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Idealism rediscovered (The Return of Metaphysics)

Reading | Philosophy

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The Return of Metaphysics is a series of heavy-weight essays, produced in collaboration with the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI), to mark the present-day resurgence of metaphysics as a serious intellectual endeavor in the Western cultural dialogue. After many decades of a kind of stupor, the fundamental questions of what we are, what nature is in its essence, have re-awoken in academia and demand to retake their role in orienting our lives. In today’s essay, Prof. Paul Redding highlights the recently rediscovered importance of German Idealism, particularly Hegel’s idealism, in articulating solutions to present-day problems. This essay was first published by the IAI on the 4th of March, 2022.

In 2019, the American philosopher Robert Brandom published his long-awaited interpretation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, entitled, “A Spirit of Trust. While many others have offered interpretations of this massively ambitious and daunting work from the early nineteenth century, none have elaborated its messages on the basis of a philosophical theory they themselves had forged in the context of highly technical debates at the heart of contemporary analytic philosophy. Brandom’s attraction to Hegel seems to have been from the start inextricably bound up with what had drawn him to heroes of analytic philosophy such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, W. V. O. Quine, Wilfrid Sellars, and Donald Davidson—typical of the figures engaged with in his 1994 game-changing treatise in the philosophy of language, Making It Explicit: Reasoning, Representing and Discursive Commitment. Many would have scratched their heads: How could such apparently antithetical approaches as Hegel’s “absolute idealism” and contemporary analytic philosophy ever come to occupy the same intellectual space?

It is an oft-repeated story that the analytic approach to philosophy, which would come to dominate academic philosophy departments in the English-speaking world, had emerged around the turn of the twentieth century with the rebellion of Bertrand Russell and G. E. Moore against the British variant of Hegelianism then dominant at Cambridge. A crucial motivation for Russell in this attempt to drive Hegelianism from philosophy had been his attraction to the program of “logicism” developed by the German mathematician Gottlob Frege. But when Russel attempted to use Frege’s logic to secure the foundations not only of mathematics, but of the natural sciences, he run into trouble.

 

The new logic and its limits

The rapid growth of mathematics in the nineteenth century had led many to question the ultimate grounds of its increasingly abstract and counter-intuitive truths. Logicism was meant to address this need by demonstrating the “foundations” of mathematical knowledge in the a priori science of logic. However, the most recent logic available in England, an algebraic form of traditional Aristotelian logic introduced in the mid nineteenth century by George Boole, was regarded as inadequate to the task. In contrast, Frege had developed a revolutionary new “logical language”—in his original formulation, a “concept-script” (Begriffsschrift)—which radically broke with the Aristotelian form of logic that had endured for over two thousand years. Frege’s logic would be the starting point of the multi-volumed, Principia Mathematica on which Russell would work together with Alfred North Whitehead over the first decade of the new century.

Russell’s attitude towards Aristotelian logic in any of its forms was that it had provided a trojan horse for importing non-scientific assumptions into philosophy. Here he often portrayed Hegel’s philosophy, which he understood as based on Aristotle’s logic, as exemplifying the way a metaphysical house of cards could be constructed upon a faulty logical basis. As the new Frege-Russell approach to logic would soon be accepted as the way forward, it can be difficult to imagine there being a place for Hegel in the new intellectual environment, given the fact that Hegel had placed his logic at the centre of his philosophical system. Nevertheless, it would not take long for Russell’s vision for a new philosophy to start breaking down, and by the mid-century there had emerged paths along which a return of Hegel’s approach might be imagined.

Russell’s vision may have been born in the context of the felt need to supply a logical foundation for mathematics, but any philosophy, of course, must be capable of addressing a much wider range of issues. The obvious development for Russell was to extend the role of logic to the foundations of the natural sciences that were at that time undergoing revolutionary changes, but here the strains of the new approach would soon start to show. In contrast to pure mathematics, the natural sciences are crucially based on empirical experience, and Russell would soon attempt to marry the logicist project to a form of empiricism, with ideas of a “logical empiricism” or “logical positivism” developing especially among various influential groups in places such as Vienna and Berlin in the 1920s and 30s.

But such approaches faced the problem of how to conceive of the sensory “givens” of perception in relation to the entirely abstract conception of thoughts as envisioned by Frege. Traditional empiricism had pictured thoughts as made up of “ideas” or concepts that were derived from sensation, but Frege criticized any tendency to identify logical processes with psychological ones. Frege, in a rather Platonic fashion, conceived of laws of logic as dictating how rational beings ought to think; they were not generalizations of how humans actually think. This may not have been a problem when pondering the mind’s grasp of mathematical truths (so-called necessary truths, constrained by the very nature of mathematics), but could “thought” in this sense accommodate empirical, sense-derived content? In other words, could Frege’s logic account for contingent truths of experience upon which empiricists based the sciences of nature? It didn’t seem to.

In the algebraic version of Aristotelian logic introduced in the 1850s by Boole, there had been a place for simple object-centered judgments in which a predicate could be ascribed to a perceived object, as when one says of the sun that it shinesBut Boole’s logic, seemingly restricted to such simple “one-placed” predicates, and unable to capture more complex judgments involving relations, was deemed useless by Frege and Russel for the project of grounding mathematical truths.

 

Sellars, the myth of the given and Hegel’s return

By the mid-50s, appeals to Hegel in relation to these sorts of problems were starting to appear. Two examples of these—both given as lectures in London—illustrate possible paths for Hegel’s return. In 1956, in a series of lectures delivered at the University of London under the title “The Myth of the Given,” the American philosopher Wilfrid Sellars would refer to his response to the problems of logical empiricism as his “Méditations Hégéliennes,” and these lectures would be the taking-off point of Brandom’s later work. Three years later, in a now largely forgotten but forward-looking lecture on “The Contemporary Relevance of Hegel,” presented to a colloquium on “Contemporary British Philosophy,” the South African born peripatetic philosopher, John N. Findlay would discuss Hegel’s logic in relation to post-Principia developments in logic itself. Juxtaposed, the lectures might be regarded as directing a pincer-like attack on the empiricist and logicist flanks of Russell’s conception of philosophy.

At the core of Sellars’ criticism of the “myth” of the empiricist was the claim that empiricism conflated two distinct roles played by the mind’s alleged sensory states, conceived traditionally as “sensory ideas” or, more recently, as “sense-data.” On the one hand, they were meant to signal a causal role for the perceived object in the formation of perceptual knowledge. On the other, they were meant to play a justificatory role in relation to such knowledge claims—that is, to provide reasons, and not merely causes, for holding certain beliefs. If challenged, a person will typically cite other beliefs as reasons for holding a particular one—a situation that conforms with the idea that logical relations, as in the Fregean new paradigm, are conceived as holding primarily between the complete propositions expressed by asserted sentences, rather than between subjects and predicates of those sentences. But so-called “sense-data” were not supposed to have any logical form. Sense-data could only be seen to play the role of causes—the world’s brute impact on our senses—not reasons one could appeal to. How, then, could they play a role in justifying our knowledge claims?

Developing Sellars’ original ideas along a number of trajectories, Brandom would later suggest a way around the problem. One should forget about relations between individual statements and the world—statements and “facts”—and concentrate on relations among the statements used in talking about the world. One can exploit the logical links between asserted statements so as to develop a concept of their meanings. Thus, the meaning of a statement S could be thought of in terms of the range of other statements to which it was inferentially related. These include statements that could be inferred from it (what other statements a speaker was committed to in asserting S) and the statements from which the original statement could itself be inferred (the evidence the speaker might cite in support of S). It was this alternative approach that allowed earlier forms of idealism, like those of Kant and Hegel, back in.

In the first place, a “concept” was now no longer to be thought of as some sort of “faded” sensory idea, like the empiricists has thought. For Kant, a concept was a rule—a rule that, according to Brandom, governs the inferences that can be made among sentences expressing that concept. For example, my claim that this thing in front of me is a horse commits me to the further claim that it is an animal. The claim that it’s an animal commits me to the further claim that it is mortal, and so on. Next, while Kant, somewhat like the logical empiricists, conceived of thoughts as still in need of something “given” in experience (what he called “intuitions”), Hegel criticized this distinction between thought and experience. No aspect of experience remained unconceptualized.

Brandom also followed other suggestions in Sellars, such as the need for logic to capture modal claims about necessary and possible truths, a theme that brings us to Findlay’s lecture.

 

Findlay, Prior and the holism of logic

Findlay had just published a book on Hegel when he delivered his 1959 lecture, but important background to his comments there is to be found in yet another lecture series given in 1956—this time in Oxford rather than London. These were the “Locke Lectures” on “Time and Modality” that helped to open up not simply the area of modal logic but of a variety of logics now thought of under the general heading of “modal.” The series was given by the New Zealand logician, Arthur Prior, a former pupil of Findlay. Prior’s idea of the logics of time and modality, distinct from the type of logic introduced by Frege and Russell, drew upon earlier work of Findlay’s.

While not a logician himself, Findlay had long been interested in the subject and had introduced Prior to logic and its history when teaching in New Zealand in the 1930s. In the 1959 lecture, Findlay alluded to developments introduced by logicians in the decades after the appearance of Principia Mathematica, relating this history to the type of dialectical processes that had characterized Hegel’s logic. Principia, he pointed out, was not entirely made up of “clear-cut notions, fixed axioms and rigorous deductive chains.” In its “interstices” were ordinary English sentences in which Russell explained, interpreted and justified the way the symbols of the formal system functioned. After Principia, logicians had made the formal distinction between an “object language” that was talked about and the “meta-language” used to talk about it—a distinction, they claimed, that Russell had conflated. Hegel’s logic, Findlay contended, corresponded more to the logic of that “informal, non-formalizable passages of comment and discussion” found in the interstices of Russell’s text. This hierarchy challenged, Findlay thought, the very idea of some ultimate, unitary logical language and thereby the whole logicist project.

Findlay’s approach was more like that of late developers of the Boolean tradition such as the American pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce and the Cambridge logician W. E. Johnson, who had developed the Boolean from of logic so as to allow it to deal with the types of complex assertions treated by Frege and Russell. But for them, logic did not purport to be a complete language within which mathematical truths could be ultimately grounded. It was mathematical in virtue of providing formal models meant to illuminate the logical processes of reasoning in different types of contexts, including those specifically addressed by logic in the style of Frege and Russell.

By distancing ourselves from our own reasoning—by objectivizing our thought patterns in a foreign medium—such logical calculi can shed light on the nature of our rational capacities. But without interpretation, mathematical symbols are just squiggles on a page. Logical processes represented formally need to be interpreted within and assessed by a linguistically expressed rational capacity that is presupposed. Any attempts to fully explain the latter in terms of the formalism was condemned to circularity. This, thought Findlay, was at the heart of the Hegelian dialectic. Hegel’s dialectic shows us how natural creatures like ourselves are able to reflect upon and improve those finite reasoning processes which nature had originally supplied us with.

These lectures by both Sellars and Findlay would prove prophetic in many complementary ways. In the second half of the twentieth century, more holistic and historically sensitive approaches to knowledge, especially in the philosophy of science, would gain traction. Along with this, a plurality of modal logics as introduced by Prior’s “tense logic” would flourish, and especially find important places in emerging fields such as computer science, in which a basically Boolean approach to logic had been retained.

Habits and the myths that feed them, however, die hard. Many contemporary analytic philosophers still think of Hegel in terms of Russell’s early denunciations made on the basis of assumptions few would consciously hold today. In the longer run, history might well tell a different story to theirs about the fate of Hegel at the hands of Russell, and who ended up surviving that encounter.

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