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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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Hegel thinks of Spirit—the realm of the normative—as produced and sustained by the processes of mutual recognition, which simultaneously institute self-conscious selves and their communities. I have presented this picture as motivated by the problem of how to construe autonomy in a way compatible with the determinateness of conceptual contents, while seeing those conceptual contents as instituted in the same process of experience in which they are applied (the pragmatist’s fundamental commitment). I have suggested that Hegel thinks that the boundaries around what one has and has not committed oneself to by using a particular concept (and what is and is not a correct application of it) are determined by a process of negotiation among actual attitudes of application and assessments of applications.23

This motivation for understanding selves—the subjects of determinately contentful commitments and responsibilities, concept users, and hence subjects of experience, knowers and agents—in terms of mutual recognition explains why the process of reciprocal specific recognition should be taken to provide the context within which concepts are both applied and their contents instituted and determined. But it does not yet evidently explain why the structure and unity imparted to selves and communities by their institution by reciprocal recognition should be taken to provide a model for concepts—to explain their structure and unity. The reason that the process of reciprocal recognition, and so the structure and unity of selves, provides not only the context of but the model for the institution and application of conceptual norms is that it is not just one example of how norms are constituted by reciprocal authority (mutually dependent moments). Wherever a norm can properly be discerned, there must be distinct centers of reciprocal authority and a process of negotiation between them. For this, Hegel thinks, is the nature of the normative as such: the only way in which determinate contents can be associated with norms according to the conception of the normative embodied in the autonomy thesis. The commitment one undertakes by applying a concept in judgement or action can be construed as determinately contentful only if it is to be administered by others distinct from the one whose commitment it is. So in acknowledging such a commitment, one is at least implicitly recognizing the authority of others over the content to which one has committed oneself.24

But how, exactly, are we to understand the structure and unity of concepts on the model of reciprocal recognition among selves? For Hegel, as for Kant, all norms are conceptual norms: talk of norms and talk of concepts are alternatives for addressing one fundamental common phenomenon. The first thing to realize is that Hegel understands concepts, the contents of norms, as essentially inferentially articulated.25 Hegel discusses this inferential articulation (in the Phenomenology beginning in the section on Perception) under the headings of ‘mediation’ [Vermittlung] and ‘determinate negation’. The paradigm of mediation, the case responsible for this choice of terminology, is the role played by the middle term in a syllogism. The application of the mediating concept serves as the conclusion of one inference, and the premise of another.26 The claim that mediation, the capacity to play this role, is essential to concepts is the claim that being able to figure both in the premises and in the conclusions of inferences is essential to concepts. This is what I mean by talking about their ‘essential inferential articulation’.27

In a similar way, when Hegel talks about ‘determinate negation’ he means material incompatibility relations among concepts: the way the applicability of one concept normatively precludes the applicability of another. An example would be the way calling a patch of paint ‘red’ precludes calling it ‘green’.28 Formal or logical negation (what Hegel calls ‘abstract’ negation) is definable from the determinate or material version. The abstract negation of p is its minimum incompatible: what follows from everything materially incompatible with p. It abstracts from the determinate content of those incompatibles, and so is merely incompatible.29 Together the material inferential and material incompatibility relations (relations of mediation and determinate negation) articulate the contents of conceptual norms.30

We are now in a position to approach the central question. The model of the sort of reciprocal recognition that institutes selves and their communities applies to the institution and application of concepts in experience at two levels. First, it describes the relations of reciprocal authority that relate particulars to the universals or determinate concepts that they fall under: the way in which determinate concepts are instituted and the judgements that present characterized individuals are made. Individuals, which are particulars characterized by concepts, and determinate concepts are simultaneously instituted or synthesized—just as in the model, individual self-conscious selves, as members of a community (as characterized by a universal), and their communities (universals) are simultaneously instituted or synthesized. Second, it describes the relations of reciprocal authority that relate determinate concepts to each other. At this level, determinate concepts and what Hegel calls ‘the Concept’, the great holistic, inferentially articulated system of determinate concepts and judgements articulated by those concepts—a sort of universal or community comprising them all—are simultaneously instituted or synthesized.

Judgements, acts of judging, come in two flavors: mediate and immediate. The mediate ones are the results of inferences from other judgements—that is, from the application of other concepts one has already made. The immediate ones are noninferentially elicited, paradigmatically perceptual judgements or observations.31 Desiring animals already sort their world by responding differentially to it—treating something as food, for instance, by ‘falling to without further ado and eating it up.’32 Immediate judgements are ones that a properly trained and tuned animal who has mastered the responsive use of the relevant concepts will make automatically, when confronted with the perceptible presence of a reportable or observable state of affairs. These noninferential applications of concepts (= immediate judgements) are wrung from or elicited by the particulars to which the concepts are on that occasion applied. By contrast, responsibility for (= authority over) inferentially elicited applications of concepts (= mediate judgements) is vested in the concepts or universals, whose inferential relations underwrite the judgement that is the conclusion.

Immediate judgements express a dimension along which particulars exert an authority over the universals or concepts that apply to them. Mediate judgements express a dimension along which universals or concepts exert an authority over the particulars to which they apply. The characterized individuals—particulars as falling under universals—that are presented by judgements (=applications of concepts) emerge as the product of negotiation between the two reciprocal dimensions of authority (each with its own dual, correlative sort of responsibility). This is the feature of concept use and development—the process of experience that is for this reason intelligible at once as the application and as the institution of conceptual norms—that is modeled by reciprocal recognition. Hegel’s Logic aims to be the completed story of how this works.

Evidently the two sorts of authority may collide. One may find oneself immediately with commitments incompatible with those to which one is inferentially committed. Then one must alter some of one’s commitments—either those that are authorized by the particulars (immediately) or those that are authorized by the universals (mediately). This necessity is normative: one is obliged by the incompatibility of one’s judgements, by the commitments one has oneself undertaken, to adjust either the authority of the particulars or of the universal. Making an adjustment of one’s conceptual commitments in the light of such a collision is what is meant by negotiating between the two dimensions of authority.33 The process of adjusting one’s dispositions to make immediate and mediate judgements in response to actual conflicts arising from exercising them is the process Hegel calls ‘experience’. It drives the development of concepts. It is the process of determining their content. It is how applying conceptual norms is at the same time the process of instituting them. Conceptual contents are determinate only because and in so far as they are the products of such a process of determining them by applying them in inferential concert with their fellows.34

This process of negotiation between acknowledged authorities upon their disagreement is the process of administering the sometimes opposed authorities of particulars and universals. It is constitutive of both the Concept, as the holistic system of all the determinate universals (empirical concepts) related by material inference and incompatibility (mediation and determinate negation), and the characterized particulars presented by a set of judgements, a set of commitments that are actual applications of universals to particulars. Concepts and judgements, meanings and beliefs, languages and theories, are two sides of one coin, intelligible only together, as elements of the process of experience. This view should sound familiar: it is Quine’s in ‘Two Dogmas of Empiricism’. Seeing change of meaning and change of belief as aspects of a single process of experience, of adjusting our beliefs (including those we find ourselves with perceptually) to one another, is Quine’s way of working out his pragmatist commitment. We are now in a position to see it also as Hegel’s way of working out his idealist commitment.35

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