Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Intro Philosophy: Kant & Hegel

Last time we ended with Hume and his very skeptical philosophy. Hume argues that we have impressions and ideas, and because all of our ideas come from our impressions, our ideas are assumptions. The famous example Hume uses is the billiard table, arguing that we have an idea or assumption of a cause when ball A hits ball B.

This total skepticism is quite welcome to some, but positivistic thinkers are not happy with cause being an assumption in the head and not a fact in the world. Another problem is that Hume does not tell us where our idea of cause comes from or how it is related to our other ideas.

This got to Kant, who said thing in itself with categories we can know (big influence on Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein’s early thought)

Kant (1724-1804) read Hume and famously wrote that Hume awakened him from his “dogmatic slumbers”. Kant is one of the biggest philosophers in the modern European cannon, loved by positivists and hated by skeptics. He was a big influence on Schopenhauer (who was a big influence on Nietzsche, the focus of next week), and a big influence on the early thought of Wittgenstein (who we focus on the week after next).

Kant believes very much in the aim of Descartes, the world does contain certainties and facts such as 2 + 3 = 5, but Descartes as we saw did not spend much time proving this. Kant’s major work, A Critique of Pure Reason, tries to bridge this gap with an air tight argument for true positive knowledge in the face of Hume’s skeptical challenge that all we know is merely assumption.

Kant argues that Hume is correct that we learn the world through the senses and this is how we acquire our ideas. However, even though we do not experience the world directly but rather through our experience and ideas, we can construct true positive knowledge of the world and our ideas through reason which can reveal new certain truths by reasoning from our initial ideas like mathematics can derive additional propositions from beginning propositions. Remember that in the 1700s algebraic science had come to question many traditional truths and give new positive answers. Kant studied and wrote in the time when Newton’s laws of physics had risen to fame.

Kant argues that the world, the “thing-in-itself” as he calls it, we cannot know, but our ideas about it have a structure and order to them. Kant believed that there are twelve categories of ideas and cause is one of these categories. If we start from these basic categories, we can learn additional certain truths about science and the world in the same way that if we start with 2 + 3 = 5 we can come to additional certain propositions of mathematics. Kant calls this the synthetic apriori, a fancy term for what we can discover we know prior to our experience of the world. The metaphor often used is our ideas are the eyeglasses through which we see the world.

Hegel (1770-1831) was as upset with Kant as Kant was upset with Hume. Like Kant thought of Hume, Hegel did not think that Kant gave much of an explanation or exploration of our ideas. It is one thing to say we have an idea of cause as a category for our experiences, but it is another to explain how cause functions, both in itself and together with the other ideas that we have. Hegel thought that Kant declares that we have a category of causation, but he does not show why we have this category or how it fits together with the other eleven categories.

Also, just as Kant was critical of Hume for putting the facts of the world out of reach by declaring everything to be an assumption, Hegel was critical of Kant for putting the world behind our ideas as “the thing-in-itself”. Do we experience our ideas as separate from the world in this way, like a pair of eyeglasses, or are our ideas experienced in and as the world itself? If cause is a lens through which we view the world, then the world itself remains something unknown and my certain knowledge of causation is still quite useless for practical knowledge of the world. Why should we know nothing of our experience of the world, but be certain of our experience of the mind?

Hegel has two major ideas that became very influential for later thinkers. The first is historical explanation or explanation by process. Hegel argues that things are not simply what they are at once, but evolve through stages to become what they are, and the process by which they evolve show us how the things essentially work. Also, things are not simply what they are in themselves but are what they are in a situation with other things in which they become what they are (very like the Buddhist concept of co-dependent arising). After Hegel, Marx, Darwin, Freud and Feuerbach were major thinkers who overturned old theories of static order with new theories of process to explain the workings of the mind and society. Consider that Newton thought God made the earth at the very beginning in an instant, while most believe today that there was a process by which our planet, the solar system and the galaxy formed. Consider the controversy about evolution and Darwin, and how this questions our human-centered view of reality.

Hegel’s second major idea, the mechanism or motion of evolution over time, is dialectic. Dialectic is a Greek term for arguing back and forth, for and against a position, to come to greater understanding. Plato believed dialectic was the superior method of acquiring knowledge, and his dialogue plays show Socrates arguing against others and himself in this way. Hegel argues that all things are made of oppositions or contradictions (contra-diction means “arguing against”, like arguing both sides, the pros and cons, of a particular thing). This is not only similar to Lao Zi’s wheel (made of both solid and empty together), but Newton’s idea that for every force there is an equal but opposite force.

While this has become controversial, many believe that Hegel’s dialectic works in a three stage pattern of positive, negative and synthesis. Hegel often presents our ideas (which live in the world as politics and our shared expectations) as starting out positive, flipping and becoming negative, and then reaching a resolution of positive and negative as a joined whole. Remember Lao Zi’s wheel leads us through this three stage process (solid at first, then empty, then both), as does the famous Zen quote that first a rock is a rock, then a rock isn’t a rock (it is in the mind, as a concept) and then a rock is a rock (real rock and concept together as the rock).

Hegel argues that by looking at things as evolving over time in a situation, not immediate and isolated, and looking at things as two sided and in opposition to themselves and others, rather than categorical and without tension, we can come to understand how things actually are, which is a union (while an opposition) of how they are in the mind and how they are in the world.

In his first major work, The Phenomenology of Mind/Spirit (1806), Hegel gives us his social history of society and philosophy evolving by stages to the present day. In his second major work, The Science of Logic (1816), Hegel gives us his psychology. We will look at the overall structure and some key ideas of each, spending more time on the Logic which has become one of my favorites. Americans have only begun studying Hegel, because Hegel had a student named Marx who took Hegel’s concept of dialectic and used it to father communism. Communists like Hegel’s Logic very much, and so American and British universities did not teach much Hegel and when they do they often teach the Phenomenology but not the Logic. This is unfortunate, because while Hegel’s ideas about history in the Phenomenology are quite antiquated today I have great hope that there is more to be discovered by looking at the Logic in the light of the discoveries of modern psychology, especially the work of Piaget the child psychologist.


I disagree with Hegel’s history because it is quite simplistic and eurocentric, but it is an excellent introduction to Hegel’s thought not only because it was his first major work, after which he wrote the Logic to clarify the inner process of the mind at work in this history, but it shows dialectic working in three stages to complete itself as a union of contradictory sides.

For Hegel, the first stage of history is the Orientals. Hegel uses this term as it was used until recently, before the 1960s, to refer to everyone who is not European. In the 60s, 70s and 80s this term was still used by many to refer to East Asian people such as the Chinese. As archeology in Hegel’s time had revealed the ancient glory of Mesopotamia, Egypt and India, Hegel puts this as the first and basic starting stage in human development. It is good that this is the non-European start, but unfortunate that all further development is European (first Greek, then German) and the development is a course of Europe becoming different from others (again, this is overly simplistic and quite racist and eurocentric, but funny enough this is still largely the view preached on campuses today).

The Orientals understand objectivity and the state, two powerful positives. The Orientals are the start of society and science, but they do not question their society or science. They see the real as real, but do not understand that the real is also mental and can be questioned. In some cases, such as Buddhism in India, Hegel believes that they realized skepticism but did not develop it further, turning the world into a simple void or nothing. Thus the Orientals get simple one-sided Being or Non-Being, but do not put these two together to see the unity of the opposition. It is the Greeks, and specifically Heraclitus, who Hegel argues make this next leap and become the second stage of history.

The Greeks now rise above the Orientals and grasp the opposite of Being as Non-Being, the opposite of the state in the individual, the opposite of objectivity as subjectivity. While Hegel believes that the Greeks are the ones who did this, it is more correct to understand the relationship with the earlier empires as more complex and also that the Greeks were only one civilization of many that made leaps forward like this (Jaspers calls the age of the Greeks, the Indians and the Chinese, the three places we studied in the ancient world in depth, the axial age).

Just as the Orientals understood the positive, the Greeks understand the negative, the temporary and perspective. Hegel sees this as Heraclitus bringing Being and Non-Being together as Becoming, and sees Plato merging Heraclitus with Parmenides as a further development. However, this is not the last stage because the Greeks still put Being off in another world, either as Heraclitus’ flux of fire or Plato’s static ideal forms. It is the Germans, and specifically Hegel himself, who see the true unity of objectivity and subjectivity, of state and individual, of necessity and freedom, of science and discovery, to complete the history of thought in three stages. Notice that Hegel leaps entirely over Islam in a page, with no credit at all.

The Europeans, but specifically the Germans who are in Hegel’s time becoming the foremost champions of philosophy, history, science, and politics are in the position to realize the union of the mind and world. Hegel sees Hume and Kant as the last negative and positive before his own system of unification. Also, as a teenager Hegel heard about the French Revolution and was, like many youth, an enthusiastic supporter of the left-wing progressive removal of the aristocrats and traditional ways. We get our terms left-wing and right-wing from the French Revolution, as liberals and conservatives sat on opposite sides of the congress hall. Unfortunately for the French, and for young Hegel, the revolution collapsed and Napoleon, a dictator, took over. Hegel developed his ideas about ideas working in the real world as oppositions watching the French Revolution.

Hegel believes that history is almost at its completion in his time with his own philosophy and the politics of the German parliamentary state which balances collective objectivity with individual subjectivity. He also believes that religion evolves exactly as philosophy and politics does, and that German Lutheran Christianity is the final form of religion that unites the individual directly with God (living objectivity) because each man is the priest of his household.


The Master/Slave dialectic is the continuous process of overturning that occurs at every transformation and revolution from one stage to the next. It works on the level of idea, individual and social movement.

At first, the individual goes out into the world and discovers that there are other beings out there with other opinions and views. The individual thus wants to at first kill, later conquer these others, as it wants to prove its view, its subjectivity, to be objectivity. The slave, then, comes to do everything for the master, and develops while the master deteriorates and grows lazy. The slave comes to realize that he can do things he never thought of for someone else, so he can do things no one has thought up yet for himself, and thus triumphs over the master and becomes the next master.

This is Hegel’s explanation for why the Orientals started but then failed to do real subjective philosophy, the Greeks followed but failed to complete subjectivity with objectivity, and the Germans bridge the gap seeing subjectivity and objectivity as two sides of the same thing. Notice that this tells us the Greeks were slaves of the Orientals, and the Germans were slaves of the Greeks! This is not often pointed out, but it is implied by Hegel and confirmed by historians today. While Hegel is quite eurocentric, he is right to this extent.

The Master/Slave dialectic had a great influence on many thinkers, especially progressive left-leaning political thinkers such as Hegel’s student Marx. Feminist Hegelians, like Simone de Beauvoir, uses it for women in ‘The Second Sex’, Franz Fanon uses it for black people in ‘Black Skin, White Masks’, as does the Black Panther, activist and professor Angela Davis (who went to Germany to study Hegel before going to jail for providing two shotguns to Black Panther party members in Oakland during the 60s).


After writing the Phenomenology, Hegel came to realize that he had not described the inner workings of the dialectical process of history to his liking. Hegel believed the world consisted of ideas, so he leaves history behind and turns to the workings of ideas in the mind. To show the inner psychology at work in every stage of historical development, he wrote his Logic which like the Phenomenology unfolds in three stages as positive, negative and synthesis, but instead of Orientals, Greeks and Germans, the three stages of the Logic are Being, Essence, and Concept.

Like Neo-Platonism, thought has to gather everything up such that all categories become modes or branches of the same thing. It does this with Understanding which holds things fast in sameness and Reason which divides things against each other and against themselves, opposing the Understanding. Understanding wants to keep ideas as they are and separate from each other, while Reason wants to change ideas and unite them all together as a whole. The mind craves unity, objectivity as the all-view, which pulls it in two directions. First, it wants to hold on to the unities of the understanding and keep them away from reason tearing them apart. However, reason wants to dissolve everything and return it all to the Absolute, or the undivided One. Thus, the motions rock back and forth in stages. It would thus be correct to say that, the way Hegel describes it, conservatives would rather understand than reason and liberals would rather reason than understand.

At each stage, the Understanding comes to change its shape and provide the ground for the back and forth positions of reason which share the same understanding(s). Philosophies, political positions and scientific theories reason against each other even as they share the common understandings of the time and place. Thus, Hegel says there really is only one philosophy which is ‘thought’ itself, and the philosophies are views, perspectives within the one dialectical course of things which is thought.

Why is it opposed to itself? Where did this come from? Interestingly, Hegel writes that we need to start with ‘legend’ of the fall of man, of Adam falling out of the Garden of Eden. Hegel says the inner meaning is what is important (a similar reading to Deists of his time in Europe, who see the bible as true psychologically but not literal). When Adam, or consciousness, falls into the world out of unity with all, it falls into oppositions and tensions, polarities that present one side and hide the other. Today, we can describe the fall from unity either in physics as the Big Bang or in psychology as the infant mind learning to discern itself and others in the world (Piaget).

Hegel calls judgment ‘the one-sided acid’. Categories are thus gathered, assumed, by the Understanding. (God)(IS), (You)(Are), (this)(is), the anchor points of Descartes. However, these are inadequate. First, they are one sided, and so dogmatic, stuck. They are divided from each other and the All, so reason is not satisfied and tries to figure out how all of these separate categories are one in reality, or the big One or All. Second, they are almost entirely empty of content, making them almost no different from empty. This is exactly how Hegel is critical of Kant’s categories and the gap he leaves between mind and world.

(68) “Kant, it is well known, did not put himself to much trouble in discovering the categories.”

“Kant, as we must add, never got beyond the negative result that the thing-in-itself is unknowable, and never penetrated to the discovery of what the antinomies really and positively mean. That true and positive meaning of the antinomies is this: that every actual thing involves a coexistence of opposed elements. Consequently to know, or, in other words, to comprehend an object is equivalent to being conscious of it as a concrete unity of opposed determinations. The old metaphysic, as we have already seen, when it studied the objects of which it sought a metaphysical knowledge, went to work by applying categories abstractly and to the exclusion of their opposites.”

(118) “However reluctant Understanding may be to admit the action of Dialectic, we must not suppose that the recognition of its existence is peculiarly confined to the philosopher. It would be truer to say that Dialectic gives expression to a law which is felt in all other grades of consciousness, and in general experience. Everything that surrounds us may be viewed as an instance of Dialectic.”

Hegel writes that the feeling of being alive is to feel contradiction within oneself, at rest in itself but at the same time moving itself beyond itself. It both wants to stay and go at once, and does. Similarly, the Soviet literary critic and thinker Bakhtin said that when we think we are in dialogue with ourselves, are opposed to ourselves on opposite sides.


In the Phenomenology, Hegel argues that Heraclitus realized the unity of Being and Non-Being as ceaseless Becoming, as the flux of the cosmic fire. Hegel says that some say no one is capable of understanding contradiction, but Hegel points to Heraclitus and argues that to come to the next level in your understanding your reason has to see both sides and unite them in the cement of the understanding, which is what Heraclitus did for the Greeks such that they could rise beyond the Orientals to the next level. Hegel says that if we imagine any transformation or change or motion, we are seeing being and nonbeing as one like Heraclitus. It is merely recognizing it that is the hard part. Hegel says that this is the hurdle that prevents the common person from being a philosopher, and the reason that the great thinkers and revolutions in thought are rare. In fact, often it takes decades after the thinker’s death for their ideas to become accepted, further proof that the great thinker must unite the old with the opposite direction of the new and this is the barrier between the new idea and the common understanding of the people.

Once thought realizes becoming as the unity of the being of things and their non-being (their temporary being in time and their not being other things), thought still does not have enough to understand each and every thing or how they fit into the All as one. Thought tries to understand the individual beings of the world and the world itself as constant becoming, like Heraclitus, but this does not show us how things are interrelated. This is exactly how Kant was frustrated with Hume, because everything being an assumption does not tell us what things are specifically.

Thought must explore two opposite directions to try to find the meaning of individual things. First, it tries to understand things by their qualities (such as green, square, closed), but this moves away from the things themselves towards abstract ideas. Second, thought tries to understand things by their quantities, with each thing being a one itself and being a quantity of many parts and being in a group of many members. Unfortunately, this leaves each being as merely a thing, and tells us nothing about the specific differences between types of things. Notice that quality and quantity are the two opposite sides to our abstractions of things, the two ways we isolate and abstract, through thought, the parts and ways of things. Consider that your hand is not explainable simply by its shape, or color, or texture, any more than its being one hand with five fingers, though all of this together tells me much about my hand. To understand your hand, you have to see it in context, in the world used with other things, as well as understand the qualities and quantities of the hand.

Thought now tries to understand things in terms of essences, and these essences in terms of their qualities and quantities. Remember that Hegel in his Phenomenology saw Plato as the union of Heraclitus and Parmenides, that Plato thought things have ideal essences in the stars that cause them to be what they are, and that Platonism was the major school of thought in middle-age Europe to which Hegel acknowledges he owes many insights.

Because thought could not understand things in their qualities and quantities, it tries to understand things by putting them in groups and then understanding the qualities and quantities of these groups. It puts these as essences outside the world as Plato put them up in the stars, in another more modern way “in” things and their groups as their “nature”. The problem with this stage is that this still puts things as isolated and does not understand them in a situation as mutually interdependent. It seeks the meaning of the thing in the group where it could not find it in the individual, but this still isolates things even as it puts them in groups. Hegel is very aware that modern science is often in this mode, isolating things and finding new truths about their exclusive natures. For Hegel, Plato’s forms, Kant’s categories and scientific theories are good but they are not complete because they do not understand how things cannot be separate from each other if we want our knowledge to be like the world, in which everything fits together.

Just as qualities are non-beings within beings, essences are also non-beings within beings, but a core is sought beyond and opposed to outer qualities or bunches of quantities. Thought has turned on itself yet preserved itself, trying to understand the real as merely the idea. It would be like saying that the hand is really the ideal hand, rather than a hand in the real world which we idealize. Thought is struggling to grasp the unity of the mind and the world, of our ideas of things and the real things themselves. Remember Kant left a complete gap between the fully certain categories of the mind and the unknown world-in-itself. Just as beings were opposed to themselves and others, Hegel says that essences, if they remain many and are not gathered into a trunk of the All still have contradictions in themselves and against each-other and so they are opposed to unity.

What, then, moves us beyond Kant’s categories and isolated essences? The process of dialectic, which grasps the unity of sameness and difference, of one and many, and of necessity and freedom, as it did with Being and Non-Being before at the first stage. The idea and the thing are realized as one in the Concept, which includes the thought and thing. When we see that the world is in our minds and in itself together as one, that things are our ideas about them and themselves for us as one that is also many, this is for Hegel Actuality, the final stage. It is grasped by the mind, but in extension is the view of the real world and all that it is or could be.

Interesting for Chaos Theory, Quantum Theory and more modern developments of mathematics and science, Hegel writes that seeing the unity of necessity and freedom is the final hurdle. To see that no part of reality is absolutely necessary, but no part is absolutely free, and the two hang together as opposites always like light and darkness, this is the final stage that lets us see things as they are. This would be the final and total grasp of the wheel as solid and empty, or the rock as thing and perception/assumption.

Now, Hegel believes, reason goes forth as true science and simply Nature itself, with a ground to continue to investigate and understand things with all the branching of the Idea by which we could ever understand them to be. All becomes a single Idea, that is one with the world.

Unlike Hegel and Right wing Hegelians, who believe that the system has been achieved, Left Hegelians (most famously Marx) believe that evolution is constant and unending for the system, not just the knowledge it acquires and that we are constantly taking positions that are one-sided that need to be complimented by the opposite perspective. Many of the latest European thinkers have been powerfully affected by this leftist Hegelian view.