On Being a Thing

The next few paragraphs of Hegel’s final chapter are concerned with the notions of “thing” and “object” in an apparently completely general way, from the point of view of what happens with them in “absolute” knowledge.

Immediately after the paragraph I quoted in the previous post, Hegel specifies that “The surmounting of the object of consciousness is not to be taken one-sidedly as meaning that the object showed itself returning into the self” (Baillie trans., p. 789). This once again rules out any subjectivism that would abolish objectivity altogether.

Hegel continues, “It has a more definite meaning: it means that the object as such presented itself to the self as a vanishing factor; and, furthermore, that the emptying of self-consciousness itself establishes thinghood, and that this externalization of self-consciousness has not merely negative, but positive significance, a significance not merely for us or per se, but for self-consciousness itself. The negative of the object, its cancelling its own existence, gets, for self-consciousness, a positive significance; or, self-consciousness knows this nothingness of the object because on the one hand self-consciousness itself externalizes itself; for in so doing it establishes itself as object, or, by reason of the indivisible unity characterizing its self-existence, sets up the object as its self. On the other hand, there is also this other moment in the process, that self-consciousness has just as really cancelled this self-relinquishment and objectification, and has resumed them into itself, and is thus at home with itself in its otherness as such” (pp. 789-790).

The presentation of an object as a “vanishing factor” of which Hegel speaks — though it cannot be represented statically — is supposed to be something that really happens, so this is quite different and a great deal more subtle than simply saying the object is not really real. I think Hegel’s talk about the purely relational view “negating” the object qua object and other similarly strained uses of “negation” have not helped the understanding of his work, but as Hegel himself proceeds to remind us, this is only one moment of a larger movement, and it is the multifaceted whole and its transformations we ought to be concerned with. (In general I’ve found Brandom’s explanation of Hegelian negation in terms of material incompatibility very helpful, but it’s not clear to me there is a material incompatibility in this instance. In the bigger picture, though, Hegel seems to be saying that there is a sense in which every object is a reification, and another in which all its properties can be explained in relational terms.)

“Consciousness, at the same time, must have taken up a relation to the object in all its aspects and phases, and have grasped its meaning from the point of view of each of them. This totality of its determinate characteristics makes the object per se or inherently a spiritual reality; and it becomes so in truth for consciousness, when the latter apprehends every individual one of them as self, i.e. when it takes up towards them the spiritual relationship just spoken of” (p. 790).

The object is a spiritual reality in the sense that there is a purely relational account of its properties. Hegel here also has in mind his dictum that Reason is the certainty of being all reality. The object as reification is clearly separate from me, but as Aristotle might remind us, its objective relational form or essence is not distinct from the shareable intelligible thought of that form or essence.

“The object is, then, partly immediate existence, a thing in general — corresponding to immediate consciousness; partly an alteration of itself, its relatedness (or existence-for-another and existence-for-self), determinateness — corresponding to perception; partly essential being or in the form of a universal — corresponding to understanding. The object as a whole is the mediated result… or the passing of universality into individuality through specification, as also the reverse process from individual to universal through cancelled individuality or specific determination” (p. 790, brackets in original).

Even the most subtle and developed articulations far removed from what we might call immediate sensation have an aspect of immediacy analogous to what Hegel describes in Sense-Certainty, in that they recognize or assert certain discrete presented or represented “things” or their existence or their truth, taking “thing” in the broadest possible sense. But Hegel wants us to recognize that in real life we never stop at what he calls mere “certainty”. Nothing is ever just immediately there. Even in the most unphilosophical kind of practical life, distinctions are unavoidable. Then any distinction we make turns out to depend on other distinctions. Distinctions implicitly introduce universal “properties” of things that can be compared. This leads to the ramified world of Perception or “things with properties”, but Perception in general still holds fast to Sense-Certainty’s initial intuition of independent “things” as pre-given reference points in the sea of interdependent distinctions, and gets into logical difficulties as a result. Finally Understanding dissolves particular “things” into a purely universal field of constitutive relations with no pre-given terms, like what we find in mathematical physics or structural linguistics. We may experience all of the moments simultaneously in one experience of one thing. Of course, as we know, the Phenomenology is far from done at the end of Understanding and there are many other considerations to address, but these are the three basic moments of “consciousness” as that which takes an attitude toward things or objects.

I want to emphasize that this applies to all objects whatsoever, especially including those of ordinary life. Harris advocates the much narrower reading that Hegel’s main concern in this section is to implicitly suggest an application of these general notions to the preceding discussion of religion.

We have seen that what Hegel calls “absolute” knowledge does indeed have a close relation to the concerns of religion. In the Religion chapter, though I didn’t remark on it, Hegel had in passing explicitly applied the succession of Sense-Certainty, Perception, and Understanding to his schematic account of the history of religion. So, Harris’ reading between the lines here has some plausibility, but he seems for the moment to allow his interpolations continuing the focus on religion to eclipse the much more general apparent surface meaning of the text.

In Harris’ account, “it is the ‘object’ of Manifest Religion that has now to be turned over into the ‘Subject’ of ‘Absolute Knowing'” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 714). In general this seems reasonable, even though it is an interpolation in the present context.

“‘The object is in part immediate Being’. This is the ‘It is’ of Sense-Certainty; and all the modes of Natural Religion are subsumed under the ‘It is’…. For Natural Religion God is simply (and immediately) there. There is no distinction yet between His being-for-self and His being-for-another; and there cannot be any, because no ‘other’ has any independent essence of its own” (ibid).

Aside from Harris’ interpolation of religion into this discussion of the object, the last statement is historically anomalous, because the idea of a God before whom no other has independent essence belongs to traditions of strong monotheism that Hegel associates with the Unhappy Consciousness rather than with Sense-Certainty. However, if we abstract from actual history and just consider Hegel’s rather thin working notion of “natural” religion, it does seem accurate.

“Secondly the object is ‘partly an othering of itself, its relationship, or Being for Other and For-Self-Being, that corresponds to Perception’. This is how God is experienced in the Art-Religion; we make the Gods in our own image, while at the same time regarding ourselves as their servant, and envisaging our own free existence as a play for the Gods. God is thus an ambiguous relationship of Being for Other and For-Self-Being, just like the ‘thing and its properties’ in Perception” (ibid).

This interpolation seems relatively more historical, and consistent with what Hegel says elsewhere.

“Lastly, the object is ‘partly essence or as Universal, which corresponds to the Understanding’. This is how God is experienced in the Manifest Religion. Here He is the rational Force whose essence is to manifest itself” (ibid).

Hegel does seem to provocatively suggest that there is a parallel between the relation between Manifest Religion and its predecessors, on the one hand, and that between the purely relational view of mathematical physics and ordinary sensation and perception, on the other. It may seem surprising to see these categories from the phenomenology of religion reflected back into the elementary moments of “consciousness”, but this underscores how nonlinear Hegel’s overall development really is. As Harris points out, Hegel does also explicitly argue in the Religion chapter that the actual history of religion recapitulates the succession of moments he analyzed for object-oriented elementary “consciousness”. But to me, all this still seems a distraction from the new topic of “absolute” knowledge that Hegel is introducing here.

Hegel goes on to specify that the “knowledge” at issue now is not purely conceptual, but “is to be taken only in its development” (Baillie trans., p. 790). He notes that “the object does not yet, when present in consciousness as such, appear as the inner essence of Spirit in the way this has just been expressed” (ibid).

He recalls the recapitulation of Sense Certainty’s immediacy on a higher level in Observing Reason. “We saw, too, [Observing Reason’s] specific character take expression at its highest stage in the infinite judgement: ‘the being of the [Fichtean] ego is a thing’. And, further, the ego is an immediate thing of sense. When ego is called a soul, it is indeed represented also as a thing, but a thing in the sense of something invisible, impalpable, etc., i.e. in fact not as an immediate entity, and not as that which is generally understood by a thing. That judgment, then, ‘ego is a thing’, taken at first glance, has no spiritual content, or rather, is just the absence of spirituality. In its conception, however, it is the most luminous and illuminating judgment; and this, its inner significance, which is not yet made evident, is what the other two moments to be considered express” (p. 791).

Here again Hegel is considering two contrasting senses. The mere reification of a Fichtean ego as an empirical individual is rather banal; but to consider the universal Fichtean ego as an incarnated and concretely situated spiritual reality rather than in abstraction is a great advance.

“The trained and cultivated self-consciousness, which has traversed the region of spirit in self-alienation, has, by giving up itself, produced the thing as its self” (p. 792). This is a simple but vital point.

Hegel continues, “Or again — to give complete expression to the relationship, i.e. to what here alone constitutes the nature of the object — the thing stands for something that is self-existent; sense-certainty (sense experience) is announced as absolute truth; but this self-existence is itself declared to be a moment which merely disappears, and passes into its opposite, into a being at the mercy of an ‘other’.”

“But knowledge of the thing is not yet finished at this point. The thing must become known as self not merely in regard to the immediateness of its being and as regards its determinateness, but also in the sense of essence or inner reality. This is found in the case of Moral Self-Consciousness. This mode of experience knows its knowledge as the absolutely essential element, knows no other objective being than pure will or pure knowledge. It is nothing but merely this will and this knowledge. Any other possesses merely non-essential being, i.e. being that has no inherent nature per se, but only its empty husk. Insofar as the moral consciousness, in its view of the world, lets existence drop out of the self, it just as truly takes this existence back again into the self. In the form of conscience, finally, it is no longer this incessant alternation between the ‘placing’ and the ‘displacing’… of existence and self; it knows that its existence as such is this pure certainty of its own self; the objective element, into which qua acting it puts forth itself, is nothing other than pure knowledge of itself by itself” (pp. 792-793).

Here we have the ethical character of the path to the “Absolute”.

Harris comments, “So while, on the one hand, the moral consciousness ‘lets the natural world go free out of the Self’, to be whatever it contingently must be, it is equally true, on the other hand, that it takes that contingent natural order back into itself. In the unity of conscientious conviction, this contradiction is successfully sublated. But the community in which Conscience finds itself, and for which it claims to act, is in a state of moral anarchy, which is only overcome by the transition to the religious community of universal forgiveness. That community, having returned to itself as the shape of religious faith, has only to recognize itself in the ultimate community of finite Spirit, from which its religious journey began. That ultimate community of Spirit was able to make the religious journey because, in the final sublation of the standpoint of moral judgment, it is reconciled with humanity at all times, and in all places. It does not need to judge, but only to comprehend, i.e. to integrate the other as a member” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 719). I feel like we are back on track here.

He argues further that “In this final form, the ‘Manifest Religion’ ceases to be a revealed religion (in any but the historical sense) for it will comprehend that the whole range of religious ‘manifestation’ belongs to it in principle, because its God is just the intelligible force of Reason, whose very essence is to manifest itself. This concretely universal community of the human Spirit is ‘the Self’s pure knowledge of itself’. ‘Conscience’ is just its alienated, universally self-assertive shape” (ibid). Now the motivation for Harris’ interpolated argument about religion seems to make better Hegelian sense.

Harris adds, “We look over the course of the science and ask how ‘dead thinghood’ evolves logically. First we go from ‘singular thinghood for self’ to ‘universal thinghood for another’; and so to ‘the singular self that is lawgiver for the world of things’. And when we reach the third shape, we realize that we have not passed over to Kojève’s ‘anthropology’. In his world, the essential anarchy of Conscience takes us straight back to Hobbes” (pp. 719-720). (In the 20th century, Kojève promoted a subjectivist reading of Hegel that influenced Sartre and others. Hobbes famously described human society as a “war of all against all”.)

“[E]very judge must recognize the ‘sin’ of sundering knowing from doing. Absolutely pure knowing becomes possible only in and through the act of forgiving” (p. 720).

Hegel on Skepticism

The next shape of self-consciousness after “Stoicism” in Hegel’s Phenomenology is “Skepticism”. H. S. Harris in his commentary thinks some of Hegel’s remarks apply specifically to Carneades, perhaps the best known “Academic” Skeptic, who shocked the Romans by arguing for opposite theses on alternating days, as an exercise on Platonic dialectic. Carneades also wrote a work arguing in detail against the great early Stoic Chryssipus. Although I like to stress the less textually obvious role of Aristotelian dialectic in Hegel’s work, Hegel’s explicit remarks emphasize a kind of Platonic dialectic with Skeptical inflections (see Three Logical Moments).

For Hegel, neither pure Understanding — which excels in clarity, utility, and systematic development but tends toward dogmatism — nor a skeptically inclined Dialectic, whose movement undoes everything that is apparently solid — is adequate to characterize what he wants to call Thought. Thought ought to involve a sort of Aristotelian mean that combines the insights of both.

Hegel writes, “Skepticism is the realization of that of which Stoicism is merely the notion, and is the actual experience of what freedom of thought is…. [I]ndependent existence or permanent determinateness has, in contrast to that reflexion, dropped as a matter of fact out of the infinitude of thought” (Baillie trans., p. 246). “Skeptical self-consciousness thus discovers, in the flux and alternation of all that would stand secure in its presence, its own freedom, as given by and received from its own self…. [This] consciousness itself is thoroughgoing dialectical restlessness, this melée of presentations derived from sense and thought, whose differences collapse into oneness, and whose identity is similarly again resolved and dissolved…. This consciousness, however, as a matter of fact, instead of being a self-same consciousness, is here neither more nor less than an entirely fortuitous embroglio, the giddy whirl of a perpetually self-creating disorder” (pp. 248-249).

Harris comments, “[T]he Stoics had to be taught by the Sceptics that no Vorstellung [representation] (not even that of the great cosmic cycle) could comprehend Erscheinung [appearance]” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 393). “[Skepticism] knows that ‘language is truer’… than the simple assumption that truth is the name of an extralinguistic Sache [thing or content]” (ibid).

“The Sceptic ideal is to be untroubled in the face of the sensory flux. Sceptical reason tells us not to worry about what we cannot help” (ibid). But “Far from behaving like one who is undisturbed, [Carneades] enjoys being an active disturber; and on the practical side his life has to be controlled by the felt motive actually present at a given moment” (p. 394). “Achieving ‘suspension of judgment’, by setting whatever contingent arguments one can discern in the whirl against those that someone else offers, is a cheat. The Sceptic lives in the world, and allows himself to be guided by senses which he says we ought not to trust” (ibid).

“Every effort the Stoic makes to realize his freedom is tantamount to a serf’s fantasy that he really owns the land” (p. 395). “The Sceptic is a laughing sage because he has the Stoic to laugh at. We laugh at both of them” (ibid).

“[The Skeptic] has not recognized that the [self] he identifies with is only a formal ideal by which the concretely actual self can measure itself. Nobody is that ideal self. No finite consciousness can be that self (by definition). There is no Lord walking the earth: not the one that the serf fears; not the Stoic who thinks he is free; and not the Sceptic who knows what thinking is, and what it is not” (p. 396).

Toward Self-Consciousness

The Force and Understanding chapter of Hegel’s Phenomenology concludes with two sections I find particularly difficult.

In the first, the supersensible in comparison with the world of appearances is treated as a sort of “inverted world” where negation and universality rather than concrete form play the main role in intelligibility as law. The subsequent return to the world of appearances that explains it as law-governed and takes us back to positive things again is then described as a “second inversion”.

According to Harris in his commentary, Hegel wants to establish that the formal necessity of mathematics is insufficient to account for the rationality of experience. The Understanding wants to explain everything in terms of force, including the Understanding itself. All the movement of explanation is in the Understanding. Hegel argues that the explanation of necessity in the world turns out to presuppose free activity in the Understanding. The fixing of distinctions Hegel meanwhile associates with sensuous representation as distinct from the supersensible.

In the second, what Hegel wants to call a kind of infinity emerges from Understanding’s looking at the world of appearances as a law-governed but constantly moving and restless whole that is unconditioned by anything other than itself.

Harris notes that this infinity is a result. Because infinity or the absolute is a result rather than a starting point, Hegel is able to say that the old neoplatonic problem of how the Many emerge from the One does not arise for him. Harris says Hegel is here making an Aristotelian response to Plotinus.

“Our approach to this problem has shown that Unity and Multiplicity are logically internal to one another, that the real Infinite must embrace the finite because the Infinite is precisely the raising of finitude to Infinity. This is how we can express the significance of the ‘second inversion’ in the speculative-theological terminology of finite and Infinite” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 303).

Because the Understanding wants to explain everything and everything includes itself, its own momentum pushes it toward self-consciousness. At this stage, what Hegel will call the Concept with a capital “C” — which will become the new continuum, folded upon itself, between subject and object, that displaces the substantiality of both in their separate forms — has yet to emerge. Hegel says that for the Understanding, what plays the role of the Concept is the Understanding itself.

Harris says “The human desire to know — to understand the situation we are in — is the most primitive way in which the Absolute is with us from the start…. The world of which the true Infinite really is the ‘soul’ is the world of our quest for the absolute truth. Our quest itself is the ‘spirit’ — the self-consciousness — of that living soul…. The understanding intelligence is the self-consciousness of the unconditioned universal that it contemplates.”

“The Understanding remains naive in its self-enjoyment; it keeps positive and negative, attraction and repulsion, all separate from one another, and from itself. It knows nothing of the ‘second inversion’. But the comprehension of the necessary relation a priori of the opposite moments of all its concepts is what the Understanding is, because it moves continually from the organized appearance to its concepts, and back again” (pp. 303-304).

“The theoretical Understanding has the whole world before it as an object. In the ‘second inversion’ it becomes aware of itself as the positing activity for the whole cycle that moves from perception (the ‘play of forces’) to the natural order as ‘Law’. But now that ‘free self’ (the ‘distinguishing of the undistinguished’) actually distinguishes itself and asserts its independence, without having any consciousness of the cycle from which it has logically emerged. It will discover by experience what the Fichtean philosophical Ego cannot help knowing from the first: ‘that this distinct [self] is not distinct’. It will make this discovery many times, in different ‘shapes’, before it returns finally to the practical comprehension of its identity with the ‘Infinite'” (pp. 305-306; brackets and italics in original).

“The truth for us… is that the universal concept of Force (or Necessity) has become the universal concept of Life (or the ‘true Infinite’ as living Freedom). But if we look at what has happened from the point of view of Understanding itself, two worlds have come into being. There is the world of Necessity which the Understanding wants to construct, but can never be sure that it has successfully duplicated; and the world of its own intellectual activity. In this second world it experiences itself as a free motion. It does not know that these two worlds are moments of one Concept, which is equally the objective world and itself as intelligence. But it does know, necessarily, that it is alive and free in the world of necessity that appears to it. It still has to discover that it is identically what appears. But it knows that it is what is appeared to” (p. 307).

“[F]rom the conscious certainty that the Understanding has of its eternal truth, we have thus come back to the certainty of the peasant-wife that this farmyard and these cows are hers. We know now, why she would not come with us on our theoretical odyssey. She was the self at home in its world; and that meant that she already knew something that we were ignoring. Truth, we thought, is an absolute object. It cannot belong to anyone. Frau Bauer, on the other hand, realized that in order to know anything one must be alive” (p. 318). (Later, it will also turn out that we were right that truth cannot belong to anyone.)

“As the implications of my identification with another self-consciousness which exemplifies what I want to be are unpacked, we shall discover that the supposedly ‘supersensible’ world is the real present world that we live in; or that ‘the spirit’ is the real substantiality of our sense-experience” (p. 335).

Force and Understanding

After Perception, Hegel discusses what is basically the attitude of mathematical physics. Harris in his commentary notes that Hegel is much more sympathetic to natural science than some of his supporters have seemed to recognize. Hegel accepts mathematical physics as an authoritative account of the physical world, and is impressed by the concept of mathematical natural law.

More generally, this is where Hegel introduces what he calls Understanding, which seeks to give a fully univocal (thus also formalizable) account of things. Understanding will have permanent value in securing definiteness and discipline of thought. Hegel often makes sharp remarks about its limitations, so it is important to recognize that he also respected its strengths.

Perception already took a relational approach to the properties of things, but still held fast to the idea that its objects were independent things. Newton’s concept of force as characterized by mathematical law effectively takes a relational approach to determination in the physical world as a whole. Mechanics treats force subject to mathematical laws as the objective reality underlying the world of Perception and “things”, which it treats as Appearance rather than an immanent truth.

Force for Hegel is a supersensible rational construct. For the Newtonian physicist, it is a supersensible reality. Hegel approves of the physicist’s recognition that sensible reality is not all there is, and applauds what he sees as the physicist’s thoroughgoing relational approach. His main caveat is just that what the physicist sees as an independent physical necessity that is only described by mathematics, Hegel see entirely in terms of the formal necessity of the mathematics and logic used in the physicist’s theory.

This concludes the “Consciousness” section of the Phenomenology, where “consciousness” for Hegel is the attitude that treats objects and objectivity in a “pre-Kantian” way, as just being out there. The physicist’s thoroughly relational approach to the external world takes this to its highest sophistication. What remains is to examine the ways in which there is actually continuity and reciprocity between “us” and the world we inhabit, and the role that we play in its development.

Hegelian Semantics

Brandom begins his second Brentano lecture saying, “On the ground floor of Hegel’s intellectual edifice stands his non-psychological conception of the conceptual. This is the idea that to be conceptually contentful is to stand in relations of material incompatibility and consequence (his “determinate negation” and “mediation”) to other such contentful items. The relations of incompatibility and consequence are denominated “material” to indicate that they articulate the contents rather than form of what stands in those relations. This is his first and most basic semantic idea: an understanding of conceptual content in terms of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion” (p. 39).

I think Aristotle and even Plato would have agreed with all of this: both the nonpsychological nature of concepts and the fundamental role of modally robust relations of exclusion and inclusion in determining meaning. But the Latin medieval to European early modern mainstream was in this regard much more influenced by the Stoic explanation of meaning by representation, and by the “psychological” cast of Augustine’s thought.

Brandom goes on to characterize Hegel’s position as a “bimodal hylomorphic conceptual realism”, carefully unpacking each part of this dense formula. The two modalities in question are the two fundamental ways in which things have grip on us: the “bite” of reality and the moral “ought”. Brandom holds that there is a deep structural parallel or isomorphism between these two kinds of constraints that affect us. Further, the isomorphism is also a hylomorphism in the sense that the two modalities are not only structurally similar, but so deeply intertwined in practice as to be only analytically distinguishable. Concepts and normativity are interdependent. Finally, it is through concepts and normativity that all our notions of the solidity of reality are articulated.

This kind of conceptual realism in Hegel is complemented by what Brandom calls a conceptual idealism. “At the grossest level of structure, the objective realm of being is articulated by nomological relations, and the subjective realm of thought is articulated by norm-governed processes, activities or practices. It can be asked how things stand with the intentional nexus between these realms. Should it be construed in relational or practical-processual terms?” (p. 43). “Hegel takes there to be an explanatory asymmetry in that the semantic relations between those discursive practices and the objective relations they know about and exploit practically are instituted by the discursive practices that both articulate the subjective realm of thought and establish its relations to the objective realm of being. This asymmetry claim privileging specifically recollective discursive practices over semantic relations in understanding the intentional nexus between subjectivity and objectivity is the thesis of conceptual idealism.” (p. 44).

Plato had talked about recollection in a mythical or poetic way in relation to paradoxes of learning. Hegel’s more “historiographical” recollection is also related to a kind of learning, but Hegel specifically stresses the importance of error as the stimulus to learning. Brandom says there is both a “subjunctive sensitivity of thought to things” (ibid) and a “normative responsibility of thought to fact. What things are for consciousness ought to conform to what things are in themselves.” (p. 45). This translates into a central obligation to repair our errors, and for Hegel the specific way to do this is through a recollective account of what was right in our previous stance; how we came to realize that it went wrong; and what we did to fix it.

“The normative standard of success of intentional agency is set by how things objectively are after an action. The idea of action includes a background structural commitment to the effect that things ought to be as they are intended to be. Conceptual idealism focuses on the fact that all these alethic and normative modal relations are instituted by the recollective activity that is the final phase of the cycle of cognition and action” (ibid).

“Conceptual realism asserts the identity of conceptual content between facts and thoughts of those facts. (Compare Wittgenstein: ‘When we say, and mean, that such-and-such is the case, we—and our meaning—do not stop anywhere short of the fact; but we mean: this—is—so.’ [PI§95]) Conceptual idealism offers a pragmatic account of the practical process by which that semantic-intentional relation between what things are for consciousness and what they are in themselves is established. Pragmatics, as I am using the term, is the study of the use of concepts by subjects engaging in discursive practices. Conceptual idealism asserts a distinctive kind of explanatory priority (a kind of authority) of pragmatics over semantics. For this reason it is a pragmatist semantic explanatory strategy, and its idealism is a pragmatist idealism. The sui generis rational practical activity given pride of explanatory place by this sort of pragmatism is recollection” (pp. 45-46).

Brandom says that Hegel’s notion of experience has two levels, corresponding to two top-level kinds of concepts he distinguishes: ordinary practical and empirical concepts, and meta-level philosophical, categorial or “logical” concepts.

“The master-strategy animating this reading of Hegel (and of Kant) is semantic descent: the idea that the ultimate point of studying these metaconcepts is what their use can teach us about the semantic contentfulness of ground-level concepts, so the best way to understand the categorial metaconcepts is to use them to talk about the use and content of ordinary concepts… The pragmatic metaconcept of the process of experience is first put in play in the Introduction, at the very beginning of [Hegel’s Phenomenology], in the form of the experience of error. It is invoked to explain how the consciousness-constitutive distinction-and-relation between what things are for consciousness and what things are in themselves shows up to consciousness itself. Hegel assumes that, however vaguely understood it might be at the outset, it is a distinction-and-relation that can at least be a topic for us, the readers of the book” (pp. 47-48).

The most naive human awareness already implicitly recognizes a distinction between appearance and reality. “The question is how this crucial distinction already shows up practically for even the most metatheoretically naïve knowing subject. How are we to understand the basic fact that ‘…the difference between the in-itself and the for-itself is already present in the very fact that consciousness knows an object at all’… Hegel traces its origin to the experience of error” (p. 48).

“Hegel finds the roots of this sort of experience in our biological nature as desiring beings…. What a creature practically takes or treats as food, by eating it, can turn out not really to be food, if eating it does not satisfy the hunger that motivated it…. This sort of experience is the basis and practical form of learning” (p. 49). This is “the practical basis for the semantic distinction between representings and representeds, sense and referent” (pp, 49-50).

“[A]n essential part of the acknowledgment of error is practically taking or treating two commitments as incompatible. Such genuinely conceptual activity goes beyond what merely desiring beings engage in. The origins of Hegel’s idea here lie in Kant’s earlier broadly pragmatist account of what knowing subjects must do in order to count as apperceiving” (p. 50).

“Hegel breaks from the Kantian picture by adding a crucial constraint on what counts as successful repairs…. Successful repairs must explain and justify the changes made, in a special way” (p. 52). This takes the form of a historical recollection. “To be entitled to claim that things are as one now takes them to be, one must show how one found out that they are so. Doing that involves explaining what one’s earlier views got right, what they got wrong, and why…. This is the progressive emergence into explicitness, the ever more adequate expression, of what is retrospectively discerned as having been all along implicit as the norm governing and guiding the process by which its appearances arise and pass away” (p. 53). “Recollection… turns a past into a history” (p. 54).

All this serves as an explanation of how we come to have representations that actually refer to something, in terms of how we express our concerns. “In general Hegel thinks we can only understand what is implicit in terms of the expressive process by which it is made explicit. That is a recollective process. The underlying reality is construed as implicit in the sense of being a norm that all along governed the process of its gradual emergence into explicitness” (p. 56).

“Kant had the idea that representation is a normative concept. Something counts as a representing in virtue of being responsible to something else, which counts as represented by it in virtue of exercising authority over the representing by serving as a standard for assessments of its correctness as a representing. It is in precisely this sense that a recollective story treats the commitments it surveys as representings of the content currently treated as factual” (p. 58). Brandom says that Hegel reconstructs in expressive terms what the representationalists were right about, while strongly contrasting this way of thinking with representationalism.

“Hylomorphic conceptual realism then underwrites the idea of the categorial homogeneity of senses as graspable thoughts and their referents (what they represent) as correspondingly conceptually contentful, statable facts. This makes intelligible the idea that thoughts are the explicit expressions of facts. They make explicit… how the world is” (p. 60).

“The plight of finite knowing and acting subjects metaphysically guarantees liability to empirical error and practical failure. The experience of error is inescapable. What I earlier called the ‘false starts, wrong turns, and dead ends’ of inquiry can be retrospectively edited out of the sanitized, Whiggish vindicating recollective narrative, but they cannot be avoided going forward.

“Why not? In short because the rational, conceptual character of the world and its stubborn recalcitrance to mastery by knowledge and agency are equally fundamental primordial features of the way things are” (pp. 61-62).

“For Hegel, the experience of error requires not just the revision of beliefs… but also of meanings” (p. 62). “The manifestation of stubborn, residual immediacy in thought is the inevitability of the experience of error…. [T]he ineluctability of error and the realistic possibility of genuine knowledge [both] express valid perspectives on what is always at once both the experience of error and the way of truth. The important thing is not to seize exclusively—and so one-sidedly—on either aspect, but to understand the nature of the process as one that necessarily shows up from both perspectives” (p. 63).

“One of Hegel’s animating ideas is that the independence of immediacy (its distinctive authority over structures of mediation) is manifested in its role as a principle of instability, as providing a normative demand for change, for both rejection and further development of each constellation of determinate concepts and commitments articulated by them. The independence of mediation (its distinctive authority over immediacy) is manifested in all the retrospective recollective vindications of prior constellations of commitments as genuine knowledge, as resulting from the expressively progressive revelation of reality by prior claims to knowledge.” (pp. 64-65).

“The forward-looking obligation to repair acknowledged incompatibilities of commitment acknowledges error and the inadequacy of its conceptions. The backward-looking recollective obligation to rationalize as expressively progressive previous, now superseded, repairs and recollections institutes knowledge, truth, and determinate concepts whose incompatibilities and consequences track those articulating (in a different modal key) the objective world…. The recollective process is also what Hegel calls ‘giving contingency the form of necessity.'” (p. 65).

“The key in each case is to understand [truth and error] not as properties, states, or relations that can be instantiated at a single time, but as structural features of enduring experiential processes” (p.66).

This is to move from what Hegel calls Understanding to what he calls Reason. Understanding focuses on the fixity of concepts; Reason also has regard for their malleability. To think of experience as asymptotically approaching objective facts and relations belongs to the Understanding that disregards the mutation of meanings.

“The world as it is in itself as distinct from how it is for consciousness is not a brute other, but in that distinctive sense the product of its own recollective activity in experience” (p.72).

Searching for a Middle Term

“But nothing, I think, prevents one from in a sense understanding and in a sense being ignorant of what one is learning” (Aristotle, Posterior Analytics; Complete Works revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 115). The kind of understanding spoken of here involves awareness “both that the explanation because of which the object is is its explanation, and that it is not possible for this to be otherwise” (ibid). To speak of the “explanation because of which” something is suggests that the concern is with states of affairs being some way, and the “not… otherwise” language further confirms this.

Following this is the famous criterion that demonstrative understanding depends on “things that are true and primitive and immediate and more familiar than and prior to and explanatory of the conclusion…. [T]here will be deduction even without these conditions, but there will not be demonstration, for it will not produce understanding” (ibid). The “more familiar than” part has sometimes been mistranslated as “better known than”, confusing what Aristotle carefully distinguishes as gnosis (personal acquaintance) and episteme (knowledge in a strong sense). I think this phrase is the key to the whole larger clause, giving it a pragmatic rather than foundationalist meaning. (Foundationalist claims only emerged later, with the Stoics and Descartes.) The pedagogical aim of demonstration is to use things that are more familiar to us — which for practical purposes we take to be true and primitive and immediate and prior and explanatory — to showcase reasons for things that are slightly less obvious.

Independent of these criteria for demonstration, the whole point of the syllogistic form is that the conclusion very “obviously” and necessarily follows, by a simple operation of composition on the premises (A => B and B => C, so A=> C). Once we have accepted both premises of a syllogism, the conclusion is already implicit, and that in an especially clear way. We will not reach any novel or unexpected conclusions by syllogism. It is a kind of canonical minimal inferential step, intended not to be profound but to be as simple and clear as possible.

(Contemporary category theory grounds all of mathematics on the notion of composable abstract dependencies, expressing complex dependencies as compositions of simpler ones. Its power depends on the fact that under a few carefully specified conditions expressing the properties of good composition, the composition of higher-order functions with internal conditional logic — and other even more general constructions — works in exactly the same way as composition of simple predications like “A is B“.)

Since a syllogism is designed to be a minimal inferential step, there is never a question of “searching” for the right conclusion. Rather, Aristotle speaks of searching for a “middle term” before an appropriate pair of premises is identified for syllogistic use. A middle term like B in the example above is the key ingredient in a syllogism, appearing both in the syntactically dependent position in one premise, and in the syntactically depended-upon position in the other premise, thus allowing the two to be composed together. This is a very simple example of mediation. Existence of a middle term B is what makes composition of the premises possible, and is therefore what makes pairings of premises appropriate for syllogistic use.

In many contexts, searching for a middle term can be understood as inventing an appropriate intermediate abstraction from available materials. If an existing abstraction is too broad to fit the case, we can add specifications until it does, and then optionally give the result a new name. All Aristotelian terms essentially are implied specifications; the names are just for convenience. Aristotle sometimes uses pure specifications as “nameless terms”.

Named abstractions function as shorthand for the potential inferences that they embody, enabling simple common-sense reasoning in ordinary language. We can become more clear about our thinking by using dialectic to unpack the implications of the abstractions embodied in our use of words. (See also Free Play; Practical Judgment.)

Aristotelian Demonstration

Demonstration is literally a showing. For Aristotle, its main purpose is associated with learning and teaching, rather than proof. Its real objective is not Stoic or Cartesian certainty “that” something is true, but the clearest possible understanding of the substantive basis for definite conclusions, based on a grasping of reasons.

Aristotle’s main text dealing with demonstration, the Posterior Analytics, is not about epistemology or foundations of knowledge, although it touches on these topics. Rather, it is about the pragmatics of improving our informal semantic understanding by formal means.

For Aristotle, demonstration uses the same logical forms as dialectic, but unlike dialectic — which does not make assumptions ahead of time whether the hypotheses or opinions it examines are true, but focuses on explicating their inferential meaning — demonstration is about showing reasons and reasoning behind definite conclusions. Dialectic is a kind of conditional forward-looking interpretation based on consequences, while demonstration is a kind of backward-looking interpretation based on premises. Because demonstration’s practical purpose has to do with exhibiting the basis for definite conclusions, it necessarily seeks sound premises, or treats its premises as sound, whereas dialectic is indifferent to the soundness of the premises it analyzes in terms of their consequences.

We are said to know something in Aristotle’s stronger sense when we can clearly explain why it is the case, so demonstration is connected with knowledge. This connection has historically led to much misunderstanding. In the Arabic and Latin commentary traditions, demonstration was interpreted as proof. The Posterior Analytics was redeployed as an epistemological model for “science” based on formal deduction, understood as the paradigm for knowledge, while the role of dialectic and practical judgment in Aristotle was greatly downplayed. (See also Demonstrative “Science”?; Searching for a Middle Term; Plato and Aristotle Were Inferentialists; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Belief; Foundations?; Brandom on Truth.)

Three Logical Moments

The “Logic Defined & Divided” chapter of Hegel’s Encyclopedia Logic contains some brilliant, relatively popular aphorisms from his lectures, and provides a nice introduction to his views. Having recently treated with approval Kant’s denunciation of speculation in the usual sense, I’m turning to this now because among other riches, it contains Hegel’s recovery of an alternative, much more positive sense for “speculation”. As Aristotle would remind us, things are said in many ways, and it is wise to give heed to the differences.

Hegel says that every notion and truth involves three moments that are all essential and cannot really be separated from one another: Understanding, Dialectic, and Speculation.

In other places, Hegel frequently polemicizes against the narrowness and rigidity of mere Understanding. Here, he rounds out the picture, noting that “apart from Understanding there is no fixity or accuracy in the region of theory or of practice” and that knowledge begins “by apprehending existing objects in their specific differences”. He cites examples of how Understanding contributes to science, mathematics, law, practical life, art, religion, and philosophy.

Preparing the transition to dialectic, he notes “It is the fashion of youth to dash about in abstractions — but the man who has learnt to know life steers clear of the abstract ‘either-or’, and keeps to the concrete”. Dialectic for Hegel if viewed separately is the moment of “negative” Reason or criticism. He says that dialectic subordinated to Understanding’s mode of thought leads to skepticism, but dialectic freed from this subordination builds on distinctions developed by the Understanding, even while “the one-sidedness and limitation of the predicates of understanding is seen in its true light”. Dialectic studies things “in their own being and movement”. He goes on to expound Plato’s use of dialectic, and its difference from sophistry. (See also Contradiction vs Polarity; Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic.)

Speculation in Hegel’s special sense is the “positive” moment of Reason, which if considered separately begins from a kind of faith in reasonableness in the world. He implicitly connects it with a charitable reading of the long religious tradition of faith seeking understanding, construed in such a way as to be not incompatible with a charitable version of Enlightenment criticism. He notes that “the true reason-world, so far from being the exclusive property of philosophy, is the right of every human being [of] whatever grade of culture or mental growth”, adding that “experience first makes us aware of the reasonable order of things… by accepted and unreasoned belief”. Once this rational order becomes an object of thought rather than mere belief, we have speculative Reason proper.

Speculative Reason builds on both Understanding and dialectic. “A one-sided proposition… can never even give expression to a speculative truth.” He notes a connection between this and basic intuitive fairness. Starting from a simple faith in the reasonableness of the world and advancing through various stages of criticism, speculative Reason ultimately realizes substance as subject, and overcomes the dichotomy of subject and object.

Dialectic undid the abstract, atomistic, foundationalist, “either-or” tendencies of isolated Understanding. Speculative Reason in Hegel’s sense turns this into a new affirmation. In many places, Hegel talks about Reason or dialectic in ways that subsume both the dialectical and the speculative moment described here.

I read Hegelian speculative Reason — or dialectic incorporating the speculative moment — as just ordinary reason moving forward without the crutches of foundationalism and dogmatic claims of certainty. Reason without foundationalism is concerned with the very same open-ended work of interpretation I have attributed to Aristotle. Ultimately, Hegelian Reason is defeasible rational interpretation of experience, optimistically doing the best we can with the resources we have, and always on the lookout for something better. Thus, it too can be reconciled with Kantian discipline. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?)

Epistemic Conscientiousness

I see something like epistemic conscientiousness as almost the highest value, only potentially surpassable by what I will broadly call concern for others. This principally involves a commitment to understanding, which means always seeking deeper and better and more nuanced understanding (see Objectivity of Objects). But equally, it involves taking strong personal responsibility for our acceptance of claims. (See also Assumptions; Error.)

If I have accepted a claim — especially if I have acted on the basis of that acceptance, or encouraged others to accept it — and then encounter reason to question that claim, I have a responsibility to resolve the matter in some appropriate and reasonable way. If I accept a claim, I have a responsibility to also accept its consequences. I have a responsibility not to accept materially incompatible claims.

An epistemically conscientious person will also naturally care about the acceptance of claims by others. Particular concern for particular others will naturally tend to accentuate this. We also want to treat those others with respect and kindness, and combining this with questioning claims they have accepted can be delicate. (See also Things Said; Honesty, Kindness; Intellectual Virtue, Love.)