Hegel’s Critique of Kant, Sally Sedgwick (Oxford University Press, 2012)
Hegel’s Critique of Metaphysics, Béatrice Longuenesse (Cambridge University Press, 2007)
If Žižek is right and Hegel is the most important philosopher for the times we now live in then there is the small problem of how to go about reading this notoriously difficult and misunderstood thinker. There are some accessible guides to his best known work, The Phenomenology of Spirit, but it is the Science of Logic that one needs to get to grips with in order to appreciate just how radically different Hegel’s thought is to most of what most of us understand as the central strands of Western philosophy. Unfortunately, there is no handy pocket-sized guide to the Science of Logic and trying to read the book without some help makes the labours of Hercules seem like a mere stroll in the park. Even when it comes to general introductions to Hegel no single title jumps to mind, as opposed to the many that can be guaranteed to put the reader off; perhaps, then, a genetic approach is worth trying.
Sally Sedgwick’s new book is a good place to start because it is written in admirably clear prose and proceeds on the sound basis that Hegel’s philosophy cannot be properly appreciated without seeing it as a critical response to what Kant had earlier achieved. Kant affirms that what counts as knowledge is such because it conforms to our pre-given forms of space and time and pre-given concepts (like causality which gives us the conviction that there must be a cause for everything). These are hardwired into us and so it follows that we can never know the ‘things in themselves’ that exist outside of them. There are, in other words, limits to our forms of knowledge and it would require a different kind of understanding to overcome these constraints. Given that we don’t possess this different kind of understanding, we proceed on the assumption that there is some harmony between our concepts of objects and the heterogeneous data that our senses receive from objects that make up the world. We assume but can never properly know what degree of unity exists between the universals we think with and the particulars of our sense content. Kant is not dwelling on qualities like the smell and colour of a rose and making the obvious point that because they depend on the sense organs and perspective of the perceiver they are only subjective ‘appearances’. He is saying that the very possibility of anything counting as an object of perception in the first place depends on certain necessary forms (space and time) and concepts (like causality and substance). The subjective factor goes very deep, all the way down.
Hegel thinks that for Kant nature is all matter and that its form depends on us; there is, therefore, an unbridgeable gulf between our thoughts, governed by innate forms and concepts, and ‘things in themselves’. We never actually experience raw sensation because everything we experience is subject to our pre-given forms of understanding; matter itself cannot be perceived as such because it is our reasoning that supplies the concept of substance in the first place. This, though, is not how Hegel sees the world.
Sally Sedgewick wants to show that Hegel drew inspiration from a possibility that Kant speaks of but does not credit to us in the way that Hegel will: a different kind of understanding, one that doesn’t presuppose agreement between the sense particulars and our concepts but, rather, an agreement that arises from an organic unity between subject and object. The trouble with Kant, as Hegel sees it, rests with the assumption that our knowledge relies on sense content that is independently given (and then conditioned by our a priori forms and concepts). The alternative is an intelligence that places no finitude to reason and does not thereby lead to the scepticism that posits ‘things-in-themselves’ always and forever on the other side of our comprehension. Hegel’s source for such an alternative comes from Kant’s account of how the mind conducts acts of synthesis to arrive at judgements about objects in the world. Such acts cannot be just the result of a computer-like process, shifting and classifying empirical representations and sorting out common factors from an unorganized flux to arrive at concepts. There must be, argues Kant, a more fundamental act of synthesis that allows for a sense of self-conscious identity (the ‘I think’), so that various representations can be brought together as mine. This sense of a unity linked to my self-consciousness is a necessary pre-condition for objectivity. It is necessary to allow for a concept of the object, a concept that is not based on experience, which allows the object to be distinct from empirical data. Kant suggests that this more fundamental act of synthesis somehow ‘generates’ or ‘produces’ a unity which foregrounds and makes possible the ‘I think’. This is what allows for the apprehension of objects out of all the representations occurring in human cognition. Hegel will follow this line of thought in a direction that Kant was not prepared to take. It leads away from the model that separates the subject, equipped with its tools of pre-conditioning, from the mind-independent object. What if, dares Hegel, there was a relationship of identity between subject and object? We are not talking here of an intellect that actually generates material objects, as if thinking could somehow bring something into sensible being, but an intellect that collapses the distinction between access to what there is (epistemology) and what there is (ontology). Such a collapse would not leave us with the remainder of ‘things-in-themselves’.
Sedgwick quotes from the introduction to Science of Logic -
What we are dealing with in logic is not a thinking about something
which exists independently as a base for our thinking and apart from
it … On the contrary, the necessary forms and self-determinations
of thought are the content and the ultimate truth itself
– which suggests that everything of cognitive meaning for us is the result of our conceptual reasoning. But Hegel objects to an idealism in Kant that he labels subjective because it suggests we are trapped in a Plato-like cave with only our ideas projected onto the wall, unable to compare them with the reality that is outside. If, Sedgwick asks, our mode of cognition is dependent on certain forms that are within us, does it follow that we have no grounds for supposing it reveals the reality of the given sense content? Hegel thinks not. While accepting that we bring conceptual forms to the reality we intuit, he compares the wish to place forms of cognition as somehow independent of experience to ‘the resolve of Scholasticus to learn to swim before he ventured into the water’.
The difference here between Kant and Hegel rests on a fine difference in their understanding of conceptual form. Concepts are not fixed for Hegel, they possess what he calls ‘immanent plasticity’ and to speak of them as pre-given assumes an Archimedean meta-level position that stands outside and above them. No such position exists; as Sedgwick puts it: ‘For Hegel, then, it is not just that thought depends on an independently given content as a condition of cognition; thought depends on that content for its nature as well’. Thought, says Hegel, is not purely a toolkit of concepts and categories that we manipulate but, like our faculties of feeling and passion, something we have to accommodate ourselves to, use and be used by. The toolbox is unstable and it also contains contingency, contradiction and negation.
Quite apart from Žižek’s ground-breaking interpretation, Hegel studies are currently enjoying a renaissance of sorts: in North America scholars like Terry Pinkard and Robert Pippin have given him a new prominence on philosophy courses while in Europe Stephen Houlgate and David Gray Carlson are waving the Hegel banner and a superb new translation of The Science of Logic was published by Cambridge University Press in 2010. A virtue of Sally Sedgwick’s book is that she steers an untroubled course through the choppy waters of Hegel scholarship and the reader is not expected to be familiar with the partisan readings that tend to dominate academic debate. Her concern is to show how Hegel responded to Kant’s distinction between one way of recognising the world – an interchange between concept and object – and the possibility of an alternative, intuitive understanding that wouldn’t demarcate sensible affections and concepts as heterogeneous spheres and which, instead, would insist on their identity. She proceeds at a carefully graduated pace, highly reader-friendly but losing nothing of the complexity, and prepares the ground for the supreme challenge of reading Science of Logic. But the reader still needs a lot of help in getting to grips with Hegel’s forbidding prose and this is where Béatrice Longuenesse’s Hegel’s Critique of Metaphysics can lend a hand.
Longuenesse’s book is not about the whole of Science of Logic (a useful introduction to the book can be found in the second chapter of Houlgate’s An Introduction to Hegel (Blackwell, 2005)) but concentrates mainly on Hegel’s Doctrine of Essence. She unwraps its convoluted prose with elegant, clinical precision, working patiently to show how, for Hegel, pointing to the essence of a thing is to point to the movement of thought that constitutes a thing. Appearance, a thing, is not the irreducible given that Kant takes it to be: there is nothing beyond appearance even though appearance is not the truth; only with the concept that organizes and conditions the production of appearance is truth to found. For Longuenesse, without for on moment denying material reality as the origin of cognition, it is the relation of thought to itself that is primary. It is the self-movement of thought that, as she puts it, conditions ‘an object as an object that is thought’.
Longuenesse is won over by a reading of Hegel that looks to the internal coherence of concepts as the thought-determination of reality. While Sedgwick stresses a creative mutuality between concept and object, each constituting the other, Longuenesse comes down on the side of concept. Consciousness is reflecting on itself, its forms of thinking, when it reflects on an object.
Being is thought within the logical forms that are immanent to reflection and this is directly in opposition to the Kantian subject who bears its forms, categories of thought, within itself. Thus armed, the Kantian subject goes out to meet the world for the content without which it is an empty shell of waiting-to-happen cognition. The Hegelian subject, on the other hand, necessarily bears the congruence that exists between logic and the world. Longuenesse closes the concept-object gap by placing more of the onus on conceptualism than Sedgwick ever does. For both, however, logic has an ontological dimension. It is not a psychological mechanism but the operation of intellect, an intellect that is so much part of the world that thought and being are two dimensions mapping each other. Not, it is imperative to note, in a way that is seamless; far from it. Contradiction is at the heart of thought just as it is at the heart of being, restlessly refusing closure. Shift happens.
Sean Sheehan is a writer and teacher and the author of Zizek: A Guide for the Perplexed (Continuum 2012)