Reasoning, evidence, and/or not miracles

This week at Plato’s Footnote, Massimo Piglucci posted a brief discussion on how the use of probability reasoning, especially of the Bayesian variety, can be used to dispel contemporary myths such as anti-vaccination paranoia, trutherism concerning the events of 9/11/01, and bitherism concerning Former President Obama.


The comments thread became an object lesson in just how difficult it is to discuss such matters with those who hold mythic beliefs – every silly conspiracy theory was given vent on it. I myself felt it useful to briefly engage an apologist for miracle belief, with someone misrepresenting the argument against such belief as put forth by David Hume, referenced in Piglucci’s article. I would like to present and preserve that conversation here, because it is representative of the discussions on the comment thread, but also representative of the kinds of discussions reasonable people generally have with those so committed to their beliefs that they are open to neither reasoning nor evidence against them.


Asserting that Hume begins by declaring miracles simply impossible (and thus pursuing a circular argument), a commenter handled jbonnicerenoreg writes:


“The possibility of something should be the first step in a n argument, since of something is impossible there is no need to argue about it. For example, Hume says that miracles are impossible so it is not necessary to look at a particular miracle probability. I believe Hume’s argument does more than the reasoning warrants. ”


My reply:

That isn’t Hume’s argument at all. Hume argues that since miracles violate the laws of nature, the standard of evidence for claims for their occurrence is considerably higher than claims of even infrequent but natural events (such as someone suddenly dying from seemingly unknown causes – which causes we now know include aneurisms, strokes, heart failure, etc. etc.). Further, the number of people historically who have never experienced a miracle far outweighs the number who claim they have, which suggests questions of motivations to such reports. Finally, Hume remarks that all religions have miracle claims, and there is no justification for accepting the claims of one religion over any other, in which case we would be left with having to accept all religions as equally justified, which would be absurd, given that each religion is embedded with claims against all other religions.


Hume doesn’t make a probability argument, but his argument suggests a couple; for instance, given the lack of empirical evidence, and the infrequency of eye-witness accounts (with unknown motivations), the probability of miracles occurring would seem to be low. At any rate, I don’t remember Hume disputing the logical possibility of miracles, but does demand that claims made for them conform to reason and empirical experience.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “If you witness Lazurus rise from the dead, and if you know he was correctly entombed, then your evidence is sense experience–the same as seeing a live person. Hume’s standard of evidence is always about historical occurrences.”


My reply:

If such an experience were to occur, it might be considered ’empirical’ to the one who has the experience; but the report of such an experience is not empirical evidence of the occurrence, it is mere hearsay.


Unless you want to claim that you were there at the supposed raising of Mr. Lazarus, I’m afraid all we have of it is a verbal report in a document lacking further evidentiary justification, for a possible occurrence that supposedly happened 2000 years ago – which I think makes it an historical occurrence.


And no, Hume’s standard of evidence is clearly not simply about historical occurrences, although these did concern him, since his bread-and-butter publications were in history. But if miracles are claimed in the present day, then they must be documented in such a way that a reasonable skeptic can be persuaded to consider them. And it would help even more if they were repeatable by anyone who followed the appropriate ritual of supplication. Otherwise, I feel I have a right to ask, why do these never happen when I’m around?


7+ billion people on the planet right now, and I can’t think of a single credible report, with supporting evidence, of anyone seeing someone raised from the dead. Apparently the art of it has been lost?


Look, I have a friend whose mother died much too young, in a car crash, 25 years ago. Could you send someone over to raise her from the dead? I suppose bodily decomposition may make it a little difficult, but surely, if the dead can be raised they should be raised whole. Zombies with their skin falling off are difficult to appreciate, aesthetically.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “I suggest that if you can get over yourself, please read Hume carefully and comment with quotes. I will be glad to answer any questions you may have about the logic of the argument.”


My reply:

Well, that you’ve lowered yourself to cheap ad hominem once your argument falls apart does not speak much for your faith in your position.


However, I will give you one quote from Hume’s An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Section X, “On Miracles”:


A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence. In such conclusions as are founded on an infallible experience, he expects the event with the last degree of assurance, and regards his past experience as a full proof of the future existence of that event. In other cases, he proceeds with more caution: he weighs the opposite experiments: he considers which side is supported by the greater number of experiments: to that side he inclines, with doubt and hesitation; and when at last he fixes his judgement, the evidence exceeds not what we properly call probability. All probability, then, supposes an opposition of experiments and observations, where the one side is found to overbalance the other, and to produce a degree of evidence, proportioned to the superiority. A hundred instances or experiments on one side, and fifty on another, afford a doubtful expectation of any event; though a hundred uniform experiments, with only one that is contradictory, reasonably beget a pretty strong degree of assurance. In all cases, we must balance the opposite experiments, where they are opposite, and deduct the smaller number from the greater, in order to know the exact force of the superior evidence.

( )


I think Massimo and I are reading such a remark rather fairly, whereas you preferred to bull in with something you may have found on some Apologists web-site, or made up whole cloth. It was you who needed to provide quotes and reasoning, BTW, since your counter-claim is opposed to the experience of those of us who actually have read Hume.


By the way, I admit I did make a mistake in my memory of Hume – He actually is making a probability argument, quite overtly.


jbonnicerenoreg,: “A beautiful quote and one which I hope we all take seriously put into practise.

Hume is arguing against those who at that time would say something like “miracles prove Christianity is true”. You can see that his argument is very strong against that POV. However, he never takes up the case of a person witnessing a miracle. Of course, that is because “observations and experiments” are impossible in history since the past is gone and all we have is symbolic reports which you call “hearsay”. My congratlations for taking the high road and only complaining that I never read Hume!”


My reply:

Thank you for the congratulations, I’m glad we could part on a high note after reaching mutual understanding.


Notice that jbonnicerenoreg really begins with a confusion between the possible and the probable.  One aspect of a belief in myths is the odd presumption that all things possible are equally probable, and hence ‘reasonable.’  I suppose one reason I had forgotten Hume’s directly probabilistic argument was because probabilistic reasoning now seems to me a wholly necessary part of reasoning, to the point that it doesn’t need remarking.  Bu, alas, it does need remarking, time and again, because those who cling to myth always also cling to the hope – nay, insistence – that if there is something possible about their precious myth, then it ought to be given equal consideration along with what is probable. given the nature and weight of available evidence.  Notice also that jbonnicerenoreg tries to sneak, sub-rosa, as it were, the implicit claim that eye-witnesses to miracles – such as the supposed authors of the Bible – ought to be given credence as reporting an experience, rather than simply reporting a hallucination, or a fabricating an experience for rhetorical or other purposes.  Finally, notice that when I play on and against this implicit claim, jbonnicerenoreg tries an interesting tactic – he surrenders the problem of historical reportage, while continue to insist that witnessing miracles is still possible (which if verified would mean we would need to give greater weight to those historic reports after all!).  But there again, we see the confusion – the possible must be probable, if one believes the myth strongly enough.


And if we believe in fairies strong enough, Tinkerbelle will be saved from Captain Hook.


This won’t do at all.  The bare possibility means nothing.  Anything is possible as long as it doesn’t violate the principle of non-contradiction.  A squared circle is impossible; but given the nature of the space-time continuum posited by Einstein, a spherical cube may not only be possible but probable, presuming a finite universe.  But the probability of my constructing or finding an object I can grasp in my hand, that is both a sphere and a cube is not very high, given that we exist in a very small fragment of Einstein’s universe, and Newtonian physics and Euclidean geometry suit it better than applied Relativity on a universal scale.  All things in their proper measure, in their proper time and place. 


But the problem with miracles is that they are never in their proper time and place, to the extent that one wonders what their proper time and place might be, other than in works of fiction.  Why raise Lazarus from the dead if he’s just going to die all over again?  Why raise Lazarus instead of the guy in the grave next to his?  Why do this in an era and in a place lacking in any sophisticated means of documentary recording?  And why would a divine being need to make such a show of power?    Wouldn’t raw faith be enough for him, must he have eye-witnesses as well? 


And of course that’s the real problem for jbonnicerenoreg.  For miracles to achieve anything that looks like a probability, one first has to believe in god (or in whatever supernatural forces capable of producing such miracles).  There’s no other way for it.  Without that belief, a miracle is bare possibility and hardly any probability at all.   And I do not share that belief.


The legacy of Hegel

I found this essay on my computer, written some time ago, and decided – since I haven’t been posting here for a while – that I would go ahead and put it up, although it is not completely polished. Yes, it’s about Hegel again – don’t get too annoyed! – I hope not to write on this topic again for some time. But I do consider here some issues that extend beyond the immediate topic. So –


I like to describe Hegel as the cranky uncle one invites to Thanksgiving dinner, having to suffer his endless ramblings, because there is an inheretance worth suffering for.


Hegel’s language is well nigh impossible. He understands the way grammar shapes our thinking before any training in logic, and uses – often abuses – grammar, not only to persuade or convince, but to shape his readers’ responses, not only to his text, but to the world. After studying the Phenomenology of Mind, one can’t help but think dialectically for some time, whether one approves of Hegel or not. One actually has to find a way to ‘decompress’ and slowly withdraw, as from a drug. (Generally by reading completely dissimilar texts, like a good comic novel, or raunchy verses about sex.)


How did Hegel become so popular, given his difficulty? First of all, he answered certain problems raised in the wake of first Fichte’s near-solipsistic (but highly convincing) epistemology,and then in Schelling’s “philosophy of nature” (which had achieved considerable popularity among intellectuals by the time Hegel started getting noticed). But there was also the fact that he appears to have been an excellent and fascinating teacher at the University of Berlin. And we can see in his later lectures, which come to us largely through student notes, or student editing of Hegel’s notes, that, while the language remains difficult, there is an undeniable charm in his presentation. This raises questions, about how important teachers are in philosophy – do we forget that Plato was Socrates’ student, and what that must have meant to him?


Finally: Hegel is the first major philosopher who believed that knowledge, being partly the result of history and partly the result of social conditioning *, was in fact not dependent on individual will or insight, so much as being in the right place at the right time – the Idea, remember, is the protagonist of the Dialectic’s narrative. The importance of the individual, is that there is no narrative without the individual’s experience, no realization of the Idea without the individual’s achievement of knowledge.


However, despite this insistance on individual experience, Hegel is a recognizably ‘totalistic’ thinker: everything will be brought together eventually – our philosophy, our science, our religion, our politics, etc., will ultimately be found to be variant expressions of the same inner logic of human reasoning and human aspiration.


Even after Pragmatists abandoned Hegel – exactly because of this totalistic reading of history and experience – most of them recognized that Hegel had raised an important issue in this insistence – namely that there is a tendency for us to understand our cultures in a fashion that seemingly connects the various differences in experiences and ways of knowing so that we feel, to speak metaphorically, that we are swimming in the same stream as other members of our communities, largely in the same direction. Even the later John Dewey, who was perhaps the most directly critical of Hegel’s totalism, still strong believes that philosophy can tell the story of how culture comes together, why, eg., there can be a place for both science and the arts as variant explorations of the world around us. We see this culminate, somewhat, in Quine’s Web of Belief: different nodes in the web can change rapidly, others only gradually; but the web as a whole remains intact, so that what we believe not only has logical and evidentiary support, but also ‘hangs together’ – any one belief ‘makes sense’ in relation to our other beliefs.


(Notably, when British Idealism fell apart, its rebellious inheritors, eg., Russell and Ayers, went in the other direction, declaring that philosophy really had no need to explain anything in our culture other than itself and scientific theory.)


If we accept that knowledge forms a totalistic whole, we really are locked into Hegel’s dialectic, no matter how we argue otherwise.


Please note the opening clause “If we accept that knowledge forms a totalistic whole” – what follows here should be the question, is that what we are still doing, not only in philosophy but other fields of research? and I would suggest that while some of us have learned to do without, all too many are still trying to find the magic key that opens all doors; and when they attempt that, or argue for it, Hegel’s net closes over them – whether they’ve read Hegel or not. And that’s what makes him still worth engaging. Because while he’s largely forgotten – the mode of thought he recognizes and describes is still very much among us.


And this is precisely why I think writing about him and engaging his thought is so important. The hope that some philosophical system, or some science, or some political system will explain all and cure all is a failed hope, and there is no greater exposition of such hope than in the text of Hegel. The Dialectic is one of the great narrative structures of thought, and may indeed be a pretty good analog to the way in which we think our way through to knowledge, especially in the social sphere; it really is rather a persuasive reading of history, or at least the history of ideas. But it cannot accommodate differences that cannot be resolved if they do not share the same idea. For instance, the differing assumptions underlying physics as opposed to those of biology; or differing strategies in the writing of differing styles of novel or poetry; or consider the political problems of having quite different, even oppositional, cultures having to learn to live in the same space, even within the same city.


If Hegel is used to address possible futures, then of course such opposed cultures need to negate each other to find the appropriate resolution of their Dialectic. That seemed to work with the Civil War; but maybe not really. It certainly didn’t work in WWI – which is what led to Dewey finally rejecting Hegel, proposing instead that only a democratic society willing to engage in open-ended social experimentation and self-realization could really flourish, allowing difference itself to flourish.


Finally a totalistic narrative of one’s life will seem to make sense, and the Dialectic can be used to help it make sense. And when we tell our life-stories, whether aware of the Dialectic or no, this is to some extent what we are doing.


But the fact is, we must remember that – as Hume noted, and as re-enforced in the Eastern traditions – the ‘self’ is a convenient fiction; which means the story we tell about it is also fiction. On close examination, things don’t add up, they don’t hang together. One does everything one is supposed to do to get a professional degree, and then the economy takes a downturn, and there are no jobs. One does everything expected of a good son or daughter, and only to be abused. . One cares for one’s health and lives a good life – and some unpredictable illness strikes one down at an early age. I could go on – and not all of it is disappointment – but the point is that, while I know people who have exactly perfect stories to tell about successful lives, I also know others for whom living has proven so disjointed, it’s impossible to find the Idea that the Dialectic is supposed to reveal.


Yet the effort continues. We want to be whole as persons, we want to belong to a whole society. We want to know the story, of how we got here, why we belong here, and where all this is going to.


So in a previous essay **, I have given (I hope) a pretty accurate sketch of the Dialectic in outline – and why it might be useful, at least in the social sciences (it is really in Hegel that we first get a strong explication of the manner in which knowledge is socially conditioned). And the notion that stories have a logical structure – and thus effectively form arguments – I think intriguing and important. ***


But ultimately the Dialectic can not explain us. The mind is too full of jumble, and our lives too full of missteps on what might better be considered a ‘drunken walk’ than a march toward inevitable progress.


So why write about it? Because although in America, Hegel is now largely forgotten, but the Dialectic keeps coming back; all too many still want it – I don’t mean just the Continental tradition. I mean we are surrounded by those who wish for some Theory of Everything, not only in physics, but economics and politics, social theory, etc. And when we try to get that, we end up engaging the dialectical mode of thought,even if we have never read Hegel. He just happened to be able to see it in the thinkers of Modernity, beginning with Descartes and Luther. But we are still Moderns. And when we want to make the big break with the past and still read it as a story of progress leading to us; or when we think we’ve gotten ‘beyond’ the arguments of the day to achieve resolution of differences, and attain certain knowledge – Then we will inevitably engage the Dialectic. Because as soon as one wants to know everything, explain everything, finally succeed in the ‘quest for certainty’ (that Dewey finally dismissed as a pipe-dream), the Dialectic raises its enchanting head, replacing the Will of God that was lost with the arrival of Modernity.


That is why (regardless of his beliefs, which are by no means certain) Hegel’s having earned his doctorate in theology becomes important. Because as a prophet of Modernity, he recognized that the old religious narratives could only be preserved by way of sublation into a new narrative of the arrival of human mind replacing that divine will.


In a sense that is beautiful – the Phenomenology is in some way the story of human kind achieving divinity in and through itself. But in another way, it is fraught with dangers – have we Moderns freed ourselves from the tyranny of Heaven only to surrender ourselves to the tyranny of our own arrogance? Only time will tell.




* Much of what Hegel writes of social conditioning is actually implicit in Hume’s Conventionalism; Hegel systematizes it and makes it a cornerstone of his philosophy. (Kant, to the contrary, always assumes a purely rational individual ego; which is exactly the problem that Fichte had latched onto and reduced to ashes by trying to get to the root of human knowledge in desire.)



Full version:


*** I’ll emphasize this, because it is the single most important lesson I learned from Hegel – narrative is a logical structure, a story forms a logical argument, a kind of induction of particularities leading into thematic conclusions. I will hopefully return to this in a later essay.


Problems with Utilitarianism

Reading about Utilitarianism recently, I first asked myself what I knew about it. It is now recognizably a form of moral realism, positing a standard of moral conduct separable from personal experience or belief – the greatest good for the greatest number. It’s been many decades since I’ve read Bentham, but I seemed to recall there was at least a suggestion, at the beginning of Utilitarianism, that its basic principles were already implicit in actual practice, and that Utilitarianism merely promised clarification and perfection by application of ‘scientific’ methodology. If so, then originally Utilitarianism would not be a moral realism but a scientistic justification for, and institutionalization of, existing practices. However, such a Utilitarianism would be unsustainable due to objections from any number of positions taken by those who felt the then current practices somehow disenfranchised them, or injured them, or oppressed them. (Malthus’ argument that the poor should be allowed to die off is this kind of Utilitarianism, and one can imagine the poor and their advocates not being too happy with it.) If I were remembering the matter aright, it should be clear why Utilitarianism would mutate into a claim of a ‘good’ as an identifiable value separate from what any one individual or group would wish it to be.

In America, most political arguments are in fact Utilitarian in one sense or another – and really can’t be otherwise. A politician is always arguing that he or she represents the most important interests of the greater number of the electorate – how could they not?

My general point is that it’s easy to see why understanding Utilitarianism might be somewhat difficult for some (including myself). I don’t say that to defend it, but because I find it somewhat confused, with a checkered history, even though politically inevitable in a diverse population with democratic aspirations.

I was never very impressed with the philosophy of Utilitarianism, so I didn’t keep up with it much. Kant’s deontology may be just as wrong, but it is far more interesting, because it raises the question of just how far we can extend rationality into the realm of morals before we bump into the fundamental problem of any moral realism, (or meta-ethical analysis, for that matter), cultural differences.

At any rate, reviewing some background material today, I find that I was wrong about Bentham (he was in fact attempting reformation of existing practices), but right about the essentially confused nature of Utilitarianism. Higher level utilitarian arguments can be convincing (and the crude utilitarianism we find in politics can be persuasive); but the ground is very shaky.

Here is an interpretation of Bentham‘s general premise, from The SEP: “We are to promote pleasure and act to reduce pain. When called upon to make a moral decision one measures an action’s value with respect to pleasure and pain according to the following: intensity (how strong the pleasure or pain is), duration (how long it lasts), certainty (how likely the pleasure or pain is to be the result of the action), proximity (how close the sensation will be to performance of the action), fecundity (how likely it is to lead to further pleasures or pains), purity (how much intermixture there is with the other sensation). One also considers extent — the number of people affected by the action.” (

Assuming “we are to promote” – that is, we are obligated to promote – “pleasure and act to produce pain,” is committing ourselves to a standard separable from any particular instance of pleasure and pain. And this makes absolutely no sense. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism, that life is suffering, was derived – and remains derivable – from personal experience. (And if one hasn’t experienced it, then the way of the Buddha offers no solution.) But apparently Bentham distrusted experience as a guide, since it tends to generate morals based on personal prejudice; so where is this obligation to promote happiness coming from?

Secondly, Benthem is suggesting a calculus of pleasure and pain, when such are without any essential measure. Psychologists have tried for years to provide such measurement, with success limited to purely physical stimulation. But how much pain is experienced by a parent upon the loss of a child? How much pleasure in a wedding ceremony? What kind of pleasure do I feel when I learn a hated enemy is dead, such that I can measure it? What kind of sorrow and anger am I feeling in support of the African American community’s response to the alarming number of police shootings of unarmed men and women? On what scale should I rate it?

So, how generalizable is this presumed promotion of pleasure and pain? The last paragraph of my previous comment raises the inevitable cultural problem – pleasure and pain are not reducible to physical sensations, but, indeed, physical sensations are frequently responses to social events. But different cultures realize socialization in many different ways. Recently, I’ve read someone remarking that god hates homosexuals. While I have heard Protestant ministers make this claim, but Catholic clergy have ever followed the principle ‘hate the sin, but love the sinner,’ presuming this to be true of god. We know the ancient Greeks and Romans were quite tolerant of homosexuality; and the cultures of ancient India and Japan had ornate rules for ‘proper’ satisfaction of homosexual desires.

The SEP article quotes Bentham’s rejection of laws against homosexuality as an unnecessary impingement of personal sentiment on the general welfare thus:

“The circumstances from which this antipathy may have taken its rise may be worth enquiring to…. One is the physical antipathy to the offence…. The act is to the highest degree odious and disgusting, that is, not to the man who does it, for he does it only because it gives him pleasure, but to one who thinks [?] of it. Be it so, but what is that to him?”

One can sympathize with Bentham and still see that he has somewhat missed the point. People often feel greater security and greater pleasure in socialization when they have a sense that the culture they live in is homogeneous enough that they share values with the greater number of their fellow community members. The cultural differences concerning homosexuality indicate much wider cultural assumptions about the shared values of the differing communities – and not just about homosexuality, but about to what degree individual behavior may vary from community norms, about the appropriate means of tolerating such variance, about the ground and harshness of sanction concerning unacceptable variance. Once we begin studying cultural difference along such general lines, we begin to see in the details just how different cultures can get. Utilitarianism soon stands revealed as a set of assumptions and arguments within a *given* culture, and can no longer be universalized on a founding principle to which we all agree.

Beyond Bentham we come to the classical Utilitarian identification of ‘pleasure’ with ‘happiness,’ and this is not sustainable. It is a torture of reason to suggest that ascetics must be feeling some physical pleasure in their denial of physical pleasure; yet they may certainly be very happy. And yes, they may be feeling a psychological pleasure, but this may yet not be the source of their happiness, so much as their self-identification with their ascetic ideal, to which their psychological pleasure is mere response.

Which of course raises the apparently long-recognized critique of Utilitarianism’s insistence that ‘happiness’ is the ultimate goal of our moral decisions (whether we wish to admit it or not) – namely that it is simply not at all clear that all moral or ethical choices do in some sense, and ought to, move in the direction of increasing happiness. It is demonstrable that many ethical decisions we make do not lead to the greater happiness of one’s self or one’s community. My loss of faith did not bring happiness to me nor to the Catholic community in which I was raised. Commitment to civil rights in the 1960s meant recognizing that years of contention and further reformation and occasional strife would follow, as efforts to redress discrimination and increase acceptance of all races as fellow humans would need to continue indefinitely.

As I’ve noted before, where general ethics within a diverse community are concerned, I tend to think eclectically. There are some issues I would argue along deontological lines, others I think are better address with achieving personal virtuousness (virtue ethics); on other issues I can be a ruthlessly legalistic pragmatist or Hobbsean contract theorist; so of course there are issues I wouldn’t hesitate to address on Utilitarian grounds, especially in political matters.

But as a complete normative theory of ethical behavior, Utilitarianism still seems confused – and, frankly, an artifact of a given culture at a given time, which has largely passed into history.

Thinking Nominalism, Living Pragmatism

Nobody really wants the sloppy, childlike relativism that some self-proclaimed ‘post-Modernists’ espouse – even they don’t want it, since it would make their proclamations and espousals nonsensical. But relativism is not all one thing, it’s available in various types and to varying degrees. Dealing with any relativism in a useful manner requires considerable thought, caution, and care.

It is one of the most difficult concepts to get our minds around, that the world we know is only known through the concepts our minds generate (or that are communicated to us by others). Since these concepts are generally constructed via some linguistic or otherwise systematized communication processes, it follows that our ‘knowledge’ of the world is really largely a knowledge of what we say about the world. Even if I kick a rock (ala Sam Johnson), this experience will only make sense through my signifying response to it in a given context. Even expressions like ‘ow!’ or ‘ouch!’ can be seen to be some responsive effort to make sense of the experience; i.e., announcement that a painful event/sensation has occurred.

We’ve all had the experience of feeling some tiny sting on our arms; we slap at it reflexively. What is it? I pull my hand away, and there on the palm is a flattened body with broken wings, and I say, ‘oh, a bug.’ But if I pull my hand away and there is no flattened body on it, there still arises some thought in mind, such as ‘oh, probably a bug.’ And it is probably a bug, but that doesn’t matter – more important is recognizing that whatever it was, I have made sense of it by interpreting it and expressing this interpretation. And if it never happens again, and I never find any further evidence that it was a bug, yet a bug it will be in my memory.

I confess that I am something of a classical (i.e., traditional or Medieval) Nominalist – I’m sometimes unsure that we know anything ‘out there’ at all, except that it exists (but I’m also something of a Pragmatist, so this doesn’t really cause me any loss of sleep). But one doesn’t have to go so far as Nominalism to see that any claim we can make of the world beyond ourselves is thoroughly mediated by the system of the language by which we make the claim, and thoroughly dependent on context – not only the context of the particular world in which we speak, but the the context of the language we speak itself, and all the social reality that requires we admit.

Nominalism is a position taken regarding the problematic relationship between universals and particulars. This relationship can only be worked through in language.

It should be noted that there are certainly signifying practices other than language; but there can be no experience with reality that does not engage – and hence is not mediated by – signifying practices. (An infant reaching for the mother’s breast is signifying something, and reaching for what signifies to it.) Whether infants have ‘concepts’ seems irrelevant, or badly phrased. That an infant responds to the world reliant on persistence of objects hardly means that it has a concept of persistence of objects. This seems to beggar the very concept of a concept.

One of the questions inadvertently raised here is whether knowledge is to be equated with the hoary Positivist standard of Justified True Belief; because an infant certainly has no belief to be justified. – the truth of the breast is the immediate presence of the breast, and the justification of that is satisfaction of hunger. But the infant surely does not ‘believe’ this in any way  he or she can articulate, but merely reaches for the breast. Yet infants surely know, in a meaningful way, the breast – and the success or failure to get satisfaction from it – and intimately.

I’m not sure that the notion of knowledge being reducible to Justified True Belief, makes any sense outside of language, since analysis of a ‘justified true belief’ requires formulation into claims in a language system.

I noted parenthetically that my Nominalist position (concerning universals) did not cause me loss of sleep because I am also something of a Pragmatist. In pragmatism, knowledge need not be equitable to JTB. Reliability, as ground for responding to the world, often seems to have a stronger claim.

I earlier used the term “signifying” exactly to avoid getting into a technical distinctions between signifying systems. But I will introduce one technical term which may be of use here, which is that of Charles Sanders Peirce: interpretant. The interpretant to a sign is primarily composed of responses to the sign, which may be conceptualization or may be some form of action or speech-act, or some inner sensation. If we think in terms of signification and how various organisms respond to signs, we can avoid the dangers of ascribing language to an infant, and still have a means of addressing how they interact with their environment and each other in significant ways. And we can also avoid the trap of conceiving of our entire existence as somehow fundamentally linguistic. We are the language speaking animal, but we have other non-linguistic significant interactions with each other and the environment.

Pragmatism is a post-Idealist philosophy (Peirce was taught to recite Kant’s First Critique – in German! – at an early age; Dewey was an avowed Hegelian until WWI). Idealism makes a claim, actually similar to that of Logical Positivism, that knowledge is primarily or wholly the result of theory construction, and thus must be articulated linguistically. * Pragmatism begins with the recognition that this cannot be the case.

So the question may come down to whether what we know needs be communicated in language, or whether some other form of signification can be rich enough to inform our responses to the world.

But that does not mean we can be free of signification all together. The sting on the arm is a sign; what I say of it is an attempt to understand its significance, as response to it. If (assuming the scenario that I cannot see or find the bug or bug-parts) I come down with symptoms (signs) of malaria, that will enrich the signification of my response, and will also point to (sign) the species of bug that stung me. None of this need be predicated on the understanding that there is an inherent ‘bugness’ (some universal bug-hood) in the bug, the theory of which I must be familiar with before I form a proposition concerning it. And that is what I see as the real issue here.

* This falls into the Nominalist trap: if all knowledge is theoretical, and all theories concern universals, and all existent entities are individuals, then the most we can say we know is our own theories, since individuals are not universals, but universals need to be constructed to account for them.. Unless, that is, we allow that knowledge is not all one thing and that there is not only one way of knowing. I’m glad that my doctor has a theory of malaria that can be relied on should I come down with it, so I can get properly treated. But I know I was stung, and what that felt like, without any theory to account for it. The interpretation of it is, however inevitable, as making sense of the matter, and certainly necessary if I become sick and need to articulate to a doctor what I think happened.


Philosophy for itself

One major mistake that we can be misled into, by thinking philosophy ought to be the hand-maiden to the sciences, is believing all knowledge is somehow of a piece, that it all fits neatly together because of methodology or subject matter. This is simply not true.

Admittedly, this has been a dream of philosophers since at least Aristotle, perhaps Plato. Pursuit of this dream has led to construction of those magnificent cathedrals of logic and language known as ‘systematic philosophy:’ everything could be brought together, everything would be explained. From the cycles of the stars in the sky, to the boils on one’s buttocks, all would be known.

I can’t remember who said it, but it has been said, that Hegel’s dialectic ended with the burning of the Reichstag. In fact the past hundred or so years has seen the complete collapse of every project of a ‘systematic philosophy,’ in the face of social, political, cultural changes undreamt of in Hegel’s day. We now know that we simply can’t account for all possible human experience, and human experience remains the core of any possible knowledge.

While the Positivists confined themselves to the details of language, their privileging scientific theory above all other language uses tells us that they hoped that a ‘systematic philosophy’ would at last be possible – only not within the practice of philosophy, but in science. Science would eventually tell us all we needed to know – about the world, and, eventually, about ourselves – and discourse outside of science would be recognized as mere opinion: perhaps deeply felt, but ultimately unreliable. And many scientists and some philosophers still seem to believe this.

But it is becoming more clear that the methodologies of the various sciences are actually rather varied; and that there is sometime little or no connection between differing sciences, either in the kind of knowledge they provide, or the structures of knowledge implicit in their modelings. Right now, computer simulations seem to be the one practice that all sciences share; yet the fact remains that these simulations are very different in structure, from one science to another, and implicate differing degrees (perhaps, in a sense, different kinds) of probability and predictability.

And no computer simulation or algorithm is going to get me a better tasting beer, for the simple reason that my taste in beer varies from day to day, and brewing recipes depend on the brewer’s own taste and attention to details, some of which must be measured strictly, others more reliant on the brewer’s intuition. And should I drink beer before driving a motor vehicle? Obviously not, it’s against the law; but such laws have been arrived at after years of communities suffering the consequence of poor choices on the part of drivers.


But why should I drive any motor vehicle at all? That’s a question science cannot answer, because the question depends on the social world, its history, and my place in it. Indeed, it seems a curious question; yet our collective failure to ask it has contributed to a damaged biosphere and the consequences of that.

‘Well, wait; doesn’t the damage caused by vehicular pollution – which is a scientific fact – answer my question?’ It certainly informs it, and informs some of my political choices. It won’t pay my bills should I decide to quit my job because it involves a long commute.

What are my obligations in such matters, and from whence do they arrive? One can reduce such a question to matters of consequence – ‘if you don’t want to go to jail, don’t break the law!’ But concerning matters not determined by law, surely simple reference to positive or negative consequences just won’t do. I don’t have a family anymore; but when I did, I certainly felt obligated toward them, despite the fact that they were wholly dysfunctional, both individually and collectively, and unpleasant to be with. (In “The Marx Bros. Go West,” when Groucho asks Chico, concerning Harpo, “You love your brother, don’t you?” Chico shrugs. “Naw, but I’m used to him.”)

Should we not expect philosophy to provide answers to questions such as these? Here, I agree wholeheartedly with those who prefer a critical thinking, rather than ascertaining all the ‘right’ answers: No; what philosophy ought to do is what it’s always done best, even before the coming of ‘systematic philosophy’ – pose the questions in a way that causes us to think deeply about them.

And the devil of it is that people expecting science to answer all these questions fail to understand that such answers are not what we want of science, they’re not what any science has been set up to get us. One effort after another to reduce the human experience to the lowest common denominators for statistical probability and ‘scientific’ intervention has failed. (As late as 1980, Skinnerian Behaviorists were trying to ‘train’ homosexuals to be heterosexuals. Now most of us no longer view homosexuality as an aberration; simply yet another possibility in the wide range of what it might mean to be human.)

We need to stop thinking that the human experience is filled with all sorts of diseases or pathologies that somebody needs to diagnose and cure. Just as, after years of tortuous logic chopping in America, and equally tortuous inflated tropology among certain Europeans, that good plain speech is something we must suspect, dissect, correct. Humans make a lot of mistakes, and think and do a lot of stupid things. But we must remember that the human is the source of all value, and must be respected for that.


“I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died here (Auschwitz) , to stand here as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.” – J. Bronowski, “The Ascent of Man”


Originally submitted as comments to Dan Kaufman’s “On Philosophy and Its Progress,”

The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (zwei)

Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (2):

(In the years since writing my dissertation on Paul DeMan, which required a reading of Hegel, I have tried a number of times to write a critical reading of The Phenomenology of Mind, but have always run into a number of obstacles, which I thought I should share, just writing them out as they occur to me.)

3. Every element of the dialectic in the Phenomenology eventually will be discovered to engage every other element of the dialectic.

Consider this in terms of Kojeve’s Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The main charge that is most frequently placed against this reading of Hegel’s text is that Kojeve makes the mistake of reading the entire Phenomenology as a meditation on the “Master/Slave” dialectic which appears about mid-way of Hegel’s text. This has Kojeve’s problem precisely backward. What I believe really happened was that the Marxist-influenced Kojeve was attempting to guide his student’s reading of the Phenomenology to begin with the “Master/Slave” dialectic, to persuade them to read the Phenomenology with social issues arising from the problems of material productivity foremost in their minds.

Unfortunately, in order to read the “Master/Slave” dialectic in any depth, Kojeve found it necessary to give a reading of the entire Phenomenology, in order to make sense of the implications of the “Master/Slave” dialectic. That would be because the issue comes down to a problem of subjectivity both per se and inter alia. That means there is no point in clarifying the nature of the subjectivity of the “Slave,” the important realization of this particular moment of that particular dialectic, unless one has an adequate conception of what Hegel means by subjectivity itself – and this is not revealed until the final page of the Phenomenology, it is the subjectivity of absolute knowledge, wherein the subject discovers itself in – and only truly in – all that it knows. (The subjectivity of the “Slave” is important moving towards this, because the “Slave” comes to know the necessity of productivity, the value of service to others, and the social positions these necessitate; but the “Master” doesn’t even really know the “Slave.”) So there is no effective way of giving a close reading of Hegel’s text on the “Master/Slave” dialectic, without first, and again at last, reading the whole of the Phenomenology.

4. In order to fully understand the Phenomenology, one has to have a pretty good working knowledge of virtually the history of Western philosophy up until Hegel’s time, at least as well as Hegel himself knew it. (Knowledge of the history of Western literature and rhetoric up to Hegel’s time helps as well.)

Consider the following sentences:

“Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on.”

This is Hegel; but although there is no reference to Aristotle, it is actually clearly lifted from Aristotle’s writing on the differences between properties of an entity essential to it and those accidental. And so we should really expect these sentences to appear in a discussion of the nature of the properties of an entity; but that’s not Hegel is discussing here at all. Here is the larger context from Hegel’s text:

“Now, on this mode of perception arising, consciousness is at the same time aware that it reflects itself also into itself, and that, in perceiving, the opposite moment to the ‘also’ crops up. This moment, however, is the unity of the thing itself, a unity which excludes distinction from itself. It is consequently this unity which consciousness has to take upon itself; for the thing as such is the substance of many different and independent properties. Thus we say of a thing,’it is white, and also cubical, and also tart,’ and so on. But so far as it is white it is not cubical, and so far as it is cubical and also white it is not tart, and so on. Putt6ing these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which, therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. For that purpose it introduces the idea of ‘in-so-far’ to meet this difficulty; and by this means it keeps the qualities apart, and preserves the thing in the sense of the ‘also.'”

What Hegel is doing here is taking Kant, applying him to Aristotle, and coming up with Locke. And since we know Hegel is no great fan of Locke, we know this is not the end of the process getting described here. But what Hegel has so far accomplished, is an account of Aristotelian metaphysics, Kantian epistemology, and Lockean grammar. But this would not be noticed by anyone who has not read Aristotle, Locke and Kant. In fact what Hegel is really thinking here is incomprehensible unless one admits that Hegel holds effectively (by going to the root of Locke’s theory of language), that Kant comes before Locke, who then initiates Aristotle’s metaphysics. This is, of course, an abuse of history; but it would make entire sense to someone disciplined in viewing history panoramically: in the interplay of the dialectic, old ideas become new again, and new ideas spring from ancient ground.

5. Finally, I need to remark the grammatical difficulty of the Phenomenology, by whioch I do not mean Hegel’s occasionally difficult German, but his grammar seen in the widest perspective, as a grammar unconstrained by any deference to audience expectations.

In the above example, concerning Hegel’s use of Kant, Aristotle, and Locke, it must be admitted that within Hegel’s discourse, there is absolutely no immediate indication that Kant, Aristotle, or Locke are the philosophers whose ideas Hegel is putting into play. A reader comfortably familiar with these philosophers, will recognize their ideas. But Hegel isn’t going to acknowledge this, and the reader lacking that familiarity will likely get completely lost in reading this.

But consider the matter in a less historical, more purely grammatical issue here. “Putting these properties into a ‘one’ belongs solely to consciousness, which therefore, has to avoid letting them coincide and be one (i.e. one and the same property) in the thing. This does not follow grammatically from the previous two sentences, which concerned an object (in the epistemological sense), to which the “properties” are said to belong as predication, which saying thus makes this epistemological object a logical subject. (‘I am thinking about X – thus my epistemological object – which is then the logical subject of the claim “X has property Y” as its predication.’) This should make the epistemological object a grammatical subject as well. Yet in the presently considered sentence, the grammatical subject is an act – “putting these properties”… no, wait, it is “consciousness,” “which therefore has to avoid” … well, could it be a collective formed by the properties to “be ‘one'”?.. no, it’s a single entity, “one and the same property” … well, in any event, it is certainly no longer the object.

Hegel knows what an epistemological object is; and certainly the author of The Science of Logic knows what a logical subject is. He just doesn’t seem so interested in what a grammatical subject might be.

Let us go back to the main concern of the passage under consideration. Hegel doesn’t mention Aristotle, Locke or Kant, because he doesn’t see any reason to. He is simply writing down his thinking on the matter as it presents itself to him, fully confident that, as he has grasp of the entire narrative, the discourse will thus set itself to paper, clear to any who understand what the discourse concerns.

Unfortunately, the only reader who could possibly know absolutely what this discourse concerns is Hegel himself. This is not the language of a discourse addressed to others, but only to one’s self. It is the language of thought, not public address. Hegel is thinking to himself, and he happens to be writing while he does.

As most theorists of composition now agree, every writer addresses an ideal audience, which audience determines the rhetorical strategies of the discourse. Hegel’s ideal audience – is Hegel.

Unfortunately, since his rhetorical strategies are directed at himself, and one’s self makes an audience very easy to please, a great many of the simple grammatical necessities that rhetoric demands sooner or later simply dissolve. Thought is then allowed to go its own course, free of social expectations or constraint. A reader either will find some way to think with such a writer, or will abandon the effort.

If one really does have a sense of what Hegel is thinking, and knows what Hegel knows, The Phenomenology of Mind is surprisingly easy to follow. If a reader is not anywhere near this fortunate, the text is impossible.



Alexandre Kojève, Introduction to the Reading of Hegel: Lectures on the Phenomenology of Spirit, edited by Allan Bloom, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1980.

The phenomenology of whose mind? vier (eins)

Notes on reading Hegel: the impossibility of reading Hegel (1):

In the years since writing my dissertation on Paul DeMan, which required a reading of Hegel, I have tried a number of times to write a critical reading of The Phenomenology of Mind, but have always run into a number of obstacles, which I thought I should share, just writing them out as they occur to me.

1. The Phenomenology is narratively structured and is not reducible to arguments. In his recent Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Stern has made one of the most strenuous efforts to read the text as a construction of a series of arguments in support of a central thesis. His text is strong, it will help to deepen understanding of Hegel in certain circles. It is not, in the last analysis very convincing to anyone who has spent any great length of time with the Phenomenology. One reads Stern, remarking, ‘yes, this is right,’ or ‘that would be the case,’ and yet comes away from Stern with the deep sense that something vital has been missed, something remains unaccounted for.

What Stern does not account for is Hegel’s deployment of narratively ordered rhetoric, such as the terms for “struggle,” “torture,” “triumph;” references to the Mind “going” on a journey from theory to theory as though from one place on a map to another; the remarks concerning the Mind’s pride, its disappointments, its suspicions and anxieties.

Finally, Stern does not account for the seemingly imperious tone of much of the text. Referring to two opposite moments of the Spirit (and when is he not writing of two opposite moments of the Spirit? – except on the last page), Hegel writes: “Both have to be united” (p. 707). Were he simply constructing arguments, Hegel would proceed to explain the necessity for this union; but he doesn’t. That’s because he isn’t remarking an objectively shared requirement of reason, but an “inner necessity” of the Spirit, a felt need to do this. Hegel is remarking the Mind’s demand upon itself to develop a uniform knowledge of the world, as the only possible explanation for intellectual inquiry, which, after all, the Mind would not need to perform, were it not driven to know, and to do so with absolute certainty. This is the motivation of an agent engaged in an action – say, the hero in an adventure story, like a detective in a mystery, determined to solve the crime at all costs. The Phenomenology of Mind is a philosophical epic; its precursor to be found among the ancient Greeks was no text written by Aristotle or Plato – but Homer’s Odyssey.

2. The Phenomenology‘s dialectical structure accounts for all possible objections to its project within its project. This means at least the following:

A. It is inevitable that a reader will mistake a remark in the Phenomenology for a positive statement of affairs from Hegel, when in fact all he is doing is elucidating a moment to be later negated. “For the virtuous consciousness law is the essential element, and individuality the one to be superseded and canceled both in the case of its own conscious life, as well as in that of the course of the world” (p.402). Here do we have Hegel coming out as a vigorous opponent of individualism, declaring a necessity for submission to law in an ethical society? No, we do not. Since Hegel will ultimately hold that a proper ethic derives from the universality of the individual qua ethical consciousness (of which law is an expression), this submission to law by a “virtuous consciousness” of an individual not yet realizing its universality, will itself have to be negated. Unfortunately, at this point in the text, we don’t know this, thus we may be tempted to read Hegel’s sentence as a proposition (it certainly reads like one), rather than as the description of particular moment in the development of ethical consciousness. In order to recognize this, the reader needs to suspend judgment and read on, allowing Hegel to present all manner of propositions – and their negations – until one finally gets the hang of the process, rather than taking a position on any particular argument.

But this leaves a critical reader in an unhappy place: criticize Hegel for a position he is not really taking, which is surely unfair to Hegel; or suspend the critical faculties all together, until the text is completed – which hardly seems fair to the reader. Yet there it is – the Phenomenology must be swallowed whole, to understand any of it at all – sampling ‘selected passages’ will not do.

B. Taking a position in opposition to the negative/ positive movements of the dialectic merely reverses its polarities, producing a mirror image of the process. The most notorious example of this is in Marx, who once claimed to have stood Hegel on his head. Well, this is not really possible. If the Absolute Knowledge of the Spirit, which Hegel tells us is the ultimate goal of his project, is thoroughly materialized in the way Marx claimed it ought to be – that is, Consciousness finds itself finally within an external environment entirely of its own production – this does not change the validity of the Phenomenology‘s structure or of its intended achievement one iota. Following the withering away of the state into the communal society of fully realized subjects in Marx’s projected future completion of the historical dialectic, would only mean that Hegel had been right, that Consciousness could not realize itself without realizing its unity with all that could be known, as universal subject; we simply discover, in Marx, that the way to accomplish this is to produce all that could be known as an expression of that consciousness. “The real is the rational,” Hegel famously claims. To which Marx replies, ‘the real is the material.’ Except that this cannot be fully realized until the material is made rational; at which point, of course, the real will have been made the rational, just as Hegel says.

C. Once having engaged Hegel, simply shutting the book and declaring Hegel wrong or misguided, and arguing that the Phenomenology ought to be set aside all together, puts us immediately into the text as one stage of the dialectic itself. The problem here is that Hegel has asked us to look at the entire nature of rational thought just as such. If, once encountering this request, we turn our backs on it of choice, we will then find ourselves impelled to continue the project of rational thought but without examining its inherit structure and teleology. Not all rational thought moves in the direction Hegel claims for it; but its ground remains unexamined, a single unplanned step in the process of rational thought will send us straight into the process described in the Phenomenology, and Hegel will be found to have described our thinking before we ever thought it. Because it is the unexpected that generates the energy that drives the dialectic – the disappointments, the anxiety, the occasional sense of despair; the sense of emptiness when we realize that our beliefs are somehow lacking in what we expected from their full realization.

Consider charity; we want to appeal to others, to act more charitably, on the basis of a belief that everyone shares some instinct for charity, some necessary sentiment of sympathy for others. But if the others we address reject this appeal, deny any such feeling, then the discussion would appear to be over – so much for any ‘charitable instinct.’ In response to this, we are almost certainly going to mount rational argumentation, persuading others to see charity as some objective necessity of social life. It is no longer the feeling, but the idea of charity that commands our behavior.

Once we make such a move, we might just as well pick up the Phenomenology again, and let Hegel describe how it is we are going to accomplish this, because that’s precisely one of his intentions in writing the text.

D. Undoubtedly, one of the most frequent oppositional attitudes adopted towards Hegel’s text is that of irony. But Hegel himself recurrently as much as warns of this, and just as frequently explains why it proves ineffective. Irony is in fact an embedded function of the dialectic, driving recognition of its negative moments. Eventually, it opens the way to a positive understanding, which, unfortunately, the ironist is not prepared to provide; but Hegel is.


Phenomenology of Mind, GWF Hegel, trans. JB Baillie, Harper & Row, 1967.

Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Robert Stern, Routledge, 2002.


The phenomenology of whose mind? THREE

Notes on reading Hegel:  The Dialectic

Before we get into it, first understand a couple things.

First a couple of value terms get reversed in Hegel in a way important to remember (but fairly easy once we get into the swing of it):  When most people refer to what is “abstract” in philosophy, they are referring to ideas, or concepts, as ‘abstracted’ from experience, the experience itself held to be ‘concrete.’     For Hegel, this can’t be true, because there is no articulable knowledge in experience just as such, but only in the concepts we derive from it.  Therefore, the experience (just as such) is an abstraction – from the senses, from the immediate events, from the raw context of things we see and bump into – which then has to be made concrete into a meaningful concept through the application of reason.

Secondly, I remind my reader that for Hegel, the Dialectic is both a process of reasoning and a structure of human behavior over time.  That’s because Hegel assumes reasoning determines human action, not only locally, but collectively throughout a culture.  Thus politics, religion, law, art – all manifest moments of the Dialectic as expression of reasoning in history.

To see this reasoning in something like actual practice, let’s tell a little story here – compared to the epic Hegel narrates of it, a mere episode in the life of Consciousness:

… so, one day a Consciousness came to a university to ask a question, “what does it mean to be ‘Human?’”

The first person he encountered was an anatomist, who said, “Oh, I’m dissecting the corpse of one of those in the surgery theater, come along.”  And during the dissection, the Consciousness saw the bones and the meat, and the skin, and sinews and nerves, etc.  “So this is human?”  “Well,” says the anatomist, it’s the corpse of one.  It’s the body when not alive.”

So the body, just as body, negates the living of the human as a concept of an entity that, to be fully human, must be alive.

So the anatomist sends our Consciousness to consult another expert, in the university hospital, a physiologist, who, using as example a brain-dead patient kept on life-support, demonstrates how the body actually functions when alive – the interactions of the nerves, the collection and dispersion of oxygen by the blood, the digestion of nutrition and separation from waste, and so on.  “So, now I know the human!”  “Well, no,” the physiologist admits, this is the body, but what was most human about it has fled.”  “So, this body is mere abstraction of the human as organism.  Where can I find the concrete ‘human’?”  The physiologist opens the door, and our Consciousness finds itself on the street outside, surrounded by living entities much like the brain-dead body in the ward of the university hospital.  Except that as immediately living organisms, they negate any expectation learned from study of the living body alone: As they approach, they respond to Consciousness’ inquires, concerning the human; but they each respond in a different way.  Frequently these differences are quite small, but occasionally, they are telling.  And what they are telling is that The Human, taken as mere collection of representatives, amounts to another kind of abstraction, the abstraction of a catalogue of data that doesn’t yet amount to a concrete idea of what it means to be human.

But in among this data, our Consciousness discovers a couple of interesting facts and reports, specifically concerning how humans control release of urine.  Now, the physiology of urinating is already known; but what the physiologist had not explained was the way certain humans urinate standing up, and others do so squatting.    This turns out to be a rather empty detail, having largely to do with physiognomic difference between the sexes.  But in reviewing this detail, Consciousness finds two rather troublesome reports from his subject humans.  In one, a young woman reports having “wet herself” slightly when shocked by the news that the school her children attended had been the scene of an explosion and a massive fire.  Her further response was to contact her family and friends and rush to school to see if they could help put out the fire and search for survivors.

In other, a young man reported having “wet the bed” in his sleep while dreaming of a waterfall.

Now, in the first report, what Consciousness recognizes is that humans can function collectively; they form a community, which in certain moments will respond as one.  They do so by sharing a language, apparently finding value in similar hopes, worries, and concerns.  From this Consciousness extracts the principle of the Social, the necessary attribute that brings together representatives of the human into a communal whole.  This seems to be satisfactory completion of the idea of The Human, given objective observation of their behavior, in a manner complimentary to our understanding of the human body.

But in the second report, Consciousness discovers a completely other principle:  What the young man is reporting is events in a private mental life; events that only happened to and for himself.  Obviously, his body responds as any human body would.  But it now responds to an experience only he can know and which he must learn to articulate – not only to communicate with others, but to understand himself qua individual.  This thus asserts his importance as individual identifiable separate from the community around him.

Through comparing both these reports, Consciousness also learns something new about any meaningful knowledge about The Human – namely that it must incorporate not only the immediately observable, but also, the concepts that emerge from the reports and articulations by humans themselves.  And what Consciousness discovers is that such reports and articulations are frequently in conflict.  Almost, one would say, in contradiction.

After all, take the two principles learned from analyzing the reports from the young woman and the young man.    To be human is to exist as Social, as part of greater whole, influenced by and acting with, a community of peers.  So the human only realizes him/herself by blending into the collective.

But:  To be human is to be as Individual, to be the unique focus of a certain series of experiences and thoughts.  Thus, surely the human can only realize himself or herself by separation from the community and assertion of self.

Can these two seemingly contradictory principles be somehow brought together in one Absolute Idea of what it truly means to be human, the Truth of The Human, the Idea as absolutely true?  The Knowledge, that is the complete knowledge, of The Human?

The answer is yes; what one will have to do is account for all possibly essential (that is, truly important and distinctive) differences of particularities of the human experience, and of their blending into a totality, wherein perceived conflicts stand revealed as moments of the Whole – but a Whole that validates, rather than obliterates, the Particulars as necessary moments of this blending.

This manifest working through of these conflicts into the realization of the proper relations between the Whole and its particulars, as objectively observable human behavior, is called: history.

But the understanding of this resolution can only be accomplished intellectually by a Subject as knower, but only in a manner completely articulable with any other Subject-Consciousness.  Thus the Absolute Knowledge will be what the Individual Consciousness knows, that every Consciousness knows, of the Idea as Whole, derived dialectically from its particulars.

The truth of this Knowledge will be determined through logic (as Hegel discusses in the Science of Logic).  The narrative of the process for acquiring it is described in: The Phenomenology of Mind.

The phenomenology of whose mind? ii

Notes on reading Hegel: personal stuff

My first encounter with Hegel was in the early 1970s. At that time, and for some 50 years previously, in America, most pedagogues in higher education believed that the Hegel text most worth transmitting to future generations would be his Philosophy of History. Nobody even casually familiar with 20th century historical scholarship on the ancient Mediterranean civilizations or on the civilizations of Asia, even of the civilization of the Middle Ages – could ever think Hegel’s ‘meta-narrative was anything more that an elaborate mythopoesis. Besides, the racism of his denial of the historical existence of Africa (he knew the place existed, he just denied it any historical value) was both offensive and (since originating from ignorance rather than racial antagonism) childishly petty. Nothing could so successfully throw a cloud over a discussion of Hegel, that certain political movements of the 1960s should have necessitated, than for conservative academics to present Philosophy of History as somehow Hegel’s primary text. Nobody was actually able to find use for it but History majors, and if they chose to go on to graduate school, more challenge issues awaited them. Personally, I found the book obnoxious, and was later pleased to hear J. Bronowski, in his television essay The Ascent of Man, declare Hegel to be something of a forgettable clown.

In 1987, i was accepted into the graduate program in English at SUNY Albany. At the time, the great controversies of that profession concerned the introduction of Post-Structuralist discourse into Literature studies, and the introduction of Marxism into Composition studies.. This meant I was doomed to re-encounter Hegel in a serious way. Of course, many many English scholars accepted the terms of the discourse of these controversies just as given. Words like “abyss,” “subversive,” “empowerment come as cheap as any other. In the 18th Century, readers said of a passage that it was “unfathomable;” in the 19th, they called the passage “obscure;” by the end of the 20th, it was said to “mark the abyss.” A simple exchange of words could make an essay by Samuel Johnson on Shakespeare read like a Post-Modern “interrogation of the text.”

Originally, I began inquiry into Hegel because his name continued to recur in the texts of the major Post-Structuralists and Marxists. It became clear that some of the scholars debating in the aforementioned controversies were deploying terms they had gotten second-hand, the origins or real usage of which they had little understanding; they had probably never read Hegel, even though referring to his ideas. The way to find out what these controversies were really all about, it seemed to me, was to focus on one of the more careful and better informed voices in the debate; thus I chose to write my dissertation on literary theorist Paul DeMan – a popular figure among some, a notorious figure among others, but whose writings on Hegel seemed to reflect both a careful reading, and an understanding of the material. But of course, in order to write about DeMan with equal care and understanding, I would have to read Hegel.

What I found in Hegel was not quite the monster of “History” that I remembered. For one thing, Hegel was a true child of the French Revolution – up until his death, he continued to show reverence for the day of the year on which the Bastille had been stormed. Yet he was also a devout Lutheran (at least in observance; his actual beliefs remain somewhat debatable). In his youth he was something of a slob, who developed an inordinate fondness for wine, which only grew more refined over the years, perhaps the only taste Hegel had which he ever did refine (he was a sucker for tear-jerker romantic novels). Intended for the pulpit, his doctorate was in theology, not philosophy; but he long followed a career as a secondary school educator, unnoticed and unrewarded, relatively poor until his forties. It now seems almost ridiculous that he eventually ended up the most publicly recognizable professor at the University at Berlin. His college friends all earned reputations for their writing before he did; his closest friend, the poet Hoelderlin, went insane. Most of the friendships he developed in later life were with former students; apparently one needed to be trained into his thinking, to be able to follow his conversation. He once had a long conversation with Goethe, who afterward confessed to his wife that he had only listened patiently because he couldn’t follow what Hegel had to say. His affair with a landlord’s wife is notorious, as is the off-spring of that union; but he welcomed the child into his home after his later marriage. Indications are that he a very warm husband, but a very cold father. If any philosopher developed a language with which to interject his personal feelings into philosophy, it was Hegel, whose unmeasured prose flies passionately towards its goals with little regard for the proprieties of discourse; but Hegel apparently took pains to seal off his philosophic thought from the immediate experiences of life.

In the “Preface” to the Phenomenology, Hegel tells us that we Moderns find ourselves at the very beginning of a new civilization; which is exactly the historical moment when philosophy prospers, as defining the forms of a new culture taking shape. In the “Introduction” to the much later Philosophy of Right, he tells us we find ourselves at the end of an age, with history painting its “grey on grey.” This means there is nothing for thought to do but turn to philosophy, the purpose of which is to describe the cultural forms that have been completed and are not likely long for the world. One wants to say that thus, for Hegel, philosophy has a dual purpose; but in fact, the absolutism of his language tells us that between his youth and his maturity, he simply changed his mind. If this is hard to read, it is because Hegel himself repeatedly implies that this could only happen dialectically; yet he leaves no trace in his personal writings of the movement of thought that led from the youthful visionary of history in the making, to become the aging observer of a history made.

I sometimes tell friends that, at the great conversation formed by the texts of philosophy, Hegel is the cranky uncle one needs to invite in order to secure an inheritance. I think some readers of Hegel really want to love him, but that he doesn’t want them to love him, he wants them to love wisdom. Unfortunately, Hegel often forgets that every entreaty addressed to wisdom must take the form of a question. Hegel is so determined to tell us what the answers are, he frequently forgets the questions.

The phenomenology of whose mind? 1

Notes on reading Hegel: Why bother?

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel is the single most influential European philosopher his era. That is simply statement of fact.

Note that I do not say that he is the most important European philosopher of his era. That would probably be Kant. Kant left philosophy with a set of problems with which philosophers wrestle with to this day. For instance, the Analytic tradition rarely mentions Kant, but still occasionally struggles over the possible usage of ‘synthetic apriori’ principles in logic and mathematics, which is a problematic residual from Kant’s epistemology. Even if one doesn’t find an answer to one’s question in Kant, frequently one finds a way to phrase it properly. After all, Kant’s major contribution was construction of a critical philosophy, one that would discover the limits of human reason, rather than a means to settle all questions. Thus, consider his response to Hume’s rejection of the epistemological claim on the reality of causation; i.e., Hume’s revelation that, although we can witness two events, one following the other, we can’t say with certainty that the first even caused the second. ‘Causation’ is thus revealed as a habit of mind. It is Kant who then, critically, reaches the limit that Hume only suggests – namely that it is in the structure of the human mind that we cannot help but read the relation of such two events as ‘causative’ in nature, especially should those events recur regularly in the same way under the same conditions; that is ‘lawfully,’ in accordance with presumed ‘laws of nature.’ These ‘laws’ are in our heads, but we will continue to discover them in nature, because that’s just how human reasoning works. This doesn’t settle whether there are in fact such ‘laws,’ but gives us a reason for rephrasing that question whenever we come across an apparent anomaly, such as the behavior of particles at the quantum level.

And it was also Kant who first described that in our perception of nature, what we judge as its beauty is its apparent “purposeless purposiveness” – that is its apparent purposive presentation and behavior that in fact has no discernible purpose. Two hundred years later, although they’re not talking about the beauty of nature, yet still talking about our perceptions of it, biologists now agree that living organisms must be allowed to present a ‘teleonomy’ – that is, a tendency to develop and behave in ways that seem to be moving towards a goal, even if such goal cannot be determined (and most organisms wouldn’t know what it was, anyway). Or to put it simply – a purposeless purposiveness.

So if we ask which philosopher’s legacy (from the era at the turn of the 18th/19th centuries) has provided the most or the best tools for thinkers in a number of fields – from aesthetics to philosophy of science to anthropology – we probably need to answer with Kant; that makes him important.

But if we ask which philosopher has had the greatest impact, both on philosophy and assorted academic endeavors, as well as beyond the Academy and deep into the cultures of his day and ours – that would be Hegel.

There are a number of ways we know this, but I will present one easily demonstrated, and one that would require pages of quotation and citation to support properly – but which quotations and citations can be discovered; I know since I remember having bumped into them at one point or other in my graduate studies and beyond.

The simplest demonstration is to remind my reader that at one point in recent history, half the globe was dominated by governments founded on a narrow interpretation of Marxist socialism (i.e., ‘Communism’). Now, disciples of Communism who haven’t read much beyond Marx or Mao like to quote Marx’s claim that he had “turned Hegel on his head,” but if they haven’t read Hegel, they don’t even know what that means. Most Marxist intellectuals (including Lenin) not only understand this quote, but many of them understand that it’s not possible to do this. If one thinks one has gotten the best of Hegel and properly flipped him around, one has simply slipped into a blind spot Hegel has prepared in advance.

Marx isn’t alone in getting his hands “stuck in the tar baby” (as one of my professors put it) of Hegel’s “Dialectic.” Dialectic is an old term originally referring to strategies of argumentative discourse, primarily a means of deciding between conflicting syllogisms. (Kant provides an extraordinary demonstration of classical dialectics in his Antinomies – instances of conflicting arguments that cannot be properly resolved.) Hegel decided that dialectics was determinant of the very structure of knowledge, and thus generated not only the process of reasoning, but the process of inquiry, and the inevitable behaviors that inquiry itself generates. Thus it also inscribes the process of intellectual history, and insofar as intellection influences politics and culture, just history per se. The story of human kind (well, at least in Europe) is the playing out of this Dialectic.

I’m going to set aside adequate discussion of the nature of Hegel’s dialectic for now. I once wrote a pretty good description of it, but re-reading it recently, it’s far too complicated to get the point home with any force. And the usual reduction of the dialectic to a process of “thesis/ antithesis/ synthesis” is really far too simple to get across anything like its real flavor.

For now, let me go back to discussion of Hegel’s influence: I left off remarking that Marx was not alone in being influenced by Hegel. In fact pretty much every thinker of the 19th Century had to come to terms with Hegel in some way or another. Generally this “coming to terms” followed one of four paths: There were the Hegelians (including Right Hegelians and Left Hegelians, but also Idealists of one kind or another who tried to expand on Hegel); these included people like Feuerbach but also the English thinker F. H. Bradley and the American Josiah Royce. This also include a slew of politicians, public servants, and educators across Europe and America. But the identifiable Hegelians somewhat lost influence after WWI (except in France, where they blossomed).

Then there were those influenced by Hegel, but who worked their way to original ideas, largely by back-tracking to the insights of earlier philosophers, primarily Kant or Hume (sometimes as far back as Aristotle), and then letting any ‘dialectic,’ if it existed, play out in practice, letting theory follow after. This was largely how Pragmatism originated in America (possibly also Transcendentalism), but it can also be found in the work of Dilthey and his inheritors, including certain Phenomenologists. (One can also see this operating in parts of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.)

Then we have those who, in one way or another, can be said to have rebelled against Hegel after having learned from him. We’ve already remarked Marx; for this camp, I would also nominate the like of Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Bakunin, and other iconoclasts of the 19th century. But it would also have to include those in Britain who first learned from, then rebelled against British Idealism – such as Bertrand Russell.

Finally, perhaps the most interesting response to Hegel is to be found among those who hated him right from first impressions on. Some were Kantians; some were conservative Lutherans or Catholics; some were dogmatic empiricists or materialists. These included Schopenhauer, but also Schleiermacher, progenitor of modern hermeneutics; and Kuno Fischer and Herman Lotze, the teachers of Frege. This sounds like a meaningless category – after all, if they didn’t like Hegel to begin with, well, they couldn’t be said to be influenced by him.

But I didn’t say they didn’t like him; I said they hated him. They knew of his ideas and were repulsed by them. Their own ideas thus reach maturity partly as a result of this repulsion. They stand at the real limit of possible responses to Hegel. One adopts, rebels, learns from, or simply hates – but no one in the 19th Century could simply pretend that Hegel didn’t exist.

As we can see, all of contemporary philosophy can be traced back to some response to Hegel – back to someone who was a Hegelian, or who learned from him, or who rebelled against him, or who hated him. (A similar claim cannot be made for Kant – some in the 19th Century couldn’t find a use for Kant, but I don’t think anybody actually hated him.)

There are lots of contemporary philosophers who are not aware of this. (Although most of those practicing in the so-called Continental tradition do; which is one of the reasons Anglo-Americans, having forgotten Hegel, have a difficulty understanding what Continentalists are talking about.)

But whatever side of the Dialectic on which we find ourselves in Modern philosophy, we are still within its domain – maybe only partly, maybe only slightly. But Hegel prepared the way for us – whether we like it or not.