Hegelian Glee-Watch: Dawkins, Go Home… Edition

I’m very fond of Hegel’s early anti-theological writings; there’s something just so, er, zesty about them. Here’s a representative passage:

I think there is no better sign of our time than the fact that mankind portrays itself as being so worthy of respect. It is proof that the aura surrounding the oppressors and gods of this earth is fading. The philosopher will demonstrate this dignity and the peoples will learn to feel and not merely demand the rights that have been so trampled under foot, but to receive them and take possession of them for themselves. Religion and politics have conspired together. The former has taught what the latter wanted: contempt for mankind, man’s inability to achieve good, to become something through his own efforts. With the propagation of the idea of how things should be, the indolence of people settled in their ways, their willingness to accept everything as it is for evermore, will disappear.

Hegel, Letter to Schelling

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Draft Review of Hammer’s ‘German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives’

Comments, whether stylistic or substantive, very welcome!

Espen Hammer (ed.): German Idealism: Contemporary Perspectives, London, Routledge, 2007, pp. 339. £18.99 pbk. ISBN 0-415-37305-0.

Update: I’ve taken down this post as the review is now forthcoming in the British Journal for the History of Philosophy in early 2009. Look out for it there…

Update II: The review is available online to subscribers here.

Kapital und Schwärmerei

1. David Harvey is giving a course that undertakes a close reading of the first volume of Capital, which you can watch over at davidharvey.org (via NP).

2. Here is a collection of talks given at a workshop with Brandom in 2005. Immersed in Fred Beiser’s The Fate of Reason, German Idealism: The Struggle Against Subjectivism and Schiller as Philosopher as I have been over the last few weeks, I found the anaemic post-analytic approach of them somewhat grating. Nevertheless, there’s still some good stuff to be found in there.

Hegel and the Law of Non-Contradiction
Paul Redding
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

What are the Categories in Being and Time? Brandom’s Account of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit
Bruin Christensen
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

Pragmatism, Expressivism and the Global Challenge
Huw Price & David Macarthur
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion) :: slides

The Significance of Embodiment – the Dangers of Leaving Nature Behind
Nick Smith
abstract :: sound recording (including discussion)

Kantian Lessons about Mind, Meaning, and Rationality
Bob Brandom
abstract :: sound recording (including comments by David Macarthur, and discussion)

Hegelian Glee-Watch: Scholasticus Goes For A Swim Edition

In my recent post on Kant’s idealism, I noted that part of Kant’s strategy was to give a critique of our powers of cognition so as to identify the conditions for epistemic access to appearances. According to Hegel, insofar as this critique must be prior to the exercise of cognition, so as to determine how our cognitive capacities are to be applied (e.g. only to sensible objects, conforming to the forms of intuition and a fixed set of general conceptual categories) then he thinks Kant has got himself in a bind. With somewhat uncharacteristic perspicuity, Hegel sets out his objection like so:

A very important step was undoubtedly made, when the terms of the old metaphysic were subjected to scrutiny. The plain thinker pursued his unsuspecting way in those categories which had offered themselves naturally. It never occurred to him to ask to what extent these categories had a value and authority of their own. If, as has been said, it is characteristic of free thought to allow no assumptions to pass unquestioned, the old metaphysicians were not free thinkers. They accepted their categories as they were, without further trouble, as an a priori datum, not yet tested by reflection. The Critical philosophy reversed this. Kant undertook to examine how far the forms of thought were capable of leading to the knowledge of truth. In particular he demanded a criticism of the faculty of cognition as preliminary to its exercise. That is a fair demand, if it mean that even the forms of thought must be made an object of investigation. Unfortunately there soon creeps in the misconception of already knowing before you know — the error of refusing to enter the water until you have learnt to swim. True, indeed, the forms of thought should be subjected to a scrutiny before they are used: yet what is this scrutiny but ipso facto a cognition?

Hegel, Shorter Logic, s.41

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.

Hegel and the Form of Law

I love Hegel’s prefaces. In many ways, this makes me a bad Hegelian since Hegel is always complaining about prefaces, at least in philosophical books. He thinks that they can be nothing but “external and subjective remarks” by the author, never getting to the heart of the matter, which for him is the actual development of the concepts and principles that the work concerns. So too, in the Phenomenology (para. 70) he wryly observes that sticking to prefaces and book reviews is a “common way a man can take in his dressing-gown” and which shirks the “labour of the concept [Begriff]”. Nevertheless, I think that Hegel himself writes particularly good, engaging prefaces, which are often less stiff in tone than much of the books they introduce.

When re-reading the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, I came across the following interesting passage:

The particular form of guilty conscience revealed by the type of eloquence in which such superficiality flaunts itself may be brought to your attention here and above all if you notice that when it is furthest from mind [Geist], superficiality speaks most of mind, when its talk is the most tedious dead-and-alive stuff, its favourite words are ‘life’ and ‘vitalize,’ and when it gives evidence of the pure selfishness of baseless pride, the word most on its lips is ‘people’. But the special mark which it carries on its brow is the hatred of law. Right and ethics, and the actual world of justice and ethical life, are understood through thoughts; through thoughts they are invested with a rational form, i.e. with universality and determinacy. This form is law; and this it is which the feeling that stipulates for its own whim, the conscience that places right in subjective conviction, has reason to regard as its chief foe. The formal character of the right as a duty and a law it feels as the letter, cold and dead, as a shackle; for it does not recognise itself in the law and so does not recognise itself as free there, because law is the reason of the thing, and reason refuses to allow feeling to warm itself at its own private hearth.

p.7, Knox translation, bold mine

In this passage, Hegel rails against those who would reject the notion of law and its philosophical analysis in ethical and political matters. In the previous paragraph, he singles out Fries for criticism, who he reports as saying “[i]n the people ruled by a genuine communal spirit, life for the discharge of all public business would come from below, from the people itself; living associations, indissolubly united by the holy chain of friendship, would be dedicated to every single project of popular education and popular service”. (Fries was a contemporary post-Kantian, whose theoretical philosophy includes what is—perhaps unfairly—often thought of as a psychologistic reworking of the transcendental deduction. Politically, he was a nationalist liberal not a million miles away from Hegel, although they disliked each other personally (see Pinkard’s biography of Hegel).)

The first thing that I wondered after reading the original passage was whether this was not just a rebuke to Fries and his ilk but also an implicit criticism of Hegel’s early position, set out in his unpublished Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate. In that work, Hegel tries to cast Christianity as a radically anti-legalistic religion, as against the supposed Judaic obsession with a rigid divine code delineating what is permissible and what forbidden. So too, the central categories that he employs in his analysis include ‘life’ and ‘love’. As such, we might think that his insistence on law in the Preface of the Philosophy of Right, and his scornful attitude towards bonds of mere feeling—what we might gloss as appeals to life and love as ethico-political concepts—represents a rebuke of his earlier self.

On closer inspection though, I think that Hegel’s position is remarkably consistent, especially considering that the Philosophy of Right (1821) is the last of Hegel’s books whilst the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate (1799) comes a good seven years or so before Hegel even completes the Phenomenology. To see this, we need to have a clearer understanding of both what the critique of law comes to in the early book and what Hegel finds problematic in the position of those who would reject law in the later book.

Hegel’s early opposition to law is expressed in this passage:

This spirit of Jesus, a spirit raised above morality, is visible, directly attacking laws, in the Sermon on the Mount, which is an attempt, elaborated in numerous examples, to strip the laws of legality, of their legal form. The Sermon does not teach reverence for the laws; on the contrary, it exhibits that which fulfils the law but annuls it as law and so is something higher than obedience to law and makes law superfluous.

p.212 Early Theological Writings trans. Knox

What is going on here? To begin, we can examine Hegel’s claim to strip laws of their legal form. This might mean a number of things, which we can bring out by contrasting law with other normative vehicles. We might distinguish laws qua universal, applying impartially to all, from commands qua singular, directed towards an individual (e.g. ‘Thou shalt not steal’ versus ‘Lieutenant, report to base!’). Stripping laws of their legal form might be thought of as a move from a conception of ethics as a neutral set of injunctions that have equal force for all and to a more context-bound conception of the force of ethical demands; perhaps that would be one in which the intelligibility or traction of ethical responsibilities would be dependent upon a ‘thick’ background of conditions that relate those responsibilities to the particular engaged perspective of the agent.

Another option arises if we contrast law with desire. Whilst the validity of a law is categorical, the reason-giving properties of a desire are hypothetical. In other words, if a law has a legitimate authority, it is not for us to decide whether we ought to follow it; whereas if we have a genuine desire, it only provides us with a reason if we decide to endorse it. In this way, we might read Hegel as rejecting the idea that ethics is intelligible or valid independently of the attitude that we take towards ethical responsibilities.

There are four possible claims here then generated by two readings of two contrasts with laws. The two readings are semantic and normative ones: that the intelligibility (semantic) or bindingness (normativity) of ethics is dependent upon some further thing. The two suggestions for this further thing were brought out by contrast to commands and desires. The first contrast suggested a possible dependence upon the particular ‘rich’ context of the agent (e.g. social role or identity, place within an institutional structure or practice, etc.). The second contrast suggested a possible dependence upon the attitude of the ethical agent towards the responsibility in question. As such, the four positions are semantic contextualism, normative contextualism, semantic attitude-dependence and normative attitude-dependence.

Having set out these options, I want to set them aside. Although each of them arguably has a Hegelian ring (although I would be wary of attributing them all to Hegel), I do not think that any of them is what Hegel is driving at here. Rather, I think that, in talking of “stripping laws of legality, of their legal form”, Hegel has their imperative form in mind. This is neither their universality (as denied by contextualism) nor their attitude-independent validity (as denied by normative attitude-dependence). So, the idea is that what the law mandates (its content) still has a claim upon everyone regardless of the situation they find themselves in, and too regardless of what they think or feel about it. But while Hegel’s Jesus’ Sermon still “exhibits that which fulfils the law”, it “annuls it as law“.

What does this mean though? Bob Stern helpfully draws a comparison with Kant’s notion of the ‘holy will’ on this point. For Kant, a holy will is one that does not feel a tension between morality and sensibility (perhaps through having no sensibility, as with God), and so one which acts perfectly rationally. Such a will would be under no strict obligations—would not feel the force of compulsion to do its duty—because the countervailing pressures of pathological desire would be absent from it. Whilst this is not a perfect analogy to what Hegel is after, I think that something like it comes into play. The idea seems to be that when we approach responsibility in the right way we can transfigure it from a law which governs us into an non-coercive act of love. As Hegel puts it:

To complete subjection under the law of an alien Lord, Jesus opposed not a particular subjection under a law of one’s own, the self-coercion of Kantian virtue, but virtues without lordship and without submission, i.e. virtues as modifications of love.

p.244

But does Hegel retain such a conception of the perils of law in the Philosophy of Right? Can’t we see in his early work a “special mark which it carries on its brow”, namely, “the hatred of law”? It might seem as if Hegel’s talk of love is saccharine romanticism, no better than the “immediate sense-perception” and “caprice” that he later finds in Fries. I do not want to suggest that there are no discontinuities between Hegel’s two positions, but I think they are very much more minimal than this characterisation suggests.

Firstly, Hegel’s discussion of love is in reference to a theoretical concept that he develops throughout the Spirit of Christianity and Its Fate rather than gesturing towards some sort of emotional state. The role that love plays in Hegel acts as a forerunner to his concept of Spirit, although undergoing some important revisions before emerging as that latter idea. Even so, in its original use it does not merely pick out a feeling (in the crude sense of a ‘mental state’) but a complex interpersonal relationship that binds people together.

Secondly, I think it is important to recall Hegel’s insistence that the content of law still be ‘exhibited’. That is, the law still specifies what we ought to do; the question is how we are to relate to that responsibility, not whether or not it is actually reason-giving for us. That is why I did not want to assimilate Hegel’s point to what I’ve called normative attitude-dependence: the idea that we have to first endorse something for us to have a reason to pursue it. By acting in a certain way, the law-form becomes superfluous for us, but that is not what Hegel will later paint Fries’ position as leading to. He seems to suggest that Fries is negatively determined by his rejection of law, such that he must reject law and turn to bonds of brotherhood and friendship as a separate normative or political standard.

Finally, I think the crucial part of the long passage quoted from the Philosophy of Right is this: “for it does not recognise itself in the law and so does not recognise itself as free there”. Here, Hegel makes it clear that he is not recommending law just for its own sake, or for its practical efficacy, but as something in which an agent can recognise themselves as free. An appeal to what Hegel calls “the broth of ‘heart, friendship, and inspiration'” fails to secure the right subject-relation in which people can be free. Indeed, excessive focus upon spontaneous upwellings of emotion and creativity can make law seem fusty, alien and oppressive, rather than being the true foundation of freedom.

I take it to be a key feature of Hegel’s mature views that freedom (secured by a relation to law) requires two central components: that certain objective conditions obtain and that certain subjective conditions obtain. It is in light of this two-fold approach that I suggest that we can find a perspective from which the apparent tension between Hegel’s early and late conceptions of lawfulness can be resolved. In the early Hegel, the pressures shaping his reaction to Kantianism mean that the emphasis is laid upon these subjective conditions—namely, our orientation towards our responsibilities, how we think, feel and enact them. In the later Hegel, his more conservative tone (whether genuine or feigned to avoid the real threat of censure) leads to an emphasis upon the necessity of our duties as citizens and ethical beings, as well as the broad shape of the objective social structures needed to realise our freedom, and which Hegel thought that progressive modern states were approaching.

Nevertheless, I think we can see both early and late Hegel as bringing together substantially similar subjective and objective conditions, taken as encompassing our own comportments and wider societal structures understood via an analysis of the concepts of right, in his diagnoses of modern life. Both share the idea that the form of law, of universal principles, can present a threat to liberty. This is so whether the danger is agents becoming self-alienated through enslavement to laws they legislate to themselves, or through the all-too-familiar alienation engendered by the impersonal legal-bureaucratic sphere that underlies the institutions of modern public life. But it seems to me that neither of Hegel’s positions represents a rejection of law which would seek to replace the law with something else (e.g. desire, well-being or community).

For the early Hegel, the solution is an ethics that attempts to ameliorate the imperative form of law which brought an oppressive element with it. As for St. Paul though, whose influence I see throughout that book, ‘love fulfils the law’, rather than replaces it. (I am not sure how well this fits with the picture of Paul and the law presented by Adam here.) I have taken up the suggestion that such an ethics is partially illuminated by reference to the ‘holy will’; and if it is right to say that God is love, then a will infused by love may merit description as such a holy will. But again, there is an important sense in which law remains in place regardless; the universal demands of politics and ethics have normative force whether or not we can escape the alienating effects of the law-form.

In the mature Hegel, the insistence on the absolute injunctions of the law are easier to see. But this remains coupled with an analysis of the necessary response to laws if they are to set us free rather than dominate us. We find Hegel saying of laws, “they are not something alien to the subject. On the contrary, the subject bears spiritual witness to them as to its own essence.” Here, I suggest both subjective and objective aspects are in play. To overcome alienation from laws will require us to understand them in a way that shows their inner rationality, so that we can come into a ‘homely’ affective and cognitive relation to them. The flip-side of that is ensuring that they, and the institutions and practices that give body to them, actually be rational such that we can express our freedom through them.