Hegel and idealism I: The case of Kant

Hegel’s idealism is a tricky issue to get a handle on. In this post, I’ll try to lay the ground for a short series that picks up on one strand running through it, relating Hegel’s idealism to Kant’s, as I have done in brief previously. This will be only a very partial picture, sidelining a consideration of the important influence of the idealisms of contemporaries like Fichte and Schelling, and those of the ancients like Plato and Aristotle. Nevertheless, I do not think it simplifies the picture too much. We can start, then, by considering Kant.

In what sense was Kant an idealist? My brutally short account begins as follows: In his oft-quoted 1772 letter to Herz, Kant says that in his previous work, “I still lacked something essential, something that in my long metaphysical studies I, as well as others, had failed to pay attention to and that, in fact, constitutes the key to the whole secret of hitherto still obscure metaphysics.” This key comes from an answer to a further question: “What is the ground of the relation of that in us which we call ‘representation’ to the object?”

It is the dogmatic failure to ask this question that Kant thinks has led all of his predeccesors (even Berkeley) to assume a form of realism, which he calls ‘transcendental realism’. The transcendental realist takes the concept of objectood to be independent of epistemic conditions. So, for this type of realist, the question of what we take objects to be is not dependent on what must be in place to know these objects. For them, first, we have some concept of objecthood; then, we go on to ask how we come to know the things that this concept picks out. (Or at the very least, the transcendetal realist thinks that these two questions are in principal seperable.)

Kant believes that the problem with this is, had his question been asked, it would be apparent that pursuing or merely assuming an answer to the ontological question of objectood, apart from the epistemic conditions for knowledge of such objects, was insufficient. According to him, there is a lacuna in any such approach. This is because it will fail to explain how an object comes to be for us — how we can come to represent it, or otherwise be in a meaningful cognitive relation to it. To say that objects affect us, say, by causally impressing themselves on us, would not yet be to explain what it is about both us and the object that allows this affection to form a representation connecting us and the object. Conversely, saying that we represent objects through our affection of them (actively interacting with them), is once again to fail to explain how it is that objects are available to us so that we can grasp them in this way.

To give an adequate explanation, Kant thinks we must take the ‘Copernican turn’. This turn has two closely related moments: one methodological and another substantive.

The methodological component involves making a distinction between the old, transcendental realist, conception of objects, and a new epistemically-inflected conception. So, Kant wants to retain some idea of reality as composed of things in-themselves, which are as they are independent of our capacity to know them. But he thinks that this conception is of no use to us in explaining what our cognitive connection to reality is. The new conception of objects is as things standing under conditions (not yet specified) of knowability; thus, what Kant calls ‘appearances’ (as opposed to ‘things-in-themselves’) are objects insofar as they are essentially available to the subject.

Tied to this methodological move, is a further substantive thesis about features of these objects. Following the methodological distinction, the required sense of objecthood for explaining our connection with reality will be one dependent upon the epistemic conditions that enable us to know objects. If, so conceived, objects must conform to the cognitive capacities of subjects, Kant thinks that it would be remarkable if we were just presented with objects of exactly this type, as if God had set up some harmony between object and cognition. So, he thinks that the subject must have some role in establishing the conformity of objects to the conditions under which we can know them. This role is to actively constitute objects, but only in respect of the conditions for them to be known by us. (Kant also thinks the failure of previous metaphysics justifies this as a tentative experimental hypothesis, but that need not concern us here.)

Kant’s idealism, then, consists in this: objects of knowledge are dependent upon knowing subjects for those features that enable them to be known. Obviously, what this then hangs upon is what features enable objects to be known. Kant argues that our only knowledge of objects is through sensible experience, and attempting to know objects apart from such experience simply leads reason into interminable confusion and contradiction. So, the conditions for knowledge of objects are those related to sensibility. But Kant does not think that all sensible properties of objects are directly dependent upon knowing subjects. Instead, he argues that it is the form of sensible experience, along with a set of conceptual structures in which the objects of experience are relatable, that are the relevant conditions of knowledge. This means that the subject only provides a spatio-temporal framework for objects, along with a number of principles (such as causality) that we must apply to organise experience in such a way that it can present objects graspable in thought.

Once a set of very general a priori conditions are in place, we have no role in shaping objects. Thus, Kant can claim to hold onto a qualified form of realism at the level of ordinary empirical properties. So, for example, we contribute the forms of space and time that an object must appear within, but that does not mean it must be our contribution where and when a given object appears. Thus, Kant marries a transcendental idealism, at the level of the a priori conditions of appearances, with an empirical realism, which holds at the cognition of those appearances.

Now, this is a very schematic account, and which fails to incorporate some of Kant’s central concerns (such as his attempt to explain synthetic a priori knowledge and his arguments against the reality of space of time). Nevertheless, I hope the general picture is clear. First, Kant seeks to explain our cognitive relation to objects. To do so he begins with a novel distinction between things-in-themselves and appearances (i.e. objects which are essentially knowable). He goes on to suppose we can make better sense of our relation to reality if we undertake the hypothesis that objects must conform to cognition rather than cognition to objects. This involves a critique of cognition to determine what the conditions for knowing objects are. The result is a conception of objects as having some formal features contributed by us a priori, whilst having their material empirical properties more robustly themselves.

Obviously, the correct interpretation of Kant’s theoretical philosophy is controversial, and the nature of his idealism particular so. I am somewhat attracted by a reading that moves away from language of the subject ‘constituting’ objects, of them conforming to the conditions of its experience, replacing this with the idea that objects must conform to the conditions of experientiality in general. This is the sort of Kantianism that, arguably, is latent in the Tractatus, though I am not yet sure to what extent it is Kant’s. Either way, I think the picture of Kant presented above is not too far from Hegel’s understanding of Kant — encapsulated in his claim that Kant was a ‘subjective idealist’ — and it is that understanding that will be paramount in the following posts.

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