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Saturday, August 20, 2011


But this poses an enormous problem, of which Kant appears not have been aware. What is the relationship between the empirical self and the self in itself, between the phenomenal self and the noumenal self? Since the noumenal self is the moral self, the self that abides by the Moral Law, it is clear that the noumenal self is aware of itself. It is, Kant sometimes says, Practical Reason [thus identifying the bearer of a faculty with the faculty.] The empirical self, which experiences temptation, desire, pleasure and pain, is the appearance in the realm of phenomena of the noumenal self. I cannot recall that Kant ever says this straight out, but there is really no other possible answer to the question.

Let me try to clarify this by means of an analogy. Suppose that I decide to write a story about my family when I was a boy. In the story are a number of characters -- my father, my mother, my sister, my aunts and uncles, my cousins, and my grandparents. One of the characters in the story is called "Rob." [Since my big sister, Barbara, had already appropriated "Bobs" as her nickname I couldn't really be called "Bob," so I became "Rob."] All the characters in the story bear a relationship to me as the author of the story, but the character called "Rob" bears a special, a privileged, relationship to me as author. That character is the appearance of me in the story. No other character in the story can have that relationship to me as author. Now, my sister might decide to write a story about the family as well, and she might [though it is unlikely] write word for word the same story that I have written. In her story, there will be a character named "Bobs" who will have the same privileged relationship to her as author of her story that the character named "Rob" has to me as author in my story. There will of course also be a character named "Bobs" in my story and a character named "Rob" on her story, but neither of those characters will bear a privileged relationship to the author of its story.

This is, roughly speaking, the situation Kant is describing. I synthesize my manifold of sensuous intuition according to the rules for such synthesis, and produce thereby a story, if you will, that I call "nature." In that story are many objects -- the sun and the moon, the earth and all that is on it, and a number of human beings, among whom there is one bearing the name "Robert Paul Wolff" born in 1933 in New York City, New York. That human being is conscious -- indeed, he is self-conscious -- and he bears a privileged relationship to the noumenal self that has synthesized the manifold and has by so doing acted as "the law-giver to nature." That noumenal self is a moral agent, and it has certain obligations, says Kant, to other moral agents.

But how on earth can this moral agent ever encounter other moral agents in the realm of appearance that it has synthesized from a diversity of sense contents?

I want you just to think about this for a moment. According to Kant, I have moral obligations -- duties -- to other moral agents. Not to rocks or to trees or to horses or to human beings understood merely as natural things in the realm of appearance, but to other moral agents, which is to say other noumenal selves. But it is as a phenomenon, as an appearance, that I speak, make promises, tell lies, borrow money, kill other human beings, and do all the things that the Moral Law tells me I must do or must not do. And leaving aside the duties to myself, which Kant is sure to make a place for in his ethical theory but which do not really count for all that much, all my duties are to other noumenal selves. For the life of me, I cannot see how, on Kant's theory of a priori synthesis, I could ever even hypothetically encounter another noumenal agent in the realm of appearances.

I mean, we cannot each of us be telling numerically the same story, any more than -- to use an old philosophical example -- we can all be sneezing the numerically same sneeze. We might be telling qualitatively identical stories, by a sort of Leibnizean pre-established harmony, rather like two year olds engaged in what child psychologists call "parallel play," but Kant's very first foray into what became the Critical Philosophy, the Dissertation, decisively rejected the theory of pre-established harmony, and besides, even though it might somehow save physics, it cannot save morality. If I can never encounter another moral agent, then Kant's ethical theory is vacuous.

Well, no doubt you will along about now be waiting for me to tell you how this tangle can be unraveled, concluding with a triumphant reconciliation of Kant's ethical theory with his epistemology. But I cannot. No more can I reconstruct out of the text of the Groundwork a satisfactory demonstration of the validity a priori of a substantive fundamental principle of morality. Lord knows, it is not for not trying. I spent seven years puzzling over these questions. In the end, I wrote a book about Kant's ethical theory and a number of scholarly articles. But none of those writings contains a satisfactory resolution of this problem. Indeed, I do not think that it has a resolution. This has profound consequences for ethical theory, whether you are sympathetic to Kant's approach to the subject or not. But that is a story for another day. This "Introduction" has no gone on for more than thirty thousand words, and it is time to bring it to a close. I hope it has proved useful. I shall edit it slightly and post it on, so that anyone who is interested can read it at his or her leisure.


English Jerk said...

I wonder if there isn't some way to get from the universalizing move of (at least one of the formulations of) the categorical imperative to the ability of the noumenal subject to (unconsciously) infer the noumenal freedom of other subjects? In general, of course, noumenal stuff is off limits, but I wonder if we can combine whatever we know a priori about our own noumenal selves with observations of the phenomenal appearances of other humans into some (not a priori but at least well-founded) inference about the noumenal personhood of those others. It seems like needing only to know that they're free persons, and not needing to know anything about the contents of their consciousness, at least sets the bar reasonably low. But I'm probably missing some obvious way in which this doesn't work.

When I read the second Critique it seemed to me that Kant endlessly came back to the problem of figuring out how the noumenal self can cause the phenomenal self to act. And as far as I can tell, he never comes up with a satisfactory solution for that problem either. So it's not clear how I know that other people are the sort of beings I have moral obligations to, and it's also not clear how I could get myself to make good on those obligations.

In any case, thanks for this series, which has been fascinating!

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But the point of my last series of remarks is that it is NOT the case that I encounter the phenomenal appearances of other noumenal agents in my field of appearance. The problem isn't that I cannot be sure who they are as noumenal agents. They cannot even appear as phenomena in my field of appearance. Do you see what I am saying? Kant's theory of synthesis implies a radical solipsism, which is not a problem for science [as he understood it] but is for ethics.

I am very pleased that you found it interesting. It was quite a challenge to write.

English Jerk said...

Let me see if I have this right. If I see Donna crossing the street, there's only a very limited sense in which I see Donna: I see a phenomenal entity that is on par with lampposts and chihuahuas. But Donna-as-moral-agent, the Donna that is noumenal, I cannot see (by definition). Your point, then, is that the "Donna" I see is (as far as I can know) not an appearance of some noumenal free moral agent, but an appearance of some kind of thing-in-itself that is not a moral agent. So it's not really about her status as appearance but her status as appearance of. Is that right?

If I'm still missing it, it may be because I'm accommodating what I'm hearing to objections that Hegel raises to Kant in the PhG (he has in mind Kant's metaphysics and epistemology, and less his ethics, though Hegel of course has interesting objections to Kant's ethics as well). Hegel's point is basically that appearance is always the appearance of some essence, so that what we're really talking about is some kind of relation or activity rather than two independent properties--and for Hegel, the relation always turns out to be constitutive of the relata while at the same time being internal to them (you can imagine how the language of activity he derives from Aristotle's Metaphysics comes in handy for Hegel cashing this out). His way of putting this is to say "the essence of essence is to appear." An essence that didn't appear not only wouldn't be an essence, it wouldn't be anything, according to Hegel. So is the problem you're pointing to in Kant's ethics maybe another count in the charge of dualism? (With apologies for talking about Hegel...)

Robert Paul Wolff said...

God, I hate Hegel! The problem might be put this way: we have no grounds for differentiating among noumena, since even the notion of quantity is a Category, according to Kant. This does not matter in science, since all of nature is an interconnected whole for a Newtonian. There is no reason even to ask whether particular bits of matter are appearances of paerticular different noumena. It only matters [a lot] when we get to ethics, where the existence of two or more persons -- rational agents bound by the moral law -- becomes crucial.

The notion of a Realm of Ends, which Kant introduces in the GROUNDWORK as his third [unsuccessful] effort to demonstrate that the Moral Law has content [his first two are the famous four examples and then the notion of humanity as an end in itself] obviously requires that there be numerically several moral agents who can actually communicate with one another. But the extreme solipsism of the Deduction argument deems to rule this out.

English Jerk said...

Got it. Thanks, Dr. Wolff!

Marinus said...

"Hegel's point is basically that appearance is always the appearance of some essence, so that what we're really talking about is some kind of relation or activity rather than two independent properties--and for Hegel, the relation always turns out to be constitutive of the relata while at the same time being internal to them"

At the risk of irritating Prof Wolff some more, this challenge by Hegel did lead to one of the more significant examples of philosophic progress: Russell's debate with Bradley. Bradley defended Hegel's line, that relationships (between properties) are part of what constitutes the relata. Russell won that debate, by allowing with Bradley, Hegel and the idealists that (a) relationships are real, existent things, but then doing the legwork to demonstrate that (b) they don't constitute the relata, they instead determine the relata, and the relata determine the relationship. So, a complete description of the items in a relationship is also a complete description of the relationship, and vice versa. This is a genuine advance, and we owe a debt to Russell, Bradley and Hegel for it. Unfortunately, it seems that even more than a century later, not everybody has gotten the memo (on neither point (a) nor (b) ).

English Jerk said...


I have no interest in defending Bradley, since neither he nor Russell was a particularly careful reader of Hegel. Russell cannot possibly agree with Hegel that "relationships are real, existent things," since Hegel believes no such thing. Unlike Russell, it seems, many people in mainstream Anglo-American philosophy departments are reading Hegel seriously these days. In fact, most of the best scholarship on Hegel and German Idealism in the last couple of decades has come out of the US (see, for example, Paul Franks' excellent book All or Nothing).

Strangely, there are still people in philosophy departments who think themselves justified in dismissing Hegel based on Russell's caricature. I know of no other philosopher who is so frequently and confidently dismissed by people who don't bother to read him. One former colleague of mine told me that he began a course in analytic ethics by giving his students a "particularly silly" passage from Bradley alongside a forceful denunciation from Moore or Russell or someone, so that the students could "understand what analytic philosophy was reacting against." When I pointed out to him that he was encouraging his students to dismiss something they did not, in fact, understand, since they hadn't actually read any Hegel at all, he seemed unimpressed by the objection. When I questioned him further, I discovered that he also had never bothered to read much beyond the "Preface" to the Phenomenology of Spirit. I've had similar exchanges on more occasions that I can count.

So, Marinus, if you want to actually talk about Hegel (rather than just to dismiss him without argument), let's get this out of the way first: Have you actually read The Science of Logic, which would be the relevant text for this question?

john c. halasz said...

If forget the exact terminology, but Kant distinguishes between skepticism and the skeptical method and embraces the latter. The point is that he is committed to a complete phenomenal determinism, such that not just the order of empirical objects, but the empirical ego, inner sense and outer sense, are subject to that "rule". And the "I think" which must accompany all my representations, it turns out, can't be made an object of consciousness or conscious reflection, but, oddly, the very apogee of self-consciousness qua the "synthetic unity of apperception" is itself virtually unconscious.

Hence it follows that I could never know myself as "free", even if an active will must be subtending the entire process by which I synthesize coherent worldly experience. A forteriori I could never know another as "free" rather than as just another phenomenal robot.

The only phenomenal evidence of my "free will" consists in the sense of painful constraint by which I submit myself to the dictates of the "moral law", out of "Ehrfurcht" for it. In turn, the other doesn't exist except as an equally abstract intellectual posit. The respect due to the other is entirely as an equal "author" of the moral law, which can in no wise be phenomenally evident, but which is likewise a noumenal requirement of that same moral law.

john c. halasz said...

But I'll admit I don't understand this Hegel allergy. (And I don't understand how one can have read through all of Marx without understanding that his work is thoroughly cast in Hegel's dialectic idiom. What then does all that talk of "essence vs. appearance" mean, if it doesn't involve Hegel's transformation of those traditional terms, via a criticism of Kant's phenomenal/noumenal distinction? Which that 1st section after the intro in the 2nd "Self-consciousness" chapter of the PhG aims, among other things, squarely against. On certain readings of both, they are not really that far apart).

I'll admit I feel a certain allergy to the likes of Russell and Quine, but at least I've tried to figure out what they're about and where they're coming from before dismissing them.

Marinus said...

@English Jerk: The short response to that is that, since I was talking about Bradley and Russell, and you are talking about Hegel, we have nothing to say to each other.

I do think you're tilting at windmills a bit. God knows you're not mistaken when you talk about the widespread and ill-informed contempt Hegel is often treated with, but I didn't say anything about Hegel. I talked about a debate in the literature, one with a clear and important lesson to learn (and one I frequently have to bring up when people try to reduce properties of relationships to properties of individuals), and which we came to as a consequence of Hegel's contribution.

I have to say, though, that this puzzles me:" Russell cannot possibly agree with Hegel that "relationships are real, existent things," since Hegel believes no such thing." This would astonish me if it were true. It would be a mistake on Hegel's part, and one you wouldn't think What I meant is that relationships are like other real things in that it has survival conditions, systematic truth conditions for claims like 'this relationship is in effect here' or 'this relationship is stronger than that one', the appropriate causal powers, etc. Relationships pass every test for reality that tables or chairs do, except maybe that you can't kick them. But there are lots of real things you can't kick: sentences, mental states, etc. If that's not what you meant, I'm simply confused about what you were going for, and in any case, relationships are real things.

English Jerk said...


Since you quoted me talking about Hegel, and since you claimed that Bradley was defending "Hegel's line" on relations, I took your comment to be relevant to Hegel. Your point seemed to be that Hegel's account of relations had been decisively refuted by Bradley, though "not everybody has gotten the memo" on this supposed fact. I think if you look back at your comment, you'll see that this was a more plausible reading of what you wrote than that you "didn't say anything about Hegel."

In any case: yes, however astonishing you may find it, Hegel would deny that "relationships are real, existent things." He would, first of all, object to relations being called "things," since that way of talking about relations tacitly hypostatizes them, attributing to them some unstated sort of independence from the relata. Hegel was extremely insistent that the relata are all that there is (his way of putting this is to say things like "mediation only takes place within the extremes"). He would also object to calling relations "real," since that word once again hypostatizes them (since "real" is derived from the Latin res, 'thing'). He prefers the term Wirklichkeit (actuality) to Realität (reality) for most of the contexts in which philosophers like Kant would use the latter. His language of 'actuality' is intended to invoke the way in which Aristotle in Metaphysics transforms the static concepts of form (morphe) and matter (hyle) into the dynamic concepts of actuality (energeia) and potentiality (dynamis). He thought that many philosophers are led astray by tacitly hypostatizing what is, in his view, an activity (or what he colorfully calls in the preface to the PhS, "the labor of the Negative").

English Jerk said...

Hegel would very likely say that the concept of "survival conditions" presupposes a static conception of objects (there is some thing x at t0) that already poisons with error everything one might go on to say thereafter. He also objects to traditional correspondence theories of truth (which he would have been responding to in their scholastic form, i.e., truth as an adequatio rerum et intellectus), which he argues against at great length in several parts of the The Science of Logic. All of which is just to say that I can't present Hegel's position in Russell's vocabulary (at least not without a lot of explanation and scare quotes). Hegel went to a great deal of trouble to rebuild philosophy (and its idiom) on what he thought were more solid foundations. And before one can have any hope of understanding his views on a particular topic, one has to grasp Hegel's (rather unusual) fundamental assumptions (both metaphysical and methodological). This is why Hegel wrote The Phenomenology of Spirit: it is not intended as an exposition of his philosophical position, but as a device for training your mind so that it is capable of beginning to do philosophy (in the manner Hegel thought was the correct manner).

So, Marinus, if you don't already have some acquaintance with the nuts and bolts of Hegel, it just isn't possible for me to explain his views in a way that would be at all instructive within the constraints of a blog comment (not to mention the fact that Dr. Wolff might have me assassinated if I keep talking about Hegel!). Unless you want to spend some time reading Hegel, you'll just have to take my word (as someone who has read quite a bit of both Hegel and Russell) that Russell's objections to Hegel aren't even close to being devastating. And if pseudonymous blog commenters don't inspire much confidence, just have a look at some of the recent scholarship on Hegel (from mainstream American philosophy departments), where you'll see no suggestion at all that Hegel is in need of defense from Russell.

Also, I should say, for the record, that I like Russell (and Ayer, Carnap, Quine, Kripke, Lewis, etc.) quite a bit. Like all the best philosophers, Russell is frequently illuminating even when he's quite wrong.

Michael said...

Since we're talking about Hegel anyway I might as well mention that David Lamb wrote a book called "Language and Perception in Hegel and Wittgenstein" which I found very helpful when I first read Hegel. He deals directly with the problems brought up here. Of course I should add that I'm no expert. Still it's a short book and worth a look.

Marinus said...

If you excuse me speaking bluntly, I fucking hate it when someone, as a tells me I presuppose something as a philosophic point. To put it less pointedly: if, as Hegel (and whole traditions of philosophers, across time and space) can't resist doing, one first tells someone what they really mean, and then that the meaning they have been saddled with is mistaken, then one is at best being presumptuous.

The idea that talking about satisfaction conditions, etc., commits you to a type of hypostasis or essentialism or ossification is to accuse someone of a schoolyard mistake. The idea that this mistake can't be avoided is idiotic. I know what the satisfaction conditions are for the oven being hot enough to bake bread, but that doesn't mean I make any commitments about the continued condition of that oven, or ovens in general, or anything at all. To deny this is to make a mystery out of the commonplace.

In any case, you should believe me when I say I'm not talking about Hegel (or even all that much about Bradley and Russell) - I try very hard to get involved in as few controversies at a time as possible. I am still describing the consequence of one debate. For the purposes of making the point, it doesn't matter who it was addressed to or whether it counts as an adequate rebuttal to whatever the point was at hand (and I certainly am not naïve enough to take Russell's denunciations of other philosophers at face value). Perhaps I am artificially isolating it from its historical surroundings, but even taken in such an impoverished form that debate has important and illuminating repercussions: no matter how or why it was stated, there was a genuine advance in our understanding about relationships.

The point about how to characterise relationships has an impact on Hegel as well, on your reading. You repeat that "Hegel was extremely insistent that the relata are all that there is", but this would be an error on Hegel's part. A few examples: there is the earth and the moon, and the orbit of the earth around the moon; there is 3 and 9, and the 'x is the cube of y' relationship; there is my intent to work for money, my employer's intent to pay for work done, and our employment relationship; and so on. To use an example of Bernard Williams's: for the German Chancellor to declare war, certainly things need to be true of the individual in question (that they have those intentions, acted upon in this or that manner), but also truths about the institution (that that person is the Chancellor, and that that positions carries those powers), and the latter is nothing except a structure of relationships. This point is really important because still people want to treat relationships as if they were fictions or poor relations of individuals. But we need to to make sense of natural laws, and mathematical functions simply are relationships (a mapping from a range onto a domain, to be price). They are just as real as any other part of our world, and need to be treated with the appropriate respect. And, what is more, we know something about the logical link between relata and relationship: the link must be at least one of determination, like that of a sudoku puzzle to its solution (from either way). People often confuse relationships as the consequences of individuals, but we could just as well describe the relationship the other way round. This is a major advance! Where once there was confusion, there now is understanding, and philosophy progresses.

Marinus said...

Excuse the few typos (and one thinko) in that comment. The first sentence has a repeated 'as a'. The relationship between 3 and 9 is of course 'is the square of', not 'is the cube of'. 'We need to to make sense of natural laws' should be 'We need them [relationships as real entities] to make sense of natural laws'. Those are the worst errors needing correction, I think.

English Jerk said...


The target of your argument seems to be the sort of position Russell attacks in The Problems of Philosophy (in the chapter on universals, if I remember correctly?) that the properties of individuals are somehow more interesting than, or are logically/ontologically prior to, relations between individuals (a view he attributes to almost everyone). He argues that relations should be taken more seriously, and on that basis he argues for the plausibility of Platonic idealism. Neither Hegel nor I (nor you, I assume) disagree with Russell that relations should be taken seriously and are not reducible to or subordinate to properties of individuals (though surely none of us actually thinks Plato’s account of these matters is satisfactory either—despite his confusing use of the term Hegel is, of course, not an “idealist” in our sense but a “physicalist” in our sense). Hegel thinks that there are relations, and he thinks that they’re important. In fact, Hegel departs from the position you describe in that he thinks relations are even more important than you seem to think they are: he thinks that properties of individuals are, in fact, reducible to relations. And he thinks that what it means to be a certain kind of thing just is to enter into certain kinds of relations with other things (something that entered into no relations wouldn’t be any kind of thing). And he thinks that even existence is a certain kind of relation (something that entered into no relations wouldn’t even exist). This is why I said both that Hegel thinks relations are really important and that he “was extremely insistent that the relata are all that there is.” These two positions can be reconciled because (as I said in the first place) he thinks relations are constitutive of their relata—the relata just are bundles of relations and nothing else.

(cont. below…)

English Jerk said...

But there’s one other distinctive feature of Hegel’s account (an account which, obviously, I’m simplifying a great deal), namely that he thinks relations are activities rather than static facts. To enter into, say, an employer/employee relationship is not to be a certain way (to be employed, say) but to do something (to subordinate oneself to, and to labor for the benefit of, another). Hegel’s account sounds counter-intuitive because he thinks this is just as true of the redness of the rose as it is of your status as an employee (i.e., that redness is something the rose does, not just a property that it has, though of course it’s not something the rose freely chooses to do). But the fact that it’s counter-intuitive is not, by itself, an argument against his position, any more than it’s an argument against sub-atomic physics. Do you really think “the commonplace” isn’t “a mystery”?

The account you offer seems to suggest that relations are something over-and-above their relata. But it’s still not clear to me from your comment exactly in what way they are over-and-above their relata. And it’s also not clear to me why you think that this position is true. You list a series of examples, all of which can be accommodated by all of the theories on the table, so I don’t see how those examples prove that relations are irreducible to their relata (which I gather is what you’re trying to prove). For example, here’s what Hegel would say about your Chancellor example: yes the Chancellor is Chancellor because of the way he is, and his status as Chancellor (and everything else about the way he is) is just a product of relations. His political position involves a relation with all the other people in the state. This is clear from the fact that if everyone but the Chancellor were wiped out by a neutron bomb, he wouldn’t be Chancellor anymore. And if everyone including the Chancellor were wiped out, there wouldn’t be a Chancellor at all, or a state, or any other kind of relation between those people. So the relations aren’t independent of their relata; no relata, no relation. But it also goes the other way: to be an individual, for example, just is enter into a negative relation to a social whole. The hermit who lives alone couldn’t be an individual. So a person can enter into various relations, and particular relations are usually contingent in one way or another; subtract the person and there’s no more relation. But if you subtracted from that person all of that person’s relations, there wouldn’t be any person left. So Hegel would deny the kind of view you seem to oppose even more emphatically than you do.

Marinus said...

I really am unsure why, with so little prompting, you are lecturing me on Hegel. I haven't really indicated an interest in the subject, nor has anybody else. You might be accurately representing Hegel's position, but I don't really care, and I don't see why I should. I hesitate to say anything more - suffice it to mention that I find Hegel's position as you present it incredibly strong and inviting confusion, whereas the suggestion I've been trumpeting is much milder, while making perfect sense of the tricky issue of how to understand individuals and relationships (as being in a symmetrical determination relationship with each other, each being a real item in the ontology of the world), and can see no reason to commit to anything stronger.

For instance, in a very real sense your response to Williams's chancellor example is a nonsense. It's a nonsense dialectical move, because it isn't a response to the point raised. I said something about how we can't reduce relationships to individuals. You agree, and then try to change the topic by bringing in a much more involved and controversial ontology. To buggery with your ontology, for two reasons. Firstly, you're just changing the topic. Secondly, we should try to reduce controversies, whereas your move increases them. So, even if it were right in every detail, it's beside the point here. And I don't see why we should talk about Hegel's metaphysics just because you wheeled it in.

(Russell did tie this view to Platonism about numbers, but you needn't do that - view people like arch-Humean David Lewis buy into the same view about relationships without any trouble, as should all of us.)

English Jerk said...

It should be obvious from my previous comments why I'm talking about Hegel. But in any case, this exchange doesn't seem to be going anywhere. So I'll just shut my pie hole.

john c. halasz said...


Not to add any more fuel to the bonfire, but, at least in my understanding of the matter, there is a subtle evasion that Hegel performs. He actually says nothing about the reality of existents. Rather the "thought-determinations" of the "Logic" amount to the total set of categorical conditions-of-possibility by which experience can be intelligibly synthesized, such that the world "as a whole" and the various sorts of beings in it appear more-or-less as they are. IOW the entire argument is about the adequacy of appearances and *how* the world shows itself to our understanding and conceptual comprehension, since Hegel has criticized and rejected the notion of the "Ding-an-sich" from the outset. So the activity that "animates" all relations is the synthetic activity of "Geist", hence the claim for "absolute idealism". If Kant's claim was that "transcendental idealism is an empirical realism", then Hegel's corresponding claim would be that "absolute idealism is an objective realism", since the main burden of Hegel's justificatory claim or quasi-metaphysical "guarantee" is to show the (historically) emergent structure of intelligible experience embedded in the world as an order of objective rational truth "as a whole" as reconciled with the attained self-consciousness of rational freedom. Which is why Hegel declares the full emergence of such a worldly understanding with the advent of a differentiated modernity is the "end of history": it's not that further discoveries won't be made or further significant historical events unfold, but they would occur and be understood precisely in terms of such a framework of modern rationality, which can't be gotten back behind or regressively extinguished. Or so he claims.

At any rate, if one wants to discuss the reality of relations and the constitutive role they might play in the emergence of real existents, then maybe Russell and Hegel (or Bradley) is not the best starting point. Rather try this fellow:

English Jerk said...


Everyone's talking about Whitehead these days, so I really ought to find time to read him. Alas, I haven't yet. (I'm just delighted that Wolff has given me an excuse to finally read some Hume!)

In any case, I think it's hard to consistently read Hegel in the manner you describe. The basic problem that Hegel (and Fichte, Schelling, the young Hoelderlin) has with Kant is that (simplifying a bit) he thinks Kant has imposed a subject-object dualism on the world, however brilliantly Kant manages to rescue the objective aspects of subjectivity. Hegel's project is to overcome that dualism, by showing (on my reading at least) that once you see the subject-object relation as constitutive, then there's no aspect of reality that is in principle inaccessible to consciousness. This is why Hegel's Logic is not an account of the world as it appears to us; it begins with "pure being," and only with volume 2 does subjectivity start to come into it. Kant thinks of concepts as fundamentally mental structures that we impose on sense data; Hegel thinks of concepts as the essential nature of mind-independent things, so that when we have grasped the concept of a thing we have real access to it. In his idiom, appearance is literally Schein, the shining-forth of something, so that there's nothing that remains behind, concealed and inaccessible (no world-behind-this-world of things-in-themselves, etc.). Hegel talks about the "absolute" because he thinks that everything is in principle accessible to consciousness (or at least to collectivity, which is what he means by Geist). He calls his position "speculative idealism": it's an "idealism" because he thinks that the essence of a thing is its concept (so it's not an idealism that looks anything like Plato's or Kant's), and it's "speculative" because its underlying logic is what people these days call "dialectical" (Hegel rarely used this term) rather than "ratiocinative" (i.e., the conception of logic one finds in the Organon).

None of this simply maps onto his theory of history. There's a reason why historical examples are almost entirely absent from the Logic, even though they figure prominently in the Phenomenology. I have some ideas about the relationship, but it would take me much more space than I have here to state them in any intelligible form. The key to the relationship, in my view, is Hegel's account of contingency, which is also important for removing the impression that Hegel is a historical determinist. But that's a discussion for another day.

Calgacus said...

Interesting conversation.

Hegel thinks of concepts as the essential nature of mind-independent things, so that when we have grasped the concept of a thing we have real access to it. Think it is better to say he thinks of concepts as the essential nature of things, which we might unphilosophically delude ourselves to be mind-independent. Sounds like good old fashioned common sense to me. :-)

Marinus said...

Whitehead is a style of philosopher we're not likely to see again any time soon, at least not for a little while. I had occasion to dive into his Process Philosophy recently, especially as it pertains to theology. It's a clear and consistent wide-ranging philosophic system - fiendishly complicated, but everything has its place and there's no unnecessary obscurity. But what there is is a very tight lattice of a number of strong and deeply controversial theses, working together to get one or two results Whitehead wants (like a halfway decent response to the problem of evil), but at some pretty severe costs (God is no longer omnipotent, moral goodness becomes no more than an aesthetic preference for harmony rather than discord, and a lot of very, very strange metaphysics). And all of it stands or falls together. This is a problem, because surely there's going to be a mistake in there somewhere, and if there is, the whole theory is a nonsense. Despite Charles Hartshorne's development of the theory, I can suggest a number of spots the theory goes off the rails, as could anybody else who spent some time with it and minds their Ps and Qs.

If you were a Bayesian, and accordingly took the credence you should give the theory to be a conjunction of the credences you should give all the various theses that go into that theory... you would end up with a very small number indeed. I'm not a Bayesian, but the lesson of much of philosophy from the mid-20th century onwards is that philosophers are far too fond of wildly strong generalisations, and that we are better off finding milder but still interesting theories which make some progress, rather than try to solve all the problems of philosophy in one stroke. Because that one stroke never works. And Whitehead falls afoul of that, I'm afraid.

john c. halasz said...


I'll admit that I have absolutely no interest in "philosophical theology", whether imputed to Hegel or to Whitehead. In fact, when I first came across such issues raised by Whitehead, (while scouting him out in a secondary source, before slogging through P&R), I threw the book across the room. But that's simply not the main point in Whitehead. Rather the whole point of his enterprise is to constitute a non-reductive physicalist realism, drawing its inspiration from general relativity and early quantum theory, to uphold the rationality of modern science, while guarding against the damages that "the fallacy of misplaced concreteness" can do to the practical concerns and endeavors of humankind. His "metaphysics" as natural cosmology is entirely heuristic and based on fallibilistic premises.

So what is "God" doing there? Well, he's set himself a problem of the basic intelligible order in nature, and he needs to prevent the potential infinity of different. external monadic perspectives from descending into chaos. Since the basic idea is one of emergent evolution. (I don't think one can conceive of "nature" without some such conception). I could go into a Heideggerian/deconstructive account of why he ends up in such a metaphysical quandary, but I won't bother. Rather the "theology" is only terribly significant if one deliberately shifts his basic intention from a realist to an idealist register, which is what Hartshorne does. (As an aside, I once got into a discussion on a Mormon site, which I could recognize because I knew Whitehead, but it turned out that the main protagonist was referencing Hartshorne. Though I'll admit that I respect the ability of a basically magical religion to generate such a caliber of intellectual cadres). I'm actually surprised if Whitehead has become au courant, since I'd thought he'd been largely and unjustly neglected, partly due to the Hartshorne misdirection and partly from the general eclipse of pragmatist strains of thinking with which he affiliated himself.

Whitehead was teaching at Harvard just as Quine was coming up. In fact, he might have been a supervisor of Quine dissertation. So it's somewhat ironical that his work is a critique avant la lettre of the very sort of quasi-positivist reductionist physicalism that Quine was to propound. And Davidson was a classics major there who took two philosophy courses from Whitehead in his last year, and then switched to philosophy after the War. Something of his "anomalous monism" amounts, I think, to an attempt to recapture something of Whitehead in Quine's Analytic idiom. (In fact, I tend to think of Davidson as a kind of twelve-step program for recovering from Quine).

john c. halasz said...


I don't think your account of Hegel is all that different from mine. Maybe it's a difference of emphasis. But since this is R.P.W.'s blog, maybe any further discussion should be taken off-line. I can be reached at

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