Spinoza on Teleology

“All the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end” (Spinoza, Collected Works vol. I, Curley trans., p. 439).

“[I]t follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]. It follows, secondly, that men always act on account of an end, viz. on account of their advantage, which they want. Hence they seek to know only the final causes of what has been done, and when they have heard them, they are satisfied, because they have no reason to doubt further” (p. 440).

“Hence, they consider all natural things as means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means that they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and had made all things for their use” (pp. 440-441).

The famous appendix to book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics, from which the above is excerpted, is a sort of psychological exposé of the superstition-like attitude behind the kind of “external” teleology that sees everything in terms of ends, but treats all ends as resulting from the conscious aims or will of a supernatural being or beings, more or less on the model of what theologians have called “particular providence”.

But though he explicitly refers only to this kind of conscious providence that implies ongoing supernatural intervention in the ordinary workings of the world, he nonetheless in an unqualified way dismisses all explanation in terms of ends. At the same time, the notion of determination or causality that he does acknowledge as genuine is too narrow and rigid (too univocal).

Most of the historic criticisms of Spinoza have been extremely unfair; this includes remarks by Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Spinoza rightly pointed out that we tend to overrate the role of conscious intentions in human affairs and the workings of the world. But Leibniz rightly pointed out that Spinoza’s exclusive emphasis on unconditional divine power or omnipotence (as contrasted with goodness) — which reduces everything to efficient causes — has undesirable consequences.

Observing Reason

Hegel had suggested that a Fichtean idealism ends up attempting to fill out its extreme abstraction by ad hoc adoption of a complementary Lockean empiricism. He goes on to treat something like Lockean empiricism, under the title of “Observing Reason”. The bulk of Hegel’s discussion ends up focusing on the empirical study of organic nature, with brief remarks on attempts to define psychological “laws of thought” and other psychological “laws”. Then he turns to physical anthropology, polemicizing at length against the old pseudo-sciences of physiognomy and phrenology, which purported to make predictions about human character from body types and skull shapes. Here we also reach the end of the first volume of Harris’ commentary on the Phenomenology, subtitled “The Pilgrimage of Reason”. The concluding second volume will be “The Odyssey of Spirit”.

Hegel dwells at length on the concept of organism, taking up Kant’s practical vindication of Aristotelian teleology in biology. The unity of an organism has to do with a pure “purpose” internal to the organism. None of its particular observable characteristics turn out to be essential in themselves; rather, they all have a fundamentally relational character. In Force and Understanding he had argued that mathematical physical law is purely relational; here he treats an organism as a purely relational unity held together by an internal “purpose”. Force and Understanding had been concerned with the formal unity of the physical world; the notion of organism introduces the notion of individuation within a world. Hegel picturesquely says that animals actively individuate themselves — distinguish themselves from the surrounding world — by means of their teeth and claws. By comparison, plants in their “quiescence” have only a minimal kind of individuality. Previously, he had quipped that animals must be unimpressed by the putative separateness of objects, because without ceremony they fall to and gobble them up.

Harris says in his commentary, “Observing Reason is a ‘return’ of Sense-Certainty and Perception together, because it is concerned with the ‘essence’ of real things. It wants to conceptualize them, but it is naive, like the Understanding” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 474).

“Locke’s standpoint differs from that of Sense-Certainty and Perception, both because he insists that the mind can know only its own ideas, and because what he calls the ‘plain historical method’ is a descriptive technique that aims to uncover the universal laws and principles of rational epistemology” (p. 475). The world is “stripped” to the pure concept of “matter or extension” (p. 476). “Here at the beginning we are faced by a Reason that wants to know not itself, but the world of things” (p. 477).

In the context of organic nature, “[Hegel] is now going to show us that the Kantian concept of mathematical schematism (which is a direct descendant of Gailleo’s distinction [between primary and secondary qualities of bodies]) fails completely as a bridge between the observed data and the conceptual structures used by the scientific ‘observers’. The observing consciousness of Reason itself is now going to learn what we learned when we observed the perceptual consciousness. It will learn that the thing is a Hegelian concept, (not a Galilean or Lockean one). The consciousness we are observing will discover that the [Galilean or Lockean “thing”] cannot correspond to Reason because it is essentially and necessarily dead” (p. 478).

(I confess I don’t recognize the reference to Kantian “schematism” as mathematical; I think of Kantian schematism more generally as a mediation between sensible “intuition” and conceptual thought through imagination.)

“Everywhere it observes things; but what it seeks is their Concept, or the law of their behavior…. It will observe first the natural world, then itself (as subjective spirit); and finally it will observe the relation between subjective spirit and its natural embodiment. But because the object of observation must always be a stably inert Gestalt, an observable thing, the results achieved become less satisfactory at every step” (pp. 478-479).

“[T]he ‘immediacy’ of the standpoint means that we are not observing it in the proper way…. Consciousness must first descend ‘into its own depth’. Thinking must discover what it is, as an activity; it must discover the dialectical logic that is its own ‘living spirit'” (p. 479). But this is only a beginning.

“The logical priority of ‘consciousness’ as the ‘own proper shape’ of Reason can only be established by the reductio ad absurdum of the alternate route through ‘things’. It must be established in this way, because the structure of ‘consciousness’ determines that Reason will naturally begin by trying to find itself in ‘things’…. Hence it is part of the object of the present chapter to show that we cannot make a direct descent into the depths of consciousness as subjectivity. If we try to do this (as Kant and Fichte did) what we discover is only an abstract essence of Reason that is perfectly valid, but almost completely useless. Its only real use will be to serve as the guiding light for the subsequent descent into the depths of our cultural world. We have to experience both the quest for the ‘essence of things’ and the quest for the ‘essence of consciousness’ before we can properly embark upon the discovery of the self in its thing-world” (ibid).

Harris develops Hegel’s distinction between inert “representations” of “things” and active thought. “The controlling conception in Hegel’s mind is the self-individuation of the Aristotelian form” (p. 486).

In this context of organic nature, Harris notes Hegel’s general preference for Plato and Aristotle over Newton, and thinks Hegel also takes from Aristotle the less fortunate view that nature has no history. I take Aristotle’s remarks about the “eternity” of species, the motions of the stars, etc., as having the valid pragmatic sense that such things had not been observed to change within living social memory. (I note also that Plato in the Laws already suggested that organic species do in fact come to be and perish.) Hegel defends Aristotelian “internal” teleology, while rejecting both the biological mechanism of Descartes and the “external” teleology of the argument from design used by Newton and others. Purposefulness for Hegel does not presuppose a mind (p. 502).

In spite of his criticisms of philosophical empiricism, Hegel defends the importance of empirical verification of hypotheses. Harris actually calls Hegel a “spiritual empiricist” in both natural science and ethics (p. 490). He says that Hegelian “necessity” is neither physical nor formal, but “logical” in Hegel’s sense. Hegel is much more concerned to criticize the “formalism” of philosophies of nature developed by followers of Schelling than actual scientific work.

In spite of the importance of “Life” in contrast to “dead” things in Hegel’s view, he has no use for vitalism. “Life is not more on the ‘inside’ of the organism than it is on the ‘outside’…. It is the ‘general fluidity’ within which the parts and organs of the body are formed and dissolved…. Observing Reason makes the Newtonian mistake of granting priority to visible stability” (p. 507). Hegel discusses notions of “sensibility” and “irritability” current in the biology of his time, adding in his own notions of “fluidity” and “elasticity”. He is very skeptical about “laws” in biology.

Between remarks on zoology and psychology, Hegel briefly (and dismissively) discusses so-called “laws of thought”. These relate to the early modern tradition of psychologizing in logic. With somewhat different motivation, Hegel anticipates Frege and Husserl’s rejection of such “psychologism”.

He also has no use for early modern psychology. In Harris’ summary, “Observational psychology operates with a mechanical toy that is all in pieces, so that the soul is observed and discussed like a bag full of loose bits” (p. 562). Hegel adds some sympathetic remarks on biography before launching a devastating critique of the now-forgotten pretensions of physiognomy and phrenology to discern purely physical indications of human character. What is important in the last is his general contention that even animal behavior cannot be adequately explained in a purely mechanistic way.

In spite of all of this, the idea of “observing” the objective dimension of a self in its concrete actualization in the world as contrasted with any direct intuition of pure interiority will turn out to have pivotal importance in the development to come. This is in fact how we experience others, and how others experience us. For Hegel it is our shared experience of one another rather than anyone’s private experience that is the basis of ethics. (See also Individuality, Community.)

Ricoeur on Justice

Among Paul Ricoeur’s last publications were two small volumes of lectures on justice, The Just and Reflections on the Just. These apply the ethics he had formulated in Oneself As Another (see also Solicitude; Ricoeurian Ethics). As in Oneself As Another, he combines Aristotelian and Kantian elements (see also Aristotle and Kant).

Ricoeur notes that Plato and Aristotle often mentioned “the unjust and the just” in that order, and suggests that the initial impulse for justice is a sense of indignation against things like unequal shares, broken promises, and excessive retributions.

He identifies justice fundamentally with equity or fairness, as mediated through institutions and Kantian obligation by universals. In contrast with the I-Thou of friendship, it involves relations of distance with others conceived in the third person. “The other for friendship is the ‘you’; the other for justice is ‘anyone’…. In fact, we have already encountered this ‘anyone’ in those exemplary situations in which our youthful indignation lashes out against injustice: unequal shares, failure to keep one’s word as given, unfair retributions — all institutional circumstances, in the broadest sense of the term, where justice presents itself as a just distribution” (The Just, p. xiii). “An important equation, whereby the just begins to be distinguished from the unjust, presents itself here: the equation between justice and impartiality” (p. xi). It is “under the condition of impartiality that indignation can free itself of the desire for vengeance” (p. xvii; emphasis in original).

He will consider the interaction of two axes: a “horizontal” one of the “dialogical constitution of the self” (p. xii), and a “vertical” one with three levels — an initial Aristotelian one concerned with ends and the good life; an intermediate Kantian one concerned with formal elaborations of procedural justice and universality; and a final one concerned with Aristotelian practical wisdom that also draws on Kant’s Critique of Judgment. He suggests that the Critique of Judgment has more to tell us about justice than the Critique of Practical Reason. Procedural justice, Kantian universality, and deontological obligation here do not supersede or conflict with Aristotelian practical judgment about concrete particulars, but rather mediate its relations to ends. This seems like a very nice way of expressing a harmonization of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics.

Relating justice to Aristotelian ends, Ricoeur wants to defend “the primacy of the teleological approach in the determination of the idea of the just” (p.xvi). “Justice… is an integral part of the wish to live well” (p. xv). “It begins as a wish before it becomes an imperative” (ibid).

According to Ricoeur, the very import of the claim to universality ensures that procedural justice cannot entirely separate itself from a substantive idea of the good in terms of ends. Provisionally adopting John Rawls’ abstraction of equitable distribution of goods as including procedural considerations, he argues that overall equity cannot be realized without “taking into account the real heterogeneity of the goods to be distributed. In other words, the deontological level, rightly taken as the privileged level of reference for the idea of the just, cannot make itself autonomous to the point of constituting the exclusive level of reference” (p. xix; emphasis in original). Ricoeur accepts Rawls’ claim that a pure theory of procedural justice can be developed autonomously, but argues that its real-world applications still require Aristotelian practical judgment.

All people, Ricoeur suggests, have a kind of “power over” others, as a result of the capacity to act. This “offers the permanent occasion for violence in all its forms…. What do we get indignant about, in the case of shares, exchanges, retributions, if not the wrong that human beings inflict upon one another on the occasion of the power-over one will exercises in the encounter with another will?” (p. xvii; emphasis in original). The kind of impartiality that frees indignation from the desire for vengeance, Ricoeur suggests, is embodied in the idea of universally valid law and deontological obligation to avoid harming others.

Ricoeur says actually the most serious issue about justice has to do with what he calls the “tragic dimension of action. It is at this stage that the moral conscience, as an inner forum, one’s heart of hearts, is summoned to make unique decisions, taken in a climate of incertitude and of serious conflicts” (p. xxi; emphasis in original).

The ultimate need for open-ended Aristotelian practical wisdom above and beyond the best discipline of the abstract application of rules, Ricoeur says, is a kind of correlate of the irreducibility of a consideration of ends. This will be the most important thing in the practice of jurisprudence. (Leibniz also suggested something like this with his idea of justice as “wise charity”.) Ricoeur relates such practical wisdom to Aristotle’s notion of (non-sophistical) rhetoric as speaking well in the sense of saying things that are persuasive because rightly said; to hermeneutics; and to poetics. (See also Ricoeur on Practical Reason.)

Justice’s “privileged moment” of mediation through formal universality, while neither self-sufficient nor ultimately decisive, is nonetheless essential to the process. The same kind of mediation appears in Ricoeur’s works in numerous contexts. Freedom is mediated by necessity; our understanding of the self is mediated by a “long detour” through cultural objectifications; open-ended interpretation is mediated by disciplined explanation. Similarly, here an ultimately open-ended approach to justice that begins and ends with Aristotle is enriched and made more rigorous by the additional mediation of Kantian universality.

These examples help clarify the main sense of Ricoeurian (and Hegelian) “mediation”, which is very different from the sort of theologically perfect, transparent mediation invoked, e.g., by Aquinas. Ricoeurian and Hegelian mediation are always bumpy, and the last word is never said.

Natural Ends

Early modern science sought to banish consideration of ends from the empirical world, in favor of purely mathematical and factual description. Kant recovered a heuristic use of teleology, especially in biology (see Kant’s Recovery of Ends), and numerous more recent biological researchers have followed suit.

It is relatively easy to see that any kind of desire (say on the part of an animal) is a desire for something that is usually more general than a concrete object that satisfies the desire. More broadly, living things can also plausibly be said to have indwelling tendencies of nutrition and reproduction.

The case of inorganic nature is a bit more challenging for us to understand this way, but where modern science sees abstract mathematical-physical laws in operation, the effect of which may be modified by various circumstances, Aristotle saw concrete material tendencies for things to develop in certain ways, subject to similar modifications. At a certain level of abstraction, observable material tendencies can be viewed as “moving” things in a way broadly analogous to desire. The heavy object “wants” to fall. This just refers back to the observed fact that heavy objects have a tendency to fall, when not impeded by something else. At a level of common-sense interpretation of experience, this does not lead to any false conclusions.

There is no reason why the mathematical-law description and the material-tendency description cannot coexist. The predictive power of mathematically formulated laws makes them invaluable for engineering applications. But for ordinary life, what we are usually interested in are qualitative distinctions that have practical significance.

Thus, in addition to rational ends, there seem to be three kinds or degrees of natural ends or endlike things: ends of desire; primitive vital ends; and endlike tendencies associated with Aristotelian matter of various kinds and descriptions. (See also Ends; Aristotelian Matter.)

Kant’s Recovery of Ends

Aristotle’s talk about ends was part of a pragmatic semantics of experience, in which so-called efficient causes were understood mainly as means. In the later tradition, however, talk about ends, or teleology, acquired a strongly theological coloring, and events in time were often conceived as directly governed by divine will. Then early modern mechanism strove to give an independent account of nature in mathematical terms. Twentieth-century mathematics developed notions of attractors, which at least function in a way broadly like ends rather than impulses, but early modern mechanists wanted to explain nature without any recourse to teleology. The debate was posed in terms of mathematics versus invocations of divine will.

Kant struggled with these early modern dilemmas, seemingly unaware of the historical Aristotelian way of looking at the matter. Like the Critique of Practical Reason, the Critique of Judgment was aimed at reconciling Newtonian mechanism with broadly theological values. In the second Critique, he said that while we cannot have theoretical knowledge of freedom, it is a necessary practical postulate. In the third, which was initially about aesthetic judgment, he concluded that although we have no theoretical basis for affirming actual purpose in nature, thinking about purposes is nonetheless a practically useful heuristic, particularly in the case of biology. Kant ultimately argued for the primacy of practical reason, so this “merely” practical perspective is actually fundamental. (See also Natural Ends.)

Why Brandom’s Hegel?

Brandom offers us an ethically oriented Hegel, read as anticipating many 20th and 21st century concerns. He provides an ethical path to overcoming the separation of subject and object.

Importantly, Brandom’s Hegel even turns out to have anticipated the main concerns of the 1960s French anti-Hegelians, while standing untouched by their criticism. He turns out to be the original critic of mastery and totalization; never uses subjectivity as an unexplained explainer; and claims no forward-moving historical teleology.

While Brandom’s approach to Hegel involves more original philosophical development than historical scholarship, I nonetheless believe based on my own independent reading that with a few caveats on nonessential points, it is historiographically sound. (That is far from saying it is the only valid or interesting interpretation; historiographical soundness just means that a reasonable case can be made.) At any rate, I find it both sound and tremendously inspiring.

Archaeology of Knowledge

In the old days, my favorite text of Foucault was the beginning of the Archaeology of Knowledge (online here), revised from his “Réponse au Cercle d’épistémologie”, published summer 1968 (o pregnant time!) in Cahiers pour L’Analyse, the original of which is separately translated in Essential Works vol. 1. There is a nice summary of the original and its historical context here.

At this time, Foucault and Althusser were both working toward what has been called a rationalist philosophy of the Concept related to the work of Jean Cavaillés and Georges Canguilhem, in contrast to then popular existential/phenomenological philosophies of the Subject. (See Knox Peden, Spinoza Contra Phenomenology: French Rationalism from Cavaillés to Deleuze.)

The Epistemological Circle that Foucault was responding to was a group of Althusser’s students interested in the philosophy and history of science, as well as structural Marxism and Lacanian psychoanalysis, who had asked Foucault a series of methodological questions. Althusser was something like the dean of France’s most prestigious university. He had actually written his dissertation (which I have still not seen) on the Concept in Hegel. By this time he was in high anti-Hegelian mode, as was Foucault.

Foucault himself acknowledged considerable debt to his Hegelian mentor Jean Hyppolite, who translated the Phenomenology to French. Hyppolite read Hegel as focused more on discourse than on subjectivity. His 1952 Language and Existence, referred to by Foucault as “one of the great books of our time”, argued strongly for the importance of language in Hegel. (It was also very favorably reviewed by the young Deleuze.) Foucault had written a thesis on “The Constitution of a Historical Transcendental in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit” under Hyppolite in 1949.

There is more good historical background in James Muldoon, “Foucault’s Forgotten Hegelianism”. While I don’t endorse, e.g., Muldoon’s remarks on Hegel and free will, his suggestion that an identification with certain specifics of Hyppolite’s reading of Hegel — particularly the attribution of a strong “totalizing” impulse — contributed significantly to the anti-Hegelian turn of Foucault and others is quite interesting.

Though I don’t recall this from his translated works, Hyppolite apparently both saw a strong element of totalization in Hegel and strongly rejected it, while continuing to identify as a Hegelian. (Previously, in absence of more specific evidence I had surmised it was mainly a reaction against Alexandre Kojève’s reading that drove the French anti-Hegelian turn. Muldoon also says Hyppolite’s reading was initially welcomed as a contrast to Jean Wahl’s more phenomenologically oriented 1929 book on the unhappy consciousness, which apparently also contributed to French perceptions of Hegel as subject-centered.)

In any case, the Hegel whom Foucault, Althusser, Deleuze and others famously rejected in the 1960s was identified as the proponent of a totalizing historical teleology of the Subject. Each of the three components of this was independently strongly rejected — the subject-centeredness, the historical teleology, and the totalization. I still agree today that these are all serious errors that should be rejected.

However, Hegel read in a broadly Brandomian way is utterly untouched by this criticism. There is no historical teleology at all in what Brandom calls Hegelian genealogy (so a fortiori not a totalizing one), and there is no subject-centeredness in the analysis of conceptual content. Subjectivity is never invoked as an unexplained explainer. Brandom’s exposition of the Hegelian critique of Mastery offers us a Hegel utterly opposed to the kind of totalization attributed to him by Foucault, Althusser, and Deleuze.

Foucault presented a long list of forms of discontinuity that should be attended to in the history of ideas. Each of these could be analyzed in Brandomian/Hegelian terms as a determinate negation.

I agree with Foucault that it is very important not to take the simple continuity of a tradition for granted. In principle, such things need to be shown. However, I still think defeasible assertions about “traditions” and other such unities that should be questioned can play a useful role in historical discussion. (See also Ricoeur on Foucault; Structuralism; Structure, Potentiality; Difference; Identity, Isomorphism; Univocity; Historiography; Genealogy.)