On Immanuel Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’: Making Honours of Men’s Impossibilities — Part Five
‘… a person is what he does, and the mendacious vanity that warms itself with the consciousness of inner excellence must be confronted with the saying of the Gospels that ‘By their fruits ye shall cognise them’ [Matt. 7:16,20] . Just as it holds good first in an ethical and a religious connection, so that great saying holds for scientific and artistic achievements, too. As far as artistic ability is concerned, a teacher of keen eye may perhaps, when he becomes aware of notable talents in a boy, express the opinion that a Raphael or a Mozart lies hidden in him; and the results will show how far that opinion was well founded. But it is cold comfort for a dauber or a poetaster to console himself with the view that his inner self is full of high ideals; and when he demands that he should be judged by his intentions rather than his achievements, his pretensions are rightly rejected as empty and unfounded. Conversely, it is also very often the case that in judging others, who have brought about something fair, square, and solid, we may employ the false distinction of inward and outward, in order to maintain that what they have done is only something external to them, and that their inner motives were completely different, because they acted to satisfy their vanity or some other discreditable passion. This is the envious disposition which, being itself unable to accomplish anything great, strives to drag greatness down to its own level and to belittle it. As against this, we may recall the fine saying of Goethe, that for the great superiorities of others there is no remedy but love. So if in order to depreciate the praiseworthy achievements of others there is talk of hypocrisy, we must notice, on the contrary, that although a man may certainly dissemble and hide a good deal in single instances, still he cannot hide his inner self altogether; it reveals itself infallibly in the decursus vitae [course of life], so that even in this connection it must be said that a man is nothing but the series of his acts’.
- Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, (1770–1831), ‘Encyclopedia of the Philosophical Sciences: Logic’
‘Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love’.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (1749–1832), ‘Maxims and Reflections’, №270
It is a good thing then that I have a lot of love to give, and so I continue with this series as arbiter between two formidable intellects whose ideas I struggle to understand, but I ask you to know me by my fruits, judge me by my accomplishments not my intentions. Incidentally doesn’t much of that passage I quoted above sound like something Jean-Paul Sartre, (1905–1980), would say? ‘Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is’, said Sartre, (in ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’). That is because he lifted a lot from Hegel and then put his own wayward (by which I mean completely bonkers) slant on it. See my article A World of Gods and Monsters Part Three for an example of Sartre taking something from Hegel and turning it into something that makes no sense.
So where was I? Oh yes, we have arrived at the need for a new account of conceptual form. The topics I am focussing on in Hegel’s critique of Immanuel Kant’s, (1724–1804), ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ will at least serve to shed some light on how Hegel understands idealism. Philosophy is idealism, Hegel said, (in ‘Faith and Knowledge’), only when it ‘does not acknowledge either one of the opposites as existing for itself in its abstraction from the other’. Hegel’s understanding of the sense in which intuitions cannot ‘exist’ other than in relation to concepts is to this extent Kantian. Hegel concurs with Kant that our empirical consciousness or perception of the given sensible manifold requires as a condition of its possibility the synthesizing work of special concepts or categories. Nonetheless Hegel distances himself from Kant in his understanding of the dependence of our concepts or categories upon intuitions, such distancing providing some clue as to his intentions towards the attainment of an ‘absolute’ or ‘genuine’ as opposed to a simply ‘subjective’ form of idealism.
What is the ‘speculative’ meaning of the dependence of concepts upon intuitions, of the notion that concepts without intuitions as Kant phrases it are ‘empty’? Hegel wrote: ‘The pure isolated concept is empty identity … [O]nly as relatively identical to that over against which it stands is it concept, and filled only via the manifold of intuition’. Clearly Hegel’s position here is not simply Kantian, he wants to convey more than that our concepts remain empty from the standpoint of knowledge unless they are applied to appearances. For Hegel’s concern with the idea of a faculty for which concepts and intuitions are an original synthetic unity is motivated by the very same concern that is responsible for his interest in the ideas of organic unity and of a mode of cognition that is intuitive. Above all else Hegel seeks to avoid an idealism that is ‘subjective’, an idealism, that is to say, that treats form as ‘external’.
Form is external not just if it is assumed to originate in the cognizing subject, by Hegel’s definition it is external if the fact that it originates in the cognizing subject leads us to conclude that it cannot reveal the mind-independent reality of things. For Hegel an idealism that is subjective and that therefore treats form as external in this way, cannot close the gap between our concepts and objects and we are left with ‘contingency’ in the relation between our thought-forms or concepts and given sensible particulars. If, for instance, we take productive imagination to be ‘subjective’, that is, as ‘merely the property of the subject’, then its cognition of the manifold is ‘formal’ as Hegel explains: ‘The possible connection between the two [between the ‘formal identity’ and the ‘manifold’] … is the incomplete relation within the bounds of an absolute opposition’.
So upon Hegel encouraging us to appreciate the dependence of our concepts upon intuitions we must see that his position is not simply that our concepts are empty unless they are applied to a particular kind of content, rather we make the transition from a ‘subjective’ to a ‘genuine’ form of idealism only once we take on a new account of conceptual form, that is to say an account of conceptual form (and its faculty) as something other than ‘external’. What might an alternative Hegelian account of conceptual form look like? How might it relate to the Kantian idea of organic unity according to which the parts and whole of an organism stand to each other in a relation of reciprocal determination? Parts or particulars are generated out of the synthetically universal whole and as such they are given as already formed and as requiring no further conceptual determination. However, the determination also proceeds in the other direction, for in the model of organic unity parts or particulars are conceived not only as if purposively produced by the whole, they are also assumed to purposively sustain the whole.
And what of the particular expression of the notion of the reciprocal determination of concept and intuition, of subject and object, in Hegel’s characterization of how we should understand the relation between the two sciences, the sciences of nature and of intelligence? Hegel warns us against falling into the error of Kant and of Johann Gottlieb Fichte, (1762–1814), and others who privilege the science of intelligence, and in doing so abstract from how intelligence or subjectivity is considered from the standpoint of nature. They thereby abstract from the standpoint of nature, on Hegel’s characterization, in failing to grasp that subjectivity or intelligence is not simply free and self-determining, it is also determined or conditioned by nature. Furthermore the idealisms of Kant and Fichte are ultimately ‘subjective’ and it is an implication of these systems that subjective form is ‘absolutely opposed’ or ‘external’ to content in this respect, that subjective form is taken to owe nothing of its nature and origin to the realm of the empirical. For Kant, Fichte et al human reason (or ‘thinking’) is ‘absolute’ in that it is capable of achieving complete ‘independence from common reality’.
Human reason (or ‘thinking’), because elsewhere, in the ‘Lesser Logic’, Hegel criticizes dualistic systems for their commitment to the ‘independence of self-comprehending thought’. Once again Hegel reminds us of the ‘highest idea’ of Kant’s ‘Transcendental Deduction’, that is, the ‘emptiness of subjectivity’, it is not enough just to follow Kant in acknowledging that our concepts remain empty unless applied to appearances. Without denying this Kantian claim Hegel in addition wants us to recognize the mistake of considering our concepts to be empty in the sense of ‘external’, an important point for if we neglect it which is to say neglect what motivates his critique of the emptiness of subjectivity (that is to say, his concern to avoid the conception of subjective form that brings with it a sceptical result), we will inevitably miss what he is after when he describes our concepts or categories as originally part of a synthetic unity, as originally ‘identical’ to intuitions, and as originally ‘immersed in extension’. In describing the nature of conceptual form in this manner Hegel means for us to acknowledge their debt to ‘common reality’ and he indicates his intention to mount an assault upon a thesis he describes in the ‘Science of Logic’, the thesis, namely, of the ‘supposed self-subsistence’ of our thought-determinations.
Does Hegel’s strategy for closing the concept-intuition gap and for thereby offering an alternative to a merely subjective idealism involve little more than properly appreciating the Kantian point that intuitions without concepts are blind? Hegel appreciated Kant’s point that any manifold requires categorical unity if it is to provide any possible content for thought. Closing the mind–world gap involves sufficiently grasping the implications of Kant’s insight that our sensory contact with the world is through and through ‘already conceptual’. There already is spontaneity on the side of receptivity from which we may be tempted to conclude that Hegel finds little of interest in Kant’s additional comment about the emptiness of concepts without intuitions. And yet Hegel’s strategy for closing the concept–intuition gap to involve, not just a new account of receptivity, (as already containing spontaneity), but also a new account of spontaneity. But once we embrace the Kantian view that intuitions are blind (and thus without cognitive import) without concepts and that concepts have their source in the faculty of spontaneity does that raise the concern that our idealism suffers from ‘subjectivity’ and that we have no way of demonstrating that our concepts make cognitive contact with the given sensory content? Does this concern about ‘subjectivism’ depend upon an inaccurate picture of the nature of spontaneity? Are our concepts merely subjective impositions entirely unanswerable to the given intuitive content in other words parasitic upon a view of subjectivity as wholly ‘unconstrained by the world’? This is hardly an Hegelian conception of subjectivity, for Hegel understands the space of reasons not as absolutely unconstrained by the world but as a historically constituted human practice subject to revision and critical correction.
We must dig more deeply into the nature of subjectivity. From Kant’s notions concerning an intuitive mode of cognition and of nature as an organism Hegel discerns indications about an alternative to the Kantian dualism between concepts and intuitions, and between their respective faculties. Hegel is certain that an alternative has to be provided if we are to avoid an idealism that, like Kant’s, is merely subjective and as such unable to secure for us knowledge of the reality of things. But how we should understand Hegel’s proposal for closing the concept–intuition gap? Is the solution he settles upon in some way reductive? Does Hegel holds that our concepts reduce to intuitions? Were this so then the way forward with regard to overcoming dualism would involve convincing us that the mind and its forms are merely products of nature. Our ideas or concepts come to be as nothing more than effects of the impingement of sense impressions upon our sense organs, and all that we judge to be ‘rational’ derives entirely from the realm of the actual. Is not Hegel too much of a Kantian if I may say so to endorse a reductive empiricism? He certainly follows Kant in suggesting that there can be no objects for consciousness, strictly speaking, independent of concepts, for our knowledge of objects, even our perception or apprehension of them, is only possible because of synthesizing acts of the mind, acts governed by rules or concepts that we bring to, rather than merely abstract out of, experience. Hegel wants us to think of nature as an ‘immanent ideality’, thereby expressing his Kantian inspired opposition to ‘naïve’ or reductive empiricism.
Or maybe for Hegel the reduction proceeds in the opposite direction, that is to say, Hegel closes the gap between concept and object with the assist of a reductive rationalism, one might even go so far as to suggest that he held the view that human cognition possesses the productive capacity of the intuitive intellect to literally generate sensible intuitions and thereby bring material objects into being. Hegel the super-rationalist that is to say, but that overlooks what he owes to empiricism, his commitment to the view that we rely in cogn ition upon a sense content we do not make. More plausibly Hegel’s alleged reductive rationalism acknowledges his debt to empiricism and in accord with Kant Hegel allows our mode of cognition is discursive and as such us dependent upon an independently given sense content. In this light Hegel follows Kant in contending that there can be no objects of thought or cognition without concepts, concepts we bring to as opposed to merely abstract out of experience. Hegel thereby can be viewed as supportive of the Kantian premise concerning the necessary role of concepts and indeed draws from it the internalist conclusion that a truly extra-conceptual content can have no cognitive significance for us. And then it would appear that for Hegel the only possible object of human cognition is thought itself.
Hegel has certainly expressed himself at times in a way to suggest such an internalist interpretation is correct. For instance, that the very notion of an object wholly beyond thought is itself just a thought-object and that a wholly non-conceptual content is inaccessible to thought. In the ‘Science of Logic’ he states that the very things that are supposed (by some philosophers) to exist outside thought ‘are themselves figments of subjective thought, and as wholly indeterminate they are only a thought-thing — the so-called thing-in-itself of empty abstraction’. On the internalist reading this is supposedly enough to warrant the conclusion that Hegel awards extra-conceptual content no cognitive import and this conclusion appears further supported by comments in which he characterizes his own investigations as having as their subject matter not things but their ‘concept [Begriff]’.
The impression thus conveyed is that Hegel has discarded the project of demonstrating that our thought-forms can inform us about a reality wholly outside the mind, as he explains: ‘for us, the object can be nothing else but our concepts [Begriffe] of it. Furthermore the ‘concept’ he informs us is not the ‘sensibly intuited or represented’ but rather it is a ‘product and content’ of thinking: ‘What we are dealing with in logic is not a thinking about something which exists independently as a base for our thinking and apart from it … On the contrary, the necessary forms and self-determinations of thought are the content and the ultimate truth itself’. There is a flaw in the internalist interpretation however, for how can it account for Hegel’s repeated gripe concerning an idealism that is simply subjective. Internalism implies that we are trapped behind a veil of ideas and must resign ourselves to the fact that our knowledge claims may bear no relation to reality itself, the very kind of sceptical outcome Hegel wishes to avoid though he allows Kant’s premise that the objects of thought and cognition are for us always conceptualized contents but he does not follow Kant in deriving from this premise the conclusion that the validity of our knowledge extends no further than to objects as they must be known by us, objects not as they are in themselves but only as conditioned by our subjective forms. He baulks at the thesis of Kantian internalism that because the only content for our cognition is a conceptualized content we have no grounds for supposing that the relation between our concepts and their objects is anything better than contingent.
Hegel believes he is able to avoid subjective idealism by rejecting an assumption upon which it rests, the Kantian assumption of the ‘externality’ of conceptual form, and he thus can exploit to its full potential Kant’s insight that our concepts and intuitions stand to each other in a relation of reciprocal determination. For Hegel is after convincing us that objects or intuitions are in some sense also intelligence or subjectivity and that subjectivity and its forms are in some sense also object and he insists that subjective form is not ‘empty’ in the sense of ‘external’, it is not ‘absolutely opposed’ to content. Hegel rejects Kant’s account of conceptual form because such a rejection offers him a strategy for avoiding subjective idealism. But what of his own account concerning the nature and conditions of cognition? And of his complaint against Kant’s philosophy that it is question-begging and insufficiently self-critical. We must look further into his account of the nature and origin of conceptual form to better understand what he has in mind by a mode of self-consciousness or subjectivity that is not merely subject but also object, that is not an empty identity but rather an original identity or synthetic unity. Perhaps we can be directed by his criticism of the ‘programmatic principle’ of the like of Kant, Fichte, and Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, (1743–1819), who adhere to the ‘metaphysic of subjectivity’. This principle directs philosophy to rise above the ‘subjective and empirical’ and ‘justify the absoluteness of reason, its independence from common reality’. Hegel was evidently opposed to this principle and indeed complained that ‘one of the assumptions of our times’ is the Kantian commitment to the ‘independence of reason, of its absolute inner self-sufficiency’. Hence for Hegel the subjectivity of idealism is tied to the assumption that human reason is ‘self-sufficient’ and ‘independent from common reality’ and clearly his opposition to the supposed self-sufficiency and independence of reason was an expression of his rejection of the thesis of externality.
The story so far. Hegel objects to the claim that cognition (Erkennen) is a ‘means [Mittel]’ for knowing the truth about things while suggesting that this is a mistaken conception of thinking and its forms (Denkformen) or categories (Kategorien) and he considers the mistake to consist not in the aim of knowing things but rather in the conception of cognition that undercuts that aim, and it also suggests that the mistaken conception of cognition as a means rests upon the assumption of the self-sufficiency or independence of reason. In the ‘Phenomenology of Spirit’ Hegel treats cognition as a means as he outlines features of a particular conception of the nature of cognition, a conception held by what he calls ‘natural consciousness’. Natural consciousness uses cognition as a ‘means [Mittel]’ of knowing objects, as a means of accessing a content that it takes to be, as Hegel puts it, on the ‘other side’ of cognition. Hegel refers to such content, alternatively, as the ‘thing itself’, ‘the true’, ‘the absolute’, ‘the in itself’, and ‘the absolute essence’. The features that he associates with this standpoint of natural consciousness are common to a wide range of philosophical positions and there are suggestions in his discussion that he includes Kant among those committed to at least some of the assumptions of natural consciousness.
On Hegel’s depiction, cognition is a ‘means’ for natural consciousness in either of two ways. Some adherents to the commitments of natural consciousness suppose that cognition is a tool or instrument ‘by which to seize hold of the absolute essence’ while others treat cognition as a passive medium ‘which the light of truth passes through in order to reach us’. Natural consciousness eventually discovers, however, that neither of these two versions of the thesis that cognition is a means serves it in achieving its initial aim. Initially, natural consciousness sets out to employ thought to get at the truth or ‘in itself ‘ of things but natural consciousness comes to recognize that if cognition is an active instrument it necessarily reshapes or alters the thing, it does not let the thing be what it is for itself. If cognition is a passive medium, on the other hand, our cognitive access to objects is indirect or mediated. We know objects, according to this model, only through the medium. As Hegel says in the ‘Science of Logic’ when writing of the view according to which ‘thoughts [Gedanken]’ are considered a ‘medium [Mitte] between ourselves and things this view has the implication that the medium cuts us off from things instead of connecting us to them.
This failure of cognition to serve as a means for getting at the truth of things prompts natural consciousness to engage in acts of self-examination or self-criticism, and here the hope is that if we first familiarize ourselves with the nature of cognition itself, with the concepts and rules (Wirkungsweise) it contributes in the act of knowing, we will then be in a position to subtract (abziehen) that contribution away and thereby lay bare the thing itself, but natural consciousness soon discovers that this strategy is equally unsatisfactory. Natural consciousness seeks to know things, it supposes that we know things only by employing cognition as a means and natural consciousness thus defeats its own purposes by subtracting away precisely what it deems to be its mode of access to things. The most it is able to gain from its exercise in self-criticism is knowledge of the means, not of things, from which we may conclude that Hegel is concerned with persuading us that the efforts of natural consciousness are in a certain respect self-defeating. The original objective of natural consciousness, to get at the truth of things, cannot be satisfied and the fact that it cannot be satisfied is tied in some way to its adherence to the thesis that cognition is a means.
So what is the remedy for extricating natural consciousness from such a predicament? Well, Hegel apparently, (I know when I am trying to explicate Hegel’s thinking I tend to resort to uncertain modes of expression but there is much debate about what he is saying never mind whether he is right to say it so I offer here one interpretation), offers two very different recommendations. On the one hand it appears that his recommendation to natural consciousness is that it abandon its conception of cognition as a means, for after all appears merely to guarantee failure in the achievement of its epistemic end. And on the other hand his apparent objective is to encourage natural consciousness to abandon, not its conception of how to achieve its epistemic end, but the end itself. Natural consciousness should cease striving to know the truth or ‘in itself ‘ of things and it should instead content itself with the fact that it can know things only as mediated by its cognitive forms.
The first line of interpretation quite accurately captures Hegel’s position for Hegel wishes to alert us to the mistake involved in conceiving cognition as a means. The second interpretation has a prima facie persuasiveness whereby the message we are to derive from Hegel’s critique of cognition as a means is that it is a mistake to suppose that our concepts can access the ‘objective relations’ or ‘pure truth’ of things hence the target of Hegel’s critique appears to be representative realism, for it is the representative realist who maintains that it is possible for us, by means of our ideas or concepts, to know a reality that is wholly mind-independent, wholly ‘on the other side of’ cognition. If this interpretation is correct then we are warranted for concluding that representative realism is the thesis that Hegel encourages us to discard as he offers an argument to the effect that as long as we adhere to the thesis that cognition is a means (either as a passive medium or as an active instrument) we can have no warrant for supposing that cognition can succeed in its effort to award us access to the truth of things.
Such an interpretation has a face value plausibility given that Hegel repeatedly points out that natural consciousness is unsuccessful in its effort to get at the truth of things hence he encourages the impression that his objective is to persuade us that the efforts of the representative realist are in vain. Furthermore, we may have grounds for thinking that Hegel’s target is representative realism in that he explicitly mentions a key proponent of that thesis, namely John Locke, (1632–1704), (a proponent of representationalism, that is, ideas are ‘immediate objects’ of the mind or understanding and are present to the mind instead of things which are not present to the mind… an explanation of perception that is no explanation at all. How do we perceive things? We don’t, we perceive representations of them with the mind’s eye. How does the mind’s eye perceive those representations? Uh ….. ) Hegel included Locke among those who operate upon assumptions of the natural consciousness and who undertake an investigation of our means of knowing prior to determining the extent of our knowledge, a project that Hegel identifies as a ‘critique of the cognitive faculties’. Hegel cites a passage from Locke’s ‘Essay Concerning Human Understanding’:
‘This was that which gave the first rise to this Essay concerning the understanding. For I thought that the first step towards satisfying several inquiries the mind of man was very apt to run into, was, to take a survey of our own understandings, examine our own powers, and see to what things they were adapted. Till that was done I suspected we began at the wrong end, and in vain sought for satisfaction in a quiet and sure possession of truths that most concerned us, whilst we let loose our thoughts into the vast ocean of Being; as if all that boundless extent were the natural and undoubted possession of our understandings, wherein there was nothing exempt from its decisions, or that escaped its comprehension. Thus men, extending their inquiries beyond their capacities, and letting their thoughts wander into those depths where they can find no sure footing, it is no wonder that they raise questions and multiply disputes, which, never coming to any clear resolution, are proper only to continue and increase their doubts, and to confirm them at last in perfect scepticism. Whereas, were the capacities of our understandings well considered, the extent of our knowledge once discovered, and the horizon found which sets the bounds between the enlightened and dark parts of things; between what is and what is not comprehensible by us, men would perhaps with less scruple acquiesce in the avowed ignorance of the one, and employ their thoughts and discourse with more advantage and satisfaction in the other’.
Locke therein announces his intention to prepare the way for his inquiry into the extent of human knowledge with an investigation of the ‘powers’ and ‘capacities’ of the faculty of understanding, asserting that this first step in determining the precise nature and limits of our cognitive powers is necessary in order to defend his theory of knowledge against the threat of scepticism. As it happens however it is not representative realism that Hegel has in his sights, at least not exclusively because in his assault upon the standpoint of natural consciousness he implicates not just Locke but also Kant, his reference to Locke occurring in a section devoted to the ‘Kantian philosophy’ and the principal point of Hegel’s reference to Locke in that context is to highlight one feature that the Lockean and Kantian projects share in common, namely, both undertake what Hegel designates there as a ‘consideration of the finite intellect’. Subsequent to quoting Locke Hegel writes: ‘With such words, Locke in the Introduction to his Essay expresses the aim of an undertaking that one could just as well read in the Introduction to Kant’s philosophy. For [Kant’s philosophy] likewise limits itself to the Lockean goal, namely, the consideration of the finite intellect [Verstandes]’. Hegel outlines this project of a prior critique of cognition in the ‘Phenomenology’: ‘It is natural to think that before philosophy delves into what really matters, namely, into the effectively real cognition of what, in truth, there is, it would be necessary to reach prior agreement about cognition’.
He regards this portrayal to accurately represent the projects both of Locke and of Kant whereby both insist that the project of determining the nature and limits of our knowledge requires as a pre-condition an investigation of our faculties of cognition. Elsewhere Hegel is explicit about the fact that he discovers in Kant’s theoretical philosophy a commitment to at least some of the assumptions of natural consciousness. In the ‘Lesser Logic’ for example he says of the ‘Critical philosophy’ that it presupposes that before we set out to know God or the essence of things we should first investigate our forms of cognition. The ‘Critical philosophy’ urges us to know the instrument itself before putting it to use, and in the ‘Science of Logic’ he takes the ‘Critical philosophy’ to task for holding that thoughts [Gedanken] are ‘means’ that separate us from things, an assumption that yields the result, according to Hegel, that instead of connecting us to objects, thought cuts us off.
Is cognition [Erkennen] a means or are ‘thoughts’ [Gedanken]’ or ‘thought determinations [Gedankenbestimmungen] means? Kant was most certainly not a Lockean realist and did not follow Locke in arguing that our forms of cognition are means by which we access a reality that is wholly mind independent. Nor does Kant propose to test the adequacy of those forms against that independently given reality. Although he provides arguments in the ‘Critique’ to justify his description of the a priori concepts and forms of intuition we bring to objects in perception his objective is not to convince us that these forms award us access to a content absolutely external to mind. Kant’s justificatory project is less ambitious than Locke’s, the a priori forms of thought and intuition are necessary subjective conditions of our cognition of objects, they are conditions without which objects of experience or ‘appearances’ are unknowable for us. And the fact that Hegel includes Kant among those committed to assumptions of natural consciousness suggests that we cannot accurately describe his attack on natural consciousness as simply a critique of representative realism.
And so, to return to the first interpretative suggestion whereby Hegel’s criticism of natural consciousness is intended to dissuade us not from the effort to know things on the ‘other side’ of cognition but from treating cognition as a means, Hegel’s objective thereby appears to be not to convince us that our efforts to know are doomed to fail but rather to urge us to abandon the account of subjective form that obstructs our progress. But if this interpretation of Hegel’s critique of natural consciousness is correct why does he apparently single out for attack theories of knowledge as dissimilar as those of Locke and Kant? In what sense does Hegel think that each of these philosophers treats cognition as a means? In what sense do their respective theories of knowledge result in scepticism? Hegel holds that both philosophers undertake a ‘critique of the cognitive faculties’, that much we know, but there are significant differences between Locke and Kant. For one thing Locke takes critique to serve the original objective of natural consciousness, that is to say, he takes his ‘inquiry into the mind of man’ to be an essential component of his endeavor to know nature, and he is assured that he can succeed in demonstrating that it is possible for us to know a reality wholly independent of mind. (Locke’s realism about the capacity of our ideas to reflect or resemble a wholly mind-independent content is compatible with his view that our knowledge of nature is probable at best and falls short of knowledge of ‘real essences’).
For Kant, in contrast, critique is called for precisely because the efforts of philosophers to demonstrate that our concepts reveal the mind-independent reality of things are in vain. After all Kant argues that it is precisely the realist assumption that we can know objects wholly independent of our subjective forms that lands reason in irresolvable conflicts or antinomies and he is convinced that we can avoid these conflicts but only if we radically alter our conception of the proper objects of our knowledge, and he calls upon the services of critique precisely in order to reassess what we should identify as the proper objects of our knowledge. What we earn from critique, on his account, is that we can know only ‘appearances’ and appearances are given to us through the a priori forms of intuition, space and time, and are thought through a priori concepts or categories. We can have empirical knowledge of their sensible properties and relations, and necessary or a priori knowledge of the subjective forms that condition their possibility.As Kant put it, ‘we can cognize of things a priori only what we ourselves have put into them’.
But critique instructs us that knowledge of objects wholly independent of our a priori subjective forms is unavailable to beings with our mode of cognition, so Kant’s insistence upon the necessity of critique follows in the wake of his recognition that efforts to demonstrate that our ideas or concepts reflect the wholly mind-independent nature of things invariably result in antinomy. Kant does not call upon critique to challenge the assumption of natural consciousness that thought is a means, rather, critique is required in virtue of the fact that the effort to know things wholly independent of our subjective forms needs to be reassessed. For Kant the outcome of critique is a ‘revolution’ in our understanding of the proper objects of our knowledge. Expressed in Hegelian terms, critique on Kant’s account yields the result that we have to substitute for knowledge of objects knowledge of the subject. But then given this comparison of the role of critique for Locke and Kant it would appear that Hegel in the ‘Phenomenology’ is concerned to encourage us to abandon the assumption of natural consciousness that cognition is a means and we should abandon this assumption in virtue of the fact that it leaves us no way to demonstrate that we can know the reality or ‘in itself ‘ of things. And yet, if what motivates Hegel’s argument is the wish to avoid scepticism why does he implicate not just Kant but also Locke?
Well, Hegel identifies both the Lockean and the Kantian systems as instances of what he terms the ‘metaphysic of subjectivity’, both systems deserve to be classified under this heading in virtue of the fact that both systems have ultimately sceptical implications for our knowledge, and for Hegel in both cases scepticism is a necessary consequence of a mistaken account of cognition. Hegel was convinced that scepticism follows from Kant’s particular understanding of the implications of human discursivity, a conclusion he was prompted to by Kant’s assertion (in the ‘Critique of Judgment’) that we are not entitled to assume that the given sensible manifold is susceptible to our conceptual determinations. Kant’s assertion does not follow simply from the premise that, in our cognitions of nature, we have to be affected by an independently given sense content, indeed the sceptical conclusion follows only because Kant is committed to an additional assumption, namely, that the form of experience is contributed by the knowing subject. Kant in other words assumes that since form comes from us, we have no grounds for supposing that it reveals the reality of the given sense content itself.
And it is not strictly speaking Locke’s realism that Hegel classifies under the heading of the ‘metaphysic of subjectivity’ but rather the ‘culmination’ of his realist project in the philosophy of David Hume, (1711–1776). For Hegel Locke’s philosophy is an instance of the metaphysics of subjectivity because of its vulnerability to Hume’s scepticism. In the development of modern empiricism, (this is the tale as Hegel tells it), Hume’s scepticism takes as its point of departure the Lockean premise that our knowledge of objects requires, not just the passive reception of sense impressions, but also operations of the mind. Hume argued that if we sufficiently attend to the role played by the operations of combination, abstraction, reproduction, and so forth, we will be forced to acknowledge that the origin of ideas has as much to do with the active contribution of our cognitive powers as with the passive reception of sensory input. In particular, if we sufficiently appreciate the role imagination plays in extending the data of sense, we will ultimately have to grant that we can have no warrant for assuming that our ideas reflect the reality of nature itself. As Hegel describes it the lesson we are to derive from this particular episode in the history of philosophy is that, in his critique of Locke, Hume demonstrated the ultimate ‘subjectivity’ of our concepts. (Side note: the appeal of Hegel’s philosophy for me lies to a large extent in the manner by which it endeavours to rescue us from such unsavoury situations such as this that we frequently find ourselves in through thinking too deeply .. what is required is thinking even more deeply).
So the assumption shared by Kant and by Lockean realism culminating in Hume, according to Hegel, is that it is in light of the contribution of our cognitive faculties that we can have no justification for our claim to know nature as a content wholly independent of mind. This common assumption explains why Hegel classifies both the Lockean and Kantian systems as instances of the ‘metaphysic of subjectivity’. We may then conclude that Hegel’s assault upon the claims of natural consciousness is an expression of his opposition to a particular form of scepticism. The problem with natural consciousness, as Hegel sees it, is not its objective to know things nor is the problem its assumption that in our efforts to know things we rely upon thought-forms or concepts as well as sense impressions. Rather, the problem is its assumption that since we bring thought-forms to our acts of knowing our efforts to know cannot be satisfied. This is the mistake Hegel associates with natural consciousness. It is that which he singles out as the crucial defect of its treatment of cognition as a means.
Or perhaps Hegel’s principle concern is not with the modern ‘veil of ignorance’ scepticism of the kind implied by the systems of Locke and Kant but rather with the far more threatening scepticism of the ancients, for instance, Sextus Empiricus, (fl. mid-late 2nd century AD), weighing one thing against its contradiction like they are of equal force or significance, oh well, I won’t go into that now….
But now I am cabin’d, cribb’d, confin’d, bound in
To saucy doubts and fears.
- William Shakespeare, (1564–1616), ‘Macbeth’
To be continued ……