On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Practical Reason’​: Music at Midnight -part three

Such dupes are men to custom, and so prone

To rev’rence what is ancient, and can plead

A course of long observance for its use,

That even servitude, the worst of ills,

Because deliver’d down from sire to son,

Is kept and guarded as a sacred thing!

— William Cowper, (1731–1800), ‘The Task’

‘The proposition underlying Western culture is that there is a transcendent morality’.

- Jordan Peterson (1962 — )

Immanuel Kant, (1724–1804), made a distinction between transcendent, beyond the range of human experience, and transcendental, presupposed in and necessary to experience. Transcendent morality? A morality outside the range of human experience? Of what use is that to us? Peterson drops the word in there like we are all supposed to know what he means by it.

Peterson’s observations upon morality are so crude not to say disturbing (in the sense of what they say about him). Fyodor Dostoyevsky, (1821–1881), in ‘Crime and Punishment’, ‘has a main character called Raskolnikov who has decided he is going to commit a murder and he has very good justification for the murder’, Peterson says. ‘Dostoyevsky is very good at this, he puts his characters into very difficult moral situations’. (What? Should I or should I not kill an old woman with an axe to sort out my poverty is a difficult moral situation? What about Raskolnikov’s student friend Razumikhin who is just as much blighted by impoverishment and not only does nto murder anyone but the thought never even enters his head? Why does not Raskolnikov think about getting a job? I have spent time labouring on a building site and cleaning toilets to finance my studies).

‘The only thing that can be holding him back is an arbitrary sense of indoctrinated morality’. Arbitrary? ‘If there is no God, if there is no higher value, no transcendent value let’s say … then you can do whatever you want’, Peterson chillingly asserts. Well then I certainly hope that he believes in God, though ask him if he does and you will not get a straight answer. And one may assume there will be atheists in his class that he is telling they can do whatever they want (has he not heard of laws? Yes morality and the law are not the same thing but the fact that there are laws means I cannot do whatever I want, not that the reason I do not steal etc. is because there is a law against it. If Peterson doesn’t understand why stealing is wrong he needs to ask his mother).

And see my article A Bellowing Ox and a Roaring Lion — part five for the absurdity of Dostoyevsky’s oft quoted remark or rather a character in his novel ‘The Brother’s Karamazov’ says it: ‘if there’s no immortality of the soul, then there’s no virtue, and everything is lawful’, or as it is more frequently put, ‘without immortality (or God) everything is permitted’.

‘This is why I have such frustration’, laments Peterson, ‘with people like Sam Harris, the sort of radical atheists, because they seem to think that once human beings have abandoned their grounding in the transcendent that the plausible way forward is with a kind of purist rationality that automatically attributes to others an equivalent value and I don’t understand that .. what is irrational about me getting exactly whatever I want from you whenever I want it at every possible second’.

Maybe if Peterson were to read my articles it will help him to understand. Does morality need a grounding? Transcendent or otherwise? Define rationality. What about practical reasoning? Has he not read Kant, (1724–1804)? I deal with Sam Harris, (1967 — ), below, but whether it be Peterson with his ‘transcendent’ morality or Harris looking to science rather than religion in determining moral values all of it is the outcome of shallowness of thinking. Let us go into it more deeply like true philosophers.

‘There is nothing, nothing in heaven, or in nature or in mind or anywhere else which does not equally contain both immediacy and mediation, so that these two determinations reveal themselves to be unseparated and inseparable and the opposition between them to be a nullity. To want the nature of cognition clarified prior to the science is to demand that it be considered outside the science; outside the science this cannot be accomplished’.

- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), ‘The Science of Logic’

Rather than beginning an inquiry with a definition, or set of axioms, or presuppositions so much favoured by Peterson, it should be in the elaboration of the inquiry itself that its nature is clarified, for defining your terms is as vacuous as the supposed elaboration of a science or system of morality from unproven axioms or presuppositions that have been pulled out of one’s fundament. Allow the subject to speak for itself.

‘The Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell’, 1565, Maarten van Heemskerck. ‘Und denkst nit an dein eigen Schuldbuch, / Das du mußt vor den Richter bringen, / Wenns kommt zu den vier letzten Dingen?’. ‘And don’t think about your own debt book, that you must bring before the judge, When it comes to the four last things?’ — Hugo von Hofmannsthal, 1874–1929.

Rather curiously, though, neither Plato, (428/427–348/347 BC), nor Kant were shallow thinkers but you find in them that strange odd idea, be it the Platonic noble lie, a lie or myth usually of a religious character and usually propagated by a ruling elite to maintain order, for instance God doesn’t exist but let us all carry on regardless and pretend that He does otherwise all Hell will break loose (yes I could have expressed that more fittingly). Or Kant’s practical postulates concerning the existence of God (not provable through experience but a product of our reason and needed for virtue as a motivating ideal and the practical realisation of the highest possible moral good), and personal immortality, (how can men and women be virtuous without the hope that immortality brings with it?), and freedom, (an a priori that we cannot fully apprehend but we know it to be the condition of the moral law which is within us. ‘The concept of freedom is ‘the key stone of the whole architecture of the system of pure reason and even speculative reason’, says Kant in the ‘Critique of Practical Reason’).

Let us prove them wrong.

Ethics and ethical, morality and moral, such terms can lead to misunderstanding in ethics or moral philosophy, the study of right and wrong, of good and bad action, of moral norms, howsoever you wish to conceive of the subject. A distinction is frequently made between ethics on the one hand and morality on the other and the terms ethical and moral are employed in accordance with that distinction. There is a problem, however, given that the distinction is often made in different ways. For instance, in ‘Ethics for Dummies’, (not my sourcebook for these articles) we read this:

‘Although the terms ethics and morality have two different definitions in the dictionary, throughout this book we use them interchangeably and don’t make any effort to distinguish between the ideas. The truth is that you can argue all day about whether something is immoral or just unethical, whether someone has ethics but no morals, or whether ethics is about society but morality is about you. The reason these arguments don’t go anywhere is that in the end, both ethics and morality are actually about the same: What you ought to be doing with your life. If it’s true that an act is immoral, then you ought not to do it. The situation doesn’t change if the act is unethical instead. It’s still something you ought not to do’.

Well, as I have made the point before, introductory books to philosophy are a waste of time, better just to jump right in at the deep end. Slightly more sophisticated introductory textbooks in the Anglo/American analytical tradition in philosophy may word it along the lines of morality being simply the codes by which we live and which are not particularly thought out nor reflective but merely that which we have inherited from our culture, from our parents, from institutions such as schools, or the church, whereas ethical refers to that which has really been thought through, that which has been consciously reflected upon and that is the discipline of ethics. That is the exact opposite of what Hegel has in mind in using these terms, and with this being philosophy and German philosophy at that it gets more complicated in that ethical is a translation of Sittliche from Sitte a translation or a cognate to ethos but also to mores, and these terms get confused with each other and it is so very important (unless you are wanting to remain at dummy level like Peterson or Harris) when we are engaging with a particular author that we pay attention to what the author is actually saying, how they use such concepts and distinctions. The ethical for Hegel is more like what a culture gives you, what you have in virtue of participating in that culture, taking on yourself the roles that you have inherited or assigned or that you find yourself in, albeit there is some room for improvisation and there is more to it than abiding by a code (a term Hegel never employs albeit others do) and we may go against the code whilst still being shackled for want of a better term to a particular ethical perspective that has been handed down to us.

In what manner are ethical life and custom connected? Sittlichkeit, usually translated as ethical life, but on occasion as ‘(social or customary) morality’, and so on, deriving from Sitte, native German for a custom, a mode of conduct habitually practised by a social group such as a nation, a class or a family, and regarded as a norm of decent behaviour. A Sitte is never a deliberately chosen, individual custom, as in ‘it is my custom to … and in his ‘Positivity of the Christian Religion’ Hegel exhibits some disdain for customs instituted by the Church, in that, for instance, customs concerning mourning for dead relatives prescribe the manifestation of more grief than most people actually feel (so is what people actually feel important in ethics?. But in ‘Natural Law’ he contends that customs mediating between the individual and the laws of his or her society are essential to the vitality of a people, successful legislation presupposes customs to which it must conform, and in the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ he affirms that ‘wisdom and virtue consist in living in conformity to the customs of one’s people’.

In the usage of other philosophers however the plural Sitten tends to be equated with ethics and morality, words also deriving from the words for custom in Greek and Latin respectively and in Kant’s ‘Metaphysik der Sitten’ (see my articles On Kant’s ‘Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals’ — Good will hunting parts one to three where I touch upon that work though they mustn’t be confused) he is concerned with ethics in general and not with customs, and for Johann Gottlieb Fichte, (1762–1814), Sittenlehre, literally the doctrine of customs, is equivalent to moral philosophy. Other words deriving from Sitte moved in the same direction. A Sittengesetz is an ethical law or norm, in particular, for Kant, one certified by reason, not by custom, and, though it is valid for all rational beings, by the individual and not by the community. The adjective sittlich is equated with moral or ethical and the abstract noun Sittlichkeit with morality.

Hegel often employs Sitte-words in such senses when discussing the views of other writers albeit from early on he distinguishes between Sittlichkeit and Moralität, the latter being individual morality arrived at by one’s own reason, conscience or feelings while Sittlichkeit is the ethical norms embodied in the customs and institutions of one’s society and these notions are not simply contrasted with each other but systematically related. In the ideal state modelled upon Plato’s ‘Republic’ that Hegel sketched in ‘Natural Law’ Moralität, being private, bourgeois morality, is assigned to the commercial and wealth-producing class, while Sittlichkeit is the preserve of the ruling, warrior class. But in later works, in particular the ‘Philosophy of Right’, the relation between them is that an account of Sittlichkeit is preceded by an account of Kantian Moralität corresponding to their logical order or to the order in which they might occur to a reader of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (1712–1778), and Kant and not to the order of their appearance in history. Historically the Sittlichkeit of the Greek city-state preceded the emergence of individualist morality, albeit the Greek city-state was not the first political formation in history and was preceded by a variety of non-individualist oriental societies, and in ‘Lectures on Aesthetic’ Hegel contends that Greek mythology depicts the emergence of Greek civilization from them and the taming of the natural forces that they represent. Greek Sittlichkeit initially involved complete harmony between the individual and his society whereby the individual could not say doing thus and thus contravenes customary values, but it may still be morally right, or it is worth doing given that it is in my self-interest.

A somewhat idealized account do I hear you say? Well, consider the Athenian Alcibiades, (c. 450–404 BC), widely criticized, so the story goes, for acquiring a private art collection. Private morality had no place in such a community which Hegel describes as ethical substance. Its members had objective, but not subjective, freedom (there is certainly a distinction to be made there, I wonder if Kant was fully attune to it?) And what was the reason or reasons for the breakdown of Greek Sittlichkeit? In the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ Hegel ascribes it to the unresolvable conflict, depicted in particular in Sophocles’, (c. 497/6–406/5 BC), ‘Antigone’, between the laws of the gods of the nether world governing the family and administered by the woman, and the laws of the Olympian gods, governing state power and administered by the man. King Creon forbids the burial of Antigone’s traitorous brother, but she is obliged to bury him. The conflict is not initially between the individual and the state, but between different aspects of ethical life and yet the conflicting demands upon the individual give rise to individualism.

‘Elegant Connoisseurs’, c. 1870, Albert Roosenboom

Hegel not infrequently assigns a central role in the breakdown of Greek Sittlichkeit to Socrates’, (c. 470–399 BC), questioning of customary values and he regards Plato’s ‘Republic’ not as an ideal but as a vain attempt to restore harmonious Sittlichkeit. The conquests of Alexander the Great, (356–323 BC) and of the Roman emperors created much larger societies whose subjects were inevitably remote from their rulers and thrown back opon their own resources. Sittlichkeit in the Greek sense cannot be restored though in a wider sense any stable society requires Sittlichkeit, a system of customary norms accepted by its members. Rational Moralität presupposes such norms if it is to have any definite content and self-interest alone will not hold a society together, socially appropriate conduct cannot be secured by force alone unless the wielders of force at least are motivated and guided by Sittlichkeit.) But modern Sittlichkeit must accommodate the moral subjectivity and the self-interested particularity to which intervening history has given rise. It thereby differs from the ancient version in three respects. First, like ancient Sittlichkeit, it involves the family and the state, but to these it adds civil society that realm of self-seeking economic activity that is overseen by the state, albeit considerably more independent of it than was ancient economic life. Second, it grants the individual certain rights, such as the choice of a mate and of a career. Hegel mistakenly inferred (well none of us are perfect) from his reading of Plato that such rights were denied to most Greeks. Third, the cultivated member of a modern state does not, like the Greek, unreflectively accept the norms and institutions of his or he society. He or she accepts them because he or she has reflected upon the rational justification for them, indeed to provide such a justification was a principle objective of Hegel’s philosophy. Hence modern Sittlichkeit makes room for the subject as well as for ethical substance, and for subjective in addition to objective freedom.

And what of the ought? The verb sollen is a modal auxiliary etymologically related to Schuld, debt, guilt, and responsibility though originally obligation, and to the English shall. In contrast to wollen, which expresses the will of the agent, as in ‘I am going to (Ich will) pass the kutchie on the left hand side’, sollen expresses the will of someone or something else, (for instance fate), as in ‘I am to (Ich soll) pass the kutchie on the left hand side’ or ‘thou shall(st) (Du sollst) not pass the kutchie on the left hand side’. In contrast to müssen, must, which suggests that something cannot but occur or be the case, sollen leaves open the possibility that it will not occur or is not the case. Hence it often corresponds to ought or should but it often means to be said to, supposed to, as in ‘I am said/supposed to be ill from too much kutchie’, or ‘to be going, destined to’, as in ‘that was (going, destined) to be my last kutchie’, and so on.

‘Ought’ or ‘the ought’ (das Sollen) was central to Kant’s account of morality for it expresses the moral or rational necessity of an action, not from natural or physical causes but from a concept of practical reason hence it can be true only of rational beings that they ought to do something. On the other hand it can be true only of rational beings who are in part natural beings, namely, burdened with desires, and so on, not fully under the sway of reason, that they ought to do things, in virtue of the fact that the will and conduct of a fully rational being would be automatically determined by reason which would thus not present itself to him or her as an ought or obligation.

Kant regards the ought as presenting us with an infinite task, namely a task that can be completed only at infinity. I ought to be perfectly morally good but however many dutiful actions I perform I shall never attain this state in a finite period of time. It does not follow that I should abandon my efforts since I can become ever morally better, just like counting




…brings me ever closer to 0. Since it would be morally absurd if my efforts were to be cut short by death it is a ‘postulate of pure practical reason that men and women are immortal and can continue their moral striving after death and God and Freedom are such postulates too. Fichte took over Kant’s notion of the ought and made it the centre of his system whereby the pure I posits an external world primarily as an arena for its moral striving (Streben). The goal of the finite I, of the I that has a non-I over against it, is to restore itself to the status of the pure I, to become a purely rational being whose will and conduct are exclusively determined by reason and morality, but this is an infinite task that it ought to, but will never in fact, complete. Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, (1775–1854), ditched this aspect of Kant’s and Fichte’s thought since he rated nature and art more highly than morality, nature is not simply a presupposition of morality, and the perfection of the work of art, together with the fusion of rational purposiveness and raw natural force in the artistic genius, supplies a unifying conclusion to the system of philosophy that the moral imperfection of men and women cannot and indeed need not deliver.

Kant’s notion of the ought transgresses two central Hegelian principles in that it involves a sharp opposition between what is the case (or actuality)) and what ought to be the case. And it involves a bad infinite regress. Hegel rejects any claim that the world, the present state of the world, or the present state of one’s own society is radically other than it ought to be, independently of whether the claim generates an infinite regress. And even were such a claim true, no one is in a position to make it, there is no otherwordly standard against which this world can be assessed, criteria for judging the world or a society must be found within it, and thus cannot substantiate a thoroughgoing rejection of it. The person best able to assess his or her society as a whole is the philosopher, since he or she stands at some distance from it and has access not only to other societies and historical periods, but to the rational structure of things, but he or she comes upon the scene when things are already moving on,and his or her task is essentially retrospective and reconciliatory.

No such a claim any claim that the world, the present state of the world, or the present state of one’s own society is radically other than it ought to be is ever true since there can be no radical rift between reason (or the Idea) and actuality. Hegel fuses together theology (the world is governed by divine providence), metaphysics (it is imbued with thought) and is rationally intelligible), and evaluation (it is good). The idea is not so much that the world at any given stage is immaculate and incorrupt as that it corrects its own defects in its onward movement and does not need criticism or correction by an external observer.

Hegel associates the ought with the notions of limit, restriction and finitude. A restriction is essentially something that ought to be overcome, and, conversely, if something ought to be the case, this implies a restriction or obstacle that needs to be overcome, hence the ought is not only a moral ought but is a feature of any infinite regress, for instance the quantitative regresses of numbers and of space and time but often the ought is a moral ought and implies an endless striving towards the good. As such, Hegel raises two principle objections to it. First, the ought is an attempt to resolve a contradiction, between, for instance, my rational self and my sensory bodily nature, or between rationality and the actual state of the world. But a contradiction cannot be properly resolved by resorting to an infinite regress, it is pointless to embark upon an infinite task because one makes no headway, as with Sisyphus once one has got the boulder to the top of the hill it rolls back down again. And second the task must be infinite because moral activity contradictorily requires what it endeavours to overcome. If I were to subdue completely my animal nature (often out of control especially in a heat wave like now) or make the world wholly as it ought to be my moral activity would cease altogether. Kant and Fichte attempt to put off this undesirable outcome by locating it at infinity. But the contradiction still remains.

It may be objected that an infinite task is pointless if one makes no headway but Kant’s and Fichte’s task is not of this type, one continually improves oneself (or the world), even if one can never perfect it. But what does the distinction between regresses that converge on a limit and those that do not amount to? Well you may say it is not unreasonable to aim at a goal, which, if it were reached, would make such activity impossible, as long as the initial step is possible. It is sensible, for instance, to hone one’s skill at chess getting ever and ever the better player albeit the interest of chess depends upon the imperfections one is trying to overcome and would disappear if one achieved perfection. Is it not similarly the case that there is no incoherence in endeavouring to relieve poverty albeit complete and improbable success would undercut one’s activity, as long as one does not secretly hope for harvests to fail in order to have scope for munificence? ‘The poor you will always have with you’. ‘Matthew’ 26.11. What would Christians do if they didn’t?

Hegel, like Aristotle, (384–322 BC), found it difficult to accept that much valuable activity consists in striving for goals, which, once attained, are less valuable than the striving, mountaineers enjoy trying to reach the top of mountains more than they enjoy being at the summit, we enjoy research and discovery more than the contemplation of our results, and so on (not for me but I am idle). For Hegel it is more satisfying to participate in an on-going social order than to attempt continually to put the world right. Participating in a society or in an established body of knowledge is not wholly static and has some of the attractions of striving, both because a result (for instance the absolute Idea) sublates and preserves the conflicts and oppositions that led up to it, and because the status quo or the world as it now is often includes such movements beyond itself as Caesar’s, (100–44 BC), and Napoleon’s, (1769–1821), skirmishes. Caesar, Napoleon and their adherents are not conceived as external critics endeavouring to make the world as it ought to be but as agents of the onward march of the world Spirit, yet nonetheless death results from a sophisticated contentment with the world.

‘Der verspätete Liebhaber’ (‘Scène de reproches’), ‘The Belated Lover’ (‘Scene of reproaches’), Michel Garnier (1753–1829)

‘In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, it’s necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason’.

- David Hume, (1711–1776), ‘A Treatise on Human Nature’

Hume’s Law or Hume’s Guillotine is the thesis that for someone wishing to engage in a bit of practical reasoning while only having access to non-moral and non-evaluative factual premises the practical reasoner cannot logically infer the truth of moral statements. This is trotted out over and over again as though there is something obvious about it. You cannot argue an ought from an is, it is frequently and with a self-satisfied air contended. But is there anything obvious about it? The is-ought gap, it is often alleged, certainly could not be bridged by scientific means. Why not? Neuroscientist Sam Harris does it all the time, (see ‘The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values’, 2010). Much to the dismay of secular materialists or theistic immaterialists or whomsoever Harris says that science can determine human values, moral questions are best pursued with the employment of philosophy but with the methods of science also, in virtue of the fact that science can tell us which values lead to ‘human flourishing’, (you can see the problem right there … the recent lockdown, it may be argued, was necessary for ‘human flourishing’, but it didn’t do much for my flourishing). And in this sense Harris advocates that scientists should engage in conversations with regard to a normative science of morality.

As I keep reiterating to engage in philosophy properly and with depth one must be widely read in the great philosophers, if only to avoid mistakes that have already been made and when a great philosopher (unlike Harris) gets it wrong it is interesting why it is wrong (unlike with Harris where it is just stupid). Harris should have read Hegel who presents us with the means of bridging the is-ought gap, albeit he does not address the problem directly. So the bottom line of the issue of getting an ought from an is is that from whatever happens to be in our experienced world we cannot thereby conclude that what is ought to be never mind that there is anything else that ought to be. Would it be contradictory to suppose otherwise? Not in the least.

If something is the case then for it to make no logical sense to pass over to the claim that it ought to be the case is usually understood as referring to empirical cases, for instance that if I observe a dog doing what dogs do, chasing its tail, fetching its lead when it wants taking out, I may conclude that she should be chasing her tail, fetching her lead when she wants taking out, or if the world exists as it does exist then I may conclude that it should exist as it does exist. If I am a Leibnizian optimist anyway. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, (1646–1716), who in his ‘Monadology’ seems to be arguing that this world is the best of all possible worlds and that good must ultimately prevail over evil:

‘Now as there are an infinity of possible universes in the ideas of God, and but one of them can exist, there must be a sufficient reason for the choice of God which determines him to select one rather than another. And this reason is to be found only in the fitness or in the degree of perfection which these worlds possess, each possible thing having the right to claim existence in proportion to the perfection which it involves. This is the cause for the existence of the greatest good; namely, that the wisdom of God permits him to know it, his goodness causes him to choose it, and his power enables him to produce it’.

The movement is made from descriptive statements to normative statements, which can also be represented formally as an abstract propositional argument. If X occurs then Y occurs. If X occurs then Y ought to occur. And in steps Hume to point out that there is no justification to connect the is and the ought in this manner. However, there is equivocation in operation of empirical experience and Being. On the matter of the ought Hegel addresses his attention to Kant and Fichte and rather than pose the question in terms of how we can derive an ought from an is within his own project of reflexive methodology he brings up two conclusions from his treatment and immanent development of the concept of Being. First, what is has no immediate identification to be made with the sensuous appearances experienced about an external world, that is to say, there is no reason to equate the empirically immediate given with what is. Second, what is is not truly anything that is immediately grasped by the senses or by thought at all. Even in the realm of empirical experience we easily understand that there is in fact a difference between what seems to be the case and what actually is the case.

One is reminded of this passage from the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ criticising monochromatic formalism:

‘Yet this formalism maintains that such monotony and abstract universality are the Absolute, and we are assured that dissatisfaction with it indicates the inability to master the absolute standpoint and to keep hold of it. Time was when the bare possibility of imagining something differently was sufficient to refute an idea, and this bare possibility, this general thought, also had the entire positive value of an actual cognition. Nowadays we see all value ascribed to the universal Idea in this non-actual form, and the undoing of all distinct, determinate entities (or rather the hurling of them all into the abyss of vacuity without further development or any justification) is allowed to pass muster as the speculative mode of treatment. Dealing with something from the perspective of the Absolute consists merely in declaring that, although one has been speaking of it just now as something definite, yet in the Absolute, the A=A, there is nothing of the kind, for there all is one. To pit this single insight, that in the Absolute everything is the same, against the full body of articulated cognition, which at least seeks and demands such fulfilment, to palm off its Absolute as the night in which, as the saying goes, all cows are black — this is cognition naively reduced to vacuity’.

Naive ideas of the Absolute are like a night in which all cows are black. Hegel’s target here is Schelling and his naïve philosophy of Oneness in which everything was the same in the Absolute.

All cats are gray at midnight, when the moon

Shines or when it doesn’t, though morning soon

Puts a stop to all that, until each cat’s

Too singularly like itself at noon.

- Omar Khayyam, (1048–1131), ‘Rubáiyát’

In a discussion of sameness and difference in Plato’s ‘Sophist’ the Eleatic Stranger observes that ‘the Sophist takes refuge in the darkness of not-being, where he is at home and has the knack of feeling his way, and it is the darkness of the place that makes him so hard to perceive’. That is, since all Sophists are in the dark, they are hard to tell apart. For the Stranger the Sophist is ‘a very troublesome sort of creature to hunt down’, that is to say, to define, while Plato adds that the philosopher ‘is difficult to see because his region is so bright, for the eye of the vulgar soul cannot endure to keep its gaze fixed on the divine’. See my article On Plato’s ‘Sophist’ — the Image Makers.

‘There is an old East European joke concerning the differences between science, philosophy, and Marxism. What is science? It is trying to catch a very small black cat in a very large, entirely dark room. What is philosophy? It is trying to catch a very small black cat in a very large, entirely dark room, when it is not there. What is Marxism? It is trying to catch a very small black cat in a very large, entirely dark room when it is not there, and pretending that one has caught it and knows all about it’.

- Ernest Gellner, (1925–1995), in the ‘Times Literary Supplement’, September 23, 1994

‘Capriccio Scene: Animals in the Sky’, Francisco de Goya, (1746–1828)

‘The Blind Men and the Elephant’

A Hindu Fable.

Told by John Godfrey Saxe (1816 –1887)

IT was six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind),

That each by observation

Might satisfy his mind.

The First approached the Elephant,

And happening to fall

Against his broad and sturdy side,

At once began to bawl:

‘God bless me! — but the Elephant

Is very like a wall!’

The Second, feeling of the tusk,

Cried: ‘Ho! — what have we here

So very round and smooth and sharp?

To me ‘t is mighty clear

This wonder of an Elephant

Is very like a spear!’

The Third approached the animal,

And happening to take

The squirming trunk within his hands,

Thus boldly up and spake:

‘I see’, quoth he, ‘the Elephant

Is very like a snake!’

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,

And felt about the knee.

‘What most this wondrous beast is like

Is mighty plain’. quoth he;

‘’T is clear enough the Elephant

Is very like a tree!’

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,

Said: ‘E’en the blindest man

Can tell what this resembles most;

Deny the fact who can,

This marvel of an Elephant

Is very like a fan!’

The Sixth no sooner had begun

About the beast to grope,

Than, seizing on the swinging tail

That fell within his scope,

‘I see’, quoth he, ‘the Elephant

Is very like a rope!’

And so these men of Indostan

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right,

And all were in the wrong!


So, oft in theologic wars

The disputants, I ween,

Rail on in utter ignorance

Of what each other mean,

And prate about an Elephant

Not one of them has seen!

A similar parable is told of sighted men feeling a statue on a dark night, which reminds me of the time when I was going through something of an identity crisis and on my travels I went to see the Venus Callipyge statue, ‘Venus of the beautiful buttocks’, and I slapped her on the rump. I knew then that I had hit rock bottom. Anyway, I digress. Every person taking account of and evaluating their immediate experience through the senses (of which there are more than five by the way, for instance, proprioception), touching, smelling, hearing or whatever will judge what is given to them in a particular way, taking it to be a particular sort of thing, but were they to disregard their immediate intuition and direct their attention to focussing upon the whole then they would know that it is none of the particular things they take it to be, but even then were they to experience the whole thing they are still in the realm of appearances for things are subjected to constant change. We grow old, and we die. Hence a distinction has to be drawn between how whatever we happen to be presented with appears to us and what it is in actuality, an important distinction for the issue of what ought to be.

You may be thinking that such an account of Being is counter to that presented by Parmenides, (fl. late sixth or early fifth century BC). See my article, On Plato’s ‘Parmenides’ — Being and non-Being. But the point stands irrespective of whatever stance we assume on the subject of Being. If Being is the Unchangeable then our immediate sensuous experience is not true Being for through subjecting it to scrutiny we discover that immediate sense experience discloses everything to be contingent, mutable, a simple insubstantial vanishing away, and if we assume an empiricist stance towards Being seeing it as that which is experienced as particular or singular then the conclusion is inescapable that something over and above Being is in operation, indeed Being concedes its place to something other. Either way what is is to be comprehended to in truth be something which is beyond empirical immediacies and which is apprehended as a determining process underlying it and that what is necessarily yields not merely to what it is not but also to what it should be. The beauties of German Idealism.

And so we can move from Being to ought, what is (not) as what ought to (not) be. See Hegel’s ‘Science of Logic’ for the Being/Nothing/Becoming dialectic. From Being to Nothing and back again. Being is not a being neither can it be specified as the Being of beings. It simply is, it is not something special, just as I mean nothing special if in going about my everyday activities I say here is an peach meaning here is a fruit not something that is very good or much appreciated albeit it may be, here it is and it is what it is, and Being is such positive immediacy although at the extremest level of abstraction so that it is also Nothing, it is before us, it is, though we cannot specify it as anything and all of us just are. Being is the is which has not yet specified differences whatsoever and in virtue of that very fact has not specified any thing whatsoever, just as Parmenides understood Being as this inescapable all encompassing immutable and undifferentiated identity. All things are. Being is what is in and as all things. Being alone is.

But evidently enough Being is not all there is to be uttered conceived, or experienced, indeed we need to think Being and to be cognisant of something counter to all belief for the alternative is a compulsion to proclaim something that in accordance with the standard of Being itself quite simply should be unrealisable and upon entering such a thought and triggering its cognition we then have a failure of thinking which is to say the thought fails to be and with Being we have a total absence which is Nothing, an undividable and un-constituted Nothing empty and space-less and dimensionless, no width, no breadth, no length, and immaterial, absolute immediacy, nothing within it, nothing outside of it, nothing holding it together, nothing tearing it asunder, an absence confronting all who proclaim only the positivity of Being to be real, and it is here for us in thought itself, not to be ignored but to be taken notice of and uttered. Being casts forth its rays like the midday Sun and if we gaze upon it directly we are rendered incapable of seeing just as much as if we gaze into the darkest abyss whether or not the abyss gazes into us, to allude to Friedrich Nietzsche, (1844–1900). Nothing being apparent to us is a contradiction albeit it is merely what we naturally conceive in trying to trigger the immediate immediately and through the power of thinking we readily notice this immediate absence of thought within thought itself and we discover Being to be Nothing and Nothing to be Being and neither is the other … we must think Being while not thinking Being and step back and behold their total process with aplomb albeit we understand ourselves to be caught up in a self-generating loop and this circuit of thought is, and the fact of this stepping back from the dialectical circuit is the emerging or Becoming of a third which we are as this circuit … recall Jean-Paul Sartre’s, (1905–1980), circuit of selfness and how we must take ourselves out of circuit with respect to the world of Being.

An outdoor production at the Modern Hotel, Boise, Idaho, of Samuel Beckett’s, (1906–1989), ‘Acts Without Words 1’. ‘Man is the shepherd of Being. Man loses nothing in this ‘less’; rather, he gains in that he attains the truth of Being. He gains the essential poverty of the shepherd, whose dignity consists in being called by Being itself into the preservation of Being’s truth. The call comes as the throw from which the thrownness of Da-sein derives. In his essential unfolding within the history of Being, man is the being whose Being as ek-sistence consists in his dwelling in the nearness of Being. Man is the neighbour of Being’. — Martin Heidegger, (1989–1976).

Becoming appears from the immediacy of Being and Nothing and it appears as that which truly is enduring in and through them and what is is not the rigid and immutable immediacy but the fluxious and mutable unseparatedness and indeterminancy of this self-mediated immediacy and yet Becoming also is not just the immediate as such for not only does it have internal structure and dynamic with Being and Nothing in addition it has an inescapable triggering as Becoming that presents once again two sides to us as Becoming is coming to be and ceasing to be while each is not simply a description or operation of Being and Nothing but in addition a reflexive operation of each other. That which is ceases to be and ends as Nothing but this ceasing to be, the moment that it finishes its operation and finalizes Nothing, itself has been the coming to be of Nothing, and so itself is its own ceasing to be, and the same is true of coming to be and hence what comes to be is only ceasing to be and what ceases to be is coming to be. There is not one singular circuit of one side going over to the other but rather two circuits inverting themselves from within and never reaching across, for each moment of Becoming is a totality of the negative unity of Being and Nothing and in virtue of their being at once self-subverting the moment they are they become the other and in becoming that other they are immediately back to themselves as what they began.

What is here is Becoming now self-inverted as a whole, as Becoming becomes it moves from persistent fluidity to quiescent stability and the mutually opposing sides finalize themselves through ceasing to be as actualized settles itself to Nothing and coming to be as actualized settles itself to Being, which is to say, when Becoming becomes, that is. when it is permitted to trigger its operation unencumbered by interference the thought necessarily of its own impetus settles as non-fluidity because what moves only moves because it is moving somewhere and hence all motion must resolve even if for a moment into a place in order that it be motion at all. This self-sublation (self-preserving and self-overcoming) of both sides of Becoming, and Becoming as a whole, is first Being and Nothing, and these, because they can no longer fall back into fluidity without merely coming back to themselves perch within and beside each other as a unity of both. Being is Becoming which has come to be and hence already ceased to be Nothing and Nothing is Becoming that has ceased to be and so has ceased to be Being.

Stand back once again and and gaze upon this constancy of inconstancy. What is is not Becoming, fluidity, but Being and Nothing as inseparable and constant, as immediate unity which has vanished its intermediary, and so is this unity as Being which is equally non-Being at once. The Being and Nothing which are now beside each other and inseparable in truth are what Hegel designates as Existence. Being as we now recognise only seemed to be for what is is not Being, but Existence, the Being of non-Being and the non-Being of Being, which is to say, the Nothingness of Being and the Being of Nothingness. Behind the first immediacy which enticed thinking by being posited as the truth without anything left over we discovered that so much was left over that we could not continue in the illusions of one-sided immediacy as such for we now see that the immediacy is immediate only in virtue of there being two entangled in the three step shuffle of what is. Just as a mirage vanishes upon being approached so too has Being vanished as the immediacy which was initially seen from a distance.

To see a World in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an hour.

- William Blake, (1757–1827)

One approaches it, one engages with it, and like vaporous illusions it has yielded its truth in the clasping of our hands. What is is imperishable, it is everywhere, even in Nothing. What is the case is inescapable. What is is existence. That which exists is that which steps forward from the indeterminate blinding light or shadow, and in stepping forward it is by not being this background. The division of the worlds of the ought-to-be and the world-that-is is weakening. Just as a mirage is not the case, the immediate world we experience shows itself constantly to not be the case either, that is to say, the world that is for us in common terms is in fact what we all know to be a world that is not. Those who appeal to this immediate world of the senses, those who appeal to the mere seeming of the state of the world’s affairs, are not pointing to the true being of this world. They indeed do not have justification to claim that what is ought to be, for they do not even clearly have a grasp of what truly is. But here we have not yet arrived at the self-producing identity of Being and what ought to be. Here we have only arrived at the immanent and necessary consequence that what is is existence, but ought it be existence? Ought it be anything else? If what things ought to be were already what they were, then the ought would be superfluous. But if what is is not in some way already what it ought to be, then the ought would be an impossible abstraction whose projection on the world would be a mental fiction.

And hence from determinacy to something. With existence all changes, the notion of existence is up to something is full of explicitly self-referential operations while only three genuinely operatively different concepts come into play, the way these concepts relate to each other in a merry dialectical dance. Existence is in as much as it is not, and it is this unity. Existence therefore accents and privileges its Being, its sheer immediacy, and hides its nothingness — it simply is. Insofar as existence is, however, it is not to the extent that it comes unified with Nothing beside it. Being exists precisely because it is not the Nothing beside it. The explicitness of non-being which is within this unity’s being, or the non-being which it is, is determinateness. That which exists is in virtue of its negative relation to an opposite. In the broadest sense, existence is being which stands out from the indeterminate background of immediate Being and Nothing. The distinction of existence and determinateness is stated in a way that may be confusing, for existence and determinacy are both the being of the unity of Being and Nothing, so how are they actually different?

The difference can be made clear with an emphasis on the very way these concepts are distinct for us in common language. Existence not only has an accent on Being, it is virtually used as synonymous with it, and so existence refers to Being as immediate and almost as if without reference to Nothing, yet it is explicit in not being Nothing. Existence in common use is understood as pointing out a purely positive being against an implicit negative, even when that negative is the void of nothingness itself. Determinacy, however, is Nothing which is not beside or along with Being, but is Nothing taken up into Being explicitly. Existence states explicitly only this necessary duality of Being and Nothing as bound to shadow each other, and determinateness states the explicit binding of Nothing, non-being, as internal to Being itself. In the immediacy of determinateness as such, determinateness is quality in general.

In the immediacy of existent determinateness, quality is reality as the immediate unity or being of determinateness, and it is negation as the immediate distinction or non-Being of the unity of determinateness. In other words, and in so many ways one can externally reflect on them at this point, reality is the identity of the unity of Being and Nothing, and negation is the difference of the unity. Quality is therefore determinate only through being real and negated, but it is no longer mere quality just as it is not mere determinateness or mere existence. It is now existent existence, determinate determinateness, qualified quality, or negated negation. This Being of the unity of reality and negation is something, the immediate being which we take as having the implied meaning of being-in-itself, for here what is in existence is existence itself.

And so from Something to Limit. Insofar as something is it exists, and insofar as it exists it is qualified and distinguished. The immediacy of something, however, offers to us only the poverty of this determinacy. Something existent is not merely reality, but reality which is also just as negative, and so just as something is a real unity it is also a negative distinction. The negativity of something, the distinction hidden in the positive face of immediacy, is that it is as not being the unity of reality and negation; it is their distinction, and this non-being of something is the otherness which it opposes to itself as its unreality or negation, for something’s existence requires its negation of an opposite in order to step forth as something. Something, therefore, is the other of this otherness, but in being this immediate other, it loses its being as something and is the abstract other.

Otherness, Being that it is other, is not to begin with the other of something but only the other of the other which opposes it and this other is itself, the other. Hence it does not go outside itself as other in this relation or movement, but remains within itself, for the other outside it is the other, itself. However, if otherness returns to itself only as the same, it thereby fails to be other, it is not distinguished at all, and so it only shows itself to be something, the unity of that which is self-identical and in-itself. If in being other, however, it is other to the other, in being this it is opposed to itself as other to otherness, and so does not return to itself as other, but as something, that to which otherness is external as otherness. Something and other, therefore, fall into each other, yet also distinguish themselves from each other as mutual others which are independent only upon the surface.

‘At the Boundary’, 1879, Ilya Repin

As separate and distinct something and other are being-for-other in their mutual otherness and non-being and this mutual non-Being is from each side the non-Being of the opposed non-Being, that is, Being by not being Nothing, reality by not being negation, something by not being the other. When being-for-other itself is, however, it is only in operating its own logic on itself. What is the other which being-for-other is other to? Another being-for-other which negates it, but just like otherness it falls immediately into its opposite and it it persists in this movement one discovers that it remains within its concept and so it is no being-for-other, but being-in-itself. If it is being-for-other opposite a true being-for-other, what is this first to which the other is negatively for? Being-in-itself. Just as something is the necessary consequence of the otherness of the other, being-in-itself is the necessary outcome of the self-otherness of being-for-other. Or to put it another way, in being-for-other the implicit condition is that there is an otherness to which a thing is other to, for were this not so there would be no being-for-other at all and so the other to which there is an otherness to has a being which is not collapsed into and by the other, a being-in-itself.

As immediately unified reality in something being-for-other and being-in-itself are determination in that this unity is the recollection of being-for-other as the identity with being-in-itself, as the total process of the dialectic, as negation of negation, for what is in-itself is this being-for-other and this very concept renders explicit that what is in something is also its being-for-other, that is, that insofar as it is-for-other it is to that extent in-itself precisely as the non-being of this otherness, or in other words, as the being-for-other of being-for-other. As a reality and as in something determination places a veil over its inherent negativity and manifests itself only as the positive immediate. ‘I have the determination to be X’, I may well asseverate, and by this I am not speaking of the concept of determinism rather I am stating that something is within me not as an abstraction of an indeterminate in-itself but as a something which definitively holds itself against the external world and furthermore actively resists this external world’s setbacks on the realization of this determination. To have determination is to declare one resistant if not unshakeable and indifferent to the otherness of the world.

But if what is in something is in it it also for that reason distinguishes itself as inner from something as outer, and so it is other to it, is not truly in it, but is outside it. This is confirmed by empirical experience in the very fact that we experience our inner lives as external to ourselves when our conscious will and unconscious desires and mental events do not cohere. Determination as the determinateness of being-in-itself taking up being-for-other therefore passes off its own existence into its otherness, into constitution, for what is in something now can only be by virtue of what is outside it, by negating this otherness and so becoming an otherness itself. As constitution, however, being-for-other has outside it being-in-itself but this distinction is precisely the otherness of being-for-other in which what is is by not being, and so being-in-itself is not outside being-for-other precisely because it is the being-for-other of it, and so it is in it. That which has in-it what is for-other, however, is determination.

Once more the dialectic is recollected and determination and constitution’s cycle is apprehended as limit and limit is distinctive in an odd kind of way in that unlike something its immediate accent is not of being, but of non-being and through limit something sets the non-being of its other but in doing so it also is impinged with non-being by this other which is itself something and so is itself limited. Since the other is something and the something is just as much an other, as something both confront their true other in the limit which determines and constitutes them alike and at once as their being through non-being. Something both is and is not through the limit, is in and outside it, yet this is precisely why the limit is the true other, for something finds its being and non-being inside and outside this limit, and while not immediately this limit, it nonetheless is only through its internally negative relation to the limit.

The other, however, we know to already be internal to something, and so the limit is not outside it nor originating from a remote or estranged force but within it as its own creation. Without the limit something and other fall away as indistinct and returns to existence in general and the limit falls to the same degree outside something as it does within it and is itself limited by the something which it dirempts or splits apart into the constituted and determined, each appearing as two sides outside the limit, as others, and so equally as somethings. As such, something reveals the limit as internal to it,and the limit reveals itself as the negative unity of something with something, that is of something with itself. The limit as limit is only as the negative unity of something and other, of determination and constitution, and so falls apart as them, and upon recollection of this dialectic the limited something is the concept of the finite as such.

And so to the finite and the finite as such is contradictory for it declares itself as non-being, the standpoint which privileges the negativity of something as inherently limited and which comes to be and ceases to be. The finite if first determinate as restriction and ought. In simplified and direct terms, restriction is the concept of something negated by its limit, and the ought is the something’s determination which sets itself as the positive against and beyond this limited being. In the terms of everydayness we can therefore say that as what is is not what it ought to be and stands restricted in becoming it then what ought to be likewise is restricted in not being what is. The ought is the superior truth, a higher reality compared to what is, while the ought is also restricted to non-Being to the same degree as restriction itself is.

The negative unity of limit and something’s determination is restriction for here determination refers negatively to its limit as internal yet other to itself, a repetition of the initial logic of something as otherness which is other to otherness, and the immediate unity of determination and limit, in which determination is itself a limit to limit (limit here references itself in this reflexive operation), the unity wherein they are identical and positive self-reference which is in-itself, is the ought, a repetition of the logic of something which has being-in-itself as positive being against being-for-other as a merely negative being. Put it that way and the development may be correct but it is not true to the concepts as immanently linked to each other. Restriction, being that it is restricted must be restricted by an other, this other which is immediately beside it as its seeming positive, for restriction is clearly stressing the negative, is the ought, like a leather football’s surface restricts the air within it but the air also restricts the leather surface, and which is the restriction and which is the ought in the leather football is all a matter of perspective (and so legend has it that the game of football originated in England as a group of villagers kicked a pig’s bladder from one village to the next which was hard work until someone had the bright idea to take the bladder out of the pig first).

Restriction itself, insofar as it is, is itself restricting of an opposing other as well as restricted by it, that is in being limited it also limits what limits it, but if restriction remains itself in being constituted by this other restriction it is then not restricted by a limiting other for the other is itself (restriction) and hence what restricts restriction is restriction itself and it is then not constituted at all, its other is merely itself, and it in fact has this otherness in-itself as its own self and so its restriction stands as its determination. Determination is a positive inner content, and restriction, being restricted, passes over to the other (restriction) only to return to itself again, and so it discloses that it (restriction) in fact is what it ought to be precisely as restriction. To put it another way, when a restriction is restricted and not absolute it must pass through and over itself as a constituting limit, as restriction, and so transcends itself as restriction, demonstrates itself to be within itself all along, and so it is in-itself and not constituted but is the positive being which is what it ought to be and to be restricted is its positive determination and what it ought to be.

Were restriction immediately absolute it would be unrestricted since it would not be bound through existence to a negative other, it would have no limit, and so would no longer be restriction at all, it would not exist, but if restriction is or is not, it exists, and it is something faced with the other as limit. Restriction is what it is precisely because it is restricted by the ought beside it, however, this ought is likewise restricted by restriction which in turn appears as the ought to the ought. What is is restricted and ought to be other than it is, but what ought to be likewise ought to be other than it is as a non-Being, it should be what is, and so it is restricted precisely because it is not already what is, what it ought to be. Both restriction and ought are mutually limited and limiting but if restriction truly is what it is then it is restricted and not absolute, hence it passes over itself into its beyond and the ought likewise passes over into its beyond as the restricted negative existent.

‘Il bacio’ (‘The kiss’), 1892, Silvio Allison

What is is now what ought to be. As Hegel explains, concerning the concreteness of movement from restriction and the ought:

‘The ought has of late played a major role in philosophy, especially in connection with morality but also in metaphysics in general, as the final and absolute concept of the identity of the in-itself or of self-reference, and of determinateness or the limit. ‘You can because you ought’. This expression, which is supposed to say a lot, is implied in the concept of the ought. For the ought is the transcendence of restriction; restriction is sublated in it, the in-itself of the ought is thus identical self-reference, and consequently the abstraction of ‘being able’. — But, conversely, ‘you cannot, even though you ought’ is just as correct. For the restriction as restriction is equally implied in the ought; the one formalism of possibility has in it a reality, a qualitative otherness, that stands opposed to it, and the connection of each to the other is a contradiction, and thus a “cannot” or rather an impossibility. In the ought the transcendence of finitude, infinity, begins. The ought is that which, in the subsequent development, in accordance with the said impossibility, will display itself as a progress to infinity’.

- ‘Science of Logic’, §21

And furthermore:

‘Stone, metal, do not transcend their restriction, for the simple reason that the restriction is not a restriction for them. However, with respect to such general propositions that are typical of the way the understanding thinks, as that it is impossible to transcend restriction, if thought will not apply itself to see what is implied in the concept, it can then be referred to actuality, where the propositions prove themselves to be completely unrealistic. Just because thought ought to be something higher than actuality, just because it ought to dwell in higher regions remote from it, and therefore be itself determined as an ought, it fails on the one hand to advance to the concept, and on the other hand it manages to be equally untrue both in its relation to actuality and to the concept. — Because a stone does not think, does not even feel, its determinateness is not a restriction for it, that is, it is not in it a negation for the sensation, the representation, the thought, and so on, which it does not have … If, however, a concrete existence contains the concept not merely as abstract in-itselfness, but as a totality existing for itself, as instinct, life, sensation, representation, and so forth, it itself then brings about, by itself, this transcendence and this transcending. The plant transcends the restriction of being a seed, similarly, of being blossom, fruit, leaf; the seed becomes the developed plant, the blossom fades, and so forth. In the grip of hunger, thirst, and so forth, the sentient is the impulse to transcend this restriction, and it does transcend it’.

- ‘Science of Logic’, §21.

The plant transcends its restriction as seed and the thirsty animal transcends the restriction which manifests as thirst, all of this happens every day with no great effort on the part of Nature, let alone on the part of Spirit, and when something truly appears as a limit, that is to say, as a restriction, it is because the being which feels and is conscious of this restriction is already at an ontological level beyond such restriction and furthermore the restriction is manifesting so that it be transcended into its ought. Were the plant seed fully what it ought to be then it would not be restricted and would have no impetus to become anything more but precisely because restriction would not arise immanently, for it it would also fail to be what it ought to be, perhaps not as seed, but as the realization of absolute being, free and self-determining.

It is here with the finite as such that the obstinate limit that supposedly eternally divides the is and the ought is brought to its absolute divide and absolute collapse. What is and what ought to be are indeed not one, cannot be one, and will never be one and the same. The restricted as restricted is what it ought to be, but the ought as what ought to be is restricted by positing itself against the restricted existent and what is becomes what it ought to be precisely because what it ought to be is internal to what it is and what it is is the becoming of what it ought to be. I the practical reasoner have not had to force anything upon Being so that it traverse existence to the infinite. The seed is what it is only in the fulfillment of its conditions of soil and water and precisely because these trigger the activation of its true being does it develop into the mature plant by no external force. A seed ought to grow into a tree, and precisely because of this it will, but precisely because of this it has not and may never do so. As the ought, the tree it is immanent to it, but as the finite stage of the seed it is restricted from immediately achieving this fulfillment at the moment of the seed.

The negative side of the unity and identity of restriction and ought, however, is that what is truly limited can not for that reason ever overcome this limit. This judgment and state of being, however, is only for a truly finite thing. When something or someone (a conscious subject) is fully bounded by a limit, this limit will never come to exist for it in its perspective. The rock will never experience its unmoving and unspoken life as a handicap slowing it down, the idiotic person will never experience their idiocy as an object of awareness, a covid-19 virus or whatever number it is up to now will never experience its lack of thought or ideas as a problem nor as a pandemic. Such a limit that does not appear is an infinite limit and the beyond of this restriction, the ought which it should be, shall for this very fact never come to be in this restricted being. Nature ought to be conscious and free, but it is not and will not be so long as it remains mere Nature, but Nature for this same reason shows that it ought to be precisely this restricted being for if it were capable of being more it would of its own nature rise above it. Conditions have arisen in Nature however for conscious and thinking beings to attain embodiment with brains suitable for universal free cognition and they are the proof that Nature was always already capable of more just as Being is not mere immediacy. Because Being is in truth dynamic Becoming, what is has no problem in becoming what it ought, for what it ought to be is that Becoming of its purpose and hence from Being we derive what ought to be.


Drunk! We all ought to be drunk!

by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832)

Drunk! We all ought to be drunk!

Youth is drunkenness without wine;

If old age can drink itself back to youth

that is a wonderful virtue.

Cares are part of our lovely life

but an antidote to care is available in grapes.

Trunken müssen wir alle sein!

Jugend ist Trunkenheit ohne Wein;

Trinkt sich das Alter wieder zu Jugend,

So ist es wundervolle Tugend.

Für Sorgen sorgt das liebe Leben,

Und Sorgenbrecher sind die Reben.




David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.

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David Proud

David Proud

David Proud is a British philosopher currently pursuing a PhD at the Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool, on Hegel and James Joyce.