Intangible Truth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pure Reason?

Hegel’s “logic” takes what Kant calls pure reason as its subject matter. Hegel regards Kantian pure reason as a world-changing revolution, because in contrast to early modern views, it seeks not to imitate the formal character of mathematical reasoning, but rather to achieve the discipline of a kind of self-sufficiency that does not appeal to anything external to it. Kant and Hegel differ on the scope of this self-sufficiency, but that is a different matter.

Early modern views of the world generally rely on many substantive assumptions. There is strong motivation for them to do so, because in order to yield any substantive conclusions, reasoning of a broadly formal kind requires substantive assumptions. The assumptions are typically of a sort analogous to those that Aquinas regards as grounded in the natural light of reason, which is not itself reason, but a kind of originating intuition of truth given to us by God. Descartes, for example, explicitly appeals to a variant of the Thomistic doctrine of natural light.

(The strong Thomistic notion of the natural light of reason and of reason’s relative autonomy from the simple dictates of authority is itself a development of almost inestimable importance, compared to completely authority-bound views of religion such as present-day fundamentalism. Indeed, something like the natural light of reason was never completely absent from the earlier medieval tradition either.)

But for Kant, reason is purely discursive, and cannot appeal to any intuitive source of truth like a natural light. Pure reason is nonetheless supposed to be able to stand on its own. In Kant’s language, it is “autonomous” (see also Kant’s Groundwork; Self-Legislation?). Kant’s critique of dogmatism especially targets assumptions that are naively realistic in the sense of claiming direct knowledge of external or inner objects, but it is broader than that.

Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason is most directly responding to empiricist views broadly associated with Locke, which were dominant in England and France, and popular in Germany in his day; but even more so to the rationalist system of Christian Wolff (1679-1754), which then dominated German academic teaching. (Wolff was an accomplished mathematician who had corresponded with Leibniz, and greatly contributed to popularizing the part of Leibniz’s philosophy that Leibniz had published in his own lifetime. Like Leibniz, he is associated with moderate Enlightenment, while at the same time showing a degree of sympathy for scholastic philosophy.)

Kantian pure reason effectively aims to be free of unnecessary assumptions, especially those of the Wolffian system, but also those of the empiricists. Kant also criticizes Wolff’s and Spinoza’s idea that philosophical reasoning should as much as possible resemble mathematical reasoning. What makes it possible for Kant to avoid assumptions beyond the famous “God, freedom, and immortality” (and for Hegel to avoid any assumptions at all) is a move away from the early modern ideal of reason as formal.

Without ever explicitly saying so, Kant in fact takes up and works with a notion of reason that is close to aspects of Plato and Aristotle that were generally neglected in the intervening tradition. Reason in Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel is not limited to formal reasoning. It includes what in more recent times Sellars and Brandom have elaborated under the name of material inference.

Formal reasoning is called formal because it is supposed to apply to all things, independent of any analysis of meaning. But this makes it dependent on assumptions in order to yield conclusions. Material inference — which was also present as a minor theme in scholastic logic — is on the contrary grounded in the interpretation of meaning. It is this reflective grounding that can enable reason to be autonomous and “pure”, with no reliance on anything external to it.

Sellars illustrates material inference with examples like “there are dark rain clouds in the sky, so I should take my umbrella when I go out”. Brandom elaborates with an account of how such judgments may be successively refined based on additional information. In general, if I strike a match correctly, it will light. But under certain conditions, it will not light. But under yet more specific additional conditions, it will in fact still light.

Both Sellars and Brandom — working within the tradition of contemporary analytic philosophy — tend to reach for examples that involve empirical facts, and relations of cause and effect in the broad modern sense. But material inference is more general than that. It is grounded in meaning as we encounter it in real life. Its scope is not limited to any particular kind of meaning, nor does it assume any particular theory of meaning.

Pure reason, then — far from excluding meaning, as formal logic does — is concerned with the progressive self-clarification of meaning — or Kantian “taking as”, or judgment — in a reflective context.

For Hegel, “logic is to be understood as the system of pure reason, as the realm of pure thought” (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., introduction, p. 29). This is what he calls the “concept of science”, and also “absolute knowledge” (p. 28). As I’ve pointed out before, in Hegel these terms have specialized meanings that are far from their ordinary connotations in English. Science need not be empirical, and “absolute” in this context just means the same thing as “pure” or “autonomous” — that reflective judgment need presuppose nothing outside itself.

For Hegel, the standpoint of pure reason (or “science”, or “absolute” knowing) is that of reflective judgment. The whole effort of the Phenomenology of Spirit is required to reach this point, which he then uses as a starting point in the Logic.

“Pure science thus presupposes the liberation from the opposition of consciousness [between itself and its object]…. As science, truth is pure self-consciousness as it develops itself and has the shape of a self, so that that which exists in and for itself is the conscious concept and the concept as such is that which exists in and for itself” (p. 29, emphasis in original).

The reflective concept has the shape of a “self” — a reflexivity — that is not to be identified with our empirical self, but rather is related to the reflective character of self-consciousness, which overcomes the simple opposition between consciousness and its object.

“This objective thinking is thus the content of pure science. Consequently, far from being formal, far from lacking the matter for an actual and true cognition, it is the content which alone has absolute truth” (ibid).

He calls reflective judgment objective thinking, precisely because it begins only after the separation of consciousness from its object ends. Reflective judgment and self-consciousness will not be separated from “the concept” in which they are embodied. Rather, we have here a case of the Aristotelian identity of pure thinking with what it thinks.

“Logic has nothing to do with a thought about something which stands outside by itself as the base of thought; nor does it have to do with forms meant to provide mere markings of the truth; rather, the necessary forms of thinking, and its specific determinations, are the content and the ultimate forms of truth itself.”

“To get at least some inkling of this, one must put aside the notion that truth must be something tangible. Such tangibility, for example, is carried over even into the ideas of Plato which are in God’s thought, as if they were, so to speak, things that exist but in another world or region, and a world of actuality were to be found outside them which has a substantiality distinct from those ideas and is real only because of this distinctness” (pp. 29-30).

Truths are not objects, and they are not given to us in the way that ordinary consciousness takes objects to be. For Hegel, moreover, spiritual values do not have to do with turning away from this world in favor of another one. They are intended to guide us in life.

“There will always be the possibility that someone else will adduce a case, an instance, in which something more and different must be understood by some term or other” (p. 28).

Reflection and interpretation are inherently open-ended.

“How could I possibly pretend that the method that I follow in this system of logic, or rather the method that the system itself follows within, would not be capable of greater perfection, of greater elaboration of detail? Yet I know that it is the one true method. This is made obvious by the fact that this method is not something distinct from its subject matter and content — for it is the content in itself, the dialectic which it possesses within itself, which moves the subject matter forward. It is clear that no expositions can be accepted as scientifically valid that do not follow the progression of this method and are not in tune with its simple rhythm, for it is the course of the fact [Sache] itself” (p. 33).

Translator di Giovanni comments in his glossary, “In non-technical contexts, [Sache] can and should be translated in a variety of ways, such as ‘substance’, or even ‘thing’. As category, however, ‘fact’ seems to be the best rendering. Sache, like ‘fact’, denotes a thing or a situation which we understand to implicitly contain all the factors required for an explanation of its existence. Its presence therefore cannot be doubted even when those factors have yet to be made explicit. The related word, Tatsache, was first coined… in order to translate the English term ‘matter of fact'” (pp. lxxi-lxxii).

To me, these sound like reasons for calling Hegel’s Sache something other than “fact”. Especially in a work of “logic” that invokes “science”, the English word “fact” would most commonly be taken taken to mean an unambiguous empirical truth. Both what I think Hegel means and the explanation di Giovanni gives of it seem better suited by the more open connotations of an English phrase like “the concrete case” or “the matter at hand”. The Sache is something objective, but it is objective in the indefinite sense of a Gegenstand [“object” in the sense of something standing over and against us, but whose nature has yet to be determined].

I used to think that reason that would be applicable to life (or to anything like Hegel’s Sache) could not possibly be pure. I now think that with the inclusive character of reflective judgment and material inference, it can be pure.

Is and Ought in Actuality

Aristotle regards the priority of actuality over potentiality to be one of his most important innovations. He regards it as a necessary condition for anything being intelligible. Along with the primacy of the good and that-for-the-sake-of-which in explanation, it is also central to his way of arguing for a first cause.

The Western tradition generally did not follow Aristotle on these points. Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin monotheisms have most often treated God as an absolute power, seeking to put unlimited omnipotence first in the order of explanation, before goodness. Christians were happy to criticize occasionalism in Islam, but theologians like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham defended an extreme sort of theological voluntarism, which was taken up again by Descartes. In the 19th century, Kierkegaard valorized Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as unconditional obedience to God, claiming that faith should take precedence over ethics generally. In the 20th century, Sartre defended unconditional free will for humans, while asserting a militant atheism and the absurdity of existence. His currently influential follower Alain Badiou goes even further. He bluntly says that concern for ethics is a waste of time, and that dialogue and democracy are a scam — not just in particular cases, but in general.

Mainstream views of religion have always insisted that the absolute power is also absolutely good, but have been unable to show why or how this is the case. This has opened the door to simplistic but unanswerable arguments that the facts of the world cannot be reconciled with claims that it is governed by a good absolute power.

Instead of sacrificing ethics and the good on either religious or secular grounds, we should put them first. Leibniz argues that an emphasis on the absolute power or arbitrary will of God is bad theology, and effectively makes God into the kind of tyrant that Plato denounced (see also Euthyphro; Arbitrariness, Inflation).

Aristotle’s first cause doesn’t govern the facts of the world. It is the world’s normative compass. It is the pure good and pure fulfillment that all things seek, according to their natures and insofar as they are capable. Or as Hegel might say, it is pure Idea.

The priority of actuality is a priority of the good and of normativity. For Aristotle, we shouldn’t call something “actual” just because it exists or is the case. Rather, something is actual when it is the case that it is fulfilling its potential, as it “ought” to do.

It is not a matter of pure moralism either though. Actuality does involve an element of being the case; it is just not reducible to that. What is true also matters quite a lot in the determination of what is right, even though it is not all that matters. Every particular good is interdependent with particular truth. That is why Aristotle seems to make the understanding of causes into one of the most important elements of virtue, while at the same time cautioning us that ethics is not a matter of exact knowledge.

We are looking for a kind of mean here. What is true matters for what is right, but what is right also matters for what is true. Truth is not reducible to a matter of neutral fact. There can be no truth without intelligibility, and there can be no intelligibility without taking normative considerations into account in interpretation.


“Aporia” is Aristotle’s Greek technical term used by many philosophers in English for what Sachs in his glossary to the Metaphysics calls an “impasse” or “logical stalemate that seems to make a question unanswerable. In fact, it is the impasses that reveal what the genuine questions are” (p. lv).

Book Beta (III) of the Metaphysics develops many such impasses. I take this as evidence of Aristotle’s extraordinary intellectual honesty and depth of insight.

Aristotle writes, “[T]hose who inquire without first coming to an impasse are like people who are ignorant of which way they need to walk, and on top of these things, …one never knows whether one has found the thing sought for or not. For the end is not apparent to this one, but to the one who has first been at an impasse it is clear. And further, one must be better off for judging if one has heard all the disputing arguments as if they were opponents in a lawsuit” (ch. 1, p. 35).

“About all these things it is not only difficult to find a way to the truth, but it is not even an easy thing to articulate the difficulties well” (p. 37).

For anyone who has been following recent posts a little, we have seen abundant examples of such challenging but fruitful impasses in the development of Hegel’s Logic. Those were not just some weird things that Hegel cooked up, but yet more evidence of Hegel’s profoundly Aristotelian approach.

Aristotle mentions a long series of such impasses related to the subject matter of the Metaphysics, including those about the nature and number of causes; whether causes are universal or particular; whether there are things beyond perceptible things; the status of mathematical objects; and whether there are causes that are independent of what he calls matter (or “material”, as Sachs calls it to help disambiguate Aristotle’s more “logical” distinction from modern physicalistic concepts).

“Furthermore, the most difficult question of all, that has in it the greatest impasse, is whether one and being, as the Pythagoreans and Plato said, are not anything different, but are the thinghood of things — or whether this is not so, but the underlying thing is something different” (p. 36).

“And there is a question whether the sources of things are universal or like particular things, and whether they have being potentially or at work, and in turn whether they are at work in some other way or by way of motion” (p. 37).

“But now if there are a number of kinds of knowledge of the causes, and a different one for a different source, which of these ought one to say is the one… being sought?” (ch. 2, p. 36).

“And in general, is there one or more than one kind of knowledge about all beings? And if there is not one, with what sort of beings ought one to place this kind of knowledge? But that there is one about them all is not reasonable; for then there would also be one kind of demonstrative knowledge about all attributes” (p. 39).

“But it is not possible for either oneness or being to be a single genus of things…. [I]f oneness or being is a genus, no differentia would either be or be one…. And on top of these things, the differentia are sources still more than are the genera” (ch. 3, p. 43).

“So from these things, it seems that the predicates applied directly to the individual things are sources more than are the general classes; but then in turn, in what way one ought to understand these to be sources is not easy to say” (p. 44).

“For if there is nothing apart from particular things, while the particulars are infinite, how is it possible to get a hold of a knowledge of infinitely many things? For insofar as something is one and the same, and insofar as it is present as a universal, in this way we know everything. But if this is necessary, and there has to be something apart from particulars, the general classes of things would have to have being apart from the particulars…. But we just went through an argument that this is impossible” (ch. 4, p. 44).

“Now if there is nothing apart from the particulars, there could be nothing intelligible, but everything would be perceptible and of nothing could there be knowledge, unless someone claims that perception is knowledge. What’s more, neither could there be anything everlasting or motionless (since all perceptible things pass away and are in motion). But surely if there is nothing everlasting, neither could there be coming-into-being. For there must be something that comes into being and something out of which it comes into being” (pp. 44-45).

“And an impasse no lesser than any has been neglected by both present and earlier thinkers, as to whether the sources of destructible and indestructible things are the same or different. For if they are the same, in what way and through what cause are some things destructible and others indestructible?…. But about mythological subtleties it is not worthwhile to inquire seriously; but on the part of those who speak by means of demonstrations, one must learn by persistent questioning why in the world, when things come from the same sources, some of the things have an everlasting nature but others pass away. But since they neither state any cause, nor is it reasonable that it be so, it is clear that there could not be the same sources or causes of them” (p. 46).

“[B]ut if there are different sources, one impasse is whether they themselves would be destructible or indestructible…. Furthermore, no one has even tried to speak about different sources, but all say that the same sources belong to all things. But they gulp down the thing first stated as an impasse as though taking it to be something small.”

“But the most difficult thing of all to examine, as well as the most necessary for knowing the truth, is whether being and oneness are the thinghood of things…. But surely if there should be some being-itself and one-itself, there is a considerable impasse about how there would be anything besides these — I mean how things will be more than one” (pp. 47-48).

“So it is necessary to raise both these impasses about the sources, and one as to whether they are universal or what we call particular. For if they are universals, they will not be independent things. (For none of the common predicates signifies a this but rather an of-this-sort, while an independent thing is a this….) So if the sources are universal, these things follow; but if they are not universal but are in the same way as particulars, there will be no knowledge, since of all things the knowledge is universal” (ch. 6, pp. 51-52).

Aristotle on Being

In book Delta (V) of the Metaphysics, devoted to things meant in more than one way, Aristotle has a chapter on “being”. This is worth quoting in full. What I want to draw attention to is Aristotle’s own very modest, “deflationary” approach in contrast to other writers. His emphasis is on ordinary use of “to be” as a verb, not some grand “ontology”. The word translated as “being” (einai) is literally the infinitive “to be”.

Moreover, being for Aristotle in all of its primary senses is always being this way or that. It is a transitive verb. In a derivative sense, he speaks of ordinary “beings” we encounter in life. I note his strong emphasis on ways things are meaningfully said, and the parallel series of assertions about truth. One might conclude that there are as many kinds of being as there are distinct assertions.

Being is meant in one sense incidentally, in another sense in its own right; in the incidental sense, we say, for example, that the just person is educated, or the human being is educated, or the educated one is a human being, in much the same way as if we were to say that the educated one builds a house because it is incidental to the housebuilder to be educated, or to the educated one to be a housebuilder (for here this is means that this is incidental to this). And it is this way too in the case of the things mentioned; for whenever we say that the human being is educated or the educated one is a human being, or that the white thing is educated or this is white, we mean in some cases that both are incidental to the same thing, in others that something is incidental to a being, and in the case of the educated human being, that the educated is incidental to this person. (And in this sense even the non-white is said to ‘be’ because that to which it is incidental is.) So things that are said incidentally are said to be so either because both belong to the same being, or because one of them belongs to a being, or because the thing itself is, to which belongs that to which it is attributed.”

“But just as many things are said to be in their own right as are meant by the modes of predication; for in as many ways as these are said, in so many ways does to be have meaning. Since, then, of things predicated, some signify what a thing is, others of what sort it is, others how much it is, others to what it is related, others what it is doing or having done to it, others where it is, and others when it is, being means the same thing as each one of these. For it makes no difference whether one says a person is healing or a person heals, or a person is walking or cutting rather than that a person walks or cuts, and similarly in other cases.”

“Also, to be and is signify that something is true, and not to be signifies that it is not true but false, alike in cases of affirmation and denial; for instance, that Socrates is educated indicates that this is true, but that the diagonal is not commensurable means that this is false.”

“Again, being and what is mean in one sense something that is definite as a potency, but in another sense what is fully at work, among these things that have been mentioned. For we say of both one who is capable of seeing and one who is fully at work seeing that he sees, and similarly of both one who is capable of using knowledge and one who is using it that he knows, and also both of that to which rest already belongs and that which is capable of being at rest that it rests. And it is similar in the case of independent things, for we say that Hermes is in the block of stone, and that the half belongs to a line, and that which is not yet ripe is grain. When something is potential and when it is not must be distinguished in other places” (ch. 7, Sachs tr., pp. 86-88).

Essence and Concept

Partway through my reading of Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, I suggested that maybe Hegel intended his “logic of essence” as an account of what he takes from Aristotle’s view of the conditions of intelligibility, and his “logic of the concept” or “subjective logic” as a statement of his own and Kant’s contributions in this same area. This is too simple.

To hazard another extremely broad-brush summary, the big message of the logic of essence is that deeper truth is not immediate; it does not just lie on the surface of appearances, ready for us to pluck as a ripe fruit and consume. Nor is it a kind of “secret knowledge” that could be straightforwardly communicated by one who knew, if she chose to do so. We need a long detour in order to better get at things. We should not be simply beholden to appearances, but neither should we neglect them. Rather, we need to interpretively work through them.

Essence was never supposed to be a matter of dogmatic affirmation. The very idea that there is a deeper truth implicitly calls on us to interpret it.

Hegel’s “logic of the concept” focuses on the activity of interpretation and judgment. This is what makes it “subjective”. But this notion of “subjective” has nothing to do with what we think of as merely subjective. It is not about accidents having to do with us, but about the process of getting to deeper truth, which underlies Platonic and Aristotelian “dialectic” (see also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic; Reflection and Dialectic; Reflection and Higher-Order Things; Dialogue).

While Kant and Hegel dwell more explicitly and at greater length on aspects of this process, I don’t see how it is possible to begin to properly understand Aristotle without taking his concern for the process of interpretation and judgment into account. Wisdom — the ultimate object of philosophy — is not knowledge; it is not reducible to a kind of static content.

Hegel wants to say that the logic of essence implicitly presupposes the logic of the concept — that essence presupposes the need for interpretation. I think Aristotle would strongly agree.

The True and the Good

For Plato and Aristotle, considerations of truth are not separable from questions of value. Hegel pushes this further, to the point where only as good can anything really be true. He effectively argues for the identity of the true and the good. Apparent surface truths that are ugly have to be rejected as not really true. This means not that we should try to pretend they are illusory or unimportant, but that we should do something about them. It is up to us to make the world more true and right. This is how we participate in the “world’s purpose”. (See also Emancipatory Logic?; The Logic’s Ending.)

Reflective Grounding

In Essence and Explanation, I introduced Hegel’s generalization from essence to “ground”, which is anything that explains something else and could be said to metaphorically “underlie” it.

Essence and ground in Hegel’s sense are not simply definable once and for all. Instead, he emphasizes dynamic relations of “grounding”, in accordance with his unusual notion of truth as a process. These dynamic relations correlate with movements of the reflective judgment that Kant discusses in the Critique of Judgment.

Kant distinguishes “determinative” judgment — corresponding to ordinary predicative assertions like “S is P“, and to the subsumption of individuals under universal concepts — from “reflective” judgment, which open-endedly looks for universals appropriate to the individual. Pippin suggests there is a kind of reciprocal dependency involved in the actual working of these two kinds of judgment.

It seems to me that reflective judgment has a great deal in common with the deliberation that lies behind Aristotelian practical judgment, even though Aristotle speaks of these as concluding in action rather than knowledge or opinion. Perhaps we might also say with Brandom that undertaking a commitment about how things are is a kind of action.

Hegel argues that even determinative judgments presuppose a reflective component, and speaks at length of “reflective determination”.

This use of “reflective” has nothing to do with the immediate inspection or direct consciousness of some content, or even with any single stage of reflection, or indeed any kind of move that could be completed all at once.

Paul Ricoeur’s works make a similar point, in tying the term “reflective” closely to his other notion of the “long detour” needed for philosophical understanding, which is itself very Hegelian in spirit. This is anything but a rabbit-out-of-hat “reflexivity at a glance”.

If there is a metaphor here, it is not gazing in a mirror to see something, but finding an orientation within the potentially infinite reflections of a hall of mirrors. Note also that we see the potentially infinite reflections in an “immediate” representation, even though each layer of reflection is an additional mediation when we interpret what we are seeing.

At the level of nature, similar potentially infinite reflection occurs in biological and ecological processes that achieve stability through feedback cycles.

Deeper Truth

Hegel’s Logic, it now seems to me, is an exploration of what contemporary philosophers call the space of reasons, with the practical aim of eliciting and exhibiting what it is to move toward deeper truth.

He wants to focus our attention on how reasoning and judgment are transformed as they move toward deeper truth. He wants to say that the deeper meaning of truth is the movement toward deeper truth.

For Hegel, reason attains to deeper truth mainly by experiencing failure of the truth that it thought it had. Such failure has nothing to do with being “vanquished” by an opposing view.

Brandom argues that we can understand such failure in terms of the unsettling of beliefs about how things are in the world, by some unaccounted-for difference or new evidence in ordinary experience.

Pippin argues that the Logic aims at something hugely more ambitious — still not some master key to the explanation of things or events in the world, but an account of the forms of the movement of reason toward deeper truth that ought to be applicable to any thinkable thinking being.

The way that Pippin is arguing Hegel combines Kant and Aristotle I find tremendously exciting. For now I’m reserving judgment on his apparent claim that the movement Hegel describes succeeds in being unconditionally universal.


The late 6th or early 5th century BCE poet Parmenides of Elea was commonly regarded in the Greek tradition as a philosopher. Apparently his only work was a poem of 800 or so verses in epic hexameter form, of which about 160 are known from quotations in later authors, principally the commentary by the neoplatonist Simplicius on Aristotle’s Physics.

Parmenides may have been the first person to make strong claims purportedly grounded in nothing but pure reason. At the same time, he drew a sharp distinction between appearance and reality. He achieved notoriety among his fellow Greeks because his claims contradicted all experience. His disciple Zeno used Parmenidean principles to “prove” that arrows cannot fly, and that the speedy Achilles could never overtake a tortoise that had a head start.

According to Parmenides, we can “neither know, or attain to, or express, non-being”. He concluded from this that all distinction, becoming, and motion were mere appearances of “the way of error in which the ignorant and double-minded mortals wander. Perplexity of mind sways the erring sense. Those who believe Being and non-being to be the same, and then again not the same, are like deaf and blind men surprised, like hordes confusedly driven”.

“But the truth is only the ‘is’; this is neither begotten of anything else, nor transient, entire, alone in its class, unmoved and without end; it neither was, nor will be, but is at once the all. For what birth wouldst thou seek for it? How and whence should it be augmented? That it should be from that which is not, I shall allow thee neither to say nor to think, for neither can it be said or thought that the ‘is’ is not. What necessity had either later or earlier made it begin from the nothing? Thus must it throughout only be or not be; nor will any force of conviction ever make something else arise out of that which is not. Thus origination has disappeared, and decease is incredible. Being is not separable, for it is entirely like itself; it is nowhere more, else would it not hold together, nor is it less, for everything is full of Being. The all is one coherent whole, for Being flows into unison with Being: it is unchangeable and rests securely in itself; the force of necessity holds it within the bounds of limitation. It cannot hence be said that it is imperfect; for it is without defect, while non-existence is wanting in all” (quoted in Hegel, History of Philosophy vol. 1, Haldane trans., pp. 252-253).

Plato treats Parmenides with considerable respect, but fundamentally rejects his blunt teaching about being and non-being, replacing it with far subtler views, e.g., in The Sophist.

Aristotle says that Plato (and the atomist Democritus, whose writings are lost) were the first practitioners of extended philosophical argument, and I consider that the true beginning of philosophy; it seems to me Parmenides only made assertions and claimed they were grounded in pure reason. In his poem, the key claims are presented as revelations from a goddess. Much later, Kant would argue that nothing follows from pure reason alone.

According to Hegel’s History of Philosophy lectures, “This beginning is certainly still dim and indefinite, and we cannot say much of what it involves; but to take up this position certainly is to develop Philosophy proper, which has not hitherto existed”. Hegel says Spinoza tells us correctly that all determination is based on negation, but “Parmenides says, whatever form the negation may take, it does not exist at all” (p. 254). Spinoza scholars have criticized the claim about Spinoza, but in this context that is a side issue.

Hegel’s association of Parmenides with the beginning of philosophy needs to be understood in terms of his insistence on the inherent defectiveness of beginnings and the positive, provocative role of failures of thought. In differing degrees, Hegel also actually recognizes two other beginnings of philosophy as well — in the figurative thought of the world’s various religious traditions before Parmenides (who appears only halfway through volume 1 of Hegel’s History), and in the dialogues of Plato, with whom Hegel’s second volume begins. For Hegel, Parmenides’ bare thought of Being and denial of the basis of all determination represent an absolute failure of thought and an impossibility, but he nonetheless credits that failure and impossibility as having defined a problem that provoked all later development.

I consider it quite possible that Aristotle’s brief remarks about “being qua being” in two books of the Metaphysics were a kind of response to the Parmenidean problem. Traditionally, this has been claimed to be the subject matter of the Metaphysics, but both times Aristotle raises the problem explicitly, his discussion is limited to arguing for the moral necessity of the principle of noncontradiction, against the Sophists. In effect, he says that serious people must by definition take their commitments seriously, and therefore they do not contradict their own commitments.

Noncontradiction has a great importance for integrity in ethics, which was to be taken up anew by Kant and Hegel, with their emphasis on unity of apperception. But as Hegel points out explicitly in the Logic, pure being by itself is logically empty and sterile. In first philosophy, nothing follows from being qua being. (See also Hegel on Being.)