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Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism: Negotiation and Administration in Hegel’s Account of the Structure and Content of Conceptual Norms

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Some Pragmatist Themes in Hegel’s Idealism:

Negotiation and Administration in Hegel’s Account of the Structure and Content of Conceptual Norms
This paper could equally well have been titled ‘Some Idealist Themes in Hegel’s Pragmatism’. Both idealism and pragmatism are capacious concepts, encompassing many distinguishable theses. I will focus on one pragmatist thesis and one idealist thesis (though we will come within sight of some others). The pragmatist thesis (what I will call ‘the semantic pragmatist thesis’) is that the use of concepts determines their content, that is, that concepts can have no content apart from that conferred on them by their use. The idealist thesis is that the structure and unity of the concept is the same as the structure and unity of the self. The semantic pragmatist thesis is a commonplace of our Wittgensteinean philosophical world. The idealist thesis is, to say the least, not. I don’t believe there is any serious contemporary semantic thinker who is pursuing the thought that concepts might best be understood by modeling them on selves. Indeed, from the point of view of contemporary semantics it is hard to know even what one could mean by such a thought what relatively unproblematic features of selves are supposed to illuminate what relatively problematic features of concepts? Why should we think that understanding something about, say, personal identity would help us understand issues concerning the identity and individuation of concepts? From a contemporary point of view, the idealist semantic thesis is bound to appear initially as something between unpromising and crazy.

My interpretive claim here will be that the idealist thesis is Hegel’s way of making the pragmatist thesis workable, in the context of several other commitments and insights. My philosophical claim here will be that we actually have a lot to learn from this strategy about contemporary semantic issues that we by no means see our way to the bottom of otherwise. In the space of this essay, I cannot properly justify the first claim textually, nor the second argumentatively. I will confine myself of necessity to sketching the outlines and motivations for the complex, sophisticated, and interesting view on the topic I find Hegel putting forward.


The topic to which that view is addressed is the nature and origins of the determinate contents of empirical conceptual norms. Of course Hegel talks about lots of other things. This is merely the strand in his thought I’m going to pursue here. But it may seem perverse to identify this as so much as one of Hegel’s concerns. After all, what he spends most of his pages talking about (in both of the books he published during his lifetime, the Phenomenology and the Science of Logic) is the pure, logical, or formal concepts (the pure form-determinations of the Concept), that are the successors in his scheme to Kant’s categories: concepts such as particularity, universality, and individuality and the distinction between what things are in themselves and what they are for consciousness or for another. But one of the overarching methodological commitments that guides my reading of Hegel is that the point of developing an adequate understanding of these categorical concepts is so that they can then be used to make explicit how ordinary empirical concepts work. I would say the same thing about Kant. And I think that one of the things that makes these philosophers hard to understand is that they devote relatively too much time to developing and motivating their (in the transcendental sense) logical apparatus, and relatively too little time to applying it to the use of ground-level concepts. In both cases I think one does well to keep one’s eye at all times on the significance of what is being said about pure concepts for our understanding of the use of ordinary empirical concepts. Again, Hegel’s idealist thesis is directed in the first instance towards what he calls the Concept: the holistic inferential system of determinate concepts and commitments articulated by means of those concepts. But we will see that the abstract structural claim embodied in the idealist thesis holds of both the system and its elements—and holds of the elements in part because it holds of the system, and vice versa.

As I read him, Hegel thinks that Kant has been insufficiently critical regarding two important, intimately related issues. First, he has not inquired deeply enough into the conditions of the possibility of the determinateness of the rules that specify the contents of ordinary empirical concepts. Second, Kant is virtually silent on the issue of their origins. He has not presented a developed account of how those determinate empirical concepts become available to knowers and agents in the first place. Kant takes over from Leibniz the rationalist understanding of knowledge and action as consisting in the application of concepts. Awareness, Leibniz’s ‘apperception’, whether theoretical or practical, consists in classifying particulars by universals—that is, for Kant, bringing them under rules.

Hegel inherits from Kant a fundamental philosophical commitment (I’m prepared to say ‘insight’): a commitment to the normative character of concepts. One of Kant’s most basic and important ideas is that what distinguishes judgements and actions from the responses of merely natural creatures is that they are things we are in a distinctive way responsible for. They are undertakings of commitments that are subject to a certain kind of normative assessment, as correct or incorrect. The norms1 that determine what counts as correct or incorrect, he calls ‘concepts’. So the genus of which both judgement and action are species is understood as the activity of applying concepts: producing acts the correctness or incorrectness of which is determined by the rule or norm by which one has implicitly bound oneself in performing that act. By taking this line, Kant initiates a shift in attention from ontological questions (understanding the difference between two sorts of fact: physical facts and mental facts) to deontological ones (understanding the difference between facts and norms, or between description and prescription). This move entailed a corresponding shift from Cartesian certainty to Kantian necessity. This is the shift from concern with our grip on a concept (is it clear? is it distinct?) to concern with its grip on us (is it valid? is it binding?). (‘Necessary’ for Kant just means ‘according to a rule’.) The urgent task becomes understanding how it is possible for us to commit ourselves, to make ourselves responsible to a norm that settles the correctness of what we do.2 The problem of understanding the nature and conditions of the possibility (in the sense of intelligibility) of conceptual normativity moves to centre stage. (This view about the nature of the practice of using concepts might be called ‘normative pragmatism’.)

Kant tells us rather a lot about the process of applying concepts in ordinary judgements and actions. And I take it that his account of the origin, nature, and functioning of the pure concepts of the understanding, whose applicability is implicit in the use of any empirical concept, is intended to serve as a transcendental explanation of the background conditions with respect to which alone normativity in general is intelligible. But he says very little about how knowers and agents should be understood as getting access to the determinate empirical concepts they deploy. What he does say is largely programmatic and architectonic. It is clear, however, that one important structural dimension distinguishing Kant’s from Hegel’s account of conceptual norms concerns the relation between their production and their consumption, that is, between the process by which they become available to a knower and agent, on the one hand, and the practice of using them, on the other. For Kant tells a two-phase story, according to which one sort of activity institutes conceptual norms, and then another sort of activity applies those concepts.3 First, a reflective judgement (somehow) makes or finds4 the determinate rule that articulates an empirical concept. Then, and only then, can that concept be applied in the determinate judgements and maxims that are the ultimate subjects of the first two Critiques.5

Very roughly, Kant sees experience, the application of concepts, as beginning with the selection of concepts. The potential knower has available a myriad of different possible determinate rules of synthesis of representations. Experience requires picking one, and trying it out as a rule for combining the manifold of presented intuitions. If it doesn’t quite ‘fit’, or permits the synthesis only of some of the intuitions that present themselves, then a mistake has been made, and a related, overlapping, but different determinate concept is tried in its place. Thus, although it is up to the knower what concept to try out, the success of the attempted synthesis according to that rule is not up to the knower. The exercise of spontaneity is constrained by the deliverances of receptivity.6

The workability of a story along these lines depends on its being settled somehow, for each rule of synthesis and each possible manifold of representations, whether that manifold can be synthesized successfully according to that rule. This might be called the condition of complete or maximal determinateness of concepts. Only if this condition obtains -only if the empirical concepts made available by judgements of reflection are fully and finally determinate—does the Kantian account make intelligible the application of concepts as being constrained by the deliverances of sense, the correctness of judgements as constrained by the particulars to which we try to apply the universals that are our determinate empirical concepts. Hegel wants us to investigate critically the transcendental conditions of the possibility of such determinateness of concepts. He does not find in Kant a satisfactory account of this crucial condition of the possibility of experience.7 The question is how we can understand the possibility of applying, endorsing, committing ourselves to, or binding ourselves by one completely determinate rule rather than a slightly different one. This problem is related to the one Kripke attributes to Wittgenstein.8 It is the issue of understanding the conditions of the possibility of the determinateness of our conceptual commitments, responsibilities, and obligations. I don’t want to dwell on what I take Hegel to see as the shortcomings of Kant’s answer. For my purposes it suffices to say that Hegel takes a different approach to understanding the relation between the institution and the application of conceptual norms. In fact I think Hegel’s idealism is the core of his response to just this issue, and it is here that I think we have the most to learn from him.9

A good way of understanding the general outlines of Hegel’s account of the relation between the activity of instituting conceptual norms and the activity of applying them is to compare it with a later movement of thought that is structurally similar in important ways. Carnap and the other logical positivists affirmed their neo-Kantian roots by taking over Kant’s two-phase structure: first one stipulates meanings, then experience dictates which deployments of them yield true theories.10 The first activity is prior to and independent of experience; the second is constrained by and dependent on it. Choosing one’s meanings is not empirically constrained in the way that deciding what sentences with those meanings to endorse or believe is. Quine rejects Carnap’s sharp separation of the process of deciding what concepts (meanings, language) to use from the process of deciding what judgements (beliefs, theory) to endorse. For him, it is a fantasy to see meanings as freely fixed independently and in advance of our applying those meanings in forming fallible beliefs that answer for their correctness to how things are. Changing our beliefs can change our meanings. There is only one practice -the practice of actually making determinate judgements. Engaging in that practice involves settling at once both what we mean and what we believe. Quine’s pragmatism consists in his development of this monistic account in contrast to Carnap’s two-phase account. The practice of using language must be intelligible as not only the application of concepts by using linguistic expressions, but equally and at the same time as the institution of the conceptual norms that determine what would count as correct and incorrect uses of linguistic expressions. The actual use of the language settles -and is all that could settle -the meanings of the expressions used.11

Hegel is a pragmatist also in this monistic sense. He aims at a conception of experience that does not distinguish two different kinds of activity, one of which is the application of concepts in (determinate) judgement and action, and the other of which is the institution or discovery of those concepts (by ‘judgements of reflection’). For Hegel, empirical judgement and action is not (as for Kant and Carnap) just the selection of concepts to apply, or the replacement of one fully formed concept by another. It is equally the alteration and development of the content of those concepts. Conceptual content arises out of the process of applying concepts—the determinate content of concepts is unintelligible apart from the determination of that content, the process of determining it. Concepts are not fixed or static items. Their content is altered by every particular case in which they are applied or not applied in experience. At every stage, experience does presuppose the prior availability of concepts to be applied in judgement, and at every stage the content of those concepts derives from their role in experience.12

Hegel often couches this point in terms of a distinction between two metaconcepts of the conceptual: Reason (his good, dynamic, active, living conception), and Understanding (Kant’s, and everyone else’s, bad, static, inert, dead conception). Understanding concepts in terms of the categories of the Understanding is treating them as fixed and static. It allows progress only in the sorting of judgements into true and false, that is, in the selection from a repertoire fixed in advance of the correct concepts to apply in a particular instance. But Hegel wants to insist that if one ignores the process by which concepts develop—what other concepts they develop out of, and the forces implicit in them, in concert with their fellows, that lead to their alteration (what Hegel will call their ‘negativity’)—then the sort of content they have is bound to remain unintelligible.13

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