Right and theory of objective spirit in general (ibid).

“[T]he full demonstration of the truth of this Ur-relation lies in what it actually illuminates, in the cogency and credibility of, for example, an account of agency based on it” (p. 249).

It was the outstanding (and very Aristotelian) account of Hegel’s view of agency in Hegel’s Practical Philosophy that first attracted me to Pippin’s work.

In his own idiom, Hegel says “thus the inner is immediately the outer, and it is this determinateness of externality for the reason that it is the inner; conversely, the outer is only an inner because it is only an outer” (quoted, ibid.)

Pippin comments, “He does not mean here anything as obvious as: when I do something, my ex ante intention is fulfilled and so becomes something outer, just as what was done, the bodily movement, counts as an action because it expressed this ex ante intention. The passage does not say that the inner becomes the outer, nor that the outer is the expression of the inner. It says: there is no ex ante intention except as outer. It is the outer. And there is no outer except as what must count as inner, nor that it expresses a separable inner. There is no such separation” (pp. 249-250; see also Hegel on Willing).

This concludes Pippin’s chapter on the logic of essence. Unsurprisingly, we have not uncovered any magic formula that would tell us which appearances manifest the essence in particular cases. Such a thing seems completely impossible to me; we should not expect to be able to find any general formula covering an unspecified collection of particulars. Any judgments involving particulars must in part at least come back to something like Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, which yield only particular results.

Nonetheless, in discussing the logic of essence we have ruled out some important classes of misunderstandings, and we have set the stage for the climax of Hegel’s Logic in the “logic of the concept”. The logic of the concept will take as a starting point the non-separation of “inner” and “outer” that has been shown in the logic of essence.

Beauty and Discursivity

Plotinus was a huge inspiration for me in my youth. Revisiting a piece of his Enneads just now, I am again struck by the majesty of his thought and writing. These days I have a much more positive view of discursive reasoning, but I first wanted to let him speak for himself.

I still agree that there is far more to knowledge and understanding than an accumulation of propositions. But as a teenager, I definitely considered step-by-step reasoning to be something inferior to the kind of holistic intellectual intuition Plotinus emphasizes when he talks about Intellect. The latter I considered to be the true source of insight — “silent mind before talking mind”.

Nowadays, I think that kind of unitary vision is achievable only as the crowning result of much patient work. I no longer take it to be the original source that discursive reasoning imitates in an inferior way. Intellect or Reason does form a relational whole, and the whole is more important than the parts. But today I would emphasize that the relational whole is an articulated whole, and it is the articulation — the making of connections — that is the real essence.

From many connections, we get larger unities. Larger unities are still the goal, but the work of making connections is what makes such fused views possible. The contemplation of well-formed wholes by the silent mind of an embodied human depends on prior work that must include open discursive questioning and reasoning, if the result is to be genuine.

Aristotle made a vitally important distinction between what is first in itself and what is first for us. To directly aim for the highest truth in itself while being dismissive of what is “first for us” is to disregard our nature as rational animals. Put another way, to directly aim for the highest truth is simply to miss it. This is the kind of illegitimate shortcut that Plotinus himself criticized the gnostics for.

We rational animals need the “long detour” of dialectic to properly grasp any kind of real truth. Otherwise, our visionary experiences will just be fever dreams of the sort that incite fanatics. The goal is not just immediacy but mediated immediacy, as Hegel would say. I think Plotinus at least partially recognized this.

To no longer regard things in the manner of “a spectator outside gazing on an outside spectacle” is to overcome naive dichotomies of subject and object. To really do this, we have to clear our minds of prejudice, not just do meditative exercises to silence internal dialogue. Clearing our minds of prejudice is what requires the long detour.