The Knowledge Sought

Following the emphasis of al-Farabi on demonstrative “science”, the Latin scholastic tradition treated “metaphysics” as a completed science. Some writers attributed such a completed science to Aristotle, while others, following in the wake of Avicenna, put forward their own improvements.

With respect to being, Aristotle himself speaks of knowledge sought rather than possessed. In inquiring about being “as such”, he is exploring a question given prominence by others. Far from claiming to have final knowledge of being as such, he highlights the ambiguity of “being”. There can be no “as such” — and hence no final knowledge — of an ambiguous thing.

This is not the end of the story, however. The very first sentence of the Metaphysics is “All human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing. A sign of this is our love of the senses; for even apart from their use, they are loved on their own account (Sachs tr., p. 1).

We are after knowledge of something. It is just not clear that that something would be accurately characterized as “being”, full stop.

“[A] sign of the one who knows and the one who does not is being able to teach, and for this reason we regard the art, more than the experience, to be knowledge” (p. 2).

“Further, we consider none of the senses to be wisdom, even though they are the most authoritative ways of knowing particulars; but they do not pick out the why of anything” (ibid).

“[T]he person with experience seems wiser than those who have any perception whatever, the artisan wiser than those with experience, the master craftsman wiser than the manual laborer, and the contemplative arts more so than the productive ones. It is apparent, then, that wisdom is a knowledge concerned with certain sources and causes” (p. 3).

This concern with sources and causes, with the why, is the true subject matter of the Metaphysics. This is emphasized again at length in book VI.

“Since we are seeking this knowledge, this should be examined: about what sort of causes and what sort of sources wisdom is the knowledge. Now if one takes the accepted opinions we have about the wise man, perhaps from this it will become more clear. We assume first that the wise man knows all things, in the way that is possible, though he does not have knowledge of them as particulars. Next, we assume that the one who is able to know things that are difficult, and not easy for a human being to know, is wise; for perceiving is common to everyone, for which reason it is an easy thing and nothing wise. Further, we assume the one who has more precision and is more able to teach the causes is wiser concerning each kind of knowledge. And among the kinds of knowledge, we assume the one that is for its own sake and chosen for the sake of knowing more to be wisdom than the one chosen for the sake of results” (ibid).

“Now of these, the knowing of all things must belong to the one who has most of all the universal knowledge, since he knows in a certain way all the things that come under it; and these are just about the most difficult things for human beings to know, those that are most universal, since they are farthest away from the senses. And the most precise kinds of knowledge are the ones that are most directed at first things, since those that reason from fewer things are more precise than those that reason from extra ones” (p. 4).

For long I struggled with this last statement. How could a knowledge of first things be the most precise of all? In the Topics, he says that first principles can only be investigated by dialectic: “[T]his task belongs properly, or most appropriately, to dialectic; for dialectic is a process of criticism wherein lies the path to the principles of all inquiries” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., p. 168).

Some commentators — influenced by al-Farabi and the subsequent tradition’s overwhelming emphasis on the place of demonstration as opposed to dialectic in Aristotle — have considered it a puzzle or a defect that the Metaphysics and other Aristotelian texts do not seem to consist in demonstrations as described in the Prior Analytics. The answer is that the Metaphysics and the others generally do follow the model of dialectic articulated in the Topics, as the Topics itself says they ought to.

Returning to the Metaphysics, Aristotle has already stressed that the most universal knowledge is also the most difficult. Also, he standardly distinguishes between how things are “in themselves” and how they are “for us”. The knowledge of first things would be most precise in itself, not necessarily for us in our relative achievement of it.

To anticipate, I think the final conclusion of the Metaphysics will be something like “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”. The qualification “ultimately” is essential to making sense of this.

(For Aristotle himself, all becoming and terrestrial motion are grounded in — though not in detail determined by — the entelechy or entelechies of circular celestial motion. The stars are a kind of everlasting living beings endowed with superior intellect, and are directly moved by love of the first cause. This might seem quaint to modern people. I find the love part beautiful in a poetic sort of way, but think Aristotle’s theoretical astronomy in general and his views of the special status of celestial objects have relatively little impact on interpretation of the rest of his work — particularly with respect to the teleology affecting earthly things and the discussions here in the Metaphysics.)

Plato says that the Good surpasses all things in ancientness and power. He represents Socrates as provocatively arguing that all beings desire the good, regardless of how confused they may be about what the good really is. No one deliberately and self-consciously desires what they recognize as evil. That is impossible, because it is logically self-contradictory. For the same reason, there also could not be a “principle” of evil. This is a tremendously powerful thought, of unparalleled importance for ethics. It sets a fundamental tone of charitable interpretation, in diametrical contrast to the kind of point of view that says those people over there are just evil.

Aristotle, however, says that Plato does not clearly explain the mode of activity of the Good, or how it acts as a cause. According to Aristotle, when Plato does gesture in this direction, he lapses into treating the Good as either a formal cause or an efficient cause, or both. But speaking in terms of formal or efficient causality loses what is most essential about the good — what many contemporary philosophers would call its normative character.

Aristotle considered his own contribution in this area to be a thorough account of how all things are ultimately moved by that for the sake of which, and of how the Good indirectly influences things just as that for the sake of which. This, once again, is what Kant called “internal teleology”.

After the horrors of the 20th century, many people have lost faith in the fundamental goodness of life. This is basically an emotional response. The indubitable factuality of horrendous evil in the world is not an Aristotelian or Hegelian actuality, and does not touch actuality. The factuality of evil does pose a roadblock for common interpretations of particular providence or “external” teleology, but not for Aristotelian or Hegelian teleology.

But how could a knowledge of first things be exact? We certainly don’t have knowledge of the first cause in itself. But coming back to my formulation “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”, this does meet Aristotle’s criterion of simplicity: all things are said to be ultimately moved by one thing (even though more directly, they are moved by their own love of whatever they do love, which seems good to them within the limits of their understanding).

We have exact knowledge neither of the first cause in itself nor of the particulars we encounter in life, but perhaps we can after all have exact, certain knowledge that “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”. This is the kind of thing I think Aristotle is suggesting. (See also Aristotle on Explanation.)


I think “entelechy” — or what Kant called internal teleology — is probably the most important guiding concept of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (rather than the “Being” championed by many). There is a great deal to unpack from this single word. Here is a start.

The primary examples of entelechy are living beings. Aristotle also suggests that pure thought (nous) is an entelechy. I think the same could be said of ethos, or ethical culture.

Sachs’ invaluable glossary explains the Greek entelecheia as “A fusion of the idea of completeness with that of continuity or persistence. Aristotle invents the word by combining enteles (complete, full-grown) with echein (= hexis, to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on in that condition), while at the same time punning on endelecheia (persistence) by inserting telos (completion [what I have been calling “end”]). This is a three-ring circus of a word, at the heart of everything in Aristotle’s thinking, including the definition of motion. Its power to carry meaning depends on the working together of all the things Aristotle has packed into it. Some commentators explain it as meaning being-at-an-end, which misses the point entirely” (p. li).

He points out the etymological connection of echein (literally, “to have”) with hexis, or “Any condition that a thing has by its own effort of holding on in a certain way. Examples are knowledge and all virtues or excellences, including those of the body such as health” (p. xlix).

I previously suggested a very literal rendering of entelechy as something like “in [it] end having”, with the implication that it more directly means being subject to internal teleology. As Sachs says, this is very different from just being at an end. The latter would imply a completely static condition not subject to further development.

Entelechy is Aristotle’s more sophisticated, “higher order” notion of an active preservation of stability within change, which in the argument of the Metaphysics accompanies the eventual replacement of the initial definition of ousia (“substance”, which Sachs renders as “thinghood”) from the Categories as a kind of substrate or logical “subject” in which properties inhere. What he replaced that notion of substrate with was a series of more refined notions of ousia as form, “what it was to have been” a thing, and what I am still calling potentiality and actuality.

Whether we speak of active preservation of stability within change or simply of persistence (implicitly in contrast with its absence), time is involved. Reference to change makes that indisputable. Persistence is a bit more of a gray area, since in popular terms lasting forever is associated with eternity, but strictly speaking, “eternal” means outside of time (which is why the scholastics invented the different word “sempiternal” for things said to persist forever in time).

Sachs’ translation for what I will continue to simply anglicize as “entelechy” is “being-at-work-staying-itself”. This is closely related to energeia (“actuality”), which Sachs renders as being-at-work. I think it is important that there is nothing literally corresponding to “being” in the Greek for either of these, and want to avoid importing connotations of Avicennist, Thomist, Scotist, or Heideggerian views of the special status of being into Aristotle.

I also think “staying itself” tends to suggest a purely static notion of the identity of a “self” that is foreign to Aristotle. Sachs might respond that “at-work-staying” negates the connotation that “itself” is static, but I don’t think this necessarily follows. It might take significant effort to remain exactly the same, but this is not what Aristotle is getting at. To be substantially the same is not to be exactly the same.

Entelechy is intimately connected with actuality (energeia) and potentiality (dynamis). As Sachs points out, “actuality” in common contemporary usage has connotations of being a simple matter of fact that are at odds with the teleological, value-oriented significance of energeia in Aristotle.

“The primary sense of the word [entelecheia] belongs to activities that are not motions; examples of these are seeing, knowing, and happiness, each understood as an ongoing state that is complete at every instant, but the human being that can experience them is similarly a being-at-work, constituted by metabolism. Since the end and completion of any genuine being is its being-at-work, the meaning of the word [energeia] converges [with that of entelecheia]” (p. li).

If we take “being” purely as a transitive verb (as it is indeed properly meant here), my objection above to connotations of its use as a noun could be overcome. But in English, “being” remains ambiguous, and it is not there in the Greek.

Further, though it has the good connotation of something being in process, “at work” also introduces all the ambiguities of agency and efficient causation, in which overly strong modern notions tend to get inappropriately substituted for Aristotle’s carefully refined “weak” concepts. Aristotle very deliberately develops weak concepts for these because — unlike most of the scholastics and the moderns — he thinks of all agency and causing of motion as subordinate to value-oriented entelechy and teleology.

Sachs’ glossary explains dynamis (“potentiality”, which he calls “potency”) as “The innate tendency of anything to be at work in ways characteristic of the kind of thing it is…. A potency in its proper sense will always emerge into activity, when the proper conditions are present and nothing prevents it” (p. lvii).

He notes that it has a secondary sense of mere logical possibility, but says Aristotle never uses it that way.

I fully agree that potentiality in Aristotle never means mere logical possibility. Kant’s notion of “real” as distinct from logical possibility comes closer, but it still lacks any teleological dimension. I think Paul Ricoeur’s “capability” comes closer than Sachs’ “potency”, because it it seems more suggestive of a relation to an end.

However, I am very sympathetic to Gwenaëlle Aubry’s argument that Aristotelian dynamis should not be understood in terms of any kind of Platonic or scholastic power. “Power” once again suggests all the ambiguities of efficient causality. I think such a reading is incompatible with the primacy of final causality over efficient causality in Aristotle. (Historically, of course, the divergence of scholastic “power” from Aristotelian dynamis was accompanied by assertions of a very non-Aristotelian primacy of efficient causality.) To my ear, “potency” has the same effect. (See also Potentiality and Ends.)

Sachs had said that entelechy is also at the heart of Aristotle’s definition of motion. (Motion with respect to place is only one kind of motion for Aristotle; he also speaks of changes with respect to substance, quality, and quantity as “motions”. He also says there are activities that are not motions.)

Properly speaking, motion (kinesis) for Aristotle is only “in” the thing that is moved. That is how it becomes reasonable to speak of unmoved movers. A moved mover is indeed moved, but not insofar as it is itself a mover, only in some other way. He says there is no “motion” in being-at-work or actuality as such, but there is activity.

In book III chapter 1 of the Physics, Aristotle says that “the fulfillment [energeia] of what is potentially, as such, is motion — e.g. the fulfillment of what is alterable, as alterable, is alteration; … of what can come to be and pass away, coming to be and passing away; of what can be carried along, locomotion” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. I, p. 343).

Sachs expresses this by saying that as long as “potency is at-work-staying-itself as a potency, there is motion” (p. lv). Otherwise said, motion is the entelechy and “actuality” of a potentiality as potentiality. As I’ve noted before, Aristotle doesn’t just divide things into actual and potential, as if they were mutually exclusive, but at times uses these notions in a layered way.

A mover (kinoun) is “Whatever causes motion in something else. The phrase ‘efficient cause’ is nowhere in Aristotle’s writings, and is highly misleading; it implies that the cause of every motion is a push or a pull…. That there should be incidental, intermediate links by which motions are passed along when things bump explains nothing. That motion should originate in something motionless is only puzzling if one assumes that what is motionless must be inert; the motionless sources of motion to which Aristotle refers are fully at-work, and in their activity there is no motion because their being-at-work is complete at every instant” (pp. lv-lvi).

It is worth noting that Aristotle has a relatively relaxed notion of completeness or perfection. We tend to define perfection in a kind of unconditional terms that are alien to him. For Aristotle in general, complete actualization or perfection is always “after a kind”, and it is supposed to be achievable. But also, it is only unmoved movers (and not organic beings) whose being-at-work is being said to be complete at every instant.

When he says “the phrase ‘efficient cause’ is nowhere in Aristotle’s writings”, he means that “efficient” is another Latin-derived term that diverges from the Greek. Aristotle in book II chapter 3 of the Physics speaks of “the primary source of the change or rest” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. I, p. 332), but again we have to be careful to avoid importing assumptions about what this means.

As I’ve pointed out several times before, the primary source of the change in building a house according to Aristotle is the art of building, not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer’s blow, and everything in this whole series is a means to an end. The end of building a house, which guides the form of the whole series, is something like protection from the elements. Neither the end nor the source of motion is itself an entelechy. But the house-building example is a case of external teleology. Correspondingly, it requires an external source of motion.

Internal teleology and the entelechy that implements it are more subtle; entelechy is an in itself “unmoving” and “unchanging” activity. The things subject to motion and change in the proper sense are only indirectly moved by it (by means of some source of motion).

We might say that Kantian transcendental subjectivity and Hegelian spirit are also entelechies.

Recently I suggested that what makes Hegel’s “subjective logic” to be “subjective” is its focus on the activity of interpretation and judgment, which in fact always aims to be “objective” in the sense of reaching toward deeper truth, and has nothing at all to do with what we call “merely subjective”. This is a sense of “subjective” appropriate to what Kant calls transcendental as opposed to empirical subjectivity. This higher kind of subjectivity, characteristic of what Hegel calls “self-consciousness” and of the activity of Kantian reflective judgment, would be very well characterized as an entelechy.

I strongly suspect that what Hegel metaphorically calls “logical motion” would be expressed by Aristotle in terms of the end-governed “unmoving activity” of entelechy.

Sachs on Dialectic

My former St. John’s tutor Joe Sachs, from whom I especially learned to appreciate Aristotle’s biology, later produced a wonderful series of translations of Aristotle and Plato, on which I often rely. The first part of his introduction to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, entitled “Ways of Writing and Ways of Being”, emphasizes the Metaphysics’ dialectical character.

“Two mistakes give rise to the widespread opinion that Aristotle’s Metaphysics is not a whole. One of them is that written treatises must always be conceived deductively, even if they are presented with their highest assumptions given last. The other is the belief that, in the first place, all wholeness of thinking must be logical [i.e., deductive]” (p. xi).

Robert Pippin has argued that none of Hegel’s works is intended to implement a deductive order, and that even his Logic is fundamentally structured as a kind of narrative of a development. Previously, Paul Ricoeur developed an extensive account of the “logic” of such narrative structures. Both make very significant use of Aristotle.

Sachs notes that in Plato’s Meno, “dialectic is explained as the way of doing things that suits friendly conversation about serious questions. Unlike debate, where the aim is victory in verbal combat, dialectical speech cannot be content to say something true, but must get at the truth only by way of things the other person already understands and acknowledges” (p. xiii, emphasis added; see also Aristotelian Dialectic).

Plato is here anticipating both Aristotle’s more developed account of friendship and Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition. The ethical and more specifically “intellectual” aspects of such conversation with another person are deeply intertwined.

Sachs goes on to note that in the Topics (Aristotle’s treatise on dialectic), Aristotle explains how the same kinds of benefits can follow from a written account that does not take the literary form of a conversation, but proceeds by reasoning from “things that seem true to everyone, or to most people, or else to the wise, and of the latter either to all of them or most of them or to those who are best known and most respected” (ibid).

Sachs continues, “By writing in this way, or reading things written in this way, one will not only gain agility in thinking and become better at conversation, but one can also get at the heart of all knowledge, since dialectic ‘contains the road to the starting points of all pursuits’. Dialectical reasoning does not set down permanent beginnings such as, for example, David Hume’s declaration that all knowledge must derive from sense impressions. A dialectical inquiry might assume some opinion that equates knowledge with perception (which is just what happens in the first half of Plato’s Theaetetus), but it would do so in order to try it out and test it. This is the humble meaning of that passage in Plato’s Republic in which Socrates assigns dialectic to the fourth and highest part of his divided line, and to those knowable things ‘which speech itself gets hold of by means of its power of conversing, making its suppositions not ruling beginnings but in fact supports, like scaffoldings and springboards, in order to go up to what is beyond supposition at the beginning of everything’…. Aristotle praises Plato for inquiring whether the philosophic road is down from or up to first principles” (pp. xiii-xiv, citations omitted; see also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Aristotle also explicitly says near the beginning of the Topics that inquiries into first principles are best pursued in this dialectical way.

“It is already abundantly clear that the dialectical ascent of the Metaphysics is not simply a deduction in reverse. Various roads are traveled, that are partly parallel, partly divergent, but always finally convergent; the goal is not simply to get to an end but to get there well, to cast a variety of lights on the way that it is an end, to reinforce previous conclusions with related observations, and to reflect the true complexity of the topic, in which there is no reason to expect neatness. Such a journey involves repeatedly stopping, backing up, and partially retracing some ground that has already been covered in a different way” (p. xvi).

Sachs is not very sympathetic to Hegel, but I think particularly the interpretations of H.S. Harris and Robert Pippin serve to show that Hegel’s dialectic works in the very same way that Sachs attributes to Plato and Aristotle.

Like Owens and Reale, Sachs ultimately defends a more or less Thomistic claim that for Aristotle, being “in its own right” is identifiable with the first cause, understood as the supreme Being.

I prefer his more neoplatonic-sounding formulation that the good is beyond being, and being depends on it. As I see it, this makes considerations of normativity, ethics, and hermeneutics prior to any possible ontology or epistemology, and I think this is the path Aristotle took.

The “first philosophy” that is Aristotle’s own name for the subject of the Metaphysics is identified by Aristotle with what turns out to be a unique kind of theology. But I would argue that Aristotle’s unique theology is characterized by ultimate explanation in terms of the “upward” movement of what Kant called “internal” teleology, rather than by meditations on the “downward” movement of a creative Act, or on external teleology (see also Thoughts on Teleology; Aristotle on Explanation; Aubry on Aristotle; Not Power and Action; Life: A Necessary Concept?.)

At least in this very important regard and some others, I think Hegel as read by Harris and Pippin is relatively closer to the historic Aristotle than Aquinas is.

Life: A Necessary Concept?

Hegel argues that we ultimately cannot explain intelligibility without presupposing Aristotelian/Kantian “internal” teleology, which in turn requires the concept of the distinction between living and nonliving beings.

With nonliving beings, events simply happen. A piece of iron may rust, for instance, and that is that. It is still iron.

A living being, however, is always subject to a normative comparison to its concept. For Hegel, a plant that is dying of thirst is a “failing” instance of what it is to be a plant. There is no comparable status for the rusting piece of iron.

Mechanistic explanation offers an allegedly complete system of causality. But for Hegel, it raises the same “problem of indifference” that the logic of being encountered.

In a similar kind of move to what he has been doing in the Logic as a whole, Hegel argues that mechanism implicitly presupposes a more comprehensive kind of explanation, that it cannot really solve its own problems when it is pursued as the only valid form of explanation. He then considers in succession “chemism”, which additionally takes into account internal properties of materials that affect how they may combine with one another; “external” teleology applicable to artificial things, which explicitly presupposes a designer; and finally the immanent “internal” teleology considered by Aristotle and Kant.

Pippin dwells extensively on the similarities and differences between Kant and Hegel in this area. On the Kantian side, this involves an important evolution of Kant’s thought that occurred while he was writing what became the Critique of Judgment.

“In early 1789 Kant began to formulate the new problem of reflective judgment, as well as a new a priori principle for such a faculty, the purposiveness of nature. What is important to notice for our purposes is that with that development, the shape of the entire critical project began to change dramatically” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 290).

“Kant had realized that something like the deep structure of judgments like ‘this rose is beautiful’ actually contravened its own surface structure, that the predicate ‘beautiful’ was not really functioning as a standard predicate, as it appeared to. It referred to no objective property or mere secondary quality. Instead, he concluded, it involved a nonconceptually guided reflective activity on the part of the subject of the experience, whose novel logic required notions like a free play of the faculties, purposiveness without a purpose, disinterested pleasure, a commonsense and universal subjective validity” (pp. 290-291).

“The realization of the distinct features of this reflective activity was only the beginning of a series of more strikingly novel claims of interest to us…. [T]he reflective judging that resulted in aesthetic judgments, also constituted the basic structure of teleological judgments, and so could account for the unique intelligibility of organic beings” (p. 291).

“And then a number of other issues seem to be thrown into the same reflective judgment pot. The formulation of scientific theories not fixed or determined by empirical generalizations involved this activity and its logic, as did the systematizing of empirical laws necessary for genuine scientific knowledge. Finally, even the determination of ordinary empirical concepts now seemed to require this newly formulated reflective capacity…. So reflective judging and its a priori principle were now necessary not only for explaining the possibility and validity of aesthetic judgments, but in accounting for the necessary distinction between organic and nonorganic nature, the formation of empirical concepts, the proper integration of genera and species, the general unification of empirical laws into systems of scientific law, theory formation itself, and the right way to understand the attribution of a kind of necessity to all such principles, judgments, concepts, laws, and systems” (ibid).

“Kant continued to hold that such reflective judging was not constitutively necessary for there being objects of experience at all, and so could not be properly called cognition…. But Kant himself seems to be conceding that that result alone leads to an impoverished notion of cognition…. We wouldn’t know much… without empirical concepts, laws, systems, and distinctions between living and nonliving. So all the above products of reflective judgment must count as indispensable, and in a way that is not just convenient, but nevertheless remains merely regulative” (p. 292).

“Given their necessity and indispensability, given how much we would miss in the world if we could not claim to know that things fall into kinds (that there are empirical concepts), that nature is law-governed with necessity, that species fall under genera, and that some beings are alive, the Hegelian question is: Why does Kant persist, even after the expansion of his system in the third Critique, in claiming that we do not really know any of these things, that we just require them of ourselves and can’t see a way to abandon such commitments?” (ibid).

Kant seems to have held that in spite of its value for subjective understanding, teleology stands in conflict with scientific explanation; that the only objective causality is efficient causality; and that an objective teleology would imply a sort of “backwards” determination in time. Hegel contests all of this.

“For Kant, a living being requires us to think something we cannot, how the whole causes the parts that cause it” (p. 293).

Pippin, like Kant, seems to regard the last formulation as a reduction to absurdity. But he himself notes that in biological reproduction, parts and whole are produced simultaneously. And many processes in nature work by a kind of feedback, which involves circular dependencies that play out over time in an alternating or simultaneous way.

“[J]ust as Kant did not attempt to deduce the necessary existence of events in causal relations, but sought to show that any event that did exist must stand in a necessary relation to some prior event, and just as Kant did not try to deduce the necessary existence of living beings, but tried to show that any world that required mechanistic explanations of what exists, or any world in which change is a matter of efficient causation, must also allow, cannot rule out, that there are changes like gestation, birth, growth, reproduction, disease, and death, which cannot be accounted for by the logical form appropriate for nonliving beings, so Hegel is not out to deduce a priori the necessary existence of living beings, but has an ambition similar to Kant’s… but much greater because Hegel denies that teleological explanations are merely subjectively necessary” (p. 274).

“In terms of the logic of the Concept where the concept of life appears, [Hegel] means to show that there could not be adequate mechanistic and chemical and ‘external’ teleological explanations (say, the production of an artifact guided by a maker’s representation) without the contrasting distinction with living beings, without, following Kant, ‘internal’ teleology. (That is, a case where an element is for the sake of the whole without its being the — impossible — case that the element or part intends to be for the whole, and without reference to any designer’s intention.) His unusual thesis is that teleology is ‘the truth of mechanism’. That is, mechanistic explanations are domain specific, and so represent an abstraction from a more comprehensive and complex domain that includes subjective or intentional teleology and objective teleology in organic beings” (pp. 275-276).

“For Hegel, … the conceptual forms required for the unity of judgment are, at the same time, the forms necessary for any object determinacy. The forms of thought are the forms of being” (p. 276).

This is not because thought has magic powers, but because of the kind of thing that being has turned out to be in the investigations of the Logic. In my estimation at least, Hegel has convincingly shown that true being is inseparable from meaning and intelligibility. It is not some dumb and arbitrary “existence”.

“Life is said to be the ‘immediate’ manifestation of the Idea” (p. 277).

What this means is that “Life will reveal at an initial level the true unity of subjectivity and objectivity. This is said in the sense in which even plants, for Hegel, have ‘subjectivity’ even as objects. Their growth and nutrition cannot be comprehended adequately as just the product of mechanical forces. Each can be said to ‘direct’ the course of its life as it requires; each has an inner distinct from an outer, where this does not just mean inside as opposed to outside its surface” (ibid).

It was not clear to me that the Idea would even have an “immediate manifestation”. At this point, the Idea seems to me to be something that in itself would be purely mediate, even though experience always involves an element of immediacy. But at least within a human subjectivity, something purely mediate can always be represented, and the representation in itself does have a kind of immediacy. This case is a little different, but the argument that a plant has a kind of rudimentary “subjectivity” while also being a kind of object does, I think, suggest a way of understanding this simultaneous subjectivity and objectivity that could be seen as a simple instance of the union of subjectivity and objectivity that characterizes the Hegelian Idea.

“[H]aving shown the truth of the object in self-consciousness, in conceptuality, Hegel proposes to investigate the concept in that status, now understood as being-true, or in its being the ground of the intelligibility of the object. As he says, now ‘the concept determines itself as objectivity’…. This begins after a consideration of the concept in its formality, in the structure of concept, judgment, and syllogism. This then suggests the question of the world of objects, of ‘the truth’, of being-in-and-for-itself, already reflected in the truth-preserving inferential structure of such a syllogistic. To have reached this stage, presupposing everything that has gone before, is to see the logic of the relation among concepts in judgments and of judgments in inferential syllogistic relations as comprehending objects and their interrelations as explicable in a system” (p. 278).

This kind of use of “system” simply expresses the coherence in real intelligible being, and does not have the objectionably pretentious character that was all too common in talk of philosophical “systems” in Hegel’s Germany. Since Hegel does use “system” in this more benign and substantial sense, I am inclined to be forgiving of his rhetorical participation in the enthusiasm for philosophical “systems”.

“At such a point, we will have fleshed out considerably the ‘object’s being its concept’ in a much fuller logical system of judgmental interrelations, systematically, and a modally robust one, prescribing what must and cannot happen under this or that condition. In this fuller systematic picture, we need a determinate characterization of the norm, comprehensibility, as such. Such a norm or pure concept of genuine understanding will tell us what a thing is in terms of its relevant relational properties” (pp. 278-279).

With the concept, we have explicitly entered the territory of normativity. A concept for Hegel is never just a representation. Every Hegelian concept has a normative character.

“That determinate norm of comprehensibility is what is introduced by the pure concept Mechanism — more broadly in the claim that true comprehensibility is and is only mechanistic, paradigmatically Newtonian mechanics. Yet again, it is this sort of overreach that reveals the limitations and incompleteness of such a norm of comprehensibility. This is the first, immediate, simplest manifestation of the a priori claim to a norm for determinate explicability…. This is essentially a ‘billiard balls’ model of moving and inertial forces, in which there is what Hegel continually calls ‘an indifference’ in the relation among objects. And therein will lie its chief problem” (p. 279).

The concept of mechanism now shows a dynamic very similar to what we saw before with the concept of Being. In both cases, Hegel wants to extract as much insight and value as possible from their respective failures.

“That is, the indifference of objects external to each other, or comprehended only as matter moving and colliding in space, means there is no real explanation of what happens, just a formalization of what happens. There is no way (except pragmatically or ‘subjectively’ for Hegel) to select in or out the relevant relations among such indifferent objects, and we will find instead that we are awash in infinite contingency, with no real ground for our isolation of the relevant units of comprehension” (pp. 279-280).

“Chemism does make such an appeal to internal properties, the chemical properties, to explain why some chemical compounds are possible and others are not. Objects considered chemically are not ‘indifferent’ but determine their relationality as dependent on the kind they are” (p. 280).

“When we say that average acceleration over a period of time is its change in velocity divided by the duration of the period, or when we say that the hydrogen and oxygen molecules combined to form water, or when we say that that clock functions poorly, or that wolf is deformed, these are not empirical distinctions within a common notion of comprehensibility. In Hegel’s language, they are objective aspects of the logical distinctions between immediacy, mediation, and self-mediation necessary for all objective intelligibility” (p. 281).

Hegel in the Logic aims to develop a kind of universal logical meta-language for explaining the more concrete concepts we use to explain the world.

“A living being’s concept is not external to it as a particular being. That particularity is essentially nothing other than the becoming of its concept. The concept is internal to its nature, and that nature is self-determining, not determined from without. (Hence the claim that life is the first, immediate manifestation of the Absolute Idea, the unity of subjectivity and objectivity.)” (ibid).

“Now, a simple way to sum all of this up, however misleading, would be to say that for Hegel life is an objectively necessary pure concept because we know that mechanism is such a concept, and that chemism is, and that artifactual teleology is, and that these pure concepts are incomplete without teleological concepts, ultimately the concept of living organisms” (p. 282).

“As we have already seen, Kant distinguishes, and Hegel praises him for doing so, between an element in a complex that is purposive because it satisfies the ends of the designer or maker, like a radiator in a car, or external purposiveness, and an element the purposiveness of which is determined not by any appeal to an external designer, but rather ‘internally’ in an organic self-organizing and self-maintaining whole. We explain the parts by reference to this whole, which itself is, reciprocally, the reason the parts are as they are; and all of this without any intention of the parts, such as organs, to represent anything as their end. So, for example, we can say what leukocytes, white blood cells, are for, without reference to a designer of the system, but by reference to the internal ends of the living being, such as maintaining health by attacking foreign invaders like bacteria or parasites. As Kant says, we can show that the parts of a living being ‘as far as their existence and their form are concerned are possible only through their relation to the whole'” (pp. 283-284).

“But, again, [for Kant] this is all a matter of what we must think for the sake of a satisfying explanation…. It must be merely that because… teleological causality makes no sense in the scientific terms Kant considers himself to have established…. ‘Strictly speaking, therefore, the organization of nature has nothing analogous to any causality known to us'” (p. 284).

“But all of this is supposed to be consistent with the unavoidability of teleological explanations, that is, with their necessity…. He asserts as a philosophical truth that we will never be able to [reduce life to mechanistic principles], and even that it is ‘absurd’ to imagine that we could. (No ‘Newton for a blade of grass’, ever.) He says clearly that we can no more give up the teleological principle and the idea of final causality than we could give up the universal causal principle itself” (pp. 284-285).

“One brief reason [Kant] gives for this is that this abandonment would leave us without anything ‘for guidance in observing’…. While we have the possibility of a physical and chemical account of cell division, we are not observing a mere series. With that account alone, we would have no way of understanding that these processes are part of one series, no way to isolate anything like ‘what comes next’ and so no language to explain what happens when it does not” (p. 285).

“What [Hegel] tries to show is that mechanism as a principle, as a pure or logical principle…, already amounts to, implicitly, what is most distinctive about teleology, an ‘explanation by concept’, how a thing ‘matches up’ to its concept, although in mechanism this concept is only ‘in itself’, not ‘for itself’…. [H]is claim is that while mechanism posits a radical independence among objects in motion, the results of mechanism itself reveal a regular dependence, fixed and unvarying, among such putative independent objects, and it must transform itself into a position that can do this justice, not treat it as an astonishing accident” (p. 288).

Unconditioned Knowledge?

Kant speaks of reason’s dissatisfaction with “conditioned” knowledge, and of a practical necessity for us to posit the existence of some unconditioned knowledge (e.g., about God, the soul, and the world), even though we can only posit it and it remains finally unavailable to us as knowledge.

Hegel, though well aware of the limits of the knowledge we have, wants to decisively reject the idea that “knowledge” could exist that is in principle beyond the capabilities of finite beings. Leibniz had already suggested that if we take the universality of reason seriously, this means there ought to be nothing, even in divine understanding, that would be in principle beyond the ability of finite rational beings to understand. Hegel claims that such a view ought to be compatible with Kant’s critical principles, even though Kant does not seem to think it is.

“In the realm of finite objects, any specification of determinate intelligibility, even if relatively successful, is still limited, or in Kant’s sense ‘conditioned’…. Since any such rendering intelligible must be self-conscious to be such a judging, such conditionedness and limitation are inseparable from determinate intelligibility itself, and so can be said to ‘demand’ completion in an unconditioned…. With this established, however, we seek a higher degree of intelligibility (one not subject to such limitations), indeed the highest. And so the concept itself, or conceptuality itself, the truth of finite objectivity, is now our object. In this sense, pure thinking’s determination of itself, not just qua the truth of objects, but qua itself as its own object, represents, ultimately, Hegel’s unconditioned” (Pippin, Hegel’s Real of Shadows, p. 252).

“Hegel… goes on to note the many Kantian affinities of his project. The concept of the concept, or conceptuality, or conceiving as the truth of being, is the ‘”I” or pure self-consciousness‘… and he notes Kant’s own version of the truth of any object: Kant defined the object as ‘the concept in which the manifold is united’…. Being as such a ‘positedness’, which is nevertheless being-in-and-for-itself, means that the objectivity of any concept is ‘none other than the nature of self-consciousness, has no other moments of determination than the “I” itself'” (p. 253).

We could equally say that for Hegel, it is the concept of the concept — or the self-referentiality in apperceptive judgment — that says “I”.

Objectivity is not a matter of conformity to something given that could serve as a standard. It is ultimately a matter of good judgment that can be recognized as such and shared by others. It is up to us rational beings to work out the detail of what that means.

Hegel’s approach to the unconditioned is enabled by his removal of the qualifications Kant had placed on his revival of Aristotelian teleology in the Critique of Judgment. Implicitly in his works overall and more explicitly in the logic of the concept, Hegel seems to follow the same kind of top-level explanatory strategy as Aristotle, combining teleology and hypothetical necessity.

“[I]f we understand the structure of [Hegel’s] Logic as some kind of ascent or progress, and if we think of that progress as measured by degrees of any rendering intelligible, the former stage always requiring the latter as a condition, then the essential predicative forms we study in the Logic‘s three books will be (i) S is P, (ii) S is essentially P, and (iii) S is a good P. Teleological explanation (for artifacts, actions, and organic beings) is the beginning of wisdom about such a higher degree of intelligibility…. (On this scale the ‘absolutely’ intelligible would be, to use Aryeh Kosman’s phrase for a similar claim in Aristotle, ‘thinking thinking thinking’)” (pp. 254-255).

We should not be put off by the apparent impersonality of “thinking thinking thinking” or the Hegelian “concept”. The very abstractness of the Kantian “I” serves to make it a transparent vehicle for our most deeply held (i.e., most “actual”) values. Aristotle and Kant and Hegel are bypassing the petty foibles and opacity of an empirical ego in order to bring to the fore what I would call our deep ethical essence.

“Hegel tells us that, with the topic of the concept as such, we are entering ‘the realm of subjectivity and freedom’…, a language that has an unmistakable but mysterious practical air…. [H]e moves immediately to explain that metaphor with several other metaphors…. There is, he notes, a textbook understanding of concepts and their roles in judgments and the role of judgments in syllogisms. But he complains that such ‘material’ is not only ‘finished’… and ‘entrenched’… but ‘ossified’…. His task, he says, is to introduce a ‘fluidity’… into such material and to spark or ignite or animate… a living concept in such dead matter…. He then complains about the difficulty of his task, switching metaphors again, and compares his project to building a new city in a ‘devastated’ land…, a task rendered all the more difficult when the land is occupied by an ancient and ‘solidly constructed’ city. One must decide above all, he insists, not to make use of what is already there, ‘not to make use of much otherwise valued stock” (p. 255).

There is a great deal that is perfectly unobjectionable from the point of view of common sense that turns out to be incompatible with the self-determination of reason.

“[B]eing is conceptuality, not a material ‘made’ intelligible by the exercise of a subjective power…. What a thing is, in truth, is its intelligibility…. In the Logic, the question is dual: What is being such that it is intelligible? What is the intelligibility of being? For us, Hegel complains, the question seems to live on only in religion” (p. 257).

“The chief task of philosophy is to account for this conceptuality” (p. 258).

This accounting — a kind of articulation — is key. Philosophy does not make mere assertions.

“[Hegel] will say things like: philosophy (and he seems to be thinking of philosophy as exhibited in the Phenomenology of Spirit) is interested not in a simple factual narrative of what happened but instead in what ‘is true in what happens’, where that seems to mean what, in what happened, reveals something about what it is to be Geist [spirit]” (ibid).

“In [Kant’s] sense a cognitive mental act is neither mere ‘activity’, in the sense in which we might speak of a computer’s processing as its current activity (cognitive activity is norm responsive), nor an intentional action (one does not perceive or believe ‘on purpose’)…. We may intentionally or ‘on purpose’ take up the task of trying to understand why something happened, but as we gather evidence and test hypotheses, we are not — in, say, perceiving, or in judging on the basis of perceiving — intentionally doing something for the sake of something. The power of perceiving or the power of knowing (or their failure) is what it is (has its distinct end) in independence from whatever else we may also be trying to accomplish. According to Aristotle, for example, the actuality of an axe, its formal and final cause, is cutting, the actuality of the eye is seeing. None of this implies that the axe or the eye is purposively acting in its proper actualization. Cognitive activity is an actualization in that sense. But it is also true that the capacities of the eye are for an end, its distinct end as what it is, or qua eye. And in that sense the capacities for knowing are for an end which knowing has, qua knowing. (The spontaneous capacity too has a formal and final causality, not serial or successive, but immanent and simultaneous.)” (p. 259).

Individual perceptions, judgments, and thoughts thus occur in us “spontaneously”, even though at a higher level reason is purposeful. For long I’ve been mystified by Kant’s choice of the term “spontaneity” for our self-conscious doings. (As I am accustomed to using the word, it seems more to apply to something like the pre-conscious syntheses of imagination.) Pippin provides a valuable clue to Kant’s thinking about spontaneity here, when he points out that perceiving and judging are not doing something for the sake of something in the way that ordinary actions are for the sake of something.

“The understanding and reason (and finally, reflective judgment) are manifestations of one capacity, thinking, the spontaneous faculty…. There is understanding, Verstand, or thinking, considered with respect to what is the case, or in terms of the possible objects of thought, in the basic sense of claiming or judging about objects other than thought, objects that must be provided to such thinking, cannot be self-given, all on the one hand; and, on the other, reason, Vernunft, thinking considered without restriction, or thinking in so far as it is purely self-determining, thinking whose object is itself. In this latter sense, one thinks first, of course, of pure practical rationality, self-determining both in the sense that only reason can determine what the exercise of practical reason consists in, and in the sense that to act is to have a maxim one must give oneself, or it is to have a reason for the action that one counts as a reason. But reason in its theoretical use, what Kant calls its ‘hypothetical use’, is also self-determining” (p. 260).

“And in general, reason in this hypothetical use results in descending or ascending specifications…. But understanding… cannot be a distinct object for or to reason, as such objects are normally understood. That would be psychology. Reason’s determination of the unity of the ‘manifold cognitions’ of the understanding is the determination by thought of itself, of its own unity. (This perfectly parallel’s the Analytic’s claim that experience, the possible representation of an object at all, requires a unity that cannot be supplied by experience. Thinking provides this unity for itself, by itself.) Any such higher unity can never be an object of experience, but it is also the case that such postulations are not mere heuristic posits, dispensable or alterable as practical needs dictate. Every exercise of reason qua reason is a necessary self-determination” (p. 261).

Such a necessity of reason is still hypothetical, not categorical — if this, then that, never simply “that” as a conclusion out of the blue.

“All thinking is a spontaneity, an activity, not a perceiving or grasping. This is true for reflective judging as well” (ibid).

“Kant is interested in the Critique of Pure Reason in what he says our ‘cognitive faculty… provides out of itself’…. Hegel will ask why we should not also say that the categorical structure of experience is what reason requires of itself, with no threat of subjectivism if understood properly; why not say that the moral law is what reason requires of itself?” (p. 262).

Hegel is using deeply Kantian principles to question Kant’s conclusions about the inaccessibility of the unconditioned for us.

“Since, according to Kant’s apperception requirement, any judging is also the consciousness of judging (no one can be claiming something without knowing what she is doing), judging must be implicitly a subscription to the requirements of any such judging (thus including a commitment to be able to provide reasons for the judgment, to be denying anything inconsistent with the judgment and so forth, to be able to integrate the judgment in a consistent whole of other beliefs held), and more broadly, any putative act of knowing involves apperceptively a putative realization of what knowing should be. In this sense the attempt to know, as centrally a judging, is also a self-consciously purposive activity, end-directed (it aims at knowledge, unqualifiedly and unconditionally knowledge) and self-constituting (only reason can determine what the removal of such qualifications would amount to). In the case of the understanding, or judging informed by sensible intuition, this means that any instance of judging is an awareness that judgment is a piece of conditioned knowledge, and no such awareness, since it is an awareness of an attempt to know, can avoid in the completion of the pursuit of such an end this ‘need’ to seek the unconditioned. Such an end is inseparable from any pursuit of the end of knowing itself” (pp. 263-264, parenthesized German words omitted).

“[Kant] is suggesting that our relation to these issues is not a relation of knowing in the experiential or empirical sense…. The relation is some sort of practical relation, … which carries with it its own sort of practical necessity, one that can be said to have a priority — again a practical priority — over the capacities and limitations of reason in its theoretical use” (p. 264).

With respect to the strict self-determination of reason and the reality of this practical necessity to seek the unconditioned, Pippin says he cannot see any essential difference between Kant and Hegel. But “Hegel certainly has a different evaluation of the results…. He sees them not as self-imposed limitations on reason, but as constituting the intelligible structures of reality, and there is a radical boldness in his rejection of the idea of a reality or truth beyond any ability of ours to determine what it is” (p. 268).

“If we keep in mind this Kantian context, recall the essentially practical and productive character of the power of reason, recall that the sense-bearing unit of intelligibility for both Kant and Hegel is the judgment, and that judgments are necessarily self-conscious judgments, and so claimable only in the context of some awareness of their finitude or conditioned nature, then claims like these by Hegel look less mysterious” (ibid).

Pippin says the biggest difference between Kant and Hegel in this area is Hegel’s idea that the progress of the self-determination of reason is somehow driven by contradiction. But “the contradiction that Hegel is referring to is always an essentially practical contradiction, an activity’s contradiction of its own end, something that gets clearer, I hope, if we recall Kant’s account of the inherent purposiveness of reflective judgment and the hypothetical use of reason” (ibid; see Reflection and Dialectic).

“[Hegel] will often say things that seem outrageous [, for instance] that philosophy gives the form of necessity to what would otherwise appear merely contingent…. This can sound as if Hegel wants to say that the actual course of that development, philosophy can prove, could not have happened otherwise, as if, in science as well as philosophy (logic), there is a development over time that could not have been otherwise. If that sort of claim is supported by a claim about a self-transforming, underlying metaphysical entity, ‘cosmic spirit’, or ‘God’, developing according to some necessary law of internal teleology, then the claim seems hopeless” (p. 269).

I thoroughly agree that this kind of necessity — a purely deterministic unfolding of events in the world — is as foreign to Hegel as the idea of unlimited free will.

“At a more modest level, though, (and this is very much how I think he wants to be understood), he could mean that a significant transition in art history, or political history, or religious history, a shift in collective ethical commitments, or a development in a speculative logic (that the content of some determinate concept cannot be fixed without reliance on a successor, more comprehensive concept) can all be rendered intelligible by a philosophical account” (ibid).

“This account is based on a form of practical contradiction that introduces a more familiar form of necessity and one different from logical necessity or material necessity, the form appropriate to ‘he who wills the end must will, or necessarily wills, the means’ (otherwise we have evidence that he has not truly willed the end)” (ibid; see Hegel on Willing).

Any kind of historical interpretation — indeed any interpretation whatsoever, insofar as it aims to reach firm conclusions — ultimately faces the “problem” of the unconditioned. Pippin’s previous example of interpreting the actuality of a person’s character helps to bring all this down to earth. Hegel’s argument is that we do this kind of interpretation all the time, so whatever that necessarily presupposes must be possible.

Problems of Immediacy

Returning now to Robert Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, he continues his chapter on Hegel’s “logic of being” by raising problems he associates with what Hegel calls mediated immediacy. I would alternatively characterize these as mainly having to do with ambiguities about what we mean by “immediacy” in a “logical” context.

Apparent immediacy plays a large role in experience, but on closer examination I think there it always turns out to be already mediated. So what does pure immediacy even mean in the logical context? My impression at this point is that it is only a failed beginning that creates a problem that motivates further development. I’m still not really used to this idea of taking a complete failure as a beginning, still at least partly holding on to the prejudice that we could not have a legitimate beginning without at least getting something right. (But see also Error.)

Pippin quotes Hegel saying there is “nothing in heaven or nature or spirit or anywhere else that does not contain just as much immediacy as mediation, so that both these determinations prove to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them nothing real” (p. 197).

As he notes, this rules out any “two-step” interpretation of the relation between immediacy and mediation. Hegel cannot be saying that first we have something purely immediate, and then later some mediation is added to it.

The apparent moment of Parmenides’ saying of pure Being was already characterized as a failed thought. In the quote above, Hegel is in effect saying that the moment of pure Parmenidean Being could never really occur. That does not prevent him from nonetheless treating it as a “logical” moment. To paraphrase part of the corresponding part of the Encyclopedia Logic, being is the merely implicit form of the concept; when the concept is made explicit and actual, it “abolishes” the (purported) immediacy of being, or the (purported) form of being as such.

It also seems that all the subsequent logical “movement” will have always already occurred. Hegel’s Logic follows something like an Aristotelian teleological ordering by hypothetical necessity for Kantian conditions of possibility, not the kind of sequential ordering characteristic of the passage of time.

Pippin quotes Hegel’s statement in the Encyclopedia Logic that “Immediacy of knowledge is so far from excluding mediation, that the two things are linked together — immediate knowledge being actually the product and result of mediated knowledge” (p. 198).

This last perspective is what I think of first as the meaning of mediated immediacy. It is like the ability to ride a bicycle — once we have learned it, it is transparent and effortless. Similarly, we recognize complex objects at a glance, once we have learned to do so. (See also Meaningful “Seeing”.)

All these statements by Hegel seem very reasonable and in accordance with experience. But he also says it is “easy to show” (p. 197) that the beginning of philosophy can be neither something immediate nor something mediated. I am more used to saying that we always begin in the middle, that there is no true beginning; or that every beginning has an element of arbitrariness, and will eventually be superseded, and it is the development that matters.

Perhaps Hegel really means the beginning can be neither purely immediate nor purely mediated. But it seems to me that for Hegel, pure thought, pure negativity, and “otherness” are purely mediated. If the context were an account of experience, it makes sense that none of these could be a beginning either, since none of them directly occur in experience. But even though we are in a purely “logical” context, Hegel still seems to disallow these options, and does not seem to clearly explain why.

Maybe the reference here to the beginning of philosophy is meant as a step outside the purely logical context, but the second edition of this part of the Logic was one of Hegel’s last works (1831), and by then Hegel was explicitly presenting his logic as the “first” part of his philosophy.

That the beginning cannot be immediate we have already seen. The failed duality of Being and Nothing that Hegel placed at the beginning seems to conclusively show that any notion of “pure” immediacy as a sort of foundation is a dead end.

My first thought is that Hegel again wants to assert that in experience, mediation and immediacy come always already mixed together, and again in experience, pure mediation with no component of immediacy ought to be just as unthinkable as pure immediacy. My second thought is that pure immediacy has no logical role to play at all. My third thought is that he continues to talk about immediacy anyway, largely because immediacy was given a privileged status by the followers of Schelling and Jacobi, against whom he polemicizes in the Preface to the Phenomenology.

My fourth, tentative thought is that maybe even though pure immediacy itself has no logical role, the failed reflective thought of it still might. My fifth thought is that maybe what Hegel is doing here should be understood as beginning with the logical impossibility of foundationalism — which is after all a common enough kind of explicit or implicit claim about beginnings — as a kind of prerequisite for the Logic‘s real work of showing the conditions that make intelligibility and normativity possible.

According to Pippin, Hegel further complicates the picture by saying (again in the Encyclopedia Logic) that “thinking is the negation of something immediately given” (quoted, p. 199), “even though in the same paragraph he denies that these moments are ever distinct and insists that they are always ‘inseparably bound together'” (ibid). The first part could be taken to suggest a before-after relation that the second part denies. I think the answer has to be that the first part should not be taken that way; the emphasis there is on thinking as negation in Hegel’s special sense. Elsewhere he calls thinking a “pure negativity”, and suggests that at least some the senses of the “negativity” of thought are actually non-transitive, so the language here about a negation of something could be just a figure of speech conforming to the expectation of common sense.

According to Pippin, the failed duality of Being and Nothing, “now that… we can understand what Hegel means by considering thinking itself as a negating, will assume a very general importance. It is the duality between mediation and immediacy, differentiation and unity, and form and what is formed, and amounts to the core argument of the Logic (the inseparability yet distinguishabilty of these moments” (p. 194, emphasis added).

Pippin seems much more worried than I am about the status of what Hegel calls “mediated immediacy”, which I have taken to be Hegel’s name for the inseparable mixtures we actually encounter.

“[Mediated immediacy] is obviously problematic in its very formulation. If any such immediacy is to be considered as mediated, then it is not immediate. A canceled event is not a kind of happening, a kind of event. The event did not happen. A mediated immediacy is no longer an immediacy…. [The] argument has ruled out… any… two-step account. So the problem is not merely how there can be distinguishable but not separably occurring elements in some whole, like, say, pitch and timbre in a musical note…. The problem is how the logical or conceptual character of this relation between activity and receptivity is to be understood, if not in this stepwise way. Hegel’s formulations of the problem seem to take delight in forcing the issue into terms that are initially bewildering” (p. 197).

I don’t think there are any events in the Logic, which seems instead to be about conditions and dependencies of possible thought and judgment.

All experiencing seems to involve an element of immediacy, and all experience involving anything contentful seems to involve mediation (and there seems to be no experiencing that that does not involve something contentful).

Pure thought, I think Hegel wants to say, includes no passive or immediate element, but no experience consists in pure thought alone. Every concrete actualization of thought involves more than thought alone. Also, we can think about pure thought, but we never experience it in its pure form. The Logic, however, is concerned with what is thinkable rather than with experience.

The inseparability of immediacy and mediation fits well with a perspective of Aristotelian hylomorphism, which Pippin has been arguing Hegel uses to re-interpret the apparent dualities in Kant. Helpful as this is, Pippin suggests that it is in basic tension with Kant’s insistence on the entirely active character of thought, which Hegel wants to preserve. I have not yet gotten to his resolution of this issue.

On the one hand, Aristotelian hylomorphism helps solve Kantian problems: “In even the simplified and misleading ‘impositionist’ interpretation of Kant that is so common, we will not be able to explain the determination of what to impose if we hold to… an exclusive disjunction [between sensible intuition and thought]” (p. 207). “Every determinate judgment must also involve a reflective determination of which concept to apply, and every reflective search for a concept must already proceed from a particular sufficiently determinate to warrant the judgment for one rather than another” (p. 208).

On the other hand, Pippin recalls “the Kantian innovation perhaps more important than any other: that thinking is discursive, is not itself open to the world in any direct way…. There is no lumen naturale [natural light (of reason)], no nous pathetikos [passive intellect], no Jacobi-esque flash of insight” (p. 207).

This means that “The claim that ‘matter’, in whatever logical register, is to be understood as always enformed and that form is always being enmattered cannot in Kantian terms be leading back to a position that sensible intuiting is a kind of thinking, and thinking is a kind of intuiting, as if along a continuum” (p. 205).

This too seems right. Hylomorphism is wonderful and many things have hylomorphic relations, but thinking and intuiting as such do not form a hylomorphic pair.

For one thing, intuition is only relevant at the empirical level, having to do with experience and how things seem, but the same is not true of thought.

Also, Kantian intuition does not have the right shape for the Aristotelian identity of thought and what it thinks to apply to it. Intuition is rather intuition of something that is transcendent to it. In Hegelian terms, intuition always refers to something “positive” that is opaque to thought.

On the other hand, Hegel seems to claim that his unique formulation of pure thought as purely negative ought to be the perfect shape to be identical to what it thinks, because in being purely “negative” it refers to no opaque element, and is only a pure immanence to itself or — as was said in connection with apperceptive judgment — a pure self-relation or self-referentiality.

I believe the experience of thinking and the experience of intuition do form a continuum. The Logic, however, is not about experience or empirical things, but about “transcendental” conditions of possibility.

Pippin hints that mediated immediacy will turn out to be intimately connected to the notion of reflective judgment that Kant developed in his later Critique of Judgment. Kantian reflective judgment is ancestral to the notion of apperceptive judgment that Pippin finds to be a major theme of Hegel’s Logic.

He also makes the promising suggestion that the solution to the problem of mediated immediacy will look something like the Hegelian use of actuality in ethics (see Hegel on Willing):

“[I]n the same way that we can imagine that the determination of a person’s character from his deeds, from the immediate appearances, is not a once-and-for-all determination, but a reflective determination always attentive to future deeds and so an expanded or revised ‘essence’, and therewith an expanded or revised interpretation of deeds as typical or untypical, we can also imagine that in both logical and empirical determinations of conceptual content, this process or movement can be better considered as a kind of oscillation…, and we will have at least a sketch of how the matter seems to Hegel” (p. 210).

Pippin notes that Hegel in a remark to the section of the Encyclopedia Logic on pure Being calls it “the logical version of the general problem of sensory consciousness” (p. 196) that he treated in the early chapters of the Phenomenology.

He says that in the corresponding part of the Phenomenology, Hegel’s argument is meant to show “the impossibility of any model of experiential knowledge that is understood to be based on a foundation that consists simply in the direct sensory presence of the world to the mind, a putative consciousness of a content that is contentful just by being passively apprehended, contentful on its own, in no relation to any other or any remembered content. By imagining such a model and showing that it has some inner incoherence or necessarily raises a question that cannot be answered in its terms, Hegel shows that the possibility of any such determination requires a capacity beyond mere differential responsiveness, a capacity that, among other things, allows a perceiver to track, keep attending to, any such content over time, and that allows the perceiver to fulfill a condition of such determinacy: that the differentiability of such content from what is other than it be possible. This is supposed to establish the impossibility of any epistemological atomism, and to undermine any idea of a strict separability between our sensible and intellectual faculties. This is so because fulfilling these conditions on experiential determinacy requires, he wants to show, the exercise of spontaneous conceptual capacities in perception itself. This is not at all in any way a denial of our reliance on direct sensible contact with objects in gaining empirical knowledge, or a denial of the difference between sensible and intellectual capacities. It is meant as a denial that such sensory receptivity can properly play its role in the model of empirical knowledge all on its own, conceived as independent of, or prior to, as he would say, any conceptual mediation” (ibid; see also Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True).

It might seem surprising that Hegel sees an analogy between the attitude of “sense certainty” and the metaphysical claims of Parmenides about Being, which run contrary to all experience. But he analyzes both as assertions of an undifferentiated immediacy that is still supposed to tell us something, and he responds to both cases by pointing out that all meaningful saying depends on differentiation.

A Logic of Being?

We’ve reached part 2 of Robert Pippin’s important Hegel’s Realm of Shadows. Despite recently mentioned peripheral caveats, I’m enormously impressed with the way he makes sense of Hegel’s Science of Logic, possibly the most difficult philosophical work ever written.

He now begins a high-level survey of the three separate “logics” Hegel develops. It is essential to Hegel’s scheme that the first two will be regarded as failures in the explanation of what is involved in making things intelligible. For Hegel, failures of thought play an essential, irreducible role in the attainment of new insights. The perspectives achieved by thought are not “refuted” by other perspectives external to those achieved; instead, the achieved perspectives metaphorically “discover” their own inability to solve their own problems.

We’ve already seen the first move of the first of these failed accounts of what it is to be intelligible, the logic of being.

Hegel uses the further development of this account as a vehicle for discussing the Kantian categories of quantity and quality. If his first point was that being qua being is utterly sterile because intelligibility depends on the ability to make definite determinations, the elaboration begins to show the relational character of all determination, and at the same time the failure of any simple assertion of properties of things (“judgment”, in the severely truncated early modern form that reduces it to predication) to adequately make those things intelligible.

Pippin does not go into detail on Hegel’s lengthy discussion of quantity and quality, so for instance there is no more mention of the issue about good and bad infinity, though this is where Hegel treats it. Pippin reserves the most space for the final logic of the concept that is supposed to be successful, and gives the least to the logic of being, which according to Hegel is the least adequate.

In discussing the logic of being, Pippin is mainly concerned to extract takeaway points relevant to understanding the high-level “movement” of Hegel’s logic as a whole. I have been highlighting his suggestion that this notorious “logical motion” is teleological in a genuinely Aristotelian sense, rather than being either deductive, or somehow univocally driven forward by contradiction. It is all oriented toward the merely hypothetical necessity of what is required if we aim to reach a deeper truth. Pippin is at pains to point out that for Hegel as for Aristotle, every teleological actualization involves contingency.

“The idea is to begin with the thought of anything at all, in its immediate indeterminacy, simply being, Sein. But the thought of anything at all is not the thought of anything…. Nothing is excluded, so nothing is included…. It is a failed thought, not the thought of this failure or even just the enactment of the failure. This is the beginning of everything of significance in the Logic; it (the thought of Sein being nothing other than Nichts [nothing]) is the reflective relation to what is being thought that is inseparable from anything possibly being thought. It is thought’s apperceptive moment…. Just thereby, thinking is thinking its failure to be thinking, not thinking of a strange object, Nichts. It is only in this sense that the first moment has a second moment, a realization of what thinking must be to be thinking of anything” (p. 186).

“Such a reflective determination reveals both that such putative immediate indeterminacy must itself already be a determination, and that such a putative content, anything at all in its immediate indeterminacy, has not been transformed, has not ‘become’ Nichts, but that it always already was” (p. 187).

“Hegel here is doing something like making a case for, or at least in some way showing us, the apperceptively discursive nature of any possible discursive intelligibility. This also means that in judging anything, I am always also implicitly holding open the possibility of the self-correcting of judging…. Or, any judgment always implicitly applies, is implicitly applying, the concept of judgment to itself” (p. 189).

That apperceptive judgment always implicitly applies the concept of judgment to itself follows from its apperceptive, reflective nature. To be apperceptively reflective is to be self-referential, Pippin has been saying.

“As Kant insisted, in any such case I must be able to ‘stand above’ what I judged and what I now judge correctly and take the latter to be a correction of the former in order for it to be that, a correction. Otherwise, there is just a succession of episodes. This is why he could say that the understanding, the power of claiming, is the synthetic unity of apperception (in the same way, I am ultimately claiming in this book, Hegel is claiming that what he calls the concept is the synthetic unity of apperception)” (ibid).

“This also means, as we have been stressing, that given certain concepts of the power of knowing — say, a knowing that must be indeterminate and immediate, a ‘resolve’ to begin with such a notion — we already have thereby the concept of the object of such pure knowing, Being. If we are talking about a case of knowing, as we are, the two are, must be, inseparable…. There is no question, here or anywhere in the Logic, of the need to ‘move’ from the order of knowing to the order of being. If that were claimed to be necessary, how would we have begun with a case of knowing?” (pp. 189-190).

This intimate connection between the form of knowing and the object of knowing is Hegel’s alternative to the difficult “transcendental deduction” by which Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason aims to establish that the categories of thought really are relevant to experience. Pippin suggests that Hegel generally reinterprets Kantian dualities as cases of Aristotelian hylomorphism, and notes that even Kant occasionally makes remarks tending in this direction. In this particular case, reinterpreting the duality as a hylomorphism eliminates the “gap” between thought and being that in Kant creates the need for the transcendental deduction.

I confess, though, that it was not obvious to me that we had begun with a case of knowing. I have trouble identifying any kind of failed thought or thought that fails to have a content with knowing; I am not used to recognizing the possibility of an empty “knowing”.

But we are at least implicitly talking about an instance of thought here, even if it is a degenerate instance. Pippin is arguing that even that failed, empty thought must still be self-referential, just in being a case of thought in Hegel’s sense at all. By virtue of its form as thought or apperceptive judgment, it is already reflectively turned back on itself. I think Pippin is suggesting that that turning back on itself counts as a kind of knowing at the meta level, even though the thought failed at ground level.

“[T]here is no objection in Kant or among the relevant post-Kantians, in their denial that thinking is a kind of perceiving or primarily receptive, to the general form of such claims as ‘I know it because I saw it’, especially because that is the invitation to establishing that it can be seen by anyone…. But for thinking as such, there is nothing like: ‘I know that is the essence because I had an essence-intuition…'” (p. 190).

I am more reserved about claims like “I know it because I saw it”. Plato would not accept this as an instance of knowledge, and I am inclined to follow suit. I would say, “I believe it with confidence because I saw it”. But Pippin makes a good point here about the implicit invitation to treat this as the claim that it could be seen by anyone.

As I have noted before, what I prefer to call belief and others call a form of immediate, noninferential empirical “knowledge” are not just arbitrary assertions. Though we arrive at such beliefs “spontaneously” (in the ordinary sense, which is nearly the inverse of the Kantian sense), after the fact it is always possible to ask about the reasons for them.

I am claiming that after the fact, it should always be possible to express something of why we believe what we do. “Because I saw it” is not a reason, but a reiteration that it appeared that way to me. Intrinsically, it has no more value than “because I said so”. The kind of reasons that can be provided in this case will be persuasive (or, in Aristotle’s usage, “probable”) to some degree or other, but also potentially refutable. Typically they will take the form of more detailed claims about what we saw.

“Fichte insists on the same point that is made in the first move in the Logic… by pointing out the difference logically between ‘A’ and ‘A = A’. For the latter, we need… an ‘I’ that is ‘= I’…. But this identification is something done, a Tat [deed], the equivalent here of ‘bringing contents to the unity of apperception’ in Kant’s account, an active unifying necessary for the I to be continuously that I in experience” (p. 191).

As Aristotle pointed out, merely saying something (“A”, “Being”, or whatever) is not yet saying something about something, which turns out to be the minimal condition for truth or falsity. This formulation points to some kind of self-relatedness in the attitude toward content that seems to be a minimal condition for any kind of assertion. This self-relatedness in the content of assertions seems to be related to the inherent self-referentiality of thought for which Pippin is arguing, as if the one were a sort of hylomorphic reflection of the other.

I used to misunderstand the above argument of Fichte as additionally requiring the existence of an “I” like a rabbit out of a hat, but again we are only dealing with hypothetical necessity here. If I want to be able to conclude “A = A”, then I need to be able to apply the same identification “A” twice within the context of one judgment. That the two identifications of “A” must be combined within the context of one judgment is the sole import of Fichte’s “I = I”. If there is any existence of an I involved here, it is by hypothesis.

Pippin stresses that although Hegel speaks of logical “movement” in temporal metaphors, each part of the “movement” has always already occurred. Once again, Hegel is not talking about what drives the course of events, but something like the conditions of possibility of the constitution of intelligibility and normativity.

He goes on to discuss more problems related to immediacy, and the transition to the logic of essence, each of which I’ll address separately.

Hegel’s Union of Kant and Aristotle

Aristotle gets more pages in Hegel’s History of Philosophy than anyone else, and Kant gets the second most. This post will show that that is no accident.

Where I left off in Pippin’s account of Hegel’s Logic, he was still discussing the meaning of Hegel’s claim that now “logic” could take the place of metaphysics.

The idea of a “gap” between thinking and being, with the consequent need for an extensive inference to show that the rational categories of thought are after all applicable to being, had been a major theme of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Hegel ambitiously wants to eliminate that gap, while at the same time preserving and extending Kant’s critique of dogmatism. At first glance this might seem impossible, but as I see it, Hegel’s strategy consists of two moves.

First, Pippin has been arguing that a major theme of Hegel’s Logic is an alternative showing of the applicability of something analogous to the Kantian categories. Hegel’s alternative is inspired by Aristotle’s non-psychological view of the content of thought as shareable rational meaning. From this point of view, there is a no discernible difference (and therefore a strict and literal identity) between a thought and that of which it is the thought. Thought in Aristotle is unaffected by the modern distinction of subject and object in consciousness. This is intimately related to Aristotle’s ambivalence on whether or not thought belongs to a part of the soul.

“As with Aristotle, [the] link between the order of thinking (knowing, judging to be the case) and the order of being is not an inference, does not face a gap that must be closed by an inference. Properly understood, the relation is one of identity” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 60).

The other, complementary part of Hegel’s strategy uses his critique of representation to express the Kantian problem of dogmatism in a different way. For Kant, dogmatism consists in ignoring or leaping over the gap between thinking and being. For Hegel, there is no such gap. Dogmatism consists in adhering to fixed representations and disregarding the real fluidity and liveliness of both thought and being.

Alongside this strategy for dealing with Kantian issues, Hegel revives Aristotle’s ideal of normative, teleological explanation of overall processes of actualization, and of the subordination of explanation by the efficient causes that serve as particular means of actualization (see Aristotle on Explanation). For Hegel as for Aristotle, intelligibility and explanation first and foremost involve a rational “ought”, and other forms of explanation are subordinate to that.

Pippin quotes John McDowell’s contemporary distinction between explanation by rational “ought” and by empirical regularity. McDowell refers to “explanations in which things are made intelligible by being revealed to be, or to approximate to being, as they rationally ought to be. This is to be contrasted with a style of explanation in which one makes things intelligible by representing their coming into being as a particular instance of how things generally tend to happen” (p. 61).

Pippin says that for both Kant and Hegel, logic “states the conditions of possible sense, the distinctions and relations without which sense would not be possible” (ibid). Here he is implicitly recalling Frege’s distinction between sense and reference, and making the point that Kant, Hegel, and Aristotle all see meaning mainly in terms of sense rather than reference. “The Logic is never said to seek a determination of what is ‘really’ real, and in a way like Kant, it also concerns the determination of the possibility, the real possibility, of anything being what it is. Hegel calls this Wirklichkeit, actuality, and distinguishes it often from questions about existence” (p. 62).

Possible sense construes real possibility in terms of explanation by a rational “ought”. Logical concepts for Hegel always embody a context-sensitive rational “ought”, rather than a direct simple determination of what exists. For example, “for Hegel to claim that ‘Life’ is a logical concept is to say not that there could not be a world that did not have living beings in it, but that if there is a world at all, the denial that there is any distinction between mechanically explicable and organically unified beings is self-contradictory” (ibid).

Such a contradiction is something we ought to avoid. The overcoming of contradictions in Hegel is a matter of teleological actualization that may or may not occur. Contrary to old stereotypes, no formal or causal determinism is involved. The overcoming of contradictions is in fact intimately connected with the motif of freedom. Kant and Fichte struggled to articulate a very strong notion of practical freedom that did not depend on a one-sided notion of free will. Hegel makes the explanation of freedom much easier by explicitly adopting the Aristotelian priority of explanation by ends and oughts. For him as for Aristotle, the realization of ends and oughts at the level of factual existence is contingent, and involves multiple possibilities. For him as for Aristotle, being has to do primarily with sense and intelligibility rather than brute factual existence.

“So what Hegel means by saying logic is metaphysics, or that being in and for itself is the concept, can be put this way. Once we understand the role of, say, essence and appearance as necessary for judging objectively, we have thereby made sense of essences and appearances, and therewith, the world in which they are indispensable…. In making sense of this way of sense-making, its presuppositions and implications, we are making sense of what there is, the only sense anything could make” (pp. 63-64).

“The actual Kantian statement of this identity is the highest principle of synthetic judgments, and it invokes the same thought: that the conditions for the possibility of experience are at the same time the conditions for the possibility of objects of experience” (p. 64).

Pippin quotes from Adrian Moore: “To make sense of things at the highest level of generality… is to make sense of things in terms of what it is to make sense of things” (p. 65).

He notes similarities and differences between his and Robert Brandom’s approach to Hegel.

On the one hand, Brandom agrees that the job of distinctively logical concepts is “not to make explicit how the world is (to subserve a function of consciousness) but rather to make explicit the process of making explicit how the world is (to enable and embody a kind of self-consciousness)” (quoted, p. 66).

On the other, Brandom sees the making explicit of the process of making explicit entirely in retrospective terms, whereas Pippin argues that Hegel in the Logic takes a more Kantian, prospective approach. Pippin calls Brandom’s retrospective approach “empirical” because it relies on retrospective insight into concrete occasions of making things explicit.

Elsewhere, Pippin had previously criticized Brandom’s emphasis on “semantic descent” in interpreting Hegel’s Phenomenology. Brandom himself introduces semantic descent in the following terms: “I believe the best way to understand what [Kant and Hegel] are saying about their preferred topic of concepts operating in a pure, still stratosphere above the busy jostling and haggling of street-level judging and doing is precisely to focus on what those metaconcepts let us say about what is going on below…. If the point of the higher-level concepts is to articulate the use and content of lower-level ones, then the cash value of an account of categorical metaconcepts is what it has to teach us about ordinary ground-level empirical and practical concepts” (A Spirit of Trust, pp. 5-6).

While I don’t care for the rhetoric of “cash value”, which to my ear sounds too reductive in the context of normative sense-making, the idea that meta-level considerations get their relevance from what they teach us about ordinary life seems fundamentally right to me, and of great importance. Moreover, this is clearly presented by Brandom as his interpretive strategy, which he points out is quite different from the way Kant and Hegel usually talk. Brandom’s reading of Hegel is also mainly focused on the Phenomenology; he doesn’t have much to say specifically about the Logic.

The idea of a retrospective reading of the Phenomenology is encouraged by Hegel himself, and there I think it is fair to say that Hegel’s own method is retrospective. On the other hand, I think the text of the Logic clearly supports Pippin’s claim that it takes a more prospective approach, closer to that of a Kantian a priori investigation. This still does not conflict with the suggestion that its ultimate value lies in what its high concepts have to teach us about living our own lives.

“[W]hatever the connections are in the [Science of Logic], they are clearly not truth-functional or deductive. As suggested, they have something to do with the demonstration of dependence relations necessary for conceptual determinacy” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 70).

For Hegel, “concepts can be determinately specified only by their role in judgments, the determinacy of which depends on their roles as premises and conclusions…. And he never tires of noting that the standard subject-predicate logical form is finally inadequate for the expression of ‘speculative truth’…. The basic possibility of sense depends on an act, an act of rendering intelligible or judging” (pp. 71-72).

“In the traditional reading of Kant, it would appear that Kant wants to introduce a step here, as if skeptical about why ‘our’ ways of sorting things should have anything to do with ‘sortal realism’ in the world…. In this picture, there must ‘first’ be sensible receptivity (according to ‘our’ distinct, nonconceptual pure forms of intuition), and ‘then’ there is conceptual articulation/synthesis, which is possible because of the imposition of categorical form” (pp. 73-74).

According to Pippin, Hegel denies this two-step picture, though he “fully realizes the extreme difficulties in stating properly the dual claims of distinguishability and inseparability” of concept and intuition” (p. 75).

“Hegel clearly wants a way of understanding the mutual dependence of each on the other that involves an ‘identity’ even ‘within difference’. In other words, he came to see that the concept-intuition relation was at its heart a logical or conceptual problem, what he would variously call the problem of (how there could be such a thing as) ‘mediated immediacy’, or the inescapably reciprocal and correlated functions of identifying and differentiating. For another, in any apperceptive determination of content, a relation to content has to be understood as a modality of a self-relation….This gets quite complicated because such an apperceptive awareness in the case of perceptual experience… must be distinguished from apperceptive judging…. Neither Kant nor Hegel believes that experience itself consists in judgments” (ibid).

What Pippin here calls apperceptive awareness in the case of perception as distinct from judgment belongs in the same general territory as the “passive synthesis” discussed by Husserl.

“Failing to observe the ‘norms of thinking’ is not… making an error in thinking; it is not thinking at all, not making any sense. The prospect of objects ‘outside’ something like the limits of the thinkable is a nonthought…. But just because it is unthinkable, the strict distinction between a prior, content-free general logic and an a priori transcendental logic, the forms of possible thoughts about objects, can hardly be as hard and fast as Kant wants to make it out to be. Or, put another way, it is an artificial distinction…. For one thing, … the distinction depends on a quite contestable strict separation between the spontaneity of thought (as providing formal unity) and the deliverances of sensibility in experience (as the sole ‘provider of content’). If that is not sustainable, and there is reason to think that even Kant did not hold it to be a matter of strict separability, then the distinction between the forms of thought and the forms of the thought of objects cannot also be a matter of strict separability” (p. 76).

“‘To be is to be intelligible: the founding principle of Greek metaphysics and of philosophy itself…. [T]he formula ‘to be is to be intelligible’ is not, as it might sound, some sort of manifesto, as if willfully ‘banning’ the unknowable from ‘the real’…. ‘What there is is what is knowable’ is an implication of what knowing — all and any knowing — is if it is to be knowing. It is not a first-order claim about all being, as if it could prompt the question: How do we know that all of being is knowable? That is not a coherent question. There may be things we will never know, but that is not to say they are in principle unknowable” (p. 77).

“So those ‘two aspect’ interpretations of Kant’s idealism and his doctrine of the unknowability of things in themselves, those claiming that knowing ‘for us’ is restricted to ‘our epistemic conditions’, leaving it open for us to speculate about what might be knowable but transcends our powers of knowing, cannot be right. The position is internally incoherent. There is no ‘our’ that can be put in front of ‘epistemic conditions’. They would not then be epistemic conditions; the account would not be philosophical but psychological” (ibid).

In place of the Kantian unknowability of things in themselves, Hegel puts the “liveliness” of real things that overflows any particular representation. For Hegel, dogmatism is a disregard for the overflowing character of real meaning and being.

“[I]f we… ask how we can know a priori about nature’s suitability for our cognitive ends…, we have again imported a kind of neo-Kantian version of Kant” (p. 78).

“Yet more care must be exercised here, lest readers get the wrong idea. To say that the forms of ‘thought’ are, must be, the form of objects of thought does not mean that any form of ‘mere thinking’ delineates some ontological realm — as if the forms of the thought of astrological influence are the forms of such influence in the world” (ibid).

“Thought” here clearly does not mean any arbitrary belief. It refers to possible knowledge. Hegel and Pippin are saying only that if and wherever true knowledge is indeed possible, corresponding knowledge of objects must be possible. “It would never occur to us, I assume, to entertain the thought that the form of some piece of empirical knowledge is not the form of the object of knowledge” (ibid).

Pippin points out “what amounts to a kind of operator in Hegel’s Logic on which all the crucial transitions depend, something like ‘would not be fully intelligible, would not be coherently thinkable without…’ What follows the ‘without’ is some more comprehensive concept, a different distinction, and so forth” (p. 79).

This means that Hegelian logic is not about the deduction of consequences from assumptions, but rather aims to be an assumption-free regressive movement from anything at all to a fuller view of the conditions for its intelligibility.

In the introduction to the Encyclopedia, Hegel “notes explicitly that what exists certainly exists contingently and ‘can just as well not be‘, and he refers us to the Logic for the right explication of what is ‘actual’ by contrast with what merely exists. He adds, ‘Who is not smart enough to be able to see around him quite a lot that is not, in fact, how it ought to be?’…. Yet despite Hegel’s waving this huge bright flag inscribed, ‘I believe in contingency!’ one still hears often (even from scholars of German philosophy) that his philosophy is an attempt to deduce the necessity of everything from the Prussian state to Herr Krug’s fountain pen” (p. 87).

Pippin thinks that actuality in Hegel is “congruent with what Kant meant by categoriality” (ibid). I don’t fully understand this particular claim about actuality, unless it is intended as a variant of the Philosophy of Right‘s famous formula about the actual and the rational, which itself makes good sense with a normative or teleological as opposed to factual notion of the actual. I would agree there seems to be a strong “Kantian categorical” component to Hegelian “logic” in general. Pippin agrees that actuality has a normative rather than factual character in both Aristotle and Hegel. However, the generally normative emphasis of Kant’s thought notwithstanding, at this point in my effort to understand Kant, his “deduction” of the categories seems to me to make the categories more like a kind of universal “facts”. I also think of the Aristotelian “ought” as primarily concrete, as when Aristotle says that practical judgment applies to particulars. Kantian normativity by contrast aims to be universal in an unqualified way, which is certainly closer to categoriality. So, there is a question whether Hegelian actuality inherits more from Aristotelian actuality or from Hegel’s incorporation of Kantian universalizing normativity.

If we were talking about Hegelian “concrete universals”, this might provide a basis for reconciling Aristotelian and Kantian perspectives on the “ought” involved in actuality. Do the Hegelian incarnations of Kantian categories in the Logic — called by Hegel a “realm of shadows” — qualify as concrete universals? At this point I am in doubt. I suspect Hegel might say that the concrete universal is reached only at the very end of his development. Maybe the ultimate bearer of categoriality and the place where it unites with actuality will be the “absolute” idea.

“What we know is what we know in exercising reason, what we know in judging” (p. 90). In the Encyclopedia Logic, “Hegel remarks that Kant himself, in formulating reason’s critique of itself, treats forms of cognition as objects of cognition…. He calls this feat ‘dialectic’. Mathematical construction in mathematical proof makes essentially the same point…. And most suggestively for the entire enterprise of the Logic, practical reason can determine the form of a rational will that is also itself a substantive content. The self-legislation of the moral law is not volitional anarchy but practical reason’s knowledge of ‘what’ to legislate. It ‘legislates’ in being practical reasoning about what ought to be done. It legislates because in knowing what ought to be done it is not affected by some object, ‘what is to be done’, about which it judges. It determines, produces, what is to be done. Said more simply, when one makes a promise, one legislates into existence a promise. One is bound only by binding oneself…. Being bound is the concept of being bound, applied to oneself” (ibid).

Pippin is suggesting we look for ethical meaning in Hegel’s logic.

“Thought’s self-determination in the course of the book makes no reference to the Absolute’s self-consciousness in order to explain anything…. Any thinking of a content is inherently reflexive in a way that Hegel thinks will allow him to derive from the possible thought of anything at all notions like something and finitude, and ultimately essence, appearance, even the idea of the good…. Hegel thinks that thought is always already giving itself its own content: itself, where that means, roughly, determining that without which it could not be a thought of an object…. But all this can only count as previews of coming attractions” (pp. 91-92).

This is important. The thought that is self-legislating and one with its object, while it doesn’t include mere belief, is being said to include at least some thought that occurs in ordinary life. According to Pippin, thinking far enough through with any content at all has a self-legislating and category-generating character for Hegel.

“The suggestion is that Hegel thinks of anything’s principle of intelligibility, its conceptual form, as an actualization in the Aristotelian sense, the being-at-work or energeia of the thing’s distinct mode of being, not a separate immaterial metaphysical object. In understanding Hegel on this point, we should take fully on board the form-matter, actuality-potentiality language of Aristotle, and so the most interesting kind of hylomorphism, soul-body hylomorphism, as our way of understanding this nonseparateness claim.” (p. 92).

Here I can only applaud.

“To think that for creatures like us, we must distinguish the sensory manifold from the form that informs it is the great temptation to be avoided for Hegel. The power of the eye to see is not a power ‘added’ to a material eye…. The seeing power is the distinct being-at work of that body. The form-content model central to Hegel’s account of logical formality works the same way” (pp. 92-93).

That seeing is not somehow “added” to the eye is another Aristotelian point. The eye is what it is in virtue of what it is for the sake of. Incidentally, Joe Sachs’ translation of Aristotlian energeia as “being-at-work” appears to have a precedent in Hegel’s German.

Pippin’s identification of a being-at-work or actuality with a power here is novel. “Power” commonly appears in translations of (especially Latin scholastic) discourse about potentiality rather than actuality. Power seems to me to be some kind of capability for efficacious action, whereas potentiality and actuality both belong primarily in the register of ends and “for the sake of”. It does make sense that a capability could follow from an actualization or be attributed to it. Paul Ricoeur makes a nice ethical use of capability, but in general I worry that talk about power privileges efficacious action over the intelligible ought and the “for the sake of”.

Pippin returns again to the unity of thinking and being.

“So it is perfectly appropriate to say such things as that for Hegel reality ‘has a conceptual structure’, or ‘only concepts are truly real’, as long as we realize that we are not talking about entities, but about the ‘actualities’ of beings, their modes or ways of being what determinately and intelligibly they are. To say that ‘any object is the concept of itself’ is to say that what it is in being at work being what it is can be determined, has a logos…. We can say that reality comes to self-consciousness in us, or that the light that illuminates beings in their distinct being-at-work is the same light that illuminates their knowability in us, as long as we do not mean a light emanating from individual minds” (pp. 93-94).

“And here again, Hegel’s model of metaphysics… is Aristotelian. And Aristotle’s metaphysics is not modern dogmatic metaphysics, does not concern a ‘supersensible’ reality knowable only by pure reason. In many respects it is a metaphysics of the ordinary: standard sensible objects, especially organic beings and artifacts. This means that in many respects Kant’s critique of rationalist metaphysics in effect ‘misses’ it” (p. 94).

“By and large Hegel means to ‘denigrate’ the immediately given, how things seem to common sense…. This has nothing to do with doubting the external reality of tables and molecules…. The point of Hegel’s denying to finite, empirical reality the gold standard badge of true actuality is not to say that it ‘possesses’ a lesser degree of reality in the traditional sense (whatever that might mean). It is to say that finite objects viewed in their finitude, or considered as logical atoms, can never reveal the possibility of their own intelligibility” (pp. 96-97).

This provides a clue to the negative connotations of finitude in Hegel. It has far more positive connotations for me, but I consider the primary meaning of “finitude” to be a dependence on other things, which is as different as could be from logical atomicity. This is another different use of words, not a difference on what is or ought to be. If “finite” is taken to mean “to be treated as a logical atom” as Pippin suggests, the negative connotations are appropriate.

Teleology After Kant

Kant is responsible for recovering something like the modesty stemming from deep seriousness with which Plato and Aristotle approached claims of knowledge, though I don’t think he realized just how far they were from the dogmatism that broadly characterizes the intervening tradition. Kant indeed often speaks as if all previous philosophy had a dogmatic cast. I don’t think the tradition between the times of Aristotle and Kant was the uniform sea of dogmatic positions that Kant makes it out to be, either, but I agree that a dogmatic cast was dominant.

Kant also goes further than Aristotle or even Plato in positively asserting a principled basis for limiting claims to knowledge. Plato emphasizes sharp distinctions between appearance and reality. Aristotle is more inclined to emphasize that we do after all indirectly encounter something real in and through appearances, but he is in agreement with Plato (and Kant) that there is no magical overleaping of the fact that what we experience directly are only appearances.

For all three of them, knowledge in a strong sense could only be a product of the indirect work of reason reflecting on experience. Aristotle further emphasizes the variability of things in the world, and the large role of ambiguity in experience. Kant on the other hand is still beholden to the early modern assumption that knowledge ought to be subject to a completely univocal account. But his notions of synthesis are a great contribution to the understanding of how experience works — how “immediate” experience is a result of pre-conscious processes of constitution. In a nutshell, this is the additional principled basis for limiting knowledge claims that we owe to Kant.

With extremely broad brush, it could be said that Hegel takes up the Kantian emphasis that experience is a result of processes of synthesis but, unlike Kant, he also wants to emphasize that synthesis is not a self-contained activity of each individual. At the same time, he takes the more Aristotelian perspective that we really do indirectly encounter reality in and through appearances. For Hegel, to deny this would be to deny the possibility of knowledge altogether.

Hegel sees synthesis taking place at the level of what he calls spirit — i.e., the level of the universal community of rational beings across space and time, of shareable thought contents, and of broadly (but not entirely) shared values. But he also recognizes Aristotelian variability and ambiguity. At this extremely high level of generality, Hegel is a Kantian Aristotelian or an Aristotelian Kantian. Spirit for Hegel transcends nature, without being opposed to it.

In the Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel glosses reason as purposeful activity, while sympathetically referring to Aristotle’s view of nature as purposeful activity. In the Science of Logic, he carefully distinguishes the internal kind of teleology Aristotle attributed to nature from the external kind that refers particular events to the will of God. He distinguishes three kinds of determination. Mechanism and “spiritual mechanism” determine things from outside, in ways that are indifferent to their specific character or content. An intermediate form he calls “chemism” determines things from outside in ways that do involve their specific character or content. These are both contrasted to teleology, which according to Hegel is the internal determination of things by what I at least would call their nature or essence.

For Hegel, mechanism and chemism together represent means by which ends are realized. He explicitly identifies these with efficient causes operating in ways ultimately subordinate to final causes. I was unaware of this when I previously glossed the Aristotelian efficient cause as fundamentally a means by which an end is realized, but it is nice to know it has Hegel’s concurrence.

For Hegel, the external determination of things is subordinate to their internal or “self”-determination. Self-determination meanwhile is anything but the result of arbitrary will; it develops out of the concrete detail of the “self-relatedness” in which the very forms of things consist. He treats this as an elaboration of the Phenomenology Preface’s assertion that “substance is also subject”.

The very essence or substance of things is able to act in subject-like ways, because form for Hegel is explainable in terms of self-relatedness. Meanwhile, Science of Logic translator George di Giovanni notes that Hegel’s selbst or “self” has no interpretation in German as a noun. As I would put it, “self” is purely adverbial and relational, and therefore is constituted in what Hegel in the Phenomenology Preface calls otherness. So, for Hegel the primacy of internal determination is perfectly compatible with the logical primacy of otherness. “Self” refers to a constitution in otherness, rather than being opposed to it. From the start, Hegelian otherness is conceived as beyond any naive opposition between a substantive self and what is other than it.

Thus Hegel can be seen as more thoroughly vindicating the content of Aristotelian internal teleology from a Kantian point of view. Kant himself made an important start at this in the Critique of Judgment, but qualified the legitimate application of internal teleology to nature as ultimately only having a heuristic value useful to our understanding, that would not be literally applicable to nature as it is in itself. Hegel in the Science of Logic carefully and at length develops objectivity out of something like what I would call reasonable interpretation, and on this basis recovers a valid notion of internal teleology as something real. This notion of objectivity as something constituted is a further development of another Kantian theme. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity.)

Thoughts on Teleology

Teleology is another subject on which my perspective has changed drastically over the years.

After a youthful fascination with Plotinus, my main interest turned toward the diverse group of writers loosely associated with French “structuralism”, several of whom were very interested in Spinoza. For some years, Spinoza became the great philosopher I identified with most. I had not explicitly thought much about teleology before, but Spinoza’s very sharp critique in the appendix to book 1 of the Ethics impressed me greatly. At the time, I did not trouble myself over whether it was fair to the historic Aristotle. I defended without reservation the strong determinism of Spinoza and the Stoics, emphasizing an understanding of the causes of things as the main path to enlightenment. At this time also, some contemporary writers on mathematical “chaos theory” were proposing what they called a superdeterminism, which would allow for deterministic explanation of all sorts of nonlinear phenomena, by an innovative separation of the notion of determinism from its traditional connotations of predictability. I had not yet begun to question what I have been referring to here as the “modern notion” of causality. My great preoccupation was with defending the possibility of ethics within a deterministic context.

My deeper engagement with Aristotle began initially with problems of things “said in many ways”. In my professional work as a data modeler, I was very concerned with the ambiguities of common-sense apprehensions of things, which I wanted to overcome in Platonic fashion. The univocity that Aristotle treats in a balanced way I initially saw more one-sidedly as an ideal to aim for in the quest for knowledge, though without underestimating the difficulty of attempting to treat everything in a univocal manner, or as comprehended by a single grand, consistent theory. Meanwhile, my personal interests were focused on questions of the interpretation of the history of human cultural development.

Gradually, I became more and more impressed with the importance of what I came to call “objective ambiguity” in history — the idea that this was not just a defect of our understanding or interpretation, but that the most objective reality of the concrete world may often reflect mixed or “in between” states of things. Eventually, I came to recognize that Aristotle, perhaps more than any other of the great philosophers, deeply thought about this and took it into account. I became aware of the arguments of Leibniz that all necessity is hypothetical, then realized Aristotle had already said that all necessity in generated things is hypothetical.

As Spinoza said, strict causal necessity rules out the “play” in things that leaves room for teleological explanation. But I have become convinced that that “play” in things is not something to be explained away as a mere appearance. Hypothetical necessity respects both the element of (conditional) necessity in things and this inherent “play”. It now appears to me as a priceless Aristotelian mean, and a kind of Hegelian synthesis of determination and play or flexibility.

The way Aristotle applies hypothetical necessity to determination by ends removes the mystery from final causes. Aristotle emphasizes the alternative that Spinoza ignored — that teleology need not be the product of conscious aims of a supernatural being or beings “intervening” in the natural order. In Aristotle’s non-reductionist view of the intelligibility of nature, natural things are shaped by inherent “tendencies” to seek certain states that are nonetheless not strictly determining. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Ends; Equivocal Determination; Free Will and Determinism.)