30 June 2008

More on Brandom's "Sketch"

Brandom's "Sketch of a Program for a Critical Reading of Hegel" really is a pretty good article. I don't want to give the impression that calling it "Brandom's best article on Hegel (that I've read)" is meant as faint praise; it really does have some insightful things to say about Hegel. Some rambling, possibly incoherent thoughts hidden behind Fuuko:

Warning: this post was written in lieu of sleeping, and may show signs of its origin.

For instance, Brandom notes that there's no reason to think Hegel held that the empirical sciences were "complete", or would be soon at any rate, even though he clearly thought his own philosophical system was "complete" in some sense, and further thought that history had reached its end. Nature, for Hegel, is a realm of contingency and arbitrariness, even while also being a realm of necessity and lawfulness:

Although it follows from discussion so far [in the Logic] that contingency is only a one-sided moment of actuality, and must therefore not be confused with it, still as a form of the Idea as a whole it does deserve its due in the world of ob-jects. This holds first for nature, on the surface of which contingency has free rein, so to speak. This free play should be recognized as such, without the pretension (sometimes erroneously ascribed to philosophy) of finding something in it that could only be so and not otherwise.
(Zusatze to ss143 in the Encyclopedia Logic.) In this same passage, Hegel urges that we "have to be careful that we are not misled by the well-meant striving of rational cognition into trying to show that phenomena that have the character of contingency are necessary, or, as people tend to say, into 'constructing them a priori'." "Scientific endeavors which one-sidedly push in this direction will not escape the justified reproach of being an empty game and a strained pedantry." Hegel gives as further examples of things in which "chance indisputably plays a decisive role" art, law, and language ("the body of thinking, as it were"). So Hegel is innocent of the charge which is sometimes made of him, that he thinks everything is (or can be) reduced to or drawn out of his system (which confusion prompted one of his contemporaries to charge him with the task of "deducing his pen", or some other such arbitrary phenomena, or else confessing to being all talk). Brandom is right to draw attention to this aspect of Hegel, since it can go overlooked pretty easily if one focuses too closely on bits of the system like the Logic and the Philosophy of Right, where Hegel does seem to think that he's figured everything out as well as can be done (or somesuch similar boast).

But I think Brandom draws the distinction in the wrong place: for Hegel, the distinction is not between "empirical" and "logical" concepts, but between Nature and the other two moments of the Idea. For Spirit, too, has the sort of self-foundedness that characterizes the Logic; if Hegel is a "semantic optimist" about Logic, he is just as clearly an optimist about Spirit. The areas in which Hegel does not think his system gives a final account are those related to Nature. In the Philosophy of Spirit, the contingent elements are those which belong to finite spirits as natural beings, beings existing externally to one another, with their own peculiar desires, thoughts, etc.; these subjective, arbitrary elements are moments of Spirit. But the peculiarity of these elements is irrelevant -- as an example, the laws of economics, of "civil society", apply wherever various individuals have desires which they individually & mutually seek to satisfy, regardless of what the objects of these desires & values are. Nobody actually exchanges "widgets"; whatever particular widgets someone values at a given moment is a contingent matter, and there need not be any "necessity" lying behind it. This contingency is present in economics, but it need not motivate pessimism about the veracity of our economic concepts. As the aufhebung of Nature, Spirit is autonomous; it produces itself out of itself, and this sort of self-grounding in the Logic is what motivated Brandom's calling Hegel a "semantic optimist" about his logical concepts.

Hegel thinks that we have reached the end of history with the realization that "man as such is and ought to be free" and the development of modern civil society, the nation-state, Protestantism, etc.; he doesn't think that dialectical "contradictions" will lead us to abandon these notions at any point in the future. We might kill ourselves off ("in our age we have found we can make everything totter", as Hegel says in the Lectures on Logic, perhaps referring to the Terror of the French Revolution), and in that way we can prevent the realization of a genuinely free society, but Hegel does not think it possible that there will turn out to be a problem with the idea of a "genuinely free society" itself. What "progress" is left in history is (so to speak) an administrative matter, that existing states need to organize themselves as they ought to be (for instance, Hegel thinks that his Prussian state ought to recognize a right to trial by jury), and Hegel thinks that we can figure out, in broad strokes, what that organization should look like. (That poverty remains a problem in the Philosophy of Right is thus not a merely empirical matter, revealed to us by experience, but a problem within the system; by Hegel's own lights, there ought to be a remedy to the difficulty he sees, but he just can't figure out what it would be. Similarly, the fact that Hegel's proposed "corporations", which are more or less guilds, would be a pretty bad way to organize regulations of the market is not a place where "experience" has shown Hegel's concepts to be flawed, but a sign that Hegel's account of "civil society" in the Philosophy of Right has some problematic aspects considered in itself. Hegel simply does not carry the task he sets for himself to a satisfactory completion -- this not for philosophical reasons, but rather for the homely old excuse that he was not quite as adept a philosopher as he would have liked to be.)

Brandom attributes to Hegel the claim that our empirical concepts are necessarily inadequate; our present conceptual scheme will give rise to contradictory commitments given continued use. Brandom offers no explanation, that I can see, for why this should be a necessary feature of the empirical part of our conceptual scheme, or for why Hegel should think it is. Given that this necessity claim is given as what distinguishes empirical concepts from logical ones, and this sort of revision is supposed to be the place where "experience" plays a role in Hegel, this seems like a problem. (I suspect this is related to Brandom's own avoidance of "experience" in MIE -- it's "not one of [his] words". That Brandom misreads the role "experience" plays in the Phenomenology has been argued by McDowell in multiple places, for instance in his response to Brandom's "Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel".)

Hegel clearly does think that continued empirical inquiry leads us to revise our concepts as well as our judgements; Brandom is simply right in aligning Hegel with Quine on this point. Consider, for instance, Hegel's remarks about Leibniz's wish for a "universal hieroglyphic", where each term in the language was q solidly fixed symbol, as a remedy for confusion in thought:
At any rate a comprehensive hieroglyphic language for ever completed is impracticable. Sensible objects no doubt admit of permanent signs; but, as regards signs for mental objects, the progress of thought and the continual development of logic lead to changes in the views of their internal relations and thus also of their nature; and this would involve the rise of a new hieroglyphical denotation. Even in the case of sense-objects it happens that their names, i.e. their signs in vocal language, are frequently changed, as, for example, in chemistry and mineralogy. Now that it has been forgotten what names properly are, viz., externalities which of themselves have no sense, and only get signification as signs, and now that, instead of names proper, people ask for terms expressing a sort of definition, which is frequently changed capriciously and fortuitously, the denomination, i.e. the composite name formed of signs of their generic characters or other supposed characteristic properties, is altered in accordance with the differences of view which regard to the genus or other supposed specific property. It is only a stationary civilization, like the Chinese, which admits of the hieroglyphic language of that nation.
Hegel's reference to "mental objects" here should not be taken in a Cartesian sense; he means things like universals and Vorstellungen, which for Hegel are present in the world in addition to being "in the mind" subjectively. As an attempt to interpret this passage: Hegel thinks it is possible to have a "permanent sign" for a sensible object because such a sign is nothing but an arbitrary name; the permanence of such a sign demands nothing more than that we use the same name for the same sensed object*. But any description of that object which is supposed to pick it out will take account of its "generic character", its genus, "and other supposed characteristic properties", and the sense of this description will thus be different depending on what the person doing the describing happens to think about the genus & properties of the object (which it falls under, which apply to it) and the nature of that genus and those properties themselves (how this particular genus & these particular properties are related to other genuses and other properties; what particular properties of the object are "characteristic" and not accidental). For to assign an object to a given genus, or to attribute to it some particular properties, is to rule out alternatives genuses and alternative properties, and what one takes oneself to be ruling out determines what one takes oneself to be doing in making a determination that some particular description holds of the object: Omnis determinatio est negatio; to be determinately some way is to not be determined as some other way(s).

Hegel complains about this demand for "a sort of definition" because it shows that people are confusing names (which are arbitrary and fixed) with judgements about an object (which depend on what one happens to think, and so are neither arbitrary nor fixed). So someone asks "What is this?" while pointing at a lump of gold, and wants an answer which is not a mere name ("Gold", "Aurum"), but neither do they want to merely be told various facts about the thing they're pointing at -- they want something like a "true name", a description which doesn't depend on one's other conceptual commitments, but which can be relied on to hold come what may. As with "the progress of thought" our concepts change (since our views about the relations of genuses and properties change), so descriptions which we held to hold true of an object come to be rejected, and vice-versa, and so this request is impossible to answer, and betrays a lack of familiarity with the way in which thinking is needed for one to be able to tell what things are.

For Hegel a judgement is a determination of some of our concepts as relating in some particular way; continued exercise of judgement thus leads to continual alterations in our conceptual scheme, since the "internal relations" among our concepts just are the various "judgements" & "syllogisms" which connect them. For our concepts to be "fixed", Hegel thinks we would have to stop thinking, to make our civilization "stationary" (as he erroneously thinks China to be -- he is also in error about the Chinese language being "hieroglyphic"; though Chinese is not an alphabetic language, it does have ways to carry out the functions Hegel thinks only alphabets can provide, such as producing novel signs). Thus Leibniz's desire for a fixed language with which to carry out science is incoherent -- you can have a fixed stock of concepts, or you can have continued inquiry, but not both. You can have a sign which is irrevocably linked to some particular concept only if your concepts maintain constant in their interrelations; otherwise the sign's sense will shift with the reweaving of one's conceptual web, as the concept with which it was connected shifts in its inferential role. And so equivocation in our terms can only be made impossible if there are no possible adjustments in our conceptual web.

Brandom describes the process in which our empirical concepts are revised in terms of his incompatibility semantics, and attributes something similar to Hegel: Continued "lived experience" is supposed to lead us to realize that our current commitments are incompatible, and so in need of revision; experience is supposed to show that our concepts are "contradictory". This is supposed to be necessarily true of all our empirical concepts, but it's not supposed to lead to skepticism about our access to truth because "truth" is supposed to just be this process of making and revising claims, "the bacchanalian revel in which there is not a soul sober." I think Brandom misreads Hegel's "true" as "correct" here; Hegel's normal use of "true" is in the sense of "a true friend". The "bacchanalian revel" which is said to be "truth" is the continual rising-from-the-ground and returning-to-the-ground of actuality, the "shining" of essence in appearances -- this is what Hegel means in this passage by "the evanescent must be regarded as essential", that "essence must appear". (See Robert Stern's "Did Hegel Hold an Identity Theory of Truth" for a nice discussion of this sort of thing, or ss24 of the Encyclopedia Logic for Hegel explicitly apologizing for his use of "truth".) I think the actual reason the revision of our concepts should not lead to skepticism is simply that there isn't any necessary fault with our current concepts. And when we do revise our thinking, our old thoughts are not discarded, but are incorporated within the new way of thinking, at least as an abstract or one-sided view of the matter, in which case the old thoughts may still be judged to have been correct.

And now, some more complaints about Brandom's article. As another howler, on p.157 Brandom refers to "the only two books [Hegel] published during his lifetime", "both of the works in which he presents his systematic thought", meaning the Phenomenology and the Science of Logic. This is the sort of error editing -- or perhaps simply writing while fully awake-- should catch. Brandom is clearly familiar with the Encyclopedia volumes and the Philosophy of Right, since he quotes from both of them repeatedly in the article; his forgetting that Hegel published other four books is thus absolutely mindboggling. I also have no idea how Brandom could think that these four books did not constitute works in which Hegel "presents his systematic thought", even if he somehow thought they'd been published posthumously (despite the Encyclopedia having three separate introductions, due to its multiple editions).

Brandom also claims that the Science of Logic and the Phenomenology present essentially the same "system", only presented in different modes:
Thus in the Phenomenology he selects from the actual history of the development of philosophical concepts a sequence of transformations each of which can be seen, retrospectively, as conceptually epoch-making, and as cumulatively determining and revealing to us the systematic idiom – the constellation of philosophical claims-and-concepts – whose use is the final form of semantic self-consciousness he calls “Absolute Knowledge.” In the Logic, what is essentially the same system(fn) is presented as the culmination of a course of development that begins with the very simplest form-determinations of concepts – metaconcepts codifying a semantic self-consciousness so rudimentary that without it no concept-use at all is intelligible at the ground level – and progresses in a trajectory that does not at all pretend to track or be drawn from the empirical-historical tradition of thought by which the systematic concepts actually developed.
In the footnote he adds "So I claim; of course this is controversial." Well, yes. To say the least.

If anything, I think Hegel pretends to "track" the "empirical-historical tradition of thought" more closely in the Logic; if one looks at his History of Philosophy lectures, the beginning of philosophy matches the beginning of the Logic, and the progress of philosophy pretty well tracks the categories of the Logic. Philosophy starts with Parmenides's "What is, is, and what is not, is not", which Hegel identifies with his category "Being", not with sense-certainty. But in both the Logic and the Phenomenology, I think that pretending is an apt word for Hegel's historical discussions; the actual progression of the text is determined by the internal reasoning of the text, and not by the sequence in which Hegel's examples occurred temporally.

*I think Hegel slips here, if this is what he is saying. For that some singular object is the singular object it is depends on how the sort of object that it is is individuated. But I don't see that this particular claim is important for Hegel's general account of signs, names, thoughts, etc.

1 comment:

J said...

How cool. Herr Doktor Profesor Brandom seems like a fairly impressive thinker; he has progressed so far in his Geist-study that he on occasion makes prognostications:

""""Though he attributes this question to Kant rather than Wittgenstein, Hegel offers an answer that owes more to Wittgenstein."""""

Whoa! Who needs temporal linearity when yr a Hegelian.

((seriously one problem (even one of epic proportions) starts with Kant's 3rd Antinomy, and Hegel's use of it. "Freedom" and nature are not opposites, however sublime (and indeed it's quite Romantique) the antinomy may seem: there's no great dualism based on Mind/spirit and Nature, even granting a certain anomaly to human thinking). AS even the pomo's claim, that's a false binary. Nip it in da bud! Wunderbaren)