on plotinus/beauty

March 25, 2014 § Leave a comment


That the ancient 3rd century Neo-platonic philosopher Plotinus should choose to first write about beauty is in itself a beautiful thing.[1] Why couldn’t one falling for a beautiful object, idea, or virtuous living, also be a person who falls in love with wisdom? It is in his introductory treatise, “Beauty” from the Enneads, that Plotinus makes the uncommon (yet entirely relevant) connection between aesthetics and ethics. This affiliation is relevant if we accept that the ethical life or better yet, the virtuous life is one that is beautiful to our universal conceptions of how one aspires to virtue. The spare objectives for this paper will be to first look at Plotinus’s opening sections of his treatise on the beautiful that analyze various qualities concerning a physical conception of beauty, and then continuing through the treatise to examine his way of transitioning from physical matters to an all-important aesthetic of virtue. In closing, a few ideas will be offered by which to contemplate Plotinus’s departure from the material.

Without any unnecessary forgoing, in §§1-3, Plotinus presents us with a few basic notions that have to do with a sensory perception of the beautiful, as visual, auditory, etc. These are immediately sketched in tandem with the idea that a virtuous life is also something of beauty. “Dedicated living, achievement, character, intellectual pursuits” are themselves beautiful (I, 6 [1], 1). But what of these things in relation to one another?—how is the virtuous related to a beautiful object? Firstly, Plotinus has to get us to understand what he means by a beautiful thing, a “bodily form,” this has to be done before one can know how appreciating virtue is aesthetical. A reason why this arrangement is valuable is that one might forget that to consider something beautiful might mean to go beyond the sensual. In our media saturated culture, it’s easy to forget that the beautiful can be something other than (commercialized) sight, scent, sound, touch, or taste. It is just as well that in Plotinus’s time there were those who thought that beautiful things had only to do with symmetry.[2] In our own regard, this simple idea should not be cast off too quickly, since it does stand to reason that a beautiful face is one that is supposedly more symmetrical. Or in another vein, that a handsome building such as Michelangelo’s St Peter’s Basilica in Rome is beautiful due to its symmetry. Certainly too, a butterfly’s wings are beautiful in their symmetry. It’s easy to see why the ancient thinkers would have thought of beautiful things as possessing symmetry, yet it becomes clear for Plotinus that this is not the only trademark of beauty. Held within this notion, that beauty is tied to things that are symmetrical, is also the idea that these things must be composites—that they be made up of parts. To be sure, of the examples mentioned, these things are composite, a butterfly has a body in the middle of two wings, and St. Peter’s Basilica has a central dome flanked by two smaller domes on either side, and so on. Can one not find beauty in a non-composite thing? “But is not gold beautiful? And a single star by night?” (I, 6 [1], 1). In agreement with Plotinus, it will be said that gold’s power is beautiful all by its self, and that it doesn’t always need any of the aforesaid symmetry for us to cherish it all the same.

Along with these issues, there is another more pressing question. Since Plotinus privileges the virtuous with his consideration of the beautiful, this begs the question as to whether or not the soul’s ways can be said to be symmetrical. How can one suggest that, for example, an altruistic deed is symmetrical? There is much talk these days about living a ‘balanced’ life, implying a kind of symmetry brought about by weighing the good with the bad, or a life where good healthy living is made to be balanced with what?—equal measures of a bad, unhealthy life? It must be better said that such a life of ‘balance’ is instead, one made of careful moderation, temperance, and kindness, all attributes of virtue, but not a life measured into symmetrical components whereby the good is balanced with the bad, into neat, even proportions to be measured. “What yardstick could preside over the balancing of the The Soul’s potencies and purposes?” (I, 6 [1], 1).

Already, one gets the feel for what Plotinus wishes for his readers to see, issues of beauty are tough to define as is the very pursuit of a good life. One thing is already clear: symmetry doesn’t necessarily define the beautiful. But the beautiful in bodily forms has to be more than that, and it doesn’t just mean that bodily forms (physical objects) aspire to the virtuous either. For a physical object to be beautiful as with an artistic expression, it has to be “in accord with Idea” (I, 6 [1], 2). In §3 Plotinus writes on the way an object’s beauty relies on the Idea and the intelligible. This is given the metaphor of fire, whereby fire’s beauty inhabits physical matter much as an Idea inhabits a physical, created form. “Always struggling aloft, this subtlest of elements is at the last limits of the bodily” (I, 6 [1], 3). Fire is destructive as much as it is life supporting, and just as well, our ideas and concepts of things can destroy or create the man-made objects of this world. Plotinus cherishes this kind of connection from the mystical to the physical. The things of the physical realm, when touched by the hand of an artist whose soul is in alignment with the intelligible realm, partake in the discernible, laudable, and beautiful qualities of the Idea. A beautiful house is not only beautiful in its aesthetic composure, it is beautiful in the way that it is engineered to be a comfortable home that has ease of movement, organization, and is structurally sound.

And another profound thought is brought about in §4, here one finds out that if we are to recognize beauty, we must be able to find it as an aspect of our own soul. “Seeing of this sort is done only with the eye of the soul” (I, 6 [1], 4). How can one judge the character of others without already having a sense of what it means to have an upright character as a potential in ourselves? It’s easy to misunderstand honest virtue when we have fallen in with the depravity of the body’s lusts. This idea smoothly transitions into §5 where one can foster the beautiful from inside, providing oneself with such qualities as “largeness of spirit, goodness of life, chasteness… [etc.]” (I, 6 [1], 5). But when the soul is sullied, it likes to wallow it its decrepitude. That paradoxical human trait the French call nostalgie de la boue (nostalgia for the mud) is not far from this downgrading of man’s soul described by Plotinus. How often does one hear of the variegated humiliations of desire, or the voluntary servitudes of the flesh, in which a man is willing to subject himself to when he is overly enamored with the body’s filiations? In spite of these hungers, what this suggests is the idea that the soul is already pure, and that when it wishes to taste earthly filth, it can still purify itself beyond that, “the soul is ugly when it is not purely itself” (I, 6 [1], 5). The beauty of gold now serves to metaphorically symbolize the purity that a soul can become when un-pure dirt is filtered from it, and then washed away.

Too close of an easy concession with the body draws the pure soul downward. To ascend up toward the beautiful the soul has to succumb to certain rejections of the bodily, e.g. “what is magnanimity except scorn of earthly things?” (I, 6 [1], 6). For Plotinus, the Good is beautiful as much as the “intellective” is beautiful. This has to mean that intelligence and the learned are forms of beauty, thus speaking mystically: The Soul is made beautiful in congruence with The Intelligence. By extension, a person’s soul is made beautiful in correspondence with the intelligible—with what is typically called wisdom.

For Plotinus, the beautiful souls have been “stripped of the muddy vesture with which they were clothed in their descent” (I, 6 [1], 7). Once man’s soiled habits have been cast off, he can again seek to become unified with the Good. His seeking for the Good will not be easy, since the comforts of the degraded body drag him away from it all the time. It is at this point, in §7, where one is not completely sure if the bodily has anything worthwhile to offer the soul, other than as mere vehicle. One is also led to wonder if rejecting the material world will be as beautiful as we are led to believe. Still, the beauty of an ascetic life is one where our goals are grand while our body is kept humble. The virtuous is kept alive in this direction upward. There is something to learn. The body is limited. To aim upward to the virtuous, what must be done? “We must close our eyes and invoke a new manner of seeing…” (I, 6 [1], 8).

Plotinus is good to remind his readers again that if they wish to be beautiful “by the virtue of men for their goodness” they will have to look inside themselves (I, 6 [1], 9). To become virtuous, one will have to look inside and work the soul as one who would sculpt fine marble. This kind of work is spiritual work, making the soul pure, emulating pure action, becoming a better person, and delimiting the pangs of the corporeal. To repeat, one cannot do any of this until we come to a closer comprehension of our own role, our own problems, and our particular shortcomings. When these virtuous thoughts are put into action, perhaps there will be time to take notice of Plotinus’s hierarchy, where Beauty resides with the Intellect, but does not completely reach the heights of the One, which is in closer proximity to the Good (from where Beauty originates).

But is beauty really as internal, rather than external as Plotinus suggests? It is clear that in our day-and-age, physical beauty is a quality that is highly valued. And it is also clear that being virtuous is highly valued. Of course, whether one takes the moral-high-ground, physical beauty will have to be subordinate. Who would voluntarily claim that physical beauty is better than virtuous action? Not many would say it with words outright. However, it can be observed that such dichotomies are not so obviously binary, and again how can such things be measured? Philosophically speaking, these sharp divisions between the body and spirit, matter and idea, figure prominently in a philosophic discourse beginning with Plato and beyond. It is because of this problem, between the mind and body, where one looks for the places where the two are reconciled, say with Phenomenology or other such ideas. With this said, one mustn’t become too cynical to discard Plotinus for his priorities, his hierarchies, and his divisions. Even though the world around us might privilege the beautiful face over the beautiful action, it continues to make sense that vain thinking is shallow. Plotinus’s way of placing the physical below the spiritual is idealistic without a doubt. This is problematic if one is to assume that such idealism is flawed, such cynicism prevails only if we repeatedly propagate it ourselves. Plotinus’s teachings are beautiful when one is ready to hear them. This is an idealistic effort, but a key factor will be what happens once the virtuous is put into action in the day-to-day of our lives. Only then will our idealism be actualized. Being good does not happen in a vacuum, it has to be meted out dynamically. The beauty of the good life is made possible by action. Plotinus was not only contemplative, he was wise and intelligible. If he had never put into words his beautiful thoughts, philosophy would be less pure, less wise.

Aurelio Madrid



Inge, Wiliiam Ralph. The Philosophy of Plotinus: The Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews, 1917-1918, Vol. II. New York, New York: Greenwood Press Publishers, 1968.

Pistorius, Philippus Villiers. Plotinus and Neo-Platonism: An Introductory Study. Cambridge: Bowes and Bowes Publishers Limited, 1952.

Plotinus, The Enneads. Translated by Stephen MacKenna. New York, New York: Faber and Faber, 1969.

—. The Essential Plotinus. Translated by Elmer O’Brien. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964.

[1] Elmer O’Brien mentions that “Beauty” is “the earlier of the treatises” and that “for centuries Beauty was the sole treatise by which Plotinus was known.” Plotinus, “Beauty,” in The Essential Plotinus, translated by Elmer O’Brien. (Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing, 1964, 33.

[2] O’Brien attributes this idea, where the beautiful was mostly about the symmetrical, to the Stoics.

lyotard, baudrillard, & althusser

March 6, 2014 § 2 Comments


Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Althusser

Of the three philosophers selected for this post, only one, Jean-François Lyotard writes specifically about art. Whereas the other two, Jean Baudrillard and Louis Althusser deal with complimentary issues that easily segue into aesthetics. With the question of how these French 20th century philosopher’s concepts relate to aesthetic issues, it will be worthwhile to briefly outline what each philosopher theorized, then in turn, how these ideas are relatable to aesthetics. Also, as much as their ideas can be put into an aesthetic context, each of these three thinker’s wide reaching ideas adapt to the political, the social, and the economic situation/s of our contemporary (post-modern) world without distortion.

Not only do all three philosophers share the same language and nationality, they also share in the legacy of Marxist thought. The most stridently Marxist was Althusser. One might be inclined to dub him a Marxist apologist. Because Althusser was so entrenched in Marxist doctrine, he arduously refined and reexamined how Marx was read. There is not just one way to read Marx, and Althusser had to find ways to read him that countered the political trends of Stalin’s Soviet Union. Althusser broke new ground in his description and theorizing concerning the inner workings of ideology, which Marx also identified as a problem, just not in the same degree that Althusser did. Ideology couldn’t be discarded, yet for Althusser, theory would take center stage. It was within theory that Althusser identified his concept of hailing. Hailing basically encapsulates interpellation. “All ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.”[1]

In the most general sense, interpellation means that all (yes all) ideology actively assumes everyone should take part in its ideological prescriptions. For capitalism this means that everyone is interpellated at the workplace: ‘there is no I in team.’ For society this means that everyone is interpellated in the public sphere: ‘shake hands with people you meet.’ For economics this means that everyone is interpellated in an economic sphere: ‘save your money for retirement.’ It all makes ‘common sense’ and none of these slogans are typically regarded of as ideological, since ideology works best when it doesn’t identify itself as such.[2]

But what about art?—how does art interpellate the audience? A viewer mistakenly presupposes that everyone knows the ‘rules’ of the game, if such rules can be said to be real to begin with. Such presupposed rules could be an ideal that all art must somehow be beautiful, or that art must incessantly aspire to beauty. This simultaneously suggests that art cannot be ugly and that if art looks unappealing (to us) in some way, we judge to be wrong. Interpellation easily works both ways, art presents ideological subjects, as with social realism (Stalin adores the rosy cheeked proletariat). And as noted, an audience can bring its ideology to the act of viewing art, ‘my child can do that’ is code for: I cannot see the value in this painting, beyond the efforts of a child, because my narrow idealism demands nothing less than the allure of old-fashioned academicism.

Lyotard presents another way that Marxist theory affected philosophy and the arts, albeit his Marxist influence is much less militant than Althusser’s. Probably one of the first to put postmodernism into name, Lyotard wrote convincingly of a new kind of relativism, a.k.a. the metanarrative. “Simplifying to the extreme, I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives.”[3] This meant that the so-called ‘grand narratives’ of the past were no longer the only narratives that mattered, or that they were no longer the ones that carried the utmost power. These metanarratives are seen as stemming mostly from the rationalist ideals of the Enlightenment, such as: the authority of science, the dominance of Christian doctrine, and of course, the supremacy of rationalism itself. This idea has multiple readings, and most of it has a thin (and strong) Marxist thread throughout, that obviously seeks to delimit the powers that be. Decentralizing power means that a special kind of relativist paradigm must prevail, and this is a problem with Lyotard’s death of the metanarrative that cannot be addressed here, yet relativism should be recognized as a dominate symptom of postmodernity.

For society at large, Lyotard critiques, and calls into question, the ascendance of scientific supremacy. With his ideas, one is better equipped to seriously question if science does indeed have all the answers, and, if the scientific pursuit of getting to know the secrets of the universe is really all that helpful for mankind. Rationality too thinks it has all the answers, but it easily forgets the value of intuition, randomness and the uncompleted. Amidst these things, (postmodern) art has special place, since it tries to represent the unrepresentable, at least in Lyotard’s brilliant way of refining Kant’s aesthetic notion of the sublime. To represent the unrepresentable sounds like nonsense if one is only interpreting the idea with a rational lens. That which cannot be named, must be that which is mysterious and enigmatic. Paradoxically, if art chooses to negate the unrepresentable, it would look something like advertising, we’d all ‘get it’ and its value would fade, duly its essential and sublime mystery would be automatically lost.[4]

Of the three theorists, Baudrillard stands as the most identifiable to a general audience, due to his (dubious and loose) connection to The Matrix. One easily forgets that Baudrillard wrote compelling philosophy, if the polished cinematic science-fiction—that’s supposed to emulate his ideas—doesn’t take half as much time to read as one of his finely crafted, labyrinthine essays. His idea of simulacrum replaces the real not by mere imitation, but by nothing at all. The simulacra are mostly the empty signs of capitalist excess and power relations. The referent is empty. Hyperreality defines this familiar pseudo-reality because we can no longer tell the difference between the real and the simulacra. “By crossing into a space whose curvature is no longer that of the real, nor that of truth, the era of simulation is inaugurated by a liquidation of all referentials…”[5] Political scandal epitomizes what Baudrillard describes because we are simply unable to detect what real political power actually is, amidst the intrigue, gossip and scandal of Washington insiders. We are led to believe that politics has more to do with what makes the news, rather than the ‘boring’ work of actually getting things done on a daily basis. For the art world, Baudrillard’s concepts hit with surprising force during a time in the 80s and 90s when questions of the copy, appropriation, sampling, authenticity, etc., were becoming critical aspects of a postmodern reevaluation of the puritanical dogma/s of modernism. Baudrillard’s concept of the simulacra is necessarily empty, and not a mere copy of reality, still, his foreboding pessimism glares with cynicism, since he exposes where we as a society are lacking. He presented a dystopian vision, yet the provocation haunts us all the same.

Where would we be if we were not critical of the transparent powers that impregnate authority? Marxism seems to have failed in the political arena, however, it continues to demonstrate its capacity to undermine established ways of thinking. Its power is dialectical. It moves critical thinking ahead by the strife of intellectual exposure and disclosure. It’s easy to be smug and narrow. These things don’t require alternative modes of analysis. All three of the philosophers presented here have demonstrated alternate routes from the mainstream. But, when will we listen?

aurelio madrid


Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses: Notes Towards an Investigation.” In On Ideology, Translated by Ben Brewster, 1-60. New York: Verso, 2008.

Baudrillard, Jean. “The Precession of Simulacra.” In Simulacra and Simulation. Translated by Sheila Faria Glaser, 1-42. Ann Arbor, Michigan: The University of Michigan Press, 1994.

Harrison, Charles and Paul Wood, eds. Art in Theory: 1900-2000, An Anthology of Changing Ideas. Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.

Lyotard, Jean-François. “The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge” and “What is Postmodernism?” in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Translated by Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi, 1-82. Minneapolis, Minnesota: The University of Minnesota Press, 1984.

[1] Althusser, Louis, “Ideology and State Apparatuses,” 47.

[2] Althusser names this phenomena: denegation.

[3] Jean-François Lyotard, intro to “The Postmodern Condition,” xxiv.

[4] …never-mind what this means for an interpretation of Pop Art or Warhol’s claim that there’s ‘nothing behind it.’

[5] Jean Baudrillard, “The Precession of Simulacra,” 2.

frede’s stoicism

February 14, 2014 § Leave a comment


Reconstruction of the Stoa Poikile by Kronoskaf

Frede on the Development of Free Will for the Stoics

Michael Frede’s posthumously published A Free Will: Origins of the Notion of Ancient Thought [1] features two chapters of particular interest concerning the development of the notion of will and of free will according to the ancient Stoics: chapter three, “The Emergence of a Notion of Will in Stoicism” and chapter five, “The Emergence of a Notion of Free Will in Stoicism.” Stoicism got its roots in Greece and followed, roughly 400+ years of popularity. From the Greeks on to the Romans, Stoicism endured for such a long time because it is a practical way of living one’s life. The philosophy of Stoicism offers to help people lead a better life through wisdom, instead of getting swept up in the contingencies of life, and henceforth becoming foolish.

This book was put together by A.A. Long after Frede’s tragic death in 2007. It is based on a series of lectures Frede delivered during the 1997-98 fall semester, as the Sather Professor of Classical Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. It reads like a lecture and less like an academic document, meaning that, Frede didn’t include copious notes and textual analysis. Instead, the ideas are offered from a knowledgeable professor to his students. It is obvious from the reading that Frede has an extensive working knowledge of Stoicism, enough to convey it is this matter of fact way. Frede put down a clear rendering of how the Stoics, not only identified the notion of will in the actions and thoughts of man, but also, how the Stoics identified and developed the will into a nuanced conception of free will. The goal of this post will be to identify a few of the major steps this Stoic development had to take to become one of the first conceptions of free will in the ancient world, starting with the will and carrying that conception to a notion of free will.

I. Will

The first thing to do is look at the development of will in Stoicism. Believe it or not, Aristotle and Plato did not have a complete notion of free will. As Frede says, Plato and Aristotle thought of the soul as bi or tripartite, this view was rejected by the Stoics (32). Socrates was the role-model for the Stoics, at least how Socrates is depicted in the early dialogues of Plato—namely Plato’s Protagoras and The Pheado (32). Socrates placed a premium on reason, and so did the Stoics. For the Stoics, reason was their guide. Aristotle had the idea that there were irrational parts of man’s soul that impel people to act. The irrational part of man’s soul can develop into a rational way of knowing the world. The irrational part of the soul doesn’t leave. The Stoics had a slightly different take on this, because they believed that partitioning off of the soul had undesirable consequences. If the soul is divided, one might come to think that the irrational parts of the soul are alright, and that if we just enhance these irrational drives, we might get what we want, enough to become fooled into thinking that these irrational things are good and better than the rational.

The Stoics, according to Frede, argued that such things as anger and fear are not necessarily natural. Anger and fear do not help us with attaining genuine good and evil outright. The only good someone attains should be aimed at wisdom, and evil is a result of foolishness. Anger and fear are not irrational—they are products of bad reasoning. There are things to reject, for instance, anger which is bad, and there are good things to accept like temperance, which we can aspire to. It is not the soul that creates the assumed irrational part of us. The person who accepts this is prone to mistakes. Our goals are mistaken if we are not guided by wisdom. Wisdom itself will be looked at more in depth later. Although the Stoics rejected Plato and Aristotle’s ‘bi or tripartite’ divisions of the soul, according to Frede, their idea has more to do with a growth of the person’s reason out of the irrational. When we were born, we were more plantlike (for the Stoics) and our growth was governed by nature (by physis / φύσις), from here we grow and develop out of this plantlike state into a rational being, thus leaving the irrational behind (35). Anything like a rational desire for anger should be supplanted by the rational, and wise, desire to move away from anger. The irrational is then left behind for the rational.

On a fundamental level, the Stoics believed that cognitive perception involves incoming “impressions” from the outside world. Some impressions entice us and other things repel us. This, in turn, causes an initial impulse to either act on the impulse toward the impression, to grab it, to throw it down or to talk about it, etc. The impressions are thought to contain propositional content, either they are considered to be true or false (37). What this means is that the veracity or falsity of the multitude of impressions requires one to place concepts to the particular way the impressions come and go—i.e. we learn by experience how to deal with things on this fundamentally practical level. How one deals with these things is basically conceived of as thought itself. The main question has to do with what to do with the impressions. The active way in which we deal with the impressions is: assent (37). The way in which with give assent to any number of given impressions forms our beliefs and attitudes about the world. In other words, when we have an impression, we choose to give assent to the impression. The ways in which we do this form a basis for the particularity in the ways we each do things as individuals, rationally.

Appetites and passions are not to be confused with beliefs. And emotions for the Stoics are simply misguided beliefs. To draw this out a little more, Frede gives an example of what we do when we cut our hand with a knife. In this case, we have two possibilities. One is to become paranoid. Leading us into thinking and believing that the knife cut will get infected, and from the infection you’ll die. The base problem with this belief is the fear of death. The Stoics thought that death is inevitable, and therefore death should not be feared. This doesn’t mean that Stoic entices or hastens death, rather he’ll be, because he is careful, alerted by the cut to care for it so as to maintain the life he has, in order to continue fulfill the good. If he is wise, and not foolish he’ll take care of himself without panicking. So, this means that the second possibility is to not get all emotional over the knife cut with a misguided belief that death is evil, and therefore to be avoided at all cost. It is foolish to think that one will not be rational and tenacious in the face of adversity. As a Stoic, you will, and can do something about the knife cut, and the best thing is to not get too worked up over it. To be a Stoic is to be unmoved by the passions, it is this quality that defines what it means to be a Stoic today. The rational side of emotions is to be enhanced and cultivated. To be sure, they were not trying to do away with emotions. They wanted to exert control over them. Life would be better led without an overflow of misguided beliefs, emotive and passionate solutions to cloud your view. The Stoics certainly didn’t want to become pathological in the way one deals with the problems that are inevitable to living. Everyday problems are a given, it is how problems are dealt with that determines the wisdom of any given situation. Stoical wisdom will be looked at in part II of this paper.

For the Stoics, all desires are rational, which means that they are products of reason. Probably the plainest way to put it would be to say that desire is the assent to an impulsive impression. To assent to a given desirable impression is to give in to the impression (good or bad), and this is governed by our reason. One has the ability to see that the choice a person makes determines the outcomes. Reason provides the guide by which to direct the impulse in the right direction. Beginning to emerge, for the first time in history, is a conception of the will as it was realized in Stoic philosophy. This doesn’t mean that the Stoics ‘invented’ the will, rather, they identified a conceptualization of it for the first time. The will is conceived of in relation to the ways by which one gives assent to impressions. An act of will presupposes a reasonable assent to any given impression (42). The will is clearly what drives our actions. Yet, there are more distinctions to be made from this simple assertion. One important point is to show that the Stoics, were not just rolling with any kind of will. After all, there can be unreasonable acts of willing that are seen as unwise (foolish) as much as there can be reasonable acts of willing that are thought of as wise. The will puts things into action with wisdom or with folly, but both manifestations consist of willing something, and the Stoics were not advocating acting foolishly. Their conception of the will is set up as a means to promote prudentially wise actions. One decides to act in a certain way to an impression, the rational way we do this is a matter of choice—it is up to us how to assent with the day-to-day impressions. The way we do this is a matter of our own choosing. It is a matter of will.

The Stoics believed that focusing on the inner life of man, and how man maximizes his ability to implement wisdom in any particular situation was the way to be wise in the world. A Stoic life is stable and temperate against the changing winds of fate. Frede names the Greek slave philosopher Epictetus as the first to identify the notion of free-will, which is closely identified with the idea of choice or in Greek prohairesis (προαίρεσις) (44). By use of this word, Epictetus was influenced by Aristotle, who also made good use of the term prohairesis, it is translated as: choice and/or will (but for Aristotle it meant choice). But it might be better thought of as a ‘higher order’ choice and will, whereby it means to choose in a certain way, specifically, how to assent to impulsive impressions. Basically, it is up to us how we’ll react to a given impression. It is up to us how we act in the world, but this doesn’t mean everything will go our way. It is also up to us to decide how to manage ourselves. A Stoic, like Epictetus, is not swayed by emotion or passion, but it is still his rational choice to be swayed for better or for worse. So, for example, when he chooses to cross the street, he wills to cross the street, but this does not mean that just because he willed it, that it’ll happen. No choice is entirely up to us. Frede tells us that Epictetus didn’t favor assent as much as the other Stoics did. It is not clear if this affects Frede’s points on the conception of will for the Stoics on the whole. But, one thing is clear, how we specifically choose to give in or assent to impressions is a matter of prohairesis, primarily if we are choosing in such a way so as to indicate that we were in no way coerced, manipulated or something of the sort.

The will can, nevertheless, be made to be good or bad according to the kinds of choices we make. One still might find such a thing as a non-impulsive impression. This means that when a person believes something will happen, say an inclement weather event, he does not have to will to believe it, in order to give assent to it. The assent one gives, generally speaking, has to be directed to an impression, that enables an impulse, and this leads to an active volition (48). There is an explicitly active component to willing for the Stoics when someone chooses to give assent to an impulse. With the Stoics, Frede shows that they were the able to establish this conception of the will as an ability of the man to implement reason to make careful choices and decisions in his life—to lead the life of a Stoic.

II. Free Will

In order to help people with the wisdom of making the right choices, the Stoics also warn that man’s beliefs can be corrupted, and that his choices, if ill-chosen, are foolish. The Stoics, in this sense, wanted to shake us out of our day to day complacency (66). A Stoical way of stating this would be this: a wise man is free whereas the foolish man is a slave. But what does this really mean? Frede writes that for the Stoic Chrysippus, freedom meant that a person acts on his own, according to one’s own account, and he is able to act with discretion (66-67). The fool thinks that a lot of things are good and bad without much wise reflection, and it is for this reason that the fool becomes dominated by misguided impressions of what is good, and likewise, what is bad.

In order to expand on this conception, that a foolish man is dominated by his bad and unwise choices, the Stoics expanded the notion of what it meant to be forced or compelled or made to do something. This means that freedom had to account for the idea that one does something on one’s own accord, and is not coerced into doing so. A foolish man is usually able to choose otherwise, as much as a wise man is able to choose (with apt forbearance).

Interestingly, this discussion of freedom, (as it relates to free will) for the Stoics, has to include God, or better said a Demiurge, (δημιουργός), a divine craftsman. If people are acting within the world that God created, then they are acting according to the order of things. When they act-out in spite of God’s order, they are acting foolishly. This means that, if they are foolish, they are thoroughly enslaved. The world contains valuable and preferential things like health, well being, etc. that can be preferred over the less desirable things like illness, suffering etc. But, because these are preferred things, doesn’t make them good things, in and of themselves. For the Stoics, health is a preferred thing, and to tend to one’s state of health is good because it contributes to the way things are set out to be, in the way God intended it, as he created it. The way that one deals with things makes them good or bad. The Stoic notion of the rational is teleological, meaning that the rational is ultimately geared and oriented toward the good. When we are acting in a good way, we are acting rationally. Aside from the Stoics, this idea has its problems, but the problems will have to stay put, since we do not have the time to challenge the good of rationality, i.e. the questionable thesis that rationally always good, is just too big to tackle here.

The Demiurge, (a.k.a. God) created man as a self-sustaining creature, similar to the animals, Frede tells us that animals act on impressions in much the same way we do, yet with one critical difference: we, as humans, recognize what we need to do to maintain ourselves. People have a choice, and their natural ability to choose comes from their rational means of understanding. In short, God created man with the innate capacity to reason. It is because of this rationality that we as humans have an understanding of the good, and what it means to do good things. We are able to do these things according to how God created us, and most importantly, we can do these things of our own accord. Man is also able to recognize, for the Stoics, that he (man) contributes to the order of God’s creation. Freedom in this sense, means that man is capable of doing what needs to be done, and it is guided by understanding and rational ability. We give form to this world according to the good God has made us capable for. The Stoics believed in a kind of freedom that enabled man to act on what needs to be done toward the good. This is done on man’s own accord, instead of being forced to do it by an outside force, including the force of God’s will. Man’s free will is not controlled by God, it is controlled by man. Man by nature is made for the good in the Stoical sense of the word. As was indicated earlier, man is born irrational, and he develops into a fully rational being. This emphasizes the notion that man is created by God to become a reasonable free agent with an ability to make up his mind in the day to day situations life presents one with—without an irrational component and coercion.

The Stoics thought that all man’s beliefs, desires and ways of thinking, comprise of a cohesive whole, i.e. a single system. Yet, if misguided attachments are allowed in, one has relinquished freedom. Any false beliefs and foolish ways corrupt the whole, they serve to not only undermine freedom itself, but also the integrity of all that is good in a person. This, of course implies a striving for the purity of the freedom we create for ourselves. Stoicism is very strict. One false belief undercuts all true beliefs. Inappropriate attachments signify that the will is not absolutely free.

How are will and freedom brought together in Frede’s account of Stoicism? Frede writes that Epictetus wanted people to focus all their efforts on refining the will (76). Man’s integrity depends on the unbending goodness of his will. Not only should the will be good, but it should also be in accordance with nature. Basically God has given you a will, yet it is up to you to decide for yourself what you’ll do with it. In a Stoical universe, God doesn’t force one to make the right choices. In the same sense, one is still subject, and can fall prey, and become enslaved by their compulsive passions and appetites. The idea that we have the ability to do otherwise, one way or another, has everything to do with free will. Still, the wise man is really the only one who is said to be free, and is therefore, not enslaved like the foolish man who succumbs to the whimsy of his emotions and appetites. The wise man is free, where the fool is enslaved. Sometimes the foolish man will do things that are good for the wrong reasons, showing that even with his rational will he is able to freely choose foolishly or wisely. The foolish man harms himself, but not God. God purposely left it up to man to decide what to do with his life. In the same sense, the wise man’s compliance toward the good is not within God’s power to change or affect either. The wise man willfully makes better choices, where the fool willfully doesn’t (79).

The wisdom a man possesses enables him to aim for the good in accordance with God’s plan. The wise man acts in accordance with the good because it is in his nature to do so, God created him that way. As mentioned before, the Stoics believed that God created man with a capacity to be rational, and God geared man’s rationality toward the good, and to do good deeds. It is the voluntary imperative of the wise man to propel the good things into action. Frede tells us that free actions, for the Stoics, are motivated by an attachment we have for the good (79). We wish to maintain the good because we are able to recognize that this is the order of things, that is, if we are Stoical. Our actions must be appropriate to the good. Frede doesn’t clarify precisely what the good actually is, one will openly assume that it is essentially rational, meaning that the good thing to do is the rational thing to do.

Someone has the ability to give assent to an impression that he sees will bring about good—this constitutes his freedom. Yet, along with this, one might think that this predisposition determines the way a wise man will act all the time. For the Stoics, this is not the case, since one can still choose to do otherwise. One is free to be the fool. Then there’s the issue of being forced to do something against one’s will, this is the case where foolishness dominates a person’s decisions to otherwise. The fool is not free to when he is subject to his insatiable appetites. In this case, it is not made evident by Frede why the foolish man cannot reform his ways and why he has to always succumb to his passions. It should be that he can choose to negate his passions as much as the wise man is able to. With practice one can reform. This is not always the case, but it happens often enough to make a case for it, in contrast to the view that a fool is doomed or fated to be foolish. Similarly the wise man is not dominated by the good, in such a way so as to imagine that good forces him to act in certain ways. The wise man can also become a fool. Frede describes the Stoic’s notion that an un-wise man is forced by his unruly impressions, whereas the wise man’s assent is brought about by measured knowledge and his wise understanding, only if he is willing to do so.

Because the wise man can act within the scope of rationality, doesn’t mean that he’s forced to do so against his will. He is free because he is equipped with the appropriate understanding and insight, enough to make the right choices up and against the possibility of doing otherwise in any given circumstance. For these reasons he is free—he has free will. In a Stoical conception of the world, God set up a situation whereby man, throughout the stages of his development, acquires the ability and capacity for wisdom to make the right decisions. Man goes wrong when he has false impressions, misguided beliefs and when he gives improper, foolish assent to an impression.

III. Conclusions

We give credit to the Stoics for recognizing and identifying a notion of free will. This is a free will because one is not forced into making decisions and choices contrary to one’s own volitions. There are slight problems with this picture, since we can’t always have a precise idea what is actually good, or what constitutes a good actions. One can always be fooled into thinking that a particular action is a wise action when it is not wise. For instance, when we set out to help someone whom we might think is in need of our help, and who, with our help is actually hindered from helping himself. We don’t always know the wise choice, no matter how much reasoning we surround it with. One doesn’t always make the right choices. Still, to a certain degree, it is cynical to believe that we cannot make the right choices.

From Aristotle and Plato’s ‘bi or tripartite’ conception of the soul which included the irrational, the Stoics refined this conception of the soul. The soul for the Stoics, leaves the irrational behind to make room for the rational. The impressions, re: the sensual input, are important for the Stoics because they were the raw material from which a person had the opportunity to act rationally. From these impressions we learn, by experience, how to deal with things on a fundamentally practical level. The way a person gives assent to impressions is rational, it is propositional. There is a right way and a wrong way to deal with things for the Stoics. The trick is to not get carried away, or to get distracted with misguided beliefs, emotions, and over-passionate solutions. This means that desires are rational in a Stoical way of thinking. Desires are products of reason because of they manner in which we give assent to the impulse of any given impressions. This is propositional. In Frede’s analysis, the first known development, or better said, conception of the will, is from the Stoics. One is given a choice with how to contend with the impulses one has from impressions. But, this is not just any choice, it is a prohairesis, a higher order will. This kind of will is only free if it is not coerced, or manipulated into action by another person, force, etc.

A wise man is free, and a foolish man is enslaved. The fool reacts to his impressions without adequate attention to the rationality of his actions. Although the fool might act rationally, his actions are not geared toward the good—his rationales are foolish. The fool, in a way, is the best example of free will. Because it is fool who shows by his actions that he is free. This means that a Stoical conception of freedom has to account for the idea that one does something of one’s own accord, and hence, is not coerced into doing so. The fool doesn’t (necessarily) need to be coerced into acting like a fool. He freely chooses to do so by his own free will. For the Stoics, God made us fully capable of reason. We are free to do with this what we will. Only when the will is directed with wisdom, i.e. rationally, are people acting in such a way so as to be in accordance with God’s plan, God’s telos (τέλος). Again, God created man with the innate capacity for reason, and still, one does things of one’s own accord. Because God does not intervene, humans are free from divine intervention and will. Man is capable of understanding what the good is, enough to know that he can rationally aspire to. A wise man is free and a foolish man is enslaved.

The Stoics had the idea that there are basic truths by with to live by, as indicated above, living a rational life, propelling your action toward the good, and recognizing that God’s plan is good enough to follow. The point being that, yes, there are general truths, and no set rules, but we as humans are able to get along creatively and ingeniously to progress with living a life in confidence with our ability to do these things. All is not hopeless.

aurelio madrid

[1] Michael Frede, A Free Will: Origins of the Notion in Ancient Thought, ed A.A. Long (Berkeley: University of California Press).

the thing in itself

January 19, 2014 § 1 Comment



“Tecum habita, et noris quam sit tibi curta supellex.”—Persius[1]

“Since metaphysics of late

without heirs to her fathers was gathered,

Here at the auctioneer’s

‘things-in-themselves’ will be sold. —“Xenions” of Schiller and Goethe[2]

In the late eighteenth[3] century the German Philosopher Immanuel Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason. Today, in the 21st century, the world of philosophy continues to grapple with the many issues the book raised. One particular issue has to do with the way objects are understood, or not understood, with particular reference to the thing in itself. Kant famously claimed that one can only know the appearance of things, and that the things in themselves cannot be known apart from the thing’s appearance. Kant’s systematic magnum opus Critique of Pure Reason exemplifies his brand of enlightened transcendental idealism. A thing, an object, is cognized as appearance, while the thing in itself (of that object) remains inaccessible to human understanding and experience. This is often referred to as one of Kant’s dualisms. A thing’s appearance, with the thing in itself hanging out there, was unacceptable to Kant’s successors, a.k.a. the German Idealists, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schelling, and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, et al.[4] All three philosophers were highly critical of Kant’s thing in itself, of the three, Hegel stands out as the formidable critic (and fan)[5] of whom will be focus in this analysis, since his absolute idealism sought to resolve Kant’s phenomena and noumenon problem. The appearance of things is named by Kant as “phenomena,” and the thing in itself is known as the “noumenon.” One can, more or less equate appearance to phenomena, and noumenon to the thing in itself. For Hegel, Kant’s thing in it self is a contradiction that simply resolves itself in our consciousness of it. In Hegel’s circumstances it, the thing in itself, just does not stay within the Kantian limitation of it. This paper will attempt to examine the vexing philosophical issue of the thing in itself, as it was commented on by Martin Heidegger, Charles Taylor, Terry Pinkard, Henry Allison and others. This will inevitably take us to through a definition of the thing in itself as it was variously described in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason.[6] In other words, this analysis will look to how other thinkers have understood (and criticized) the thing in itself as it moved from Kant’s philosophy to Hegel (and beyond).[7] The basic question of how Hegel dealt with the issue of the thing in itself, will be simultaneously examined to see if there are any fresh conclusions to be drawn from the distinctions about the thing in itself as it was absorbed and reified into absolute idealism. Lastly, a defense of Kant’s positions will be offered, not as an apology, but as an alternative to Hegel’s retorts.

I. Kant’s other side of things

Probably the best introduction to Kant’s conception of the thing in itself was offered by Martin Heidegger. In the 1935-36 winter semester at the University of Freiburg, he presented a series of lectures titled “Basic Questions of Metaphysics”, and the book What is a Thing? is a remarkable product of those lectures.[8] This book brings into question the philosophical questioning of the thing, as the question relates to Kant’s critical philosophy, and as it is opposed to the scientific way and the everyday way to inquire about the thing. Heidegger poses this as a basic question of metaphysics.[9] In order to set up his question about the thing, Heidegger retells the well known story of Thales, the ancient Greek philosopher, falling into the well, told by Plato in his Theaetetus.[10] The story is quite simple: Thales falls into a well while studying the stars. A housemaid laughs at Thales because of the ‘everyday’ notion that, while Thales is studying the heavens, he can’t see what’s in from of him. Therefore, in this everyday sense, the philosopher is thought to be foolish and laughable. Yet, the reason Heidegger brings this up is to show that yes, the housemaid laughs at the seeming foolishness and banality of such questions as ‘what is a thing?’ But, Heidegger implicates that philosophy is not a joke, and it is not understood in everyday terms. Heidegger writes: “we shall do well to remember occasionally that by our strolling we can fall in a well whereby we may not reach the ground for some time.”[11] When one is doing philosophy, it would serve us well to understand that there are differences in the everyday, and scientific ways of thinking about the world, these are somewhat different from the manner in which one deals with these things in a philosophical idiom. Although it starts in the everyday world, philosophy cannot get too distracted with the everyday conception of things. It must have the ability to take itself seriously apart from this, to go beyond the everyday (and the scientific) when asking fundamental questions such as what is a thing?—and verily, what is the thing in itself?

Although we cannot indulge Heidegger’s complete argument, we can say, obviously, that his main focus is Kant’s first Critique.[12] Heidegger is plainly questioning Kant’s conception of the thing. In the opening pages of What is a Thing? Heidegger, in addition to separating the philosophical questioning from the scientific (and everyday) questioning of the thing, asks the modest question ‘what is a thing?” He shows that one way we understand what a thing is, has to do with a narrow sense of the word thing, something that can be seen, touched, heard, etc. but also, there is a secondary way we think of a thing, as an “affair, transaction, or a condition.”[13] Then, as Heidegger continues, there is even a third aspect of the thing, with respect to Kant. Kant, as is already known, distinguished from the “thing-for-us (Ding für uns)”[14] which is a typical way of understanding things, so the third way of understanding the thing has to do with the “thing-in-itself (Ding an sich)”[15] Basically, the thing in itself is not experience-able, as are the things of experience. Heidegger writes that for Kant “every thing-for-us is as a thing and also a thing-in-itself.”[16] Heidegger quickly complicates this by letting us know that, for Kant, every thing in itself is not a thing for us—such as God. According to Heidegger, God is also included as a thing in itself, with respect to Kant’s way of understanding things. God is brought up as a good example to show the impenetrability of completely understanding the thing in itself as it was conceived of by Kant. In short, God is that thing in itself of which we will never truly know much about, and the empirical fact that a concept of God, or a God, is not entirely available to us.

The concept of God, as much as the concept of the thing in itself, presents a limitation to man’s knowledge for Kant. Recall Kant’s early, and frequently cited, quote from the Critique of Pure Reason: “Thus I had to deny knowledge in order to make room for faith…” (Bxxx)[17] In order to give the concept of God over to reason, would mean to provide extravagant descriptions of a being like God, who is beyond our ability to empirically know things. The tendency to do this looks more like the metaphysics offered by the speculative philosophies of Gottfried Leibniz and Christian Wolff. Kant writes, a few sentences before the above statement, “thus I cannot even assume God, freedom and immortality for the sake of necessary practical use of my reason, unless I simultaneously deprive reason of its pretentions to extravagant insights” (Bxxx)[18] Kant was critical of the way reason tended to overstep its bounds, which is one of the primary goals in the Critique, to limit reason’s extravagance, with sentences like this: “I do not understand a critique of books and systems, but a critique of the faculty of reason in general, in respect to all cognitions after which reason might strive independently of all experience…” (Axii)[19]

In later subchapter from What is a Thing? “The Title of Kant’s Major Work,” Heidegger offers a typically bold assertion that the Critique of Pure Reason is really the question: ‘what is a thing?’ “And yet we are completely justified in asserting that this title [Critique of Pure Reason] expresses nothing else but the question concerning a thing—but as a question.”[20] In later parts of What is a Thing? Heidegger talks a little more about the thing in itself, where the object of experience, the thing, to repeat, is thought of by Kant in two different ways “the thing as appearance (Erscheinung) and as the thing-in-itself (Ding an sich). But the thing-in-itself, i.e., detached from and taken out of every relation of manifestation (Bekundung) for us, remains a mere x.”[21] Every time a person thinks of a thing, there is always, at least in Kant’s particular way of organizing human understanding, an entire aspect of that thing that remains unknown to us like a variable that awaits cognitive evaluation. As complicated as Heidegger can be at times, in this case with Kant, he is remarkably clear and concise. Heidegger helps to introduce the primary nature of the dualism[22] Kant set up between the thing of appearance and the thing in itself.

II. Hegel’s absolutions[23]

G.W.F. Hegel was strongly influenced by Kant. Early on in his philosophical career he saw himself as completing Kant’s project.[24] Hegel had to work hard to lift up what he considered to be valuable in Kant’s system, while at the same time critiquing and pushing it away, a purely dialectical move to be sure. The respected Hegel specialist Terry Pinkard in his recent (2000) biography of Hegel cites an early letter where Hegel writes that “I cut my teeth on Kant’s works.”[25] Pinkard writes that Hegel’s Science of Logic of 1812, not only shows Kant’s influence, but it also shows Hegel’s critique of Kant’s critical philosophy.

Hegel’s Nuremburg dictations on ‘logic’[which contributed to the Science of Logic] show more clearly than his final completed work just how much he was indebted to Kant and just how much he had in fact returned to Kant in working out his own system.[26]

Hegel was interested in Kant’s theory of ‘Ideas’ that were philosophically brought together by a subject’s capacity to reason, yet, Hegel was not eager to embrace the notion that reason was as limited, as it was in the Critique of Pure Reason. Another objection Hegel had (as did many of his German Idealist peers) was with Kant’s thing in itself. Hegel completely rejected the thought that their can be this “unbridgeable gap between the world of appearance and the world of things-in-themselves.”[27] Pinkard states that the thing in itself was thought of by Hegel as a “mere thought.”[28] This was just another way to think of things, not some weird Kantian outlier to those things. As a matter of fact, for Hegel the ‘wholes’ that reason (unreasonably) strived for, as identified by Kant, became an irresolvable dualism between the appearance and the thing in itself. Notable evidence of Kant’s conception of ‘reason’s striving toward wholeness’ is found in many places in the Critique. In another instance, the “Second Division, Chapter II, The Antinomy of Pure Reason,” from the Critique, there is one of Kant’s neat tables having to do with the antinomies of pure reason, and their shared goal toward “absolute completeness” (A415 / B443).[29] The first of the four “ideas of absolute totality” is “The absolute completeness of the composition of a given whole of all appearances” (A415 / B443).[30] The editors, Guyer and Wood, have included a convenient footnote indicating that Kant’s editorial copy had an addition to this that read:

‘Absolute totality’ signifies the totality of the manifold of a thing in itself and is something contradictory in respect to appearances as mere representations, which are to be encountered only in the progression, not outside themselves. (A416 / B444).[31]

As much as Kant had a problem with reason’s metaphysical striving toward wholeness,

he consistently left open a multitude of dualisms. Instead of the Kantian division of appearance and the things in themselves, Hegel would embrace an ultimate unification of Kant’s dualisms to be basic manifestations of Geist (Hegel’s notorious term Geist, will be looked at with more detail later). The ‘wholes’ of reason have to then become a more complete, unified and absolute picture of reality for Hegel, because it’s a matter of how the elements dialectically come together. Hegel writes at length about the specific problem of Kant’s antinomies, and their supposed contradictions in The Enclyclopædia Logic. Hegel’s Science of Logic does have a section explicitly addressing the thing in itself “Thing-in-itself and Existence.”[32] But before venturing into the ‘greater’ Logic, it will be easier to look into Hegel’s so-called ‘shorter’ Logic, formally known as The Encyclopædia Logic.[33] In the addition to §48, from the ‘shorter’ Logic, Hegel says, “for Kant it lies in the very nature of thinking to lapse into contradictions (‘antinomies’) when it aims at cognition of the infinite.”[34] This is a typical example whereby Hegel recognizes, (and lauds) Kant for his “advance for philosophical cognition” (§48).[35] Then Hegel criticizes Kant for stopping at the “merely negative result” meaning, Kant stopped where the contradiction is left unresolved.[36] Hegel’s resolution is to suggest that “everything actual contains opposed determinations within it” and that consciousness is what brings the opposition together. This is Hegel’s “dialectical movement of thinking” (§48).[37] Another way of putting this would be to say, one takes what cannot be made conscious about a thing (re: the thing in itself / noumenon) to be what can be consciously found out about that thing (re: appearances / phenomenon). Things are made conscious not only for us, but in the greater sense of how humans collectively become conscious of things. All of what people know about a particular thing becomes an aspect of how that thing is contradicted (dialectically), and then made conscious of, and conceptualized in terms of Hegel’s Geist. Where Kant abhorred contradiction, Hegel valorized contradiction. And yet, another way of putting this would be to say that, when people set out to know about things, they are confronted with things they don’t know much about (to be clear, this is the thing in itself, after Hegel’s refinement), upon learning about the particular thing in question by agreeing, disputing and dialectically coming to terms with it, it, the thing becomes known consciously, but not absolutely. Then, in this movement of dynamic consciousness a more complete conception of the thing can be said to become better known by the whole of humanity, not just by us as individuals. Our individual Geist provides only a single part of the absolute knowledge of things. Geist, in its manifestation as the whole of humanity, provides the most complete notion of how we collectively become conscious of things for Hegel. Don’t be mistaken, an individual’s Geist is not unimportant in this picture, since our combined consciousnesses provide the basis for ‘absolute Geist.’ The contradictory, and likewise, convivial parts constitute the whole.[38] There will be more detail on Geist later, as promised.

In the Enclyclopædia Logic Hegel devotes an extensive subchapter on Kant’s “Critical Philosophy.”[39] It is here where Hegel offers the best analysis and critique of Kant’s positions. In a footnote, Hegel aptly cites the first mention of the thing itself in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason cited from the preface to the second edition,

In the analytical part of the critique it is proved that space and time are only forms of sensible intuition, and therefore only conditions of the existence of the things as appearances, further that we have no concepts of the understanding and hence no elements for the cognition of things except insofar as an intuition can be given corresponding to these concepts, consequently that we can have no cognition of no object as a thing in itself, but only insofar as it is an object of sensible intuition, i.e. as an appearance; from which follows the limitation of all even possible speculative cognition of reason to mere objects of experience (Bxxvi).[40]

Derisively, Hegel calls Kant’s conception of the thing in itself “caput mortuum” (§44).[41] Hegel reinstates the point made by Heidegger, that Kant conceived of the thing in itself as including a conception of God. But, most importantly, Hegel calls Kant’s thing in itself, an “abstraction” and it “is itself only the product of thinking, and precisely of the thinking that has gone to the extreme of pure abstraction” (§44).[42] For Kant the thing in itself is an “empty identity” and that it is “something quite familiar” according to Hegel (§44).[43] What does Hegel mean by suggesting that the empty identity of thing in itself is something familiar?[44] Provisionally, it must mean that for Hegel, Kant’s thing in itself represents a strict abstract limitation on our ability to know and understand things, this is a way of knowing things that sets an epistemic limitation and demarcation to what can be made conscious of and identified. Kant’s thing in itself is a pure abstraction of the mind. Hegel does not retain such abstract limitations on what can be made conscious of and identified. Before a person sets out to be conscious something there has to be an acknowledgement of a particular thing that is unknown, and it is not yet differentiated from other things. Before that particular thing can become identified, its identity is empty and undifferentiated for that person. Hegel’s implicit suggestion is that Kant’s thing in itself is (for Hegel’s conception) what the thing is potentially, in its potentiality—prior to being identified and cognized. Once the thing is cognized and identified it is for us. This point is given a full explanation in §124 from the The Enclyclopædia Logic, the thing in itself is spoken of by Hegel as being something that is merely undeveloped, not yet realized, as a kind of potential. An example is given of a child who is not yet a man, who is said to be in the abstract, and in an in itself state, or a seed[45] is likewise in the in itself state. The in itself, for Hegel, is basically something that has no yet been realized, it has not been put into its fullest actuality. This is what Kant’s thing in itself becomes, after Hegel’s sublation of it.[46]

In the Science of Logic, Hegel provides the curious reader with his most opaque explication of the thing in itself thus far.[47] In this instance, Hegel does so without mentioning Kant at all (at least, not in this part of the book). The subchapter “Thing-in-itself and Existence” is located under the chapter “Existence.”[48] In these passages Hegel makes mention of the key word “reflection” with regard to the thing in itself, e.g. “The Thing-in-itself [sic] stands in relation to a Reflection which is external to it; in this Reflection it has manifold determinations.”[49] Hegel tells us that this reflection is a mediation between the thing in itself and the thing’s determination. The reflection is a way of determining something about the thing in itself, and “this determinateness of the Thing-in-itself [sic] is the property of the Thing.”[50] The determination of a thing (and again note that this is where Hegel is going beyond Kant) is not entirely limited to the external reflection of the thing. It is what the thing is. Determination, i.e. the determination one has of a particular thing, is also closely related to appearance, since it is said that the appearance of the thing, is for Hegel, what constitutes what the thing actually is for human consciousness.[51]

But back to Hegel’s reference to reflection, as regards the thing in itself. Knowing what this term means will proffer a better idea of Hegel’s critique of Kant’s thing in itself. In order to do this it would be best to slowly step away from the opaque perils of the Science Logic, and return to The Enclyclopædia Logic. Hegel gives a few examples of how he conceptualizes reflective thinking, with examples such as “this instrument is useful,” “the plant is curative,” or “this punishment is [a] deterrent” and, he says that “the predicates of these judgments are all of them determinations of reflection, by which the immediate singularity of the subject is, of course, transcended, but where the concept of the subject is still not specified” (§174).[52] So, looking up “reflection” in Magee’s The Hegel Dictionary, it is discovered that Hegel’s notion of reflective thinking circles back to a criticism of Kant’s philosophy:

Reflection reaches it zenith in the Kantian philosophy, where it is essentially an attempt to think beyond the immediate surface appearance of things and to understand how that appearance is mediated by factors and conditions that do not themselves appear […] reflection erects a dichotomy between appearance and reality (or essence) and holds to this opposition rigidly.[53]

Charles Taylor wrote his formidable book on Hegel back in the 1970s, in it he touches on the important issue of Hegel’s critique of Kant’s thing in itself. He opens discussion of the issue by describing the problem of Kant’s transcendental argument, whereby Kant had described a world of appearance that was “distinguished from the ultimate reality.”[54] This world of appearances, according to Kant, is also partially developed from the empirical, yet, since it is only “partly given to us”[55] we can know “nothing about the shape of things as they are in themselves.”[56] As we have repeated, this transcendental demarcation from ultimate reality was “intolerable” for the German Idealist philosophers working after Kant—namely Hegel. Taylor brings up an insightful connection to this with Kant’s insistence to place a premium on the moral (practical) freedom of man,[57] instead of an outside force such as God.

Back in the preface to the second edition of the Critique, Kant writes about the way such things as God, freedom and immortality are related to the thing in themselves “I cannot cognize freedom as a property on any being to which I ascribe effects in the world of sense, because then I would have to cognize such an existence as determined” (Bxxviii).[58] As Taylor discusses, Enlightenment thinkers, like Kant, were interested in placing man’s moral freedom within man’s control, i.e. transcendentally, rather than from an objective, causally and predetermined world. Essentially, for Kant, as Taylor puts it, the “transcendental argument tries to infer from experience back to the subject of that experience: what must we be like in order to have the kind of experience we do?”[59] But for Kant’s transcendental argument to carry any weight it has to differentiate between appearance and the things in themselves, experience has be differentiated from the world as it is in itself. Since the idea is, that reality is constituted by the structure of our minds, instead of the other way around. One might think that in order to know about how we understand the world, we have to empirically dig deep into the way things are. For Kant, we provide the experience of the phenomena that is made evident by the noumena, and it is the way that our minds structure that information, via the categories of understanding etc., which constitutes the reality we know. This crudely put, is Kant’s perspective, traditionally characterized as his “Copernican Revolution,” (although he never used the specific characterization: “Copernican Revolution”). In order to stake a claim for the validity of his arguments—to show that the categories of the understanding made cognition possible on the basis of the intuitions of space and time, reproductively synthesized by the imagination and brought together by the transcendental unity of apperception, in a rationally structured way—there had to be things that are outside of our a priori transcendence: the things in themselves. Freedom had to be one of those things, for Kant, which cannot be known in the fullest sense of the word. Freedom too, was noumenal, it is a thing in itself.

Unfortunately, we don’t have the time to explore the practical (ethical) and theological dimensions of Kant’s transcendentalism in any more depth than this, so we’ll continue by detailing Hegel’s critique of the thing in itself from Taylor’s reading of Hegel’s Logic,[60]. In Taylor’s chapter “A Dialectic of Categories” he focuses on Hegel’s Logic. Taylor indicates that a primary goal of Hegel’s Logic is to show that “if the real exists and has the structure is has by conceptual necessity, […] the task of the Logic is to show this conceptual structure by pure conceptual argument.”[61] For Hegel, as Taylor tells us, didn’t accept the dualism that logic was a purely formal element[62] brought to things tout court, “Thought and determinations through which it [thought] operates…are not the apanage [sovereign granting] of a subject over and against the world, but lie at the very root of things.”[63] Reality, for Hegel, is the embodiment of Geist,[64] it is rational, and we as rational beings are in touch with that since we too are aspects of a rationally conscious Geist. It is impossible to encapsulate Hegel’s full conception of Geist in this short space, but it is worth describing it in relation to what Taylor is talking about. In Inwood’s A Hegel Dictionary, toward the very end of the 3½ page definition of Geist, there is this sentence: “Hegel’s claim that Geist is absolute does not mean that everything is mental or the product of one’s own mind.”[65] In other words, the structure of reality, as rational, was thought of by Hegel as naturally immanent, and Geist idealizes these things into its particular cognition.[66]

To this notion of the way Geist cognizes the rational order of things as immanent, Taylor continues, “The rational, truly universal thought which is expressed in our categories is thus spirit’s knowledge of itself.” [67], [68] The best way to reword Taylor’s sentence here, is to say that the categories of our rational thinking are, believe it or not, the dynamic structure of reality itself, at least under Hegel’s way. It doesn’t hurt to think of Hegel’s Logic as ontological, in other words, it provides the underlying structure of reality.[69] Where Kant is epistemological, Hegel is ontological. As Taylor identifies it, this is the first dualism that Hegel wishes resolve, i.e. the dualism between concepts and the world, whereby the concepts are embodied in the world. “Concepts are not sharply distinct for objects…and no object that is, e.g. a thing with properties can fail to be a thing with properties” according to Inwood’s definition of Hegel’s term “concept”[70] The rational discloses itself in things for us, rather than things remaining in and of themselves. For Taylor, a rationally dynamic structure is related to Hegel’s notion of the concept, which, as we’ve noticed in the above example, is not separate from us or the world, rather it is “…straddling the opposition between subject and object…”[71] This describes the kind of Kantian opposition that must be overcome in Hegel’s project. And it is something that Kant clearly leaves as an opposition when he comes to the phenomena and noumena. Taylor indicates that Kant’s transcendental logic is also somewhat ontological, since it is dealing with conceptual structures of cognition, and how these apply to the world. But, Kant never took this to the conclusions that Hegel did, since Kant maintained that there was a difference between the phenomenal and the noumenal way that we cognize the world with our concepts etc. And to be sure, at least in the Critique, Kant never admitted any talk of ontology in his philosophical system, as will be noted in the “Defense” section of this paper (pp. 19-20).

Since Taylor is keen enough to situate Hegel’s arguments on the thing in itself while covering the Logic, the Logic will the obvious place to turn to again. In the extensive preliminary chapters from The Encyclopædia Logic Hegel explicitly covers a few of the philosophical ideas of his predecessors, including a generous subchapter on Kant’s “Critical Philosophy” (§§40-60).[72] In the addition to §45, Hegel writes about Kant’s thing in itself,[73]

The naïve consciousness has rightly taken exceptions to this [Kant’s] subjective idealism, according to which the content of our consciousness is some thing that is only ours, something posited only through us. In fact the true situation is that the things of which we have immediate knowledge are mere appearances, not only for us, but also in-themselves, and that the proper determination of these things, which are in this sense “finite”, consists in having ground of their being not within themselves, but in the universal divine Idea. This interpretation must also be called idealism, but, as distinct from the subjective idealism of Critical Philosophy, it is absolute idealism [Hegel’s italics].[74]

Okay, to unpack this passage a bit more, we can see clearly the departure from Kant and into Hegel’s absolute idealism, whereby the things of this world are still appearances, yet with the difference of what Hegel’s calling a determination that is ‘finite’ that doesn’t ground itself in the things, but in the “universal divine Idea.”[75] This divine idea is of course, rational, and as Magee defines it in The Hegel Dictionary, it is nearly akin to Hegel’s absolute and “idea is not a static overcoming of subject and object…Hegel conceives of Idea as a dynamic overcoming of subject and object—closer to an act than to an ‘idea.’”[76] As for appearances, Hegel brings them together with essence, i.e. the way an object appears is also coupled with its essence, Things don’t ‘only’ appear for Hegel “for when we say of something that is ‘only’ appearance…” that this is implying that the appearance is somehow only superficial rendering, and that we still need more than ‘mere’ appearance. Yet, appearance is not merely superficial for Hegel, he says as much in his “Appearance” chapter in the The Encyclopædia Logic, in the addition to §131, “…appearance is higher than mere being. Appearance is precisely the truth of being and a richer determination of the latter…”[77] Continuing on appearance, Hegel says that Kant “stopped halfway”[78] whereas appearance was kept as subjective[79] and the other half had to do with the things in themselves.

III. Protecting Kant

The respected scholar Henry E. Allison in his book Transcendental Idealism devotes many pages to the thing in itself.[80] He too felt that thing in itself was a problem for Kant’s philosophy “of all the criticisms that have been raised against Kant’s philosophy the most persistent concern the thing in itself…”[81] But it cannot be overlooked that Allison was a Kant defender. In Allison’s opening paragraph for the chapter “The Thing in Itself and the Problem of Affection” we shudder once more at the difficulty of the philosophically technical problems at hand, to take into consideration that not only do we have the dilemma of defining what the thing in itself actually is, but we also have the problem of understanding how the thing in itself relates to Kant’s transcendental idealism.

But before Allison begins his analysis of the thing itself in terms of Kant’s transcendental idealism, He gives credit to the astute German scholar Gerold Prauss who offered a “philological” account of the thing in itself in his 1974 book Kant und das Problem der Dinge an sich. Unfortunately this book is only available in German, but there are some pertinent elements to be drawn from Allison’s description of Prauss’s philological defense of Kant. For Prauss, a large part of the problem of the thing in it self is related to which “locution” is prioritized from the Critique. The typical way of prioritizing the locution favors the short version, Ding an sich (thing in itself). Apparently, Ding an sich is not as commonly used in the Critique as one would expect, given the locution’s notoriety.[82] The more common locution is Ding an sich selbst which is translated by Allison as “thing considered as it is in itself” (Ding an sich selbst betrachtet), this is the so-called “canonical” version (52). To this, Allison adds that for Prauss, “the an sich selbst” functions adverbially to characterize how a thing is being considered rather than the kind of thing it is or the way in which it exists” (52). Allison is clear that Prauss, by no means, solves the problem.[83] But he (Prauss) does resituate the argument, “appropriately reconfigured, the problem can be characterized more precisely as the need to provide some account of both the possibility and significance of a consideration of things as they are in themselves in an epistemological sense” (53). The point Allison makes in this regard have to do with an anti-metaphysical interpretation of Kant’s thing in itself, whereby, in order for things to appear in intuition, the things have to be thought of in and of themselves beforehand. Remember, that in the Critique, Kant was trying to account for things in themselves as they were to be thought of before they “affected” us, “the sensible faculty of intuition is really only a receptivity for being affected in a certain way with representations” (italics added), (A494 / B522).[84] In the most basic way of thinking about it, this would have to mean that Kant merely wanted a “methodological” (and epistemological) non-metaphysical way of knowing what things were, before they affected us by means of our intuition via space and time. This is different than asking about how things are in the ontological sense of the word. This reinstates again, the notion that Kant’s arguments are epistemological rather than ontological. Kant, in the good graces of Allison and Prauss, is concerned with what we know, rather than what things are before we know them (in contrast to Hegel). Kant writes in the “Transcendental Analytic” chapters of the Critique, that “the proud name of an ontology, which presumes to offer synthetic a priori cognitions of things in general…must give way to the modest one of a mere analytic of the pure understanding” (A247 / B303).[85], [86]

The way that the thing in it self is a problem, as Allison is suggesting, has to do with the idea that the thing in itself is not accessible to us, yet at the same time, it is the means by which things appear to us sensibly and conceptually. It, the thing in itself, then is somehow a transcendental object.[87] We’ll return to this particular problem in a bit, but for now let us address Allison’s admirable attempt a differentiation between the noumenon and the thing in itself.

What’s the difference between the thing in itself and the noumenon? Allison shows that for Kant the concept of the noumenon is not arbitrary or fictitious, but it does contain a negative limitation on the sensible appearances (that which is available to the senses), i.e. it limits appearances. Allison writes that “…in fact, it is just this connection to sensibility that enables it to function as a limiting concept.” Allison suggests that Kant earlier wrote about the noumenon in his Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, where he used the concept of the noumenon as a limit to understanding. [88] This usage changed somewhat in the Critique of Pure Reason, whereby, the noumenon also becomes a “transcendental object.” As usual with Kant, when we think we’re on solid ground, we’re not, since Allison suggests that Kant then modified his use of the noumenon in the Critique of Pure Reason away from the simplicity of the noumenon as a transcendental object described in the Dissertation, again Allison writes “that concept of the noumenon must be replaced by the concept of a transcendental object, construed as a mere indeterminate something.”[89] So if we look at what Allison is saying here, the difference between the noumenon as a transcendental object in the Dissertation is that it serves as a limitation of thought, and this idea segues into the Critique of Pure Reason, with the modification that it is also indeterminate. Alison shows this modification by quoting a note from one of Kant’s amphibolies, the “Amphiboly of Concepts of Reflection” where Kant writes,

The understanding accordingly bounds sensibility without thereby expanding its own field, and in warning sensibility not to presume to reach for things in themselves but solely for appearances, it thinks of an object in itself, but only as a transcendental object, which is the cause of appearance (thus not itself appearance), and that cannot be thought of either as magnitude or as reality or as substance, etc. (since these concepts always require sensible forms in which they determine an object); it therefore remains completely unknown whether it would be cancelled out along with sensibility or whether it would remain even if we took sensibility away. (A288 / B344 – A289 / B345).[90]

This quote is demonstrates that the pure understanding critically limits sensibility with the conception of a transcendental object, known as the thing in itself, and strangely, a suggestion of what would remain, of objects, if we took sensibility away. This passage shows too, that these things in themselves as transcendental objects are products of the mind, meaning that we can, even though they are conceptually out of reach, still think about them—in the very least, abstractly, dare we say in their ‘pure’ abstraction.

So, now there is a clearer sense of the question as to how the thing in itself is a transcendental object, which must mean that one can think of what it means to have an aspect of the object transcendentally cognized. What Allison wants to do is to puzzle out the difference between Kant’s thing in itself and the noumenon, however, as Allison suggests, this distinction is elusive. Allison’s comments are helpful, but they need to be filled in with more detail. The entry for “transcendental object” in Howard Caygill’s A Kant Dictionary assists curiosity to a degree, but once one thinks they have Kant’s meaning, it withdraws. “The transcendental object is postulated as that which ‘appears’ or the correlate[91] to receptivity.”[92] The entry also indicates that Kant, in the Critique of Pure Reason, uses the terms the thing in itself and the noumenon as synonymous with the transcendental object.[93] The transcendental object, referring to Kant’s description is “…the purely intelligible cause of appearances in general is the transcendental object…but merely in order to have something corresponding to sensibility viewed as a receptivity” (A494 / B522).[94] But what is really being said here? Before we venture a guess, let’s go back to Allison, who argues that this transcendental object, as Kant puts it “…must be thought only as something in general = X” (A104). Allison calls this a “transcendental pointer.”[95] Kant writes,

‘What kind of constitution does the transcendental object have?’ one cannot give an answer saying what it is, but one can answer that the question itself is nothing, because no object for the concept is given (A478 / B506n).[96]

Again, what does this mean for the transcendental object and the thing in itself? To answer this, let’s recap a few of the words and descriptions that are used to describe the transcendental object: a mere indeterminate something, a limitation of thought, it is not an appearance, it is not a reality, it is not a substance, etc. Still, if it is a transcendental pointer as Allison posits, it corresponds to sensibility, it is singular, it is an intelligible cause, and it is a cause of an appearance. Judging from these descriptions, and comparing what Allison writes, along with the Caygill definition, we have to assume that the transcendental object is what Allison calls “adverbial”[97] in other words, having to do with the condition in which the object appear to us, whereas we might consider it to be the transcendental moment between understanding and the intellection of the object, after our sensible intuition, yet before actual cognition or conceptualization of the object before it segues into understanding. As for the relation to the thing in itself, we could, after what was just gathered, that if the thing in itself is the empirical correlate to appearance, then the transcendental object is the transcendental correlate of the object for the understanding and cognition.

IV. Closing thoughts

It would be foolish to think that the extravagant problems brought about by Kant’s conception of the thing in itself, as it was characterized in his Critique of Pure Reason were solved in this short analysis. Only a few of the issues and complications have been brought to bear in such a way so as to consider them with the scholarly respect they deserve. If, while asking about the thing in itself, this is the well we have fallen into, we have not fallen far. The bottom has not been reached. Hegel brought Kant’s dualistic conception of the thing in itself to the dialectical resolve that reifies the absolute. And, two of the most salient points to be made have already been recounted: Where Kant opposes contradiction, Hegel valorizes contradiction, and, where Kant is epistemological, Hegel is ontological. Surely, Kant had in mind the limitations of human cognition, and Hegel envisioned the possibility toward the infinite. The mistake is to think one was right where the other was wrong. Both philosophers were simply trying to get to the truth about things, and the basic way we think about those things.

—Aurelio Madrid



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Carus, Paul. The Surd of Metaphysics: An Inquiry to the Question Are There Things-in-Themselves? Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1903.

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—. Hegel’s Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Vol. 3. Translated by E.S. Haldane and Francis H. Simson. New York: The Humaities Press, 1963.

—. Hegel’s Logic. Translated by William Wallace. New York: Oxford, 1975.

—. The Science of Logic, Vol. II, W.H. Johnston and L.G. Struthers, trans. New York: The Macmillan Co., 1961.

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King, Martin Luther. Jr. “The Development of Hegel’s Thought as Revealed in His Early Theological Writings,” 1 October 1952. At the Boston University’s Mulgar Library. –MLKPMBU: Box 115.

Magee, Glen Alexander. The Hegel Dictionary. London: Continuum Books, 2010

Pippen, Robert. “Gerold Prauss: “Kant und das Problem der Dinge an sich.” Journal of the History of Philosophy 4, no. 3 (July 1, 1976): 374-378.

Smith, John E. “Hegel’s Critique of Kant.” The Review of Metaphysics 26, no. 3 (Mar. 1973): 438-460.

Smith, Norman Kemp. A Commentary to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Solomon, Robert C. “Hegel’s Epistemology.” Philosophical Quarterly 11, no. 4 (Oct. 1974): 277-289.

Taylor, Charles. Hegel. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

[1] “Dwell in your house, and you will know how simple your possessions are” (Persius, Satires 4:52). Noted in Kant’s “Preface A,” Critique of Pure Reason, Axx, 104.

[2] …stanza quoted on title page of Paul Carus’s The Surd of Metaphysics. Also see Carus’s Goethe and Schiller’s Xenions, 1896: https://archive.org/details/goeandschillers00schigoog

[3] Kant’s first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781, and the second edition was then published six years later, in 1787.

[4] The list of critics against Kant’s use of the thing in it self not only included Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, but also Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Henri Bergson, and there must be many more. For instance, Schopenhauer ingenuously combines the will with the thing in itself. See his The World Will as Representation, §31, Book III, and the Appendix “Criticism of Kantian Philosophy.” Also see Arnaud François, Roxanne Lapidus, “Life and Will in Nietzsche and Bergson,” Substance, Issue 114 (Volume 36, Number 3), 2007, 100-114.

[5] One cannot discard the fact that Hegel was not only a critic of Kant, he also, incorporated some of Kant’s thought into his own, for instance, Kant’s categories are included in Hegel’s Logic, etc. The mistake is often churlishly made to regard Hegel as only a critic of Kant. This is a glaring mistake, since Hegel’s philosophy positively incorporates Kant’s ideas.

[6] There are other places in which Kant makes significant use of the thing in itself, e.g. the Critique of Practical Reason (1788), and the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics (1783), Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals (1785) etc.

[7] See Quentin Meillassoux’s After Finitude: An Essay On The Necessity Of Contingency, Ray Brassier, trans. (New York: Continuum, 2008) “Meillassoux finds his ground as a speculative realist/materialist seeking to establish an audacious philosophical confrontation with his incisive interrogation of ‘thing in itself.’ The thing in itself is made clear, but strictly unknowable in its fullest sense. Kant disallowed the subject to access to the ‘thing in itself’ entirely as it is given, apart from our own idealization [appearance] of the object, our own thinking of the object. This is the kind of finitude Meillassoux seeks to move away from, his view is ‘after’ what was previously thought of to be an end, after the so-called ‘correlational’ finalities of Kant. Meillassoux aims to ask about the possibility of a thinking about a time when humans didn’t exist (re: ‘ancestrality’) starting with Kant’s thing in itself, then seeking to extend this by a number of radical means: namely the so-called ‘contingency of necessity’ whereby the accepted necessary laws of the universe are instead contingent.” This except is from a blog post of mine from 2010: “…ancestrality [sic] &c. / meillassoux [sic],” Luctor et Emergo. https://aureliomadrid.wordpress.com/2010/10/

[8] These dates should stand out to anyone familiar with WWII history. What is a Thing? was written during Germany’s Nazi period, along with the equally tragic fact that Heidegger was an avowed Nazi. Freiburg University had to let go of Edmund Husserl, Heidegger’s mentor, etc. Needless to say, Heidegger’s genius was great, while at the same time, his bigotry and anti-Semitism were abhorrent and inexcusable. Also see Karl Löwith, “Heidegger’s Existentialism Political Implications: My Last Meeting with Heidegger, Rome 1936, ” The Symtom 9, Lacan, http://www.lacan.com/symptom/?p=55

[9]About metaphysics, Heidegger states that “The term ‘metaphysics’ here should indicate only that the questions dealt with stand at the core and center of philosophy. However, by ‘metaphysics’ we do not mean a special field or branch within philosophy in contrast to logic and ethics. There are no fields in philosophy because philosophy is not a field. Something like a division of labor is senseless in philosophy; scholastic learning is to a certain extent indispensible to it but is never its essence.” Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? 1-4.

[10] Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? 2.

[11] Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? 3.

[12] Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason will be frequently interchanged with Critique, and hereafter, is not to be mistaken for Kant’s subsequent Critiques.

[13] Interestingly he shows that etymological history of the word, in German (Das Ding), designated a court proceeding, a tribunal “The thing was a cause one negotiated or reconciled in an assembly of judges. Heidegger, Martin, “What is a Thing?” 5, see footnote.

[14] Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? 5. Note: various authors, including Heidegger, used hyphens with reference to the thing for us, and the thing in itself (re: thing-in-itself, etc.). This paper will restrict hyphenation only when a particular author makes use of it, as is the case with Heidegger and others (as quoted).

[15] Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? 5.

[16] Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? 5.

[17] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 117.

[18] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 117.

[19] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 101.

[20] Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? 62.

[21] Martin Heidegger, What is a Thing? 128.

[22] Keep in mind that Kant doesn’t see this as a ‘dualism’ proper, this way of speaking about appearance and the thing in itself as a dualism is used somewhat pejoratively by Kant’s critics to expose a potential problem brought about by his so-called dualism/s.

[23]This is a deliberate play on the meaning of the word absolution, whereby a Christian ‘absolution,’ more or less, means to forgive someone’s sins, i.e. as a priest can offer a prayer of absolution to forgive a sinner, and this is intended to play on Hegel’s transformation from Kant’s transcendental idealism to Hegel’s absolute idealism, which was a critique of Kant’s critical philosophy, while at the same time retaining certain aspects of it.

[24] See Terry Pinkard, Hegel: a Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000) 60-61.

[25] Terry Pinkard, Hegel, 339. It is not cited to whom the 1822 letter was written. In a footnote Pinkard clarifies the translation of “Ich habe mich an ihr erzogen” to be literally, “I brought myself up on Kant’s works” 715.

[26] Terry Pinkard, Hegel, 339.

[27] Terry Pinkard, Hegel, 339.

[28] Terry Pinkard, Hegel, 339.

[29] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 464.

[30] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 464.

[31] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 464.

[32] G.W.F. Hegel, The Science of Logic, Vol. II, W.H. Johnston and L.G. Struthers, trans. (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1961) 112-115.

[33] The similarity between the two Logics is mainly structural, meaning that Hegel’s ‘logical’ structure is the same thorough these two works, and is thus carried over to the whole of his systematic philosophy in general. The bottom line is that the Logic is the structure of Hegel’s philosophy and reality itself.

[34] Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, 93. Please note: The spelling of the Hackett translation is The Enclyclopædia Logic, it is not: The Encyclopedia Logic.

[35] Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, 93.

[36] Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, 93.

[37] Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, 93.

[38]See Paul Franco’s review of Yirmiyahu Yovel, Hegel’s Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit, “Hegel develops his own distinctive understanding of absolute knowledge as the product of a dialectical process of mediation and self-differentiation. The absolute is not to be found in the immediate apprehension of some primordial unity but only at the end of a process by which this immediate unity is negated and reflectively differentiated before being restored to identity. Hegel sums up his position by saying that “everything depends on comprehending and expressing the true not as substance, but equally also as subject” (95). That is to say, the absolute is not some sort of inert “thing” but the product of a subject-like process of self-positing, self-differentiation, and self-determination. To this process of cognitive self-development Hegel gives the name of ‘the concept.’” http://ndpr.nd.edu/news/24815-hegel-s-preface-to-the-phenomenology-of-spirit/

[39] G.W.F. Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, T.F. Geraets, W.A. Suchting, H.S. Harris, trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1991), 80-108.

[40] Although this is cited in Hegel’s Logic, this quote is from the Guyer and Wood translation, of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, 115.

[41] Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, 87. The footnote for this Latin term states: “This was an alchemist’s term for the ‘dead’ precipitate that remained when all the ‘living spirit’ had been extracted or given off,” 316.

[42] Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, 87.

[43] Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, 87.

[44] See Glenn Alexander Magee’s The Hegel Dictionary, “identity and difference” (New York: Continuum, 2010), 116-118. “Hegel claims that the identity of the object is not something that it possesses intrinsically, irrespective of its relations to other things. Quite the contrary: the identity of something is constituted in and though its relations to other things and their properties.” 117.

[45] The word “germ” is used instead of seed, for some reason.

[46] See Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms, “aufheben,” “[Hegel’s] Aufheben can be translated as to sublate, to abolish, to transcend or to supersede or even ‘to pick up,’ ‘to raise,’ ‘to keep,’ ‘to preserve,’ ‘to end’ or ‘to annul.’ Literally and originally, aufheben meant ‘to pocket,’ as when someone pockets your payment but continues to work for you.” http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/a/u.htm

[47] This difficulty might have something to do with a bad translation, but then again it might just be Hegel’s legendary difficulty at work—tough to say for sure.

[48] Hegel, Science of Logic, 112-115.

[49] Hegel, Science of Logic, 115.

[50] Hegel, Science of Logic, 115.

[51] See Magee’s The Hegel Dictionary, “appearance.” “Thus Hegel rejects such attempts at setting up a dichotomy between appearance and reality.” and “appearance is a showing-forth, the displaying of what something is.” and “on a deeper level, however, we can say that the things themselves are appearances of the absolute.” 38-39.

[52] Hegel, The Enclyclopædia Logic, 252.

[53] Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, “reflection,” 198.

[54] Charles Taylor, Hegel, 30.

[55] Charles Taylor, Hegel, 30.

[56] Charles Taylor, Hegel, 31.

[57] Fichte was famous for trying to complete this strategy. Robert Beazeale in his Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry On Fichte writes “…and no matter how far his own system seemed to diverge from ‘the letter’ of the Critical philosophy, Fichte always maintained that it remained true to ‘the spirit’ of the same. Central to this ‘spirit,’ for Fichte, is an uncompromising insistence upon the practical certainty of human freedom and a thoroughgoing commitment to the task of providing a transcendental account of ordinary experience that could explain the objectivity and necessity of theoretical reason (cognition) in a manner consistent with the practical affirmation of human liberty. Though Fichte attributed the discovery of this task to Kant, he believed that it was first accomplished successfully only in the Wissenschaftslehre, which he therefore described as the first ‘system of human freedom.’” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/johann-fichte/#4.1

[58] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 116.

[59] Taylor, Hegel, 30.

[60]Taylor notes that he is drawing from both the Science of Logic of 1812-16, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘greater Logic,’ and Hegel’s so called Encyclopedia Logic, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘shorter Logic.’

[61] Charles Taylor, Hegel, 225.

[62] This is not the formal logic of deductions and proofs, it is more metaphysical and ontological, although it also works with some elements of traditional logic—contradiction, syllogisms etc. Taylor also compares Hegel’s Logic to Kant’s “Transcendental Logic.”

[63] Charles Taylor, Hegel, 225.

[64] Michael Inwood’s A Hegel Dictionary tells us that spirit (Geist, which can be translated as mind, spirit, or both) has several meanings and uses: (1) “Geist denotes the human mind and its products” (2) “…all individual psychological life, [etc.]…” (3) “…intellectual aspects of the psyche, [etc.]…” (4) “…social groups, laws, customs, [etc.]…[re:] objective spirit…” (5) “…art, religion, philosophy, [etc.]…[re:] absolute spirit…” (6) …history, [etc.]…world spirit…” (7) “…the spirit of the people, [etc.]… (8) “…spirit of the age, [etc.]…” (9) “…God, [or better said, a higher power, common to all religions. etc.]…”

[65] Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary, “spirit,” 274-277.

[66] Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary, “spirit,” 274-277.

[67] I recently found an excerpt from a seminar by Martin Luther King Jr. gave on Hegel in the early 50s. King expounds on the difference between Kant’s categories and Hegel’s, whereas Kant’s categories were epistemological, they were aspects of the pure understanding that showed how we conceptualize the world, and they are the base of our knowledge. King writes “….it was at this point that Hegel went beyond Kant. The categories for Hegel were more than epistemological principles of knowing; they were ontological principles of being.’ They were not merely the necessary and universal conditions of the world as it appears to us, but they were the necessary and universal conditions of the world, as it is in itself.8 Reason, the system of categories, is self-explained and self-determined, dependent only upon itself. This means that it is real. Therefore, ‘the rational is the real and the real is the rational.’”

“An Exposition of the First Triad of Categories of the Hegelian Logic-Being, Non-Being, Becoming” 1953. http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol2/530522ExpositionFirstTriad.pdf

[68] Charles Taylor, Hegel, 225.

[69] The entry for Hegel’s Logic in Glenn Alexander McGee’s The Hegel Dictionary says as much “And what the Logic gives us, quite simply, is Hegel’s account of the whole, the formal structure of reality itself, its inner truth.” 132.

[70] Inwood, A Hegel Dictionary, “concept,” 58-61.

[71] Charles Taylor, Hegel, 226.

[72] G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopædia Logic, 81-108.

[73] …this isn’t the only time Hegel in The Encyclopædia Logic speaks of the thing in itself and its problems, I’m counting five other instances, and there must be more.

[74] G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopædia Logic, 88-89.

[75] Hegel is sounding very Platonic here, although we’ll see that this characterization is not accurate with respect to Hegel’s appearance etc.

[76] Glenn Alexander Magee, The Hegel Dictionary, 112.

[77] G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopædia Logic, 200.

[78] G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopædia Logic, 200.

[79] …back in §46, Hegel goes as far to call Kant’s subjective idealism: vulgar! Hegel, G.W.F. The Encyclopædia Logic, 89.

[80] Henry E. Allison, “The Thing in Itself and the Problem of Affection,” Transcendental Idealism, 50-73.

[81] Henry E. Allison, “The Thing in Itself…,” Transcendental Idealism, 50.

[82] See Robert Pippin’s book review Gerold Prauss, “Kant und das Problem der Ding an sich.” Journal of the History of Philosophy, vol., 4, 3, (July 1, 1976): 374-378. Here, Pippin writes that “Prauss finds that of the 295 occurrences [of the locution found in Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason] only 37, or 13% use the short phrase, Ding an sch. He finally shows that the only clear cut uses of the ‘short form’ number a mere 6% of the total. The other 94% mention, in one way or another, Ding an sich selbst. Which Prauss argues is the expression of the correct Kantian formulation, ‘things—considered in themselves’ (Dinge—an sich selbst Betrachtet).”

[83] Pippin seems to agree with this assessment too, in the above mentioned Prauss review.

[84] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 512.

[85] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 345.

[86] Guyer and Wood in their introduction to the Critique repeat this distinction in Kant’s philosophy that “reveals Kant’s characteristic tendency to convert ontological questions into epistemological questions—that is, the transformation of questions about what sorts of things there must be into questions about the conditions under which it is possible for us to make claims to the knowledge about things.” Paul Guyer, Allen Wood, eds., Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, “Introduction to the Critique of Pure Reason,” 25.

[87] Henry E. Allison, “The Thing in Itself…,” Transcendental Idealism, 50.

[88] See Immanuel Kant, Kant’s Inaugural Dissertation of 1770, William J. Eckoff, trans. (Whitefish: Kessinger Publishing, 2004).

[89] Henry E. Allison, “The Thing in Itself…,” Transcendental Idealism, 59.

[90] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 381.

[91] Quentin Meillassoux calls Kant a “correlationist” for this reason, i.e. the thing in itself is a correlate to the thing as it appears to us. See his After Finitude.

[92] Howard Caygill, A Kant Dictionary, 401.

[93] Howard Caygill, A Kant Dictionary, 401.

[94] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 512.

[95] Henry E.Allison, “The Thing in Itself…,” Transcendental Idealism, 60.

[96] Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, 504.

[97] Henry E. Allison, “The Thing in Itself…,” Transcendental Idealism, 62.

honneth’s reconstruction of hegel’s philosophy of right

December 13, 2013 § Leave a comment


Honneth’s Reconstruction of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right

Axel Honneth’s recent book The Pathologies of Freedom: Hegel’s Social Theory[1] aims to find a contemporary ethical usage for Hegel’s theory of justice from his Elements of the Philosophy of Right[2] first published in 1821. Honneth recognizes that Hegel’s Philosophy of Right (hereafter PR) has fallen out of favor in current political theory. Philosophers these days seem to be paying more attention to Kantian philosophy, particularly Kant’s practical philosophy. Adherents of this trend toward Kant are John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas.[3] Honneth names Charles Taylor and others, as putting forth ideas similar to Honneth’s project in this book, namely the idea of: “communitarianism.” For Honneth, such philosophers like Rawls and Habermas put ethics in a privileged place, rather than morality. “No real attempt has been made in these circles to render Hegel’s PR fruitful for the discourse of political philosophy” (Honneth, 1). It seems that most political philosophers keep their distance from Hegel’s PR for a variety of reasons. Still, Honneth sees hope. People should become interested in Hegel’s ethics. This paper will analyze and detail Honneth’s reconstruction of Hegel’s PR to not only to see what can be found and learned from Hegel’s philosophical, political, and social thought, but what can be retrieved from it all the same.

Hegel is just too difficult to tackle for the impatient reader, especially with all of his systematic complications—not withstanding his vigorous religious overtures. In his reconstitution, Honneth has to be careful with what he uses and what he discards from the PR. There are two prejudices that seem to be widespread in the current disuse of the PR. The first is the most difficult to get around, where we find Hegel in his so-called undemocratic way of conceptualizing freedom, and the individual appears to be subordinate to the authority of the state (Honneth, 4). Hegel didn’t want to recognize the ‘sovereignty’ of the people. The second problem is similar to what was identified earlier, that is, the sheer difficulty of Hegel’s system, at least for Honneth’s reconstruction, where aspects of the PR make use of the Logic, namely Hegel’s ontological conception of the spirit. Still, Honneth sees the PR as a “quarry for brilliant individual ideas” (4). Surprisingly, Honneth doesn’t feel that the whole of the PR can be resuscitated today for the reasons stated above, i.e. Hegel’s unique logical structure as it pertains to PR’s systemization, and Hegel’s underlying problems with his conservative conceptions of the state.

This means that Honneth pictures Hegel’s PR as a normative theory that is applicable to those “spheres of reciprocal recognition” that make up the way societies think about themselves ethically (5). To be sure, there are two elements that Honneth wishes to retrieve, two concepts for the PR that are of “far reaching intuition,” Hegel’s concept of “objective spirit” and his concept of “ethical life” (6). The first concept “objective spirit” (Hegel’s term for what would be otherwise called social life) comprises the idea that social realty is rational, i.e. it is built on a rational structure. Theoretically, for Hegel, any deviations from this structure will inevitably lead to an offence of the rational order of things. The second of Honneth’s inclusions, “ethical life” contains elements that are linked to “objective spirit,” in that both are concerned with social life. There is an idea that in ethical life we have “spheres of action” where everybody (all social participants) shares in the normative conception of ethics, interests and values, in the form of “institutionalized” interactions (Honneth 6). For Honneth, there wouldn’t be much left of Hegel’s PR if we were to sacrifice these key concepts.

Honneth is concerned to give a contemporary reading of the PR while narrowing down reconstruction of what is useful from it, in a four step program:

1. Honneth seeks to find a contemporary explication of Hegel’s obscure notion that the idea of a general free will determines the total extent of what we call right, “which aims at the intersubjective conditions of individual self-realization to all” (7).

2. Then, Honneth will illuminate the immanent way Hegel’s “draft of a theory of justice” is also a diagnosis of “social pathologies” (7). “Abstract right” and “morality” as they are described in Hegel’s PR, should not to be entirely confused with ethical life. The problems that arise from identifying with what Hegel has termed “abstract right” and “morality” as ends in themselves, is thus deemed to be “suffering from indeterminacy” (7).[4] This notion will be explained later, but provisionally speaking, “abstract right” and “morality” are only two steps in Hegel’s hierarchy where “ethical life” is the highest realization of ethics and social life, indicating that Hegel saw “ethical life” as a culmination and further realization above and beyond the other two previous tiers.

3. From this Honneth’s elucidates the idea that Hegel’s theory of justice, re: the PR could describe a “therapeutic” means of “liberating” people who are “suffering from indeterminacy” (7). In Hegel’s conception of “ethical life” the PR describes the manner in which any number of social spheres can enable, and help individuals realize their own freedom. This speaks to Hegel’s “instutionalist” mind frame, since it seems counter-intuitive that one could find individual freedom via an institutional backdrop, yet amazingly, this was Hegel’s way of doing it, and to some extent it ends up making sense. Much of this is different from the kind of “atomistic” freedom Kant and Fichte promulgated, from where Hegel draws his critique while he sublates[5] these previous ethical modes of agent-causalist, liberatarian modes of freedom.[6]

4. There must be room for action within social life where even selfish interests are meted out in the market place. And there must also be room for “ethical life” and “right” to fall under the category of Hegel’s “objective freedom.” The PR suggests a process of self-reflection, governed by reason where it moves and manifests itself in the external world. The subjective world makes way for the universalizing objectivity of the social sphere. “Ethical life” is the mode where society as “objective spirit” finds itself realized. Honneth reminds us that Hegel sees reason as the realization of Spirit (Geist) in ethical life and the objective world of social institutions.[7]

With these points as a general strategy by which to read, and reconstruct Hegel’s PR, Honneth specifies the main goal of the PR situates freedom and the will as two of the governing ideas of the whole book. From the introduction of the PR, Honneth cites a short passage from §29. The first two sentences of this section speak for themselves in terms of their wide reaching scope: “Right is any existence in general which is the existence of the free will. Right is therefore in general freedom as Idea” (Hegel, 58). Again, Honneth designates this as the goal of the PR.

But what can be gleaned from Hegel’s use of the term free will? Autonomy and self determination are incomplete for Hegel. There is, as identified by Honneth, an elementary view of what this means. For example, in a typical understanding, individual self determination has to do with the ability of people to delineate the will from their innate needs and desires. This usually means that the individual has to place restrictions on himself because all desires and appetites usually cannot be met in full. Then, there is a negative conception of free will that looks like Kant and Fichte’s a priori freedom, where the individual has to choose from a range of “given contents” (Honneth, 10). In both examples Hegel objects to a conception of will that seems to be contingent and mostly reliant on the “heteronomous.” This means that the laws and rules are developed from outside the individual, i.e. even if freedom is a priori for Kant and Fichte, it is still having to react to outside forces, these outside forces in relation to a person’s innate sense of freedom are important for Hegel. The “contents” of the self determination is deemed “finite” as cited in §15 of the PR: “the content of this self determination therefore also remains purely and simply finite” (Hegel, 48). In this section, Hegel also calls this particular kind of freedom “arbitrary” (48). Since this is connected to Kant and Fichte, it must be recognized that Hegel’s referring to morality rather than ethics.[8] Honneth calls this type of freedom the “optional model” (11). This “optional model” of freedom depicts self determination as purely a reflective choice (re: it’s optional) that straddles inclination and impulse. Hegel’s practical philosophy develops out of Kant’s dualism between duty and inclination, meaning that he retains Kant’s morality, while at the same time moving beyond it.

Hegel wants to develop a concept of free will where “even the material of self determination loses every trace of heteronomy” (Honneth, 12). For Hegel, as Honneth follows from §10 of the PR: “the will is free only in itself or for us, or it is in general the will in its concept. Only when the will has itself as its object is it for itself what it is in itself” [Hegel’s italics] (44). The will is immediate, and in-itself, or it is a concept that is for-itself, meaning that the will is potential (in-itself) as it is actualized, this actualization does look different than the simple will in-itself (it is for-itself when it is actualized). The will in-itself is finite (re: Kant and Fichte). A shallow reflective view of the will (re: understanding) only can grasp the will as being in-itself, a mere potentiality. Hegelian self-consciousness (for-itself) sees the will as limited (abstract) and not wholly connected it to the ideas of truth and freedom.

Honneth puts it nicely when he suggests that Hegel is “radically sublating contingency in a system of human motivation [my italics]” (12). Two incomplete interpretations of Honneth’s reconstruction can be then be formulated (with Hegel’s modifications):

A.) As much as Hegel is a critic of Kant’s practical philosophy, he also assumes it into the system of the PR, adding the idea that people must “posses the appropriate inclinations” so that these can be transformed from decisions into motives (13).

B.) Or, perhaps Hegel wanted self determination to be inter-locked with human motivation, whereby the individual and, by extension, communities naturally structure an environment that normatively foster “true human freedom” (Honneth, 13). Honneth adheres to this possibility a little more than the first (however, the first is still maintained). It is with this possibility where Honneth brings in a vital quote from one of Hegel’s discussions on a conception of freedom in §7 in to introduction to the PR:

But we already posses this [concrete concept of] freedom in the form of feeling, for example in friendship and love [sic]. Here, we are not one-sidedly within ourselves, but willingly limit ourselves with reference to an other, even when knowing ourselves in this limitation as ourselves. (42).

As it turns out, Honneth’s entire reconstruction and ethical revitalization of Hegel’s PR rests mostly on the above short passage, namely the idea that in friendship we find and limit ourselves with reference to the other, or as Honneth quotes it, in friendship we are “being oneself with the other” (14). This is how freedom should be understood. For the will to be free it should restrict itself to its basic desires, its “first-order volitions” (here Honneth uses a Harry Frankfurt term), this expression confirms the will’s freedom.[9] But this cannot happen unless the object of desire has the “quality of being free, because only such an ‘other’ can really enable the will to experience freedom” (Honneth, 14). More succinctly put, Hegel’s “free will” is only realized in “being with oneself in the other,” and the other has to, likewise, be free (Honneth, 14). This describes what we referred to earlier as communicative, re: the “communicative model of individual freedom” (Honneth 14). Communicative relationships signify the essentially good for Hegel. It is in these networks where we realize our freedom, and as Honneth writes, justice makes this possible (15).

Let it be clear that this is Honneth’s rehabilitation of the PR, since Hegel had slightly more conservative aims with reference to the state, etc. Honneth has to be careful to not say that Hegel merely means to lay down a set of rules or principles by which to realize these goals. Hegel wanted to define right as equivalent to free will and where right is doubly defined by Hegel as a “necessary condition” and a “justifiable claim” (Honneth 15). This simultaneously means that Hegel didn’t think that free will should be a simple legal right, since this too would present an obvious limitation to the comprehensiveness of Hegel’s intent. The legal aspect of rights is more of a formality then what Hegel is aiming for. Hegel’s general plan in the PR appears to be much more normative, rather than prescriptive and moralizing, and this ‘normativity’ fits with Honneth’s modifications. [Correction: Hegel allows for both for the progression of moral normativity, as it ‘ought’ to be, and a description of the actual, where the ought and the actual occur in tandem, i.e. the actualizing tends toward the normativity of the rational. See Michael O. Hardimon’s Hegel’s Social Philosophy: The Project of Reconciliation.] If the PR has to do with justice, it seeks to justify social conditions that enable each person to realize his own freedom, as it is already happening in his social life, and “as a prerequisite of his own self realization” (Honneth, 18).

It is recognized by Honneth that the intent of Hegel’s PR is twofold: (α) to establish the importance of inter-subjective action as it relates to the realization of free will which enables a communicative structure of freedom. To this end, Hegel wanted to establish a framework by which to justify and legitimize the kinds of institutional networks that enable the kinds of freedom and ethics described previously. And importantly, (β) the kind of freedom that these social institutions provide should still be intrinsically incomplete so as to cultivate the necessary room for growth—self realization doesn’t flourish if everything is thoroughly prescribed and legislated ahead of time. Hegel’s strategy is immanently dynamic, not static.

Hegel divided the PR into three distinct categories: “abstract right”, “morality” and “ethical life” Each model conceptualizes aspects of free will in varying degrees. Even though the two preliminary parts “abstract right” and “morality” are to be subsumed into the larger more comprehensive realization of “ethical life,” these two areas are modes where certain factions of society completely identify with. “Abstract right” is characterized with the notion that a person’s subjective rights and formal (legal) rights signify the absolute extent of his freedom. And the second, “morality” strictly locates freedom in a person’s “moral self determination” (Honneth, 21). These two modes of freedom, or conceptions of free will, are still, in a sense, prerequisites for “ethical life.” They, as defined by Hegel in the PR, lead to “social damage” (Honneth, 23). The argument runs something like this: if the two models “abstract right” and “morality” are treated as absolute, a society that treats them as such will develop inevitable pathologies. The only way out of this pathological endgame would be to favor a communicative structure of freedom that enables the individual to find his freedom in the ‘other’ implemented through friendship, and the array of institutional equivalents. Another way of putting it would be to say that Hegel has to show the structural development of freedom through the two modes, while at the same time demonstrating their respective flaws, all in order to make a case for the liberating and normalizing qualities of “ethical life.” The notion of liberation is important for both Hegel and Honneth’s respective projects. Liberation will be looked at in more detail later. Meanwhile, Honneth presents these pathologies as Hegel described them in his diagnosis of “abstract right” and “morality,” they are: “solitude,” “vacuity,” “burden,” and surely more can be found. These few, Honneth says, can “be reduced to the common denominator of ‘suffering from indeterminacy’” (23). Hegel has to show how these models can exist in the world, but also how we can remain avoid being “indifferent” to them all the while, this is a problem that not only Hegel had to grapple with, but we too have to try to do this with the people we live amidst, in order to create a more communicative space for each other, rather than only for ourselves, or only to fulfill our personal and lofty moral obligations.

Briefly put, Honneth works to illustrate Hegel’s normative theory of justice as conceptualized by means of the social entities that place a premium on the self realization of the individual. Hegel’s modern legal system derives from this simple conception. In order to realize this, Honneth has to, like we have to, struggle through the heady philosophical structure of the PR. What he derives from this, is that two conditions need to be fulfilled “there must be a framework in which they [persons] learn to understand themselves as persons bearing rights” and “there must be a moral order in place” (28). These two things make for a better ground from where self realization can be brought about in any given social institution. And, one shouldn’t ignore the fact that these two elements bear such a close resemblance to “abstract right” and “morality” respectively. If it hasn’t been said already, the mistake would be to read the PR as an attempt to fully subordinate the two models, Honneth writes “accordingly, Hegel’s works contain innumerable passages pointing out the dangers attendant on detaching morality form its wider context and construing it as a fully independent sphere…” (29). Here, we’ll take “morality” to mean Hegel’s “ethical life,” meaning that we can’t just take it to be the only picture of ethics we have available. So the real problem at hand is when we think that any of these modes of ethics, freedom, and free will can be detached from the others. The deleterious assumption that any of these models can be effectively detached from the others is a gross misunderstanding of Hegel’s conception of “objective spirit.” In Hegel’s system “objective spirit” presupposes a whole rational order, and when one steps away from that order, there are bound to be problems for the individual as much as for the whole—hence “the pathologies of individual freedom.” Given these problems and none of this is without problems, Honneth shows, by means of Hegel’s project, how the two models of “abstract right” and “morality” are indispensible to the whole of the PR. Both “abstract right” and “morality” are modeled by Hegel, in what Honneth calls the “action-theoretical” approach (32). This “action-theoretical” approach shows how each mode leading up to (and including) “ethical life” can be presented in what particular actions each mode takes to be normative, e.g. how property rights actually take effect, or how marriage contracts are important in their particular contractual realizations, and so on.

If we’ve read Hegel’s PR correctly, “abstract right” is not only concerned with basic fundamental rights, it also has to do with formal rights, read primarily as legal rights. Honneth focuses on §§41-48, these sections are part of “abstract right,” and they are under the sub-category of “Property” (Hegel, 73-79). By definition, this mode of realizing and actualizing “abstract right” is inter-subjective, even if it can be selfishly motivated and conceptualized in the minds of the participants, ‘this land is legally mine, not yours,’ etc. Still, there is the possibility of individual self realization in this model. Although we can see that the total embrace of formal, legal rights, i.e. self righteousness and dogmatism, can lead to people having the problem of not understanding how this mode of formal rights can be more nuanced and context-sensitive. Yet, it can easily be seen that this model of right cannot be done away with, since we need laws, rules and regulations to carry on in a civilized way. There are those who willingly subvert laws, etc. There is a value to subjective rights. There is nothing wrong with claiming one’s individual rights, as much as there isn’t a problem with having clear legal boundaries and guidelines. But, one can always choose to treat these rights as the only way to be, to hide and “withdraw” behind them as if that’s all there is (Honneth, 36).

For the other model “morality” Hegel designated a way to show the value of morality, while at the same time critiquing a view that moral rights are the only way to go. Morality has to stand above and beyond formal subjective rights, for the simple reason that there is more to the way we act other than legal codes of action. All moral decisions don’t need to be legally codified. For instance, there doesn’t always need to be a law in place to help someone in need. A matter of moral freedom cannot be always be legislated. “Individual freedom [as it’s realized in morality] first reveals that dimension which touches on the relationship of the subject with himself…” so for Honneth, and for us, morality too is indispensible since it draws us up from pure formal righteousness into moral civility. If anything, we have to conceptualize modes of moral freedom in ourselves, before we can do the same for (and with) others. Honneth admits that he can’t detail Hegel’s full critique of Kant’s “categorical imperative” yet one argument stands out: the issue of “context-blindness” (39-40). It stands to reason that Kant’s “categorical imperative” might become problematic in varying contexts, and that a specific context helps determine how one will act morally (or not, as the case may be). Basically, for all its merits, Kant’s morality lacks the kind of normative, day to day flexibility Hegel desired—one doesn’t always know the universal way to act. There is always the question: is Hegel a moral relativist? Probably not, since Hegel in §138 indicates that when the norms of society are unable to serve us, as they have before, we “…must seek to recover in ideal inwardness alone that harmony which has been lost in actuality” (Honneth, 41). What formal laws cannot cover morality has to serve as a guide—and this is limited.

Now we’ve come to another critical quote found by Honneth, from Hegel’s “Ethical Life” chapter in the PR, §149:

The individual however finds his liberation in duty. On the one hand, he is liberated from his dependence on mere natural drives, and from the burden he labors under as a particular subject in his moral reflections on obligation and desire; and on the other hand, he is liberated from that indeterminate subjectivity which does not attain existence or the subjective determinacy of action, but remains within itself and has no actuality (192-193).

This section clarifies, and repeats, some of the main issues Honneth pulls from the PR, re: the problematic nature of remaining in the subjective mode of morality and basic drives (“morality” and “abstract right” respectively), while at the same time liberating oneself from these spheres. The word “indeterminacy” shouldn’t be ignored either, due to its significance for what it means if one were to stick in the “abstract right” and “morality” models. So, the idea of liberation is from the suffering incurred from the “pathologies of freedom.” As an aside, Honneth’s very mention and concern for suffering exposes his Frankfurt School roots, especially with a strong connection to Theodore Adorno’s Critical Theory.[10] Back to liberation, this is considered to be a “decisive point where the transition to ethical life occurs in Hegel’s text” (Honneth, 45). Liberation from the suffering brought about by the stasis of formal rights and the moral, represents the ability to get away from the problems brought about by the pathologies, and just as importantly, they both represent a grounding from which to carry forth into Hegel’s conception of ethical life.

In Honneth’s reconstruction, not only does he have to advocate for the liberating quality of Hegel’s “ethical life,” he has to simultaneously place Hegel’s conception of friendship in the forefront of his redux. In order to do this, Honneth praises Hegel for the inclusion of the family in “ethical life.” If only to demonstrate that the family is where a person receives the necessary developmental ethics to face society at large. In the family “we realize part of ourselves because the other effortlessly endorses those of our inclinations, impulses, and needs that are a part of our natural equipment as ‘feeling’ human creatures” (Honneth, 66). There is an intrinsic amount of care and compassion that goes along with family life that is indispensible to our conception of everyday ethics in social life. Aside from Hegel’s sloppy chauvinism, the primary ethics of family life represent a primer for the ethics the wider world (if handled without abuse, neglect, etc.) (Honneth, 67). An argument can be made to situate friendship as another way that “at the level of feeling, represent[s] an exemplary case of a relationship that show[s] how a subject could reach complete freedom only through ‘limitation’ to another subject” (Honneth, 67). Friendship acts in much the same way as the family, only without the requisite problems, and contractual limitations of marriage. The mutually engaging intersubjectivity of friends provides a normalizing way in which ethics are realized for the individual. Our “communicative” freedom is justifiably recognized in the practice of becoming friends, at a very rudimentary level of being respectful to others, and at the socially advanced level of getting things done, business partnerships, political affiliations, international diplomacy, etc. In spite of the fact that Honneth recognizes the lack of any mention of friendship in Hegel’s “ethical life,” Honneth does argue that “perhaps it would have been more consistent with his intentions if he [Hegel] had not summed up his entire intuition of self-realization through reciprocal love in the image of a fully developed institution [re: marriage, the family]” (72). Such a thing as love is viewed by Hegel as “open to contingency” as quoted by Honneth from §161 of the PR (69). Honneth speculates that Hegel didn’t include friendship in “ethical life” because the family represented a more stable and durable social institution that serves as a ready-made model from which Hegel could sketch a basis of ethical life preceding “civil society” and “the state” (69).

Standing apart from the criticisms of the closing chapter of Honneth’s book, the idea of liberation is worthy of a second, and concluding review, if only to remind us of a key aspect of Honneth’s and Hegel’s intent. Going back to Hegel’s addition to §149 in the PR, one is reminded of a kind of positive freedom that is manifested after the subjective pathologies of “abstract right” and “morality” are no longer viewed as entirely, or absolutely sufficient. A positive sense of freedom is furthermore encapsulated in Honneth’s re-quote of Hegel from the addition to §7 of the PR, whereby friendship is conceptualized as “being oneself with the other” (14). If liberation is brought about by “being oneself with the other” in terms of friendship, it should stand to reason that Hegel’s PR was worth Honneth’s second look. Under these circumstances, this normalizing conceptualization not only drives home the point that one should strive to find freedom in other people, but also, that this phenomena is already happening. It is only when we are able to make this Hegelian determination into a notion of freedom to be utilized on a day-to-day basis, will we be able to maximize what it means to simply be friendly, and to offer the kind of diplomacy it takes to get things done in this world. This is welcome news nowadays in our overly cynical culture, where ‘being too nice’ is almost a radical gesture (if not considered spineless).[11] But, Hegel’s message was not to moralize, it was more of a way to talk about how things are actualized, “the owl of Minerva begins its flight only with the onset of dusk” (Hegel, 23). If this notion is true, then it is incumbent on us to studiously observe what actually works, and to take it from there, as respectfully as possible, for ourselves, and most importantly, with and for others…

[1] Axel Honneth, The Pathologies of Individual Freedom, Ladislaus Löb, trans. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010).

[2] G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, Allen W. Wood, ed., H.B. Nisbet, trans. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

[3] It world be worth it to research Honneth’s claim regarding this, especially as it pertains to Rawls, since both Habermas and Rawls have worked with Hegel’s PR in the past. Also, see: Sibyl A. Schwarzenbach, “Rawls, Hegel, and Communitarianism,” Political Theory, Vol. 19, No. 4 (Nov., 1991): 539-571.

[4] Incidentally, this translation, at times, interchanges the terms: ethics and morality, something that proves to be a little distracting, given that Hegel worked so hard to limit Kant’s morality next to Hegel’s ‘new-and-improved’ version of “ethical life.” Not all is lost. The translation error only takes a second to ameliorate. One should pay closer attention to Honneth’s nuanced and sophisticated intent to salvage what he can of the PR. Honneth thinks that the PR needs a better legitimacy in today’s political climate for good reasons.

[5] See Encyclopedia of Marxism: Glossary of Terms, “aufheben,” “Aufheben can be translated as to sublate, to abolish, to transcend or to supersede or even ‘to pick up,’ ‘to raise,’ ‘to keep,’ ‘to preserve,’ ‘to end’ or ‘to annul.’ Literally and originally, aufheben meant ‘to pocket,’ as when someone pockets your payment but continues to work for you.” http://www.marxists.org/glossary/terms/a/u.htm

[6] See Robert M. Johnson, “The Moral Law as Causal Law,” Kant’s Groundwork: A Critical Guide, J.

Timmerman, ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010). http://web.missouri.edu/~johnsonrn/causal.pdf

[7] See R. C. Solomon, “Hegel’s Concept of ‘Geist’” The Review of Metaphysics Vol. 23, No. 4, (Jun., 1970): 642-661.

[8] …as mentioned earlier, the translator gets these terms confused.

[9] See Harry Frankfurt, “Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person,” Free Will, Gary Watson, ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), 322-336.

[10] See Axel Honneth, Pathologies of Reason: On the Legacy of Critical Theory, James Ingram, trans. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2009).

[11]See David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1996). “What passes for hip cynical transcendence of sentiment is really some kind of fear of being really human, since to be really human […] is probably to be unavoidably sentimental and naïve and goo-prone and generally pathetic.”

j.g. fichte’s: the vocation of man

November 12, 2013 § Leave a comment


Presentation notes for: J.G. Fichte’s The Vocation of Man (…including biographical details leading up to the publication of The Vocation of Man in 1800.)

Johann Gottlieb Fichte

May 19, 1762 – January 27, 1814[1]

“The kind of philosophy one chooses thus depends upon the kind of person one is.” –J.G, Fichte[2]

“(Fichtean philosophy is a call to self activity—I cannot thoroughly explain something to someone unless I refer him to himself, unless I bid him to perform the same action that clarified it for me. I can teach someone to philosophize when I teach him to do it as I do it—when he does what I do, he is what I am, is there, where I am.)”—Novalis[3]

“The Fichte of the war of liberation speaks also to us.” –Edmund Husserl[4]

…born in Rammenau, Oberlausitz area of Saxony in 1762 to poor ribbon weavers, Fichte showed an early precociousness enough to have most of his education paid for by a local baron (later on when the rich baron died—i.e. when the funds were cut off—Fichte had to drop out of Jena U.)

…he went to primary school at Pforta (a.k.a.Schulpforta, re: an early monastic education). Incidentally, this is also where the Schlegel brothers, Kierkegaard, and Nietzsche also attended (though, of course, not all at the same time). From there, he went on to the Universities of Leipzig and Jena.

…his planned literary career didn’t take off, this forced him into tutoring. A student asked him to tutor on Kant’s new Critical Philosophy, to which he was quickly adept. Fichte said that Kant “occasioned a revolution in my way thinking.”[5]

…it is said that he had an initial meeting with Kant in Köningsberg that didn’t prove fruitful. This inspired him to take to the pen and write his Attempt at a Critique of All Revelation (Versuch eine Kritik aller Offenbarung) (1792). This work set out to suggest that the only revelation in line with the Critical Philosophy was the moral law (a theme that would reappear later). Kant was so impressed that he asked that this work be published by his on publisher. For some unexplained reason (although it’s debatable that this was accidental) Fichte’s name didn’t make it onto the publication. This led many to believe it was Kant’s work (no small compliment). When it was revealed that it was in fact Fichte’s—his philosophical career took off!

…then Fichte publishes: Reclamation of the Freedom of Thought from the Princes of Europe, who Have Hitherto Suppressed it (1793). & Contribution to the Rectification of the Public’s Judgment of the French Revolution (1793/94), it was for these works that Fichte’s reputation was becoming that of a political and philosophical radical.

…when he was in Zurich (for whatever reason), he received news he was invited to fill the recently vacated chair of Critical Philosophy at the University of Jena—a highly coveted position, since Jena was one of the intellectual places-to-be in the German speaking world (next to Weimar and probably Berlin).

…it was during his time at Jena U. when Fichte began work on his philosophical theory known as the Wissenschaftslehre (his “theory of ‘science” or the “Doctrine of Science” or the “Theory of Scientific Knowledge”). This was his word for his philosophy, when we talk of Fichte’s philosophy—we’re talking about his Wissenschaftslehre. Yes, there were books of his with this in the title, but the word is used in reference to his whole philosophy. The Wissenschaftslehre is Fichte’s philosophy. Fichte wanted to, not only reach an academic audience, but also to reach a popular audience. His passion for philosophy was great, although at times undiplomatically polarized. It was a Jena that he began to offer public lectures. Soon he published the Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre (Grunlage der geamten Wissenschaftslehre, parts I & II in 1794, part III in 1795), this was immediately followed by Outline of the Distinctive Character of the Wissenschaftslehre with Respect to the Theoretical Faculty (Grundiß des Eigenthümlichen der Wissenschaftslehre in Rüchsicht auf das theoretische Vermögen) &c.

…to be sure, there were no less than sixteen (or more) versions (takes and retakes, lectures, publications) of the Wissenschaftslehre due to his desire to clarify his own position and to clear up the public’s misunderstandings. So, it was primarily at his time at Jena U. that he did most of this extensive work on the Wissenschaftslehre. All of this work meant that he was elaborating on the multiple angles, offshoots and side-issues concerning the Wissenschaftslehre including its religious components.

…it was at this time (1798), when he wrote an essay: “On the Basis of Our Belief in a Divine Governance of the World” (Üeber den Grund unsers Glaubens an eine göttliche Welttregierung) and another essay on the same topic, written with a Mr. K.L. Forberg. These provoked an anonymous author to write a pamphlet accusing Fichte of atheism. Recall that Jena U. was quite prestigious, and many royal families had children attending and the thought that having them taught by an atheist wouldn’t do—so they threatened to withdraw their students. During this time F.H. Jacobi accused Fichte of ‘nihilism’ (as Dr. Reid mentioned, Jacobi is credited for coining the term) &c. Fichte was a bit of a hot-head & during the heat of this embroilment, he was arguing on his own behalf via letters and appeals, he wrote to the authorities that if he was, in fact, guilty he should be fired, Duke Karl-August of Wiemar took this brusque over-play as his letter of resignation & Fichte had to step down and leave the university.[6]

…he then moved to Berlin in 1799. Fichte settled in, back to lecturing on his philosophy and writing. Remember that early on Fichte had the impulse to present his philosophy to a wider more popular audience…in 1800 he published The Vocation of Man (Die Bestimmung des Menschen).

The Vocation of Man has to do with issues of determinism, necessity, freedom and the responsibility of morally responsible agents, and by extension, these things are also a few of the primary concerns of his Wissenschaftslehre.[7]

The Vocation of Man

(Die Bestimmung des Menschen)

first published in 1800


The Vocation of Man is divided in to three books: Doubt, Knowledge, and Faith. Doubt opens with Fichte asking the seemingly simple question: “But—what am I myself, and what is my vocation?” (1)[9]. As Peter Preuss suggests in his translator’s intro (in our Hackett copy)[10], this chapter (the first book) is dealing with issues of deterministic materialism, which is something that Fichte wanted to move away from.[11]

…In the opening pages we easily see Fichte referring to a kind of ‘hard’ determinism (6). Things seem to be moved by a force. “The expression of each particular natural force is determined […]” (10). Even before we are born, the ways in which we’ll become have been determined, due to various circumstances, even our consciousness seems to be predetermined, given a strict sense of how we understand the events, causes &c. that have led up to who we are. The unification of natural forces is made evident in the human being, this is the “anthropogenic force” (13), which explains how we come to be as individual people &c. as singular expressions of this force (not its entire expression, since we are only a part of the whole force). I am an independent person in that my immediate consciousness does not extend outside of itself (re: subjectivity) (14). Only with respect to my inner-consciousness do I feel free, given the strict laws of this brand of hard determinism (15).

…from here, i.e. from a deterministic universe, we are then able to place our consciousness in nature “[c]onsciousness is here no longer that stranger in nature […]” (15). Being & knowledge have the same common ground: my nature (15). I have consciousness of my self and I have consciousness of things outside myself. These things about me are my nature. “Away then […]” from the Kantian thing-in-itself and instead we can see that this entire world is coming from within (16). This represents Fichte’s subjective turn. At the same time I can think of others as existing in much the same way as I do. Everything must have a reason (principle of sufficient reason).[12] Therefore, my consciousness represents the move from the particular to the general, i.e. from me, to other living beings in general (16). This also extends the movement toward a complete consciousness of everyone combined (perhaps we can see this as an anticipation of G.W.F. Hegel’s spirit/mind/Geist? Let’s not forget that Hegel was influenced by both Kant and Fichte). We are still in the deterministic paradigm of ‘doubt’. Nature is able to see itself through the eyes of man.

…insofar as we stay with this deterministic paradigm, we can then see that “[e]ach individual’s consciousness is thoroughly determined […] (17). Then we notice the will as a way to contend with the contrary forces[13] of the universe. One way to contend with this all prevailing force is through our morality (18), virtues, vices and impropriety all morph from this. Conscience is manifested form our fundamental drive (18). Fichte’s desire to know has now been answered in this deterministic way and there’s a strange feeling of helplessness in this, “[…] I don’t make myself at all but nature but nature makes me and whatever I become […]” (19). Fichte is horrified by the hard determinism scenario, but he is able to show man’s grounding in nature and that his goals are a teleological way out of this endless circle of materialism.

…Fichte expresses the desire for man to find within himself the seat of determination (21). “I want to will with freedom according to a freely conceived purpose […]” (21). Freedom does not come from nature it emerges from within me.[14] Fichte writes “[m]y acts are to result from this will […]” (21). “I make myself: my being through my thinking; my thinking simply through thinking” (22). Fichte concludes the “Doubt” chapter (book one) on the fence between the two positions: hard determination or free-will—obviously doubtful of the former and affirmative of the latter.


…the general theme of the second book, “Knowledge,” has to do with the idea that even though we believe that the world is external to us, we should be able to recognize that this external world is only made available via the knowledge of ourselves. The book is set up a dialogue between a spirit and the I. “Spirit: […] In all perception you only perceive your own condition” (29). The Spirit tries to convince the I (Fichte/us) that such things as sensations, color distinctions (&c.) of the physical world are subjectively known to us by means of the I. Soon the Sprit tries to convince the I that he does not just feel things, but rather that there is always something that stands in for that feeling, it’s not just a feeling devoid of sensation (32-33). Color is compared to a mathematical point. (33-33). “Spirit: It may well be that the extension outside of you derives from the consciousness of your own extension as a material body, and is conditioned by it” (34).[15]

…continuing, we find the Spirit explaining the problem of infinite divisibility[16] And, also issues of space and time that are reminiscent of Kant’s intuitions of space and time brought about via the sensations (37).[17] How do we become aware of things outside of us?—by the determinate cause of the object that is outside of us (38). Then the Spirit urges the I to think of a “[…] consciousness (produced by going beyond your actual [immediate] consciousness by means of the principle of causality) of a consciousness of things (which are supposed to exist and be necessary, but which are inaccessible to you)” (40). Then the Spirit speaks of the first consciousness as immediate and the second as mediate, these two moments are brought together in a synthesis of which can be none other then a dialectical positing.[18] The I posits the not-I and is therefore able to see myself with respect to what is not me (i.e. in relation to objects), but also to see others as being like myself.

…and, most importantly we find the Spirit counseling the I “A mental act of which w become conscious as such is called freedom. “An act without consciousness of acting, pure spontaneity [sic]” (41). Spirit now counsels the I into contemplating the idea of causality as supplied by subjective consciousness. Spirit “the particular knowledge which is here at issue, i.e., that your affections must have a cause, is completely independent of the knowledge of things?” (43).[19] It also seems that at this juncture the I is getting wiser and filling in the Fichtian points along with the Spirit. The I suggests “I have always in thought added a cause, and everyone, if he has to think at all, will similarly feel compelled in thought to add a cause” (45). Spirit “all knowledge is only knowledge of yourself […]” (45).

…then the I and Spirit discursively address the question of how we know about things outside of us. (46-47)[20]. Spirit mentions the famous “I am I” (48).[21] Then explicates how the I knows about things outside of itself. Spirit “so, the identity of subject and object would be your essence as intelligence?” (48). The I struggles, while at the same time presenting some of the answers, the I is aware of the subject (me) and the object as a result of intelligence and consciousness, re: “inner laws of my consciousness itself” (49). Issues of force and space come up…leading to a quick summery of the idea on Fichtian subjectivity by Spirit “this presentation [of things outside of you] is not perception; you only perceive yourself. And just as little is it thought; things don’t appear to you as something merely thought. It really is consciousness of being outside of you, and indeed absolutely immediate consciousness of such being, just as perception is immediate consciousness of your condition” (50). This sort way of describing consciousness is intuition (50).[22]

…continuing on the questions of how a subjective consciousness has knowledge of the outside world, the I questions the Spirit about the fact that when I am conscious of something, I am not always aware of the act of intuiting the object before me, usually, we only have consciousness of the object itself (51-53). Spirit assuages the I by stating “nevertheless intuition necessarily proceeds from the perception of your own condition” (53). There is an “[…] unnoticed thinking of yourself […]” (53). Later, “estimating”, “measuring” and “considering” are considered and differentiated form intuition and named as judgments (more than likely after Kant’s judgments). Spirit lays out the details of this (54-55). I arrives at an epiphany of realization about the […] presentation of the object outside of me […]” (55).

1. I = I, therefore the I is aware itself/myself/yourself as a practical and intelligent being. First there is sensation, and then there is intuition (a relation to space).

2. The I cannot think of the unlimited (think of Kant’s paralogisms[23], re: the unconditioned) and for this reason the I is limited. The I becomes aware of its own finitude.[24]

3. The concept of space is a matter of my own sensation (55-56).[25]

…Fichte continues with issues of force (57). A definition of this force is hard to pin down, but in the passages, it appears to be dialectical, i.e. the I actively posits the not-I and this creates the necessary force of thinking and about thinking of things in space (57). Then the I and the Spirit review the above concepts (57-60). The second book “Knowledge” concludes with the frustrations of the I with all this talk of subjectivity and knowledge—it just doesn’t seem to be sufficient, nor a comprehensive account of the whole picture. Basically knowledge isn’t everything, as Spirit suggests “[w]hat comes to be in and through knowledge is only knowledge”, and “[b]ut you are looking for something real lying beyond the mere image [namely, that semblance of truth which knowledge proffers], (65).

Faith[26], [27], [28]

…now, the Fichte (as the I addressing the Spirit, yet, now as a monologue) continues to feel unsatisfied with just knowledge, and he wishes to know if there is anything else that will give him the answer he seeks from his queries. One conclusion, that was made earlier, is that (as Fichte addresses the I) “[…] you exist for activity, Your activity, and your activity alone determines your worth” (68). From knowledge we have action. But what directs this? The I desires “[…] independent self activity” (68) The I, for Fichte is the subject and object in one (68).[29] Then Fichte moves to the a few confounding passages about connecting to being, whereby we have freedom and action.[30] Fichte references the ‘sovereign’ I that originates concepts, where he seems to be referring to the a priori, probably after Kant’s concepts of pure understang (69).

…yet, this still seems to be unsatisfactory for Fichte’s I (bound in subjectivity). Fichte also questions the idea of self-determination as arising from something other than thought. Then we have faith. “Faith is no knowledge, but a decision of the will to recognize the validity of knowledge” (71). Faith is not an intellectual activity. This quickly turns into “[…] good will […]” and conscience (which, by the way, are moral/practical concerns) (72). “We are all born in Faith” (73). We don’t have to blindly act in accordance to a naturalistic/materialist hard determinism, if we are, in fact: free, as posited by Fichte. Man’s ‘vocation’ is that he can act in accordance to his will, rather than, by nature (73).


…Fichte continues with a few Kantian themes. re: “[…] nature is formed by my own laws […]” (75). And […] it expresses nothing other than my own relations to myself [&c.…]” (75). There’s mention of honoring others as you would yourself (re: as deontological, as is your duty, as you ought to do &c.) (77). Fichte fleshes out his Kantian concept of deontological acting (78). All of this “[…] justifies a consciousness of a reality existing outside of us […]” (79). Moral action is fundamental—from nothingness to morality (79).


…”Can I will without willing something? Never!” (79). Purposes should not drive ‘the ought.’ Purposes should not drive the will. The active will ‘ought’ to create the purpose. This “[…] commandment […]” can be the grounds for a better world (81). Fichte is not at home with a deterministic world as it is (or as it’s believed to be). In spite of the sundry calamities (earthquakes, volcanoes, disease, &c.) and turmoil that this world throws upon us there’s still the “[…] power of man […]” (83). Man’s freedom to control others can also be his worst enemy (think exploitation, killing, tyranny, war, &c.). Fichte feels that savages need to become cultivated, he means well, but we now know there is a problem with such thinking (85). Fichte seems to predict a time when we will be intolerant of inequality (87). Suddenly Fichte’s talking about idealistic issues of state power, yet most of what he discusses is prescient, re: abolishing slavery, issues of freedom &c. Most of this feels a bit overly-idealistic, but can we fault him for stating the desire for people to act with a common goal toward the good? It is reason that […] prescribes […]” these goals for us (90).


…if there is a time when mankind has reached its goal—then what? (91). Fichte is reiterating the problem of a hard deterministic outlook of which our purpose, our vocation, and our freedom, is not a part of. “Reason is not there for the sake of existence, but existence [is there] for the sake of reason” (91). But what’s the purpose of acting rationally? Fichte then names the rational purpose. “It is never a question of how an act is undertaken, with what intentions and motives, but only what this act may be” (93). “But I am free” and “I am meant to be free” (93-94). Therefore the will is the link to the act. In other words, the will has to be directed by the conscience in order to act. Fichte wants us to be at home in this vocation of the will to act, so our goal should be to preserve this and to promote this as our “[…] highest purpose with all our strength […]” (97). And therefore again, we must also have faith in this as our highest purpose.

…Fichte writes “This therefore, is my whole sublime vocation, my true being. I am a member of two orders. One purely spiritual, in which I exist through the bare will; and one sensible in which I act through my deed” (99). And, also, the will is the living form of reason. The will is the seat of moral goodness, and from this I receive power (100).


…Fichte works to differentiate a law (presumably he means natural laws) from the will (104). The will, my will and the will of others is subject to two points of view: “[…] mere volition […]” and “[…] as a fact […]” (105). Mere volition is an ‘inner’ action of the will and the factual part has to do the factual circumstances of my will in the “[…] sensible world […]” and with the effects our actions have on the world. This includes the so-called “[…] supersensible world […]” a.k.a. the spiritual world (105). This spiritual world has a flavor of the inter-subjective,[31] i.e. the individual will is also made manifest in tandem with the will of others, and this too extends to the eternal (106-107). “This will unites me with itself; it unites me with all finite beings like me and is the general mediator between all of us” (107). Conscience is an act of the will directed in the world as a commandment of a deed (108). Fichte continues on the theme of inter-subjectivity.[32] This must be as simple as recognizing that there are others like me, who have a free will and who act with conscience toward me and the rest of the world, thus, this is also how I can conceive of myself as a free agent. “But the true law of reason in itself is the only practical law, the law of the supersensible world, or that sublime will” (110).

…From here we move into a discussion of the way the infinite is an aspect of the finite.[33] (110-111). “Man is not a product of the sensible world, and the final purpose of his existence cannot be attained it. His vocation goes beyond time and space and everything sensible. He must know what he is to make of himself. As his vocation is lofty, so his thought too must be able to rise entirely above the limits of sensibility” (114).

…&c. (114-123).


…in closing, essentially Fichte’s The Vocation of Man is a treatise to establish the intrinsic ‘transcendental’ quality of free-will against a deterministic, strictly causalist world, for man and his actions. At the same time this is also an abbreviated version of his Wissenschaftslehre and it is also his ‘continuation’ of Kant’s Critical Philosophy. Much more work is to be done to expand on the differences and similarities between his predecessor Kant, and Fichte’s successors Schelling and Hegel, then to see if there are ways to consider where his influence lies with contemporary, and continental philosophy including ideas on the self and the phenomenology of Husserl and beyond…& so on…& so on…

[1] Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward Craig (New York: Routledge, 1998) s.v. Fichte, Johann Gottlieb.

The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Paul Edwards (New York: The Macmiliian Co & the Free Press, 1967) s.v. Fichte, Johann Gottlieb.

(…& most of Fichte’s biographical information was found in these two encyclopedias.)

[2] Fichte, J.G. Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and other Writings, 1797-1800, ed. Daniel Breazeale (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. 1994) 20.

[3] Novalis, Fichte Studies, ed. Jane Kneller (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 169. (…& yes, strangely enough, this is a parenthetical sentence in the text.) Novalis, a.k.a. Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg was a friend of Fichte & wrote these notes in admiration & in critique of Fichte’s ideas. Novalis is better known to us as a Romantic writer & poet, but he was also a philosopher, with leanings to the mystical, re: “magical idealism.”

[4] Husserl, Edmund. “Fichte’s Ideal of Humanity” Husserl Studies. (The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995), 111-133.

[5] Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, s.v. Fichte.

[6] Fichte, J.G. Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and other Writings, 1797-1800, ed. Daniel Breazeale.

[7] …but, to be even more precise, freedom was a primary concern. Fichte writes: “Mine is the first system of freedom. Just as France has freed man from external shackles, so my system frees him from the fetters of things in themselves, which is to say, from those external influences with which all previous systems—including the Kantian—have more or less fettered man. Indeed, the first principle of my system presents man as an independent being” (draft of a letter from Fichte to Jens Baggsesen, April/May 1795). “My system is from beginning to end nothing but an analysis of the concept of freedom, and freedom cannot be contradicted within the system, since no other ingredient is added” (Letter to K.L. Reinhold, January 1800). Fichte, J.G. Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre and other Writings, 1797-1800, ed. Daniel Breazeale. vii.

[8] …by naming book one “Doubt”, Fichte is ‘doubting’ our freedom/free-will as determined by a conventional (materialistic) understanding of the natural world as strictly and nothing but causal &c., re: think positivist science & so on.

[9] …for these page citations, I’m deliberately avoiding footnotes, for ease of in-class reference, and for the simple reason they would end up as a ridiculously long line of ibid, ibid, ibid, ibid, (or something like that) &c.

[10] Fichte, J.G. The Vocation of Man, trans. Peter Preuss (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co. 1987).

[11] …a.ka. what Fichte calls dogmatism, as opposed to idealism. Breazeale in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy writes “…since dogmatism, as understood by Fichte, unavoidably implies a strict form of determinism or ‘intelligible fatalism,’ whereas idealism is, from the start, committed to the reality of human freedom, it is also practically impossible to reach any sort of ‘compromise’ between two such radically opposed systems.” This places Fichte as a metaphysical libertarian and a incompatibilist (and even as a a so-called ‘agent causalist’) i.e. he denies that free-will and determinism are compatible and that there is an extra factor—freedom/free-will—in humans that can be differentiated from the causation of natural law.

[12] Husserl sees this teleology as all important “[a]nd the only genuine task of philosophy is to be found here. It consists in grasping the world as the teleological product of the absolute I and, in the elucidation of the creation of the world in the absolute, making evident its ultimate sense. Fichte believes he is able to achieve this and to have achieved this.” “Fichte’s ideal of Humanity” 118. (Italics retained from Husserl’s text.)

[13] …now, I’m suddenly reminded of Arthur Schopenhauer’s use of the will in The World as Will & Representation, whereby the will is conflated with Kant’s thing-in-itself, yet still a primary force and so on. Yes, I can’t get enough!

[14] Husserl writes, with respect to the will as a telos “[t]he subject is thoroughly, and nothing else than, what acts.” “Fichte’s ideal of Humanity” 117.

[15] …if you are sensing Fichtian anticipations of phenomenology, you’re in good company, see Fichte and the Phenomenological Tradition. Daniel Breazeale, Tom Rockmore, and Violetta L. Waibel eds. (Berlin: De Guyter, 2010).

[16] …& who does this sound like?—none other than Immanuel Kant in the second Antinomy (A436 / B464) see footnote b stating that in the first edition Kant wrote: “In the intellectual, if all divisions is brought to an end, the simple remains. In the sensible it can never be brought to an end, in thoughts, if it is cancelled, nothing remains” (E CLXVII, p. 50; 23:40). Critique of Pure reason. Translated and edited by Paul Guyer and Allan W. Wood (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 476.

[17] …see Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic, First Part,” (A 20 / B34).

[18] …for years it has been arrogantly said that it was (only) Fichte, and not Hegel, who made use of the actual dialectical triad ‘thesis, antithesis, synthesis’. Although Fichte does make use of it, as it seems to be referenced here, it was also used extensively by Hegel. See: Leonard F. Wheat, Hegel’s Undiscovered Thesis-Antithesis-Synthesis Dialectics: What Only Marx and Tillich Understood (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2012). And, it should be noted here that Fichte is said to have initiated the use of the dialectic as Hegel uses it (instead of how Kant used it). See: “Fichte’s Discovery of the Dialectical Method.” Fichte: Historical Contexts, Contemporary Controversies. Daniel Breazeale and Tom Rockmore eds. (Boston: Brill Publishers, 1994).

[19] Recall Kant’s second analogy “Principle of temporal sequence according to the law of causality” (A189/ B233 – A211/ B256) from the third category “Analogies of Experience” from the “System of all Principles of Pure Understanding” from the Critique of Pure Reason.

[20] In the “Second Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre” Fichte writes “’to think’ and ‘to determine an object’…these are one in the same act. The two concepts are identical. Logic furnishes us with the rules that govern the act of determining the object; therefore, I should think, logic presupposes, a s a fact on consciousness, this act of determining as such. That every act of thinking has an object is something that can be shown only within intuion.” Fichte, J.G. Introductions to the Wissenschoftslehre, Daniel Beazeale trans. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994), 83.

[21] In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Breazeale calls this aspect of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre “The ‘Foundation’” Breazeale writes “the published presentation of the first principles of the Jena Wissenschaftslehre commences with the proposition, ‘the I posits itself’; more specifically, ‘the I posits itself as an I.’ Since this activity of ‘self-positing’ is taken to be the fundamental feature of I-hood in general, the first principle asserts that ‘the I posits itself as self-positing.’” Breazeale, Dan, “Johann Gottlieb Fichte”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta  ed., http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/johann-fichte/#4.1 .

[22] …apparently, intuition is linked to acting and comprehending, the act of comprehending is also the act conceptualizing. “[…] intuition is a specific kind of acting […].”See “Second Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre,” Fichte, J.G. Introductions to the Wissenschoftslehre, 44.

[23] …see Kant’s “Second Book of the Transcendental Dialectic, The Paralogisms of Pure Reason,” (A341/ B399 – A405/ B432), Critique of Pure Reason.

[24]In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Breazeale elaborates on this confrontation of the I with its own finitude, a.k.a. the Anstoß (Anstoss: adjoining, impetus, initiation, trigger, offense, soccer kick-off, etc.) “The Anstoß thus provides the essential occasion or impetus that first sets in motion the entire complex train of activities that finally result in our conscious experience both of ourselves as empirical individuals and of a world of spatio-temporal material objects. Though this doctrine of the Anstoß may seem to play a role in Fichte’s philosophy not unlike that which has sometimes been assigned to the thing in itself in the Kantian system, the fundamental difference is this: the Anstoß is not something foreign to the I. Instead, it denotes the I’s original encounter with its own finitude.” http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/johann-fichte/ Also see David Vessey’s “The Body as Anstoss in Sartre’s Account of Constitution” which goes into the explication of the Anstoß, http://www.bu.edu/wcp/Papers/Cont/ContVess.htm

[25] …see Kant’s “Transcendental Aesthetic, First Section, On Space” (A23/ B38 – A30/ B45), Critique of Pure Reason.

[26] …note that as Dr, Reid reminded us, the German word Glaube straddles the meanings of the English words ‘faith’ and ‘belief.’

[27] …also see Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, which is in large part what Fichte was inspired by. Recall that Fichte thought of his project as a way to bring together Kant’s theoretical philosophy and Kant’s practical philosophy. The Wissenschaftslehre was not so much a full critique of Kant, rather a refinement—in Fichte’s eyes anyway.

[28] …also recall footnote 11, (again) Fichte is a metaphysical libertarian and a incompatibilist (and even as a so-called agent causalist) i.e. he denies that free-will and determinism are compatible. and that there is an extra factor—freedom/free will—in humans that can be differentiated from the causation of natural law.

[29] ….Fichte writes in the Second Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre “Self-consciousness is therefore immediate; what is subjective and what is objective are inseparably united within self-consciousness and are absolutely one and the same. … This immediate consciousness is the intuition of the I … at once subjective and objective … The I should not be considered as a mere subject, which is how it has nearly always been considered until now; instead, it should be considered as a subject-object in the sense just indicated. … I am this intuition and nothing more whatsoever …” Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre, 113-4. Also see Andy Blunden’s “The Subject, Philosophical Foundations. Johann Fichte: The Subject as Activity” at http://home.mira.net/~andy/works/fichte.htm

[30] …Fichte writes in the First Introduction to the Wissenschaftslehre “…idealism explains the determinations of consciousness by refereeing to them to the acting of the intellect, which it considers to be something absolute and active, not something passive, because, according to the postulate of idealism, it is what is primary and highest and is preceded by nothing that could account for its passivity. For some reason, no real being, no substance or continuing existence, pertains to the intellect, for such a being is the result of a process of interaction, and nothing exists or is assumed to be present which the intellect could be posited to interact. Idealism considers the intellect to be a kind of doing and absolutely nothing more.” Introductions to the Wissenschaftslehre, 25-26.

[31] See Allen Wood’s paper on Fichte’s inter-subjectivity: “Fichte’s Intersubjective I” http://www.stanford.edu/~allenw/webpapers/FichteIntersubjective.pdf

[32] Allen Wood writes: “There the transcendental ordering of thoughts begins with the I’s self-positing (or as he also calls it, “self-reverting” activity) and argues that forming a concept of this activity requires distinguishing it from an opposed activity, that of the object or “not-I” (SW 1:492; cf. SW 3:17-28, 4:89-93). …But the I’s awareness of itself as active is also an awareness of its activity as the determinate activity of this I. And it is at this still very fundamental point in the transcendental deduction of the conditions for the possibility of being an I that Fichte regards it as necessary to form the concept of other I’s besides ones own, and to expect to encounter them in experience. For it is only through the experience of a certain kind of object, which is essentially distinguished from all merely material objects, that the self-consciousness of the I as a determinate form of activity can be thought of as possible at all.” “Fichte’s Intersubjective I”

[33] …this point is touched on by G.W.F. Hegel in his Encyclopædia Logic, in §95 from the chapter on “Quality” Hegel writes “But the truth of the finite is rather its ideality. In the same way the infinite of the understanding, which is put beside the finite, is itself also only one of the two finites, something-untrue, something-ideal. This ideality of the finite is the most important proposition of philosophy, and for that reason every genuine philosophy is Idealism. Everything depends on not mistaking for the infinite that which is at once reduced in its determination to what is particular and finite.” In other words the finite is not an opposition to the infinite, instead the infinite contains the finite, i.e. the finite is ‘sublated’ into the infinite. Of course it is not clear is Hegel was influenced by Fichte on this point, but Fichte does seem to be alluding to this in these passages

…on strawson’s freedom & resentment

October 20, 2013 § Leave a comment


above: Contemplation, Perseverance, Imagination, and Free Will. From the morality play Hickscorner. Reproduced in H.W. Mabie, William Shakespeare (1900).

…link to P.F. Strawson’s Fredom & Resentment (PDF)

“When not prompted by vanity, we say little.” ―François de La Rochefoucauld

The British philosopher P.F. Strawson (1919-2006), in his famous 1963 essay “Freedom and Resentment”[1] offers an elaborate account of compatibilism vs. libertarianism. In his unique style of argumentation on compatibilism vs. libertarianism, he obliquely addresses the compatibility of determinism with free will. In order to grapple with these slippery metaphysical questions, Strawson makes use of unique terminology, e.g. reactive attitudes, optimists, and pessimists. The modest goal of this paper will be to investigate, and to critically evaluate Strawson’s “reactive attitudes” as they are related to his reconciliation between the opposed camps of optimists (compatibilists), on one side of the debate, and pessimists (libertarians) on the other.

The first order of business will be to examine Strawson’s differences and similarities between people he names as optimists and pessimists. This provides a ground from which to build his argument from what he calls “reactive attitudes” (76). Essentially, the two sides are similar, in that both are concerned with the daunting issue of determinism. Strawson explicitly and cleverly avoids defining this thorny word. With respect to this issue of determinism, an optimist believes, according to Strawson, that “[…] the facts as we know them […]” do not prove determinism to be false, and “[…] the facts as we know them […]” do not threaten determinism (73). But, just what are these facts as we know them? They are the “concepts” and “practices” Strawson speaks of in the opening lines of the essay (72). The concepts that the optimist speaks of are such things as moral responsibility and moral obligation. The practices have to do with “[…] punishing and blaming, of expressing moral condemnation and approval […]” (72). Opposing the optimist, the pessimist feels these concepts and practices put determinism into question. The pessimist has a problem with these, not because he denies their existence, but because he feels these concepts and practices point to a kind of freedom. Apparently, the pessimist feels that freedom undermines determinism, because if people are able to act freely, they are then able to act otherwise, and this, for the pessimist undermines the optimist’s determinism that is, more or less, compatible with free will. We’ll choose to read Strawson’s brand of freedom as generally synonymous with free will.

Strawson defines the optimist’s freedom as “[…] nothing but the absence of certain conditions the presence of which would make moral condemnations or punishment inappropriate” (75). A few sentences later he calls this a “[…] negative sense […]” of freedom. A negative sense of freedom can be thought of as an absence of restraints, whereas a positive sense of freedom basically suggests that one acts within restraints. Putting this in the context of Strawson’s argument, implies, that the optimist believes that we usually hold people responsible when they are acting without involuntary restraints such as insanity, etc. But, the actual manner in which we normally hold people responsible depends on Strawson’s reactive attitudes. This must be Strawson’s way of addressing what free will is. And, as with determinism, the underlying issue of free will is slyly implicated and worked into his detailed elaborations on reactive attitudes.

It should, by now, already be clear, for Strawson, and for us, that the pessimist is a libertarian, whereby a libertarian is someone who admits free will and denies determinism. For a libertarian, free will and determinism are incompatible. This simultaneously means that he’s an incompatibilist. On the obverse, the optimist is a compatibilist. This then means that, if we haven’t noticed it already, the optimist believes that free will and determinism work together compatibly. In a subtle gesture of non-detachment, Strawson admits that he doesn’t wish to center the argument “[…] between determinists and libertarians […]” (75). Instead, he wishes to speak of “[…] non detached attitudes and reactions […]” (75). This indicates that Strawson wants to talk about how people react to one another, inter-personally, in a normal everyday sense. With this move Strawson seems to be wresting academic philosophy from the possibilities of its aloof detachments. This refreshing gesture demarcates his particular brand of ordinary language philosophy. This appears to be an aside, but it’s central to his overall position. We’ll talk about this non detachment later.

Okay, now to bring us to a better understanding toward his reconciliation between the optimists and pessimists, Strawson gradually leads us to three species of reactive attitudes, which must be related to the ways our wills are ordinarily directed toward other people and ourselves (§ V, 84-85). Strawson’s reactive attitudes are: (1) the personal reactive attitudes: which have to do with the goodwill of others toward us. This can also include the expectation of such an attitude. (2) The generalized or vicarious analogues of the personal reactive attitudes: are, for Strawson, closely linked to (1) with the difference that it doesn’t only include other’s attitudes toward us, but toward all people in general and in similarly vicarious ways. (3) The self reactive attitudes: have to do with the demands we make on others, which includes such emotions as: guilt, remorse, responsibility, shame, etc. Strawson also makes the point that the reactive attitudes are “[…] humanly connected […]” (85). We’ll take this to mean that there are allowable overlaps between the three attitudes, they are not mutually exclusive. If there were instances where a person had just one of these attitudes, say, only the personal reactive attitude, Strawson indicates that we’d have a “[…] moral solipsist […]” (85). But, why are these important? These attitudes are important for Strawson to contemplate the broader issue of resentment, and how resentment can be connected to determinism, and to consider how we hold people, morally responsible for their actions. This includes the reverse, how others hold us morally responsible for our actions toward them. The attitudes are also important to show how the optimist finds a justification contra the pessimist. This indicates that the relative attitudes (a.k.a. our intra-personal moral attitudes) must in be place to regulate and deal with the admittedly problematic nature of determinism. Ostensibly, for the optimist, because someone accepts determinism, this doesn’t mean that it will lead to “[…] the total decay […] of these attitudes […]” (87).

It is worth noting that before he detailed the reactive attitudes, Strawson highlighted a distinction between the “personal” and “objective” attitudes (§ IV). The implicit reason Strawson brings in the emphasis on the personal vs. the objective, has to do with the manner in which we hold people responsible for their actions—good or bad. For example, this brand of objectivity might imply that we can’t fault people for their ignorance or immaturity, since it’s not their fault. This is a typical way we find ourselves avoiding the personal responsibility of dealing with people in direct and personal ways. Objectivity apportions people into neat predetermined categories. Objectivity has negative relevance, for Strawson and for us, because this kind of hard objectivity arrogantly fumbles its way into our inter-personal relationships. It could be the case that this objectivity tries to provide a matter of fact, un-nuanced view on determinism. Extending this, Strawson is keen to suggest that this kind of strict objectivity doesn’t necessarily prove that determinism is true, since, as mentioned before, he has no conclusive view on what determinism actually is (82).

None of this is cut-and-dry, since as Strawson suggests, the pessimist could point out that the optimist ends up having to acquire the dreaded objective stance that downplays the significance of the very reactive attitudes he holds as a defense against the pessimist’s iron-clad libertarianism. Social policy, such as punishment, objectifies people plain and simple. Again, this suggests that the optimist has to admit a kind of hard determinism he wanted to partially avoid with his inclusion of the reactive attitudes. This, for the pessimist, implies that the optimist has to let go of some of his humanity and goodwill, in order to advocate for objective punishment etc.

Now, somehow we’re back in the hot water from which we thought we were escaping. To this Strawson thankfully takes heed, “[o]ptimist and pessimist misconstrue the facts in very different styles. But […] there is something in common […]. Both seek […] to overintellectualize the facts” (91). This leaves room for the endless tweaking of both positions. And this simultaneously indicates that both sides might imagine that all we need to do is get all the facts, figures and modifications of our metaphysics straight, and then we’ll finally be able to solve the unwieldy and manifold problems that attend to determinism as it relates to free will. It is not clear that getting it absolutely straightened out will ever be possible.

But, a few things can be made evident, to which Strawson makes an effort toward clarification. First, we shouldn’t lose sight of the intrinsic value morality has for people. Indecently, this point airs on the side of the optimist, since the opitmist allows for determinism, whereas a libertarian, of the kind we’ve been talking about, has to depend on what?—chance? It would be foolish, even for the sake of argument, to obliterate morality in the name of some theory that overlooks the subtlety of our inter-personal humanity. Philosophy should never lose sight, nor misunderstand, the value of a humanitarian outlook. Strawson alludes to this with regard to morality “[i]t is a pity that talk of the moral sentiments has fallen out of favor” (92). This is another of Strawson’s salient points. We tend forget that we’re talking about actual human beings when we’re doing philosophy, analytic or otherwise.

“Finally, perhaps the most important factor of all is the prestige of these theoretical studies themselves” (93). The prestige of a good idea is worth nothing if applied without wisdom. We like it when people act with good will toward us, yet we resent their actions when we detect the glare of calculated malevolence. We openly offer prestige to ideas that help people live better lives. What is actually gained by presenting an idea incomprehensibly? In a tragic-comic way Strawson shows his affiliation when he refers to “[…] the obscure and panicky metaphysics of libertarianism” (93). The obscurity and panic is probably a reference to the strange term ‘contra-causal’. Contra-causality does its work in the libertarian’s position aside from normal causality. But what about Strawson’s early talk of reconciliation? If we topically judge this reconciliation by the last paragraph of his essay, it didn’t happen. However, if we dig deeper, we’ll notice that Strawson does bring both sides together—weighing each against the other. Compatibilists and libertarians are brought together to dialectically challenge one another. In other words, one might not have to argue one’s position so hard if the opposing side wasn’t so tough and thoroughgoing in his stubborn willingness to deny your lengthy arguments. If this is reconciliation, it is a reconciliation, whereby two sides are brought together by Strawson to simply challenge themselves. These arguments are respectable ways for them to prove their mettle. Yet, none of this should get in the way of learning how to respect each other and to act morally with one another. This idea resonates with the positive freedom of our ethical interactions, without ever explicitly saying it P.F. Strawson brought us to this curious point.

—Aurelio Madrid

[1] Peter Strawson, “Freedom and Resentment” in Free Will, ed. Gary Watson, 72-93. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.


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