The contradiction of empirical reality: transcendental idealism and recognition (Mar 2017)

Lecture for Humboldt-Kolleg – Metaphysics of Freedom? Kant’s Concept of Cosmological Freedom, 29-31 March 2017, Amsterdam


In his Lectures on the history of philosophy, when discussing Kant’s third antinomy, Hegel reproaches Kant for having “a tenderness for the things” (eine Zärtlichkeit für die Dinge). In this contribution, I will try to explain what Hegel means by this criticism, and why it makes sense.

Hegel values very much about Kant’s doctrine of the antinomies that it exposes the fundamental contradictions of reason. He calls this “the interesting side” of the antinomies. What is ‘interesting’ about them is that we cannot conceive of transcendental freedom right away. The thesis that every causal chain of events presupposes a cause that is itself not caused contains the contradiction that an absolute spontaneity cannot take place “according to rules” (nach Regeln), and hence cannot be understood in terms of causality. The antithesis, which rejects absolute spontaneity, makes this explicit, but it results in contradiction too: it is undeniable that every causal chain posits an origin. The complete problem of the third antinomy thus is that we are forced to accept the assumption of transcendental freedom, but by doing so we postulate a contradiction.

Kant argues that his transcendental idealism can resolve this contradiction. We shall see that Hegel does not accept Kant’s solution. I argue, however, that Hegel’s refutation of transcendental idealism does not mean that he does not take seriously the distinction between appearances and the Thing-in-itself. I am going to do this by assessing Hegel’s concept of recognition in the self-consciousness chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit.


Transcendental idealism

Kant develops his central thesis about transcendental idealism in the transcendental esthetics. He says about sensible intuition that it is both empirical and pure. Intuition in general is the immediate relation of a subject to an object. It is pure insofar as the immediate relation implies a connection with the object, and it is a priori insofar as the relation is innate to the subject. In other words, intuition in general articulates a relatedness of the subject to the things-in-themselves. Furthermore, intuition can be defined as either intellectual or sensible. The sensible intuition implies that the object is not given a priori by intuition, but it exists independently from it. It is an otherness for the subject of intuition.

Kant never doubts that the immediate relatedness of the subject to the things-in-themselves might not be real, like for example solipsism does. His dualism should not be confused with Descartes’ dualism of mind and body. On the contrary, we can regard Kant’s claim that sensible intuition is nonetheless a pure intuition a priori exactly as a confirmation that the mind forms an integrated whole with the body. For Kant, the transcendental character of the human mind has everything to do with the subject’s embodiment. For example, Kant derives his specification of the transcendental use of logic as distinct from its general use also from a distinction that follows from sensible nature of the human mind, viz. the distinction that objects are given either empirically or pure.

Essentially, Kant argues against empiricism that sensible intuition cannot provide any qualitative determination, unlike what Hume’s concept of impression suggests. Unity cannot be observed. Instead, Kant develops the twofold meaning of the sensible intuition, being both empirical and pure, as a distinction between form and content. Here, the Aristotelian distinction between form and matter is, what its origin is concerned, attributed entirely to sensible intuition. According to Kant, sensibility means that the form of intuition is such that the materiality of the objects does not coincide with how these objects are given empirically. The materiality of that, which is given empirically, is its transcendental origin, without which the empirical could not be conceived of as something in which the subject transgresses itself. The transcendental meaning of what is given empirically, is the transgression of the subject: its openness to otherness, which Kant conceives of as the distinction between the empirical content and transcendental matter.

Consequently, color, taste, sound, etc. are empirical determinations that do not tell us anything about the transcendental matter. The empirical quality of judgments does not provide a starting point for judgments about the reality-in-itself. So how about quantity? Kant argues that quantity in sensible intuition is the result of the structuring of intuitions in space and time: the thus created manifold is what Kant calls ‘pure manifold’. His idea behind calling this manifold pure is that regarding quantitative judgments we cannot find any empirical origin. Because defining quantity is a matter of counting objects, it is a matter of observation, and hence it requires intuition. However, there is nothing empirical about such a verification by the senses. A number has no positive empirical quality, but it is an abstract quantum.

For Kant, this abstract quantum constitutes the genuine gateway to the transcendental matter of sensible intuition. The spacetime structuring of the object, resulting in the abstract quantum, adequately expresses that the transcendental meaning of the given object is that it is otherness for the subject. Only then sensible intuition truly serves its role as a condition for the possibility of knowledge, viz. as the capacity of the subject “to go beyond the concept”. The otherness for the subject is an absolute otherness, to which the subject nevertheless relates. In this way, the structuring in space and time is exclusively the activity of a sensible subject but, as a merely reactive activity, it is, at the same time, a positive relation to something that is absolutely different from its own subjectivity.

We can only determine what this absolute otherness is in itself in distinction with any aspect of our relation to it. The otherness must be comprehended as otherness. However, obviously, any judgment about reality-in-itself that is not mediated by the specific nature of our relation to reality, lacks grounding. Kant wants to resolve this problem by containing the pure negation between the things as they appear and the things as they are in themselves as one single negation: the absolute nothingness of space and time in the light of what the things are in themselves. This is what Kant calls transcendental idealism.

Here, the great value of transcendental philosophy becomes visible, but also its fundamental flaw. On the one hand, the empirical object of experience, the thing, is separated from its real matter, its ‘thingness’, which then becomes the transcendental condition of the possibility of knowledge as a merely negative concept of the Thing-in-itself. This distinction makes sense. Properly conceived of, ‘thingness’ is indeed not an abstracting generalization of empirical things. The empirical things only exist insofar as they express thingness, which tells us that the most concrete empirical things are in fact the most abstract determinations, and that their apparently most abstract determination, to be thingness, is the most concrete, presents to us the contradiction of the empirically given thing, viz. that it is a non-identity with itself.

So, Kant may bring to light this absolute negation within the thing, but on the other hand, however, he presents it as a contradistinction between the appearances and the Thing-in-itself, when in fact the negation is maintained because Kant challenges the objective validity of the empirical within sensible intuition, yet at the same he upholds sensibility’s pure element, viz. to be a relation to otherness. It means that the pure intuition a priori is not distinct from empirical quality insofar as the pure intuition a priori brings to light what the empirical quality of intuition in itself is, viz. non-identity or manifold. Therefore, the absolute nothingness that Kant only attributes to the pure forms of intuition, space and time, applies to the empirical quality of the judgment as well. Kant is not able to draw this conclusion without losing his essential point that we must conceive of the possibility of knowledge as a relation to absolute otherness. As a result, he does not reflect on the inner relation between the empirical quality and the pure quantity of sensible intuition.

Furthermore, Kant ascribes this contradiction of empiricism, which his transcendental idealism should resolve, not to the things but to the subject. Precisely by his construction of the Thing-in-itself, the things in themselves are not burdened with it. For this reason, Hegel accuses Kant of having “a tenderness for the things”, which might not be so dramatic, Hegel adds, if it were not for the fact that Kant treats the subject without any such tenderness.

Hegel emphasizes that the empirical and the pure are intrinsically related; nevertheless, he certainly doesn’t deny the core of the transcendental argument that the natural things are not how they appear to us and that the Thing-in-itself or thingness is not merely the abstraction of concrete objects. His point is, however, that the contradiction of the empirical not only applies to the subject but to the things as well. Already in the first chapter of the Phenomenology of Spirit, on sense-certainty, Hegel argues that the contradiction applies to empirical reality as such. The contradiction of sense-certainty is that the subject relates to the object, but insofar as the object indeed appears to the subject, the subject is not distinct from the object, which means that there isn’t a relation. In this contradiction – the empirical object is distinct and not distinct from the sensing subject – it already becomes clear that the separation between subject and object is problematic in general, and hence the contradiction applies to both.


Hegel’s concept of recognition

I will now go on to discuss how Hegel’s concept of recognition in the self-consciousness chapter from the Phenomenology of Spirit can solve this contradiction. Hegel’s concept of self-consciousness reflects Kant’s transcendental subject insofar as Hegel too considers self-consciousness to be the presupposition of consciousness. However, whereas Kant understands the transcendental subject as categorical and distinct from the senses, Hegel systematically develops self-consciousness as the resolution to the contradiction of the sensible things with themselves. His point of departure for thinking self-consciousness is the inner relation between subject and thing, which contains a contradiction, but one, which can neither be attributed one-sidedly to the thing nor one-sidedly to the subject.

Pushing the relation between consciousness and self-consciousness to its extreme, we could say that consciousness is the thing that is also a subject, and self-consciousness is the subject that is also a thing. On the one hand, in their immediate shape, i.e., consciousness as sense-certainty and self-consciousness as self-certainty, this other side – say, the subjectivity of the thing and the thingness of the subject – remains unarticulated. On the other hand, precisely in the reflection of the immediate shapes this other side is brought to light. In this way, consciousness experiences, in its fixation on the thing, that it is subject, and the self-certain self-consciousness experiences that it has thingness too. This latter experience is what Hegel calls “the fear of death” (Furcht des Todes), which introduces the relation between lord and bondsman (Herr und Knecht). In my view, the lord/bondsman-relation can be understood as Hegel’s solution to the contradiction that Kant’s antinomies have brought to light. Before I show how Hegel has done justice to what is at stake in transcendental philosophy, I give a concise presentation of the development from the pure (self-certain) self-consciousness to the self-consciousness of the relation between lord and bondsman.

Hegel begins with positing the pure self-consciousness. It is pure because it stands in a purely negative relation to nature or thingness. As immediate self-determination, the self-certain self-consciousness believes that it exists as a substance independent from any relation to otherness. However, the proclaimed independency is deeply problematic, because here, self-consciousness can only determine itself by showing that sensible nature is nothing. Hegel calls this the satisfaction of needs: only if the needs of the subject are satisfied, the subject proves that nature has no independence but can be fully integrated in the self-determination of the subject. For this reason, Hegel calls the pure self-consciousness “desire” (Begierde). The pure self-consciousness can only internalize an external nature if the essence of nature is subjectivity, in other words, if nature has a self too. However, the negation of nature in the satisfaction of needs precisely proofs that nature is nothing and has no self. This results in the contradiction of desire: nature must be negated and not be negated at the same time.

Hegel’s next step is, therefore, to posit that pure self-consciousness should not be understood as desire, but as “pure recognition”: we can only conceive of self-consciousness as a relation between a manifold of self-consciousnesses. A real self-consciousness can only have a relation to external nature if this external nature is a self-consciousness too. How is this a solution to the contradiction of desire? The problem of desire was that nature is independent but can also be negated. This is only possible when this nature has already negated itself within itself. In other words, nature that has an essence that is not opposed to the subject must be a self-negation. In terms of subject and thing, this means that the subject can negate the thing because the thing itself is a subject that already has negated its thingness all the time.

The third step is that the relation of pure recognition makes explicit that the possibility of the negation of external nature (the satisfaction of needs) is tied to an inner negation: the subject has thingness, i.e., it has a body, but at the same time it transcends this body. When we look at it in this way, self-consciousness is not an independent spiritual substance (like Descartes’ cogito) but essentially the unity of mind and body, which implicates both independency and dependency. It also means that the symmetry of pure recognition presupposes an asymmetry: the subject can only relate to another subject if it conceives of itself and the other as a unity of subject and thing. The unity of subject and thing is, however, has the form of an asymmetrical relation, because the mind is not immersed in the body, the subject is not immersed in thingness; it has a relation to it, because it can negate thingness. It is a relation of transcendence. This asymmetry is the presupposition of the symmetry of pure recognition, and it is explicated by Hegel in the relation between lord and bondsman.

This is the right place to address what I think is a misunderstanding about the development from desire to the relation between lord and bondsman. Often, this development is presented as a linear process: two self-consciousnesses, existing in and for themselves, enter a relation of recognition, and a societal relation comes about. I disagree with this interpretation. Methodologically, the self-consciousness chapter develops, just like the rest of the Phenomenology, through the uncovering of hidden presuppositions. So, the immediate self-certainty of self-consciousness turns out to be possible only under the condition of a pure symmetrical recognition between subjects, and this pure recognition in return turns out to be possible only under the condition of an asymmetrical recognition between subject and thing. In this picture, we should not even say, strictly speaking, that the lord/bondsman-relation is the ‘realization’ of the pure recognition. We should say, instead, that the pure recognition presupposes an asymmetry, and hence it can only exist as a relation that is both symmetrical and asymmetrical, which Hegel then calls the relation between lord and bondsman.

Therefore, the lord/bondsman-relation is not so much the result of the submission of one self-consciousness by another self-consciousness, but it is the societal self-consciousness in which the negation of the thing by the subject is really executed. Hegel’s real claim is, therefore, quite contrary to the common understanding that the lord/bondsman-relation is only the first still inadequate realization of pure recognition. His claim rather is that this societal self-consciousness understood as lord and bondsman is the first adequate realization of the pure recognition.

How is this possible? At first sight, it looks as if there exists a relation of inequality: the bondsman subjects himself to the lord. However, the inequality is not brought about by the subjection, but it further explains what the nature of the inequality is that conditions the pure recognition. What needs to be understood is how the negation of the thing by the subject does not remain abstract, but becomes real. For the subject, the thing must be real and unreal – real, because otherwise there is nothing to be negated, and unreal, because its reality can be negated. Hegel suggests that, to avoid contradiction, we should distribute this twofold relation between subject and thing over two uneven self-consciousnesses. He calls the self-consciousness, for whom the thing is real, the bondsman; the self-consciousness, for whom the thing is nothing, becomes the lord.

Hegel notes that this division is somewhat artificial and provisional. In the end, the unity of self-consciousness must be understood. The point of the lord/bondsman-relation is not, therefore, to draw a relation between two separate entities, but to explicate a twofoldness that is inherent to self-consciousness and constitutive for pure recognition. Hegel’s first step in the development from pure recognition to the lord/bondsman-relation is to present the two self-consciousnesses as being involved in a life-and-death struggle. In this representation, we conceive of the self-consciousness as a subject that can negate its thingness: by fighting to the death, the subject ‘proves’ that his body means nothing to him, it has no substance. However, the ‘truth’ of this inner negation is only experienced in the death of the other. Only if the other is destroyed, the subject can reassure itself that the thing has no substance. In this relation, the other is not recognized as another self-consciousness, but a thingness that stands between self-consciousness and its realization. However, insofar as the inner negation is only possible as the negation of the other, the other is not alien to the subject, and hence not merely a thing. At the level of the life-and-death struggle, this twofoldness that the other, which must be destroyed, is both thing and subject, appears as an unsolvable contradiction.

Therefore, the next step is that the other self-consciousness is recognized as another self-consciousness. According to Hegel, the very fact that such recognition could be possible at all implies that self-consciousness is both subject and thing, both mind and body. Only under the condition that we conceive of self-consciousness as this mind/body-unity, we can begin to make sense of the reality of self-consciousness. In the life-and-death struggle, it becomes clear that the inner negation is dependent on an external negation: the subject can only negate otherness if the otherness negates itself. We can only fight others to the death because they are mortal. The question is, however, how this inner and external negation can take place without losing self-consciousness. For Hegel, this is possible as a societal self-consciousness: the subject can negate nature (without dying) as a member of society. By living according to social rules instead of natural needs, urges and desires, individuals can hold back their natural inclinations. Now, this way of negating thingness is not directly a solution, because it establishes a circular argument, a petitio principii: the societal self-consciousness only exists because its individual members are able to transcend their natural inclinations.

The only way to break away from the circularity is to posit a negating self-consciousness that conceives of itself as the expression of a self-consciousness that has already overcome nature. Such a self-consciousness can negate nature, because it recognizes itself in a being that already has negated nature all the time. So, the bondsman subjects himself to the lord because he recognizes his own essence in the lord. In other words, his ability to negate nature is objectified by the lord as the actuality of this ability. The subjection of the bondsman to the lord is not an act of powerlessness but one of freedom: only because he is intrinsically free and not determined by his inclinations, he can obey a social norm, represented here by the lord.

The experience that is linked to this realization is the “fear of death” (Furcht des Todes), which has a twofold meaning. On the one hand, self-consciousness experiences, in the life-and-death struggle, that it can put its life at stake, but on the other hand, precisely by doing so, self-consciousness experiences that life is the necessary condition of being a self. So, in one and the same experience, self-consciousness experiences that it needs life, but that it can also transcend life. It experiences that its true life is not its life within the natural realm, where death rules as the “absolute lord”, but that the realm of self-consciousness is a societal realm, a second nature.

Again, this transition is not linear – it is a hidden presupposition becoming explicit. What becomes explicit is that the reality of self-consciousness is not a nature that stands in opposition to self-consciousness, but a nature that is self-conscious. The nature that is self-conscious is represented by the lord. In this way, the lord actualizes and grounds the relation of pure recognition. This actualization does not, however, make the recognition any less pure, because for the lord, there is no opposition between nature and self-consciousness whatsoever. Still, this is only one side of the lord/bondsman-relation. Because recognition essentially is a relation between self-consciousnesses, its purity can only exist as a relation. In other words, the bondsman might merely be the impure expression of what the lord is in a pure manner (because he is mediated by the experience of the fear of death), but the lord is only pure because the bondsman mediates nature for the lord. Hegel thus concludes that the truth of the lord/bondsman-relation is in the self-consciousness of the bondsman: the pure lord is merely the mirror-image of the pure freedom that allowed the bondsman to transcend nature in the first place.

So, in the relation between lord and bondsman, or the capacity to transcend a given reality, is attributed to the bondsman, because the bondsman mediates between the lord and the thing. Now, returning to the general relation between consciousness and self-consciousness that we are discussing here, this conclusion sounds somewhat paradoxical. Hegel’s argument seems to be that real self-consciousness is possible, because thing and subject are, in the end, not in opposition: the subject is thing, and the thing is subject. This truth is not created by the pure recognition, or the societal self-consciousness of lord and bondsman, or the fear of death, but only made explicit by them. However, the mediation of the bondsman between the lord and the thing, further specified by Hegel as the activity of labor, i.e., the gradual negation of the thing so that the lord can merely consume and enjoy nature, suggests that there is a natural reality outside of self-consciousness. A sort of hidden Thing-in-itself. If this were truly the case, Hegel would not have genuinely considered Kant’s transcendental argument: The Thing-in-itself cannot be negated.

This brings us back to the original question: what precisely is the relation between subject and thing? So far, it seems as if Hegel’s theory of self-consciousness only answers this question one-sidedly by pointing out how the subject can transcend the realm of things; still, its presupposition, viz. that the things must allow for this, apparently remains unexplained. This presupposition must entail that the subject can only transcend things insofar as the subject already is the essence of the things all the time. As a result, the thing to which the bondsman relates directly, and the lord indirectly, cannot be a Thing-in-itself. In other words, it cannot be an otherness that is not subject.


The thing as force

Now, this thesis is not discussed in the self-consciousness chapter but in the preceding consciousness chapter: Force and the Understanding. It discusses the final subjective certainty of empirical consciousness, viz. whether we can conceive of substance as ‘force’ or ‘a play of forces’. Hegel derives the representation of nature as a force from the natural sciences: we can intellectually grasp nature by taking it as a play of forces that works according to natural laws. In the end, Hegel indeed concludes that the reality of the concept cannot be conceived of as a play of forces, but only as subject. However, within the development of this insight, and this is crucial for my argument, Hegel argues that there are not one but two ways in which the understanding tries to find the concept in objective nature: the two truths of the understanding.

The first truth of the understanding is to conceive of the concept as the supersensible unchanging essence of the many appearances. In this conception, the natural law unifies a given manifold. This results in contradiction, because there are many natural laws. So, a particular law of nature (for example, the law of gravity) can never express the lawfulness of objective reality as such. In the second truth of the understanding, these opposites are brought together. The dynamic of the general lawfulness of nature expressing itself as a particular law of nature, and the return of this particular law to the generality, becomes the actual movement of the play of forces. Hegel calls it “the principle of alternation”: das Ungleichwerden des Gleichen und das Gleichwerden des Ungleichen. Whereas in the first truth, the law form is the unmoving unity contrasting the changeable world of appearances, the second truth posits a law form that is dynamic change.

Now, in the transition from the first truth to the second one, the Copernican Turn is already partly executed. Whereas Kant criticizes the paradigm of the natural sciences for not considering the distinction between appearances and the Thing-in-itself, Hegel’s second truth of the understanding straight-forwardly posits an understanding for which this distinction exists, but which still is an understanding that considers this distinction to be innate to objective nature rather than already attributing it to the subject. This position is a possibility that Kant never takes into consideration. For him, attributing an intelligible origin to any determination that is only made known to us empirically neglects the distinction between the appearances and the Thing-in-itself. However, Hegel does not bypass this distinction, but he takes the absolute difference of form and content as the intelligible self-differentiation of the play of forces. The inner unity of the pure intuition and empirical intuition, form and content, is conceived of as an absolute self-differentiation.

Now, the third antinomy has pointed out that a causal succession must have, by principle, an absolute beginning. However, we cannot conceive of an absolute causation because it is spontaneous and we only understand causation that exists as a succession. By positing the law structure as a movement of absolute self-differentiation, Hegel brings together these opposites: from the perspective of the second truth of the understanding, the ‘force’ now becomes the concept as spontaneous causation. Again, by doing so, Hegel does not overstep the problem of the third antinomy. On the contrary, precisely by acknowledging this problem, Hegel shows that taking substance as a play of forces – i.e. as a natural occurrence – is, in the end, inadequate.

The problem is that the law by which nature is understood as this absolute alternation must be an absolute law. As a law, it must be intelligible; as an absolute, it must be spontaneous. Yet a natural law can never be both at the same time. Hegel uses the example of the law of gravity. According to the first truth of the understanding, a falling object is a movement in space and time, which can be described with a mathematical formula. According to the second truth, however, the law of gravity does not describe a movement in space and time, but a movement that unifies space and time: It equates two essentially unequal forms (das Gleichwerden des Ungleichen). Here, the movement described by the law of gravity unifies space and time ‘spontaneously’, because it does so in a way that is not a logically deducible development. That means, however, that the intelligibility of the law is not proven but merely posited. The law-form does not grasp nature in-itself at all, but it is a merely posited unity, which Hegel then calls the “tautology of the understanding”. The result is that the absolute distinction, which is projected in nature, into the object, as a play of forces, turns out to be only conceivable as the self-distinction of a subject.

So how is this development from consciousness to self-consciousness a further reflection on transcendental freedom? By conceiving of nature as a play of forces, we in fact begin to understand nature as a self already. In other words, in the consciousness chapter, there is already a conception of the self, viz. the force in the shape of spontaneous causation, posited as the unity of nature. Here, Kant’s antithesis to transcendental freedom that the idea of absolute causation evokes contradiction, is not denied by Hegel; on the contrary, he argues that transcendental freedom is still an empirical and natural representation of what is in truth a relation of spirit. The law which no longer contradicts the concept of self-realization is not a natural law, but the law of self-consciousness.

Given that this is the essence of the thing, which I argue, it brings us back to the thingness that is experienced in the fear of death. Here, self-consciousness cannot experience a thingness that is external to what self-consciousness is in itself. Hegel expresses this when he says about the self-consciousness in the fear of death that it has “trembled in every fibre of its being”. The original German phrase “Alles fixe hat in ihm gebebt” implies that every fixation dissolves. So, obviously, the fear of death implies a confrontation of self-consciousness with its organic existence as a necessary condition of its self-conscious existence, but in addition to that, it also implies that the thing is not merely this organic thing; instead, it is the absolute indeterminacy of life. In the end, the thing, which the bondsman experiences, is the unity of thing and subject, not merely as life but as self-conscious life. Self-conscious life is, therefore, the presupposition of the fear of death, not its result. Seeing that the thing, to which both the bondsman and the lord relate, is the absolute grounding of self-consciousness, it is no surprise that the lord/bondsman-relation results in the stoic self-consciousness, which posits the result of labor as a nevertheless absolute unity of thing and subject. Yet this further development lies outside the scope of this paper.

Out now: “Der ‘innere’ Gerichtshof der Vernunft” (Nov 2016)

96484This fall, the series Critical Studies in German Idealism (Brill Academic Publishers) has published a new volume, which I edited together with my colleague Sasa Josifovic.

The volume is titled:

Der “innere” Gerichtshof der Vernunft: Normativität, Rationalität und Gewissen in der Philosophie Immanuel Kants und im Deutschen Idealismus

The volume explores Immanuel Kant’s description of the human conscience as an “internal court of justice”. Kant’s theory of conscience is discussed in the context of practical philosophy, philosophy of religion and its historical development after Kant, especially in Hegel’s philosophy. Approaching general concepts such as “normativity” and “rationality” from the perspective of Kantian philosophy and German Idealism, the book goes beyond the limited scope of contemporary theories of action that often take these concepts for granted. In particular, Kant’s theory of conscience invites different perspectives that are both critical and more fruitful.

The book contains German papers by Klaus Düsing, Walid Faizzada, Sasa Josifovic, Heiner F. Klemme, Thomas Oehl, Elke Schmidt & Dieter Schönecker, Arthur Kok. Christian Krijnen, Paul Cobben, and Kurt Appel; and an English paper by Stefan Bird-Pollan.

Dutch neo-Thomism and the critique of modern philosophy (Apr 2016)

Conference “Metaphysics in Modernity: Tradition and Innovation”, 16 March 2016, Leuven.


A remarkable feature of neo-Thomism is that it did not attribute a ‘metaphysical rest’ to modern philosophy, like for example Nietzsche, Heidegger and Habermas did. Instead, it claims that modern philosophy suffers from a ‘lack of metaphysics’. In this presentation, I will illuminate this supposed lack from the perspective of Thomas of Aquinas’ attempt to unite the Christian idea of creation with Aristotelian philosophy. Before we examine more closely how this attempt is confronted with modern philosophy, we need to understand why this confrontation is important today. In fact, the philosophy of Thomas of Aquinas is more important today than it was in the 12th Century, because today neo-Thomism is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic church. This evidently raises the question: How up-to-date is Thomistic philosophy? The article in which the question is put forward in the most pregnant way is “Wijsgerige reflecties op de scheppingsidee: St. Thomas, Hegel en de Grieken” (Philosophical reflections about the idea of creation: Saint Thomas, Hegel and the Greeks) from 1975 by Jan Hollak. Hollak poses, I think, the one quintessential question: Is Thomas’ concept of absolute truth (God) compatible with modern subjective freedom that Kant calls autonomy? On the one hand, Hollak acknowledges that the classic Thomistic understanding of the idea of creation stands in a problematic relation to modern freedom. On the other hand, he sees an unused potency in the Thomistic doctrine of God’s trinity that could resolve this problem. Another scholar in Dutch neo-Thomism, Jan Aertsen, offers a comparable reading of Thomas; therefore, we will also include him in our investigation.

Both Hollak and Aertsen stress that modern philosophy’s lack of metaphysics concerns the Kantian viewpoint that the entire domain of metaphysics is covered by the distinction between analytic and synthetic judgments. Kant emphasizes that analytic judgments are always a priori, but also tautological. The possibility of metaphysics therefore depends, Kant argues, on the possibility of pure synthetic judgments a priori. And even though Hegel – the most important modern discussion partner for Hollak – rejects the analytic/synthetic-distinction, his philosophy can nonetheless be regarded as a thinking through of Kants synthetic judgment a priori. For Kant, the synthesis remains a conjunction between two originally distinct faculties of knowledge, understanding and intuition; Hegel shows that the synthesis is merely the abstract moment of what is in truth a dialectical relation between mind and body. So what appears in Kant as the contingent relation between the categories and the senses, is understood by Hegel through the unity of mind and body. Hollak praises Hegel’s speculative dialectics because it transcends the sphere of categorical thinking by conceiving the understanding “as being in relation to … human spirit as embodied spirit”. At the same time however, Hollak thinks that Hegel does not fully grasp the sphere of the ‘supra-categorical’ (het boven-categoriale), i.e., the spiritualness of embodied spirit.

Aertsen’s 1986 article “Eenheid en veelheid: Thomas van Aquino over de grondvraag van de metafysiek” can illuminate the meaning of the supra-categorical. Like Hollak, Aertsen argues that in the analytic/synthetic-distinction the ‘genuine’ idea of metaphysics, or at least Thomas’ conception thereof, remains out of sight. Against Kant’s rejection of the doctrine of the transcendentals (the one, the truth, and the good) as solid building stones for metaphysics because of their tautological character, Aertsen claims that Thomas develops a doctrine of the transcendentals that avoids tautology. To say that the being is one adds something to the being, if we regard unity as undividedness. The oneness of the being in the meaning of undividedness points towards a conception of truth that cannot be expressed in synthetic thinking, because in synthetic thinking unity appears as the unity of unity and difference. With regard to Thomas’ conception of unity as undividedness the relation between the one and the many is different. Here, the measure to which the being is more divided or less divided is comparable to the measure to which the being is more one or less one, or more manifold and less manifold. Consequently, the being that less divided is not only more perfectly one, but also more perfectly many.

This fundamentally different approach to the relation between oneness and manifold is important to neo-Thomism because the Catholic Church teaches the trinity: God is perfectly one and he is perfectly many. In comparison, whereas synthetic thinking can only conceive of perfectibility in terms of conjunction, the unity=undividedness operates through perfect disjunction. Hollak criticizes Hegel’s philosophical reconstruction of the trinity in his Vorlesungen über die Philosophie der Religion as a dialectical development, because this presents the trinity one-sidedly as a conjunction. For Hollak, this implies an illegitimate transgression of the limits of philosophy in the sense that Hegel tries to grasp the how of God. When Hollak maintains that a philosopher ought not make claims about the how of God, only to introduce his neo-Thomistic philosophical concept of God, our most reasonable interpretation is to assume that this philosophical concept of God does not completely comprehends God but merely comprehends his incomprehensibility.

At this point, Hollak introduces Thomas’ conception of creation. The finite being in relation to its absolute origin of being has to be regarded, from the perspective of the creator, as a relation of creation; and from the perspective of the creature as a relation of becoming-created. Because in this relation the creator is perfectly independent from the creature and the creature is perfectly dependent from the creator, God’s infinity is not at all compromised by his act of creation. He is absolute freedom. Hollak notices, however, that God’s absoluteness is being emphasized at the expense of the freedom of the creature, which finds itself in a relation of pure dependency. He compares this to Hegel’s relation between lord and bondsman and it is easy to see in it the metaphysical expression of the unfreedom and inequality that Hegel observes in Catholicism. True freedom, according to Hegel, is to be found in the overcoming of the relation between lord and bondsman. Hollak tries to conceive of a similar overcoming in the context of the idea of creation, which so far only one-sidedly expresses the dependency of the creature of its creator; and hence how the finite occurs in the infinite, but not how the infinite occurs in the finite.

How does the overcoming of the relation between lord and bondsman takes place in Hegel? Most importantly, the relation between lord and bondsman is a relationship of freedom, as opposed to what for example Kojève and Habermas believe. In the lord and bondsman freedom is real as the self-subjection of the bondsman to the lord: it is a metaphor for the individual that obeys the laws of society. Hegel’s point is that obedience implies freedom, because it shows that the human individual’s fidelity to a non-natural law form is not fully determined by natural inclinations. However, to the extent that this freedom only appears as ‘working in the service of the lord’, it remains one-sided and inadequate. Overcoming the lord/bondsman-relation consists in grasping the freedom that makes this relation possible as it is in and for itself. In this grasping, the mutual dependency of lord and bondsman becomes explicit: the bondsman has to become its own lord, it has to serve its own essence.

If we want to conceive of a similar overcoming with regard to the Thomistic idea of creation, the point cannot be that the pure independency (exemplified by the lord) turns out to be depending on the activity of a finite being (exemplified by the bondsman). Instead, that which has to be grasped is the perfect dependency. Hollak uses the term “relative autonomy”. The true grasping of the perfect dependency expressed in the idea of creation, i.e. the one of the finite creature from its creator, cannot be a synthesizing or dialectical grasping. Thus insofar as Hegel’s grasping of the lord/bondsman-relation implies a relation of mutual dependency in which the lord, i.e. freedom, depends on the bondsman, i.e. the realization of freedom, infinitude and finitude mingle on improper grounds. However, if we concentrate on Hegel’s claim that the bondsman understands that whatever he does in service to the lord is in truth service to himself and his own essence; acquiring this insight in no way implies a (self-)finitization of this essence. This makes a non-dialectical reading of Hegel’s passage of lord and bondsman possible, through which Hollak succeeds in explicating a non-synthetic and non-dialectical dimension of the concept of modern subjective freedom; a dimension, which nonetheless belongs to the core of freedom.

Similar to our understanding that the lord, which is being served by the bondsman, is in fact the absolute essence of the bondsman, the finite being can recognize its autonomy in the relation of perfect dependence. The finite being is absolute, i.e. free, in a finite manner. Hence the term ‘relative autonomy’: autonomy exists as relation. Relative autonomy does not indicate a dialectical relation, but signifies in the words of Hollak the domain of spirit as a supra-categorical sphere, but apart from Hegel’s mind/body-related transcending of categorical thinking. Hollak regards it as ‘revelation’ in the Christian meaning, the creator who announces himself in the creature, which he conceives of as an internal critique of Thomas of Aquinas. The latter’s conception of the idea of creation as a relation of perfect dependence cannot account for creation as revelation. Consequently, Thomas misconceives of the relation between creature and creator as one of passive participation, whereas Hollak argues that perfect dependence does not exclude active participation at all: the finite being participates in the infinitude of God to the extent that he takes on his being-created in a self-conscious manner.

This shows that the Thomistic conception of the doctrine of creation does not contradict subjective freedom, even though it posits a perfect dependency of the creature from its creator, because the finite being’s consciousness about his contingency is at the same time self-consciousness. The theological doctrine in Roman Catholicism about the nature of the finite being’s perfect unity with God thus can be affirmed without violation subjective freedom, which was Hegel’s concern in the first place. The apparent ambiguity, to be able to affirm the that but not the how of God, disappears when we understand that the any possible knowledge of God is to be obtained exclusively through the finite being’s active participation to the relation of perfect dependency. In other words, the knowledge of God is mediated through self-knowledge, always mediated and always indirect. In this regard too, it is clear that the point is not to overcome subjective freedom. In fact, retrospectively, subjective freedom is necessary to make the Thomistic doctrine of God comprehensible at all.

This brings me to the end of my paper. For the sake of completeness, I have to add that Hollak thought that his critique of Hegelian dialectics concerned Hegel’s entire philosophy: Hegel does not fully do justice to human contingency, because he reduces the absolute to its dialectical relation to finite reality. I disagree with this assessment: for Hegel, the relation between absolute and objective spirit is not a purely dialectical relation. However, this discussion cannot be decided here. What I find convincing about Hollak’s criticism of Hegel is that he shows that Hegel is wrong when he privileges Protestant religion as the only religion that does justice to subjective freedom. Particularly in our world, which is one of many cultures, such a position is obsolete. Hollak’s analysis makes explicit that in this specific sense, Hegel does not do justice to the contingency of the tradition in which he philosophizes. Again, this is not Hollak’s position but my position to clarify why neo-Thomism is relevant today: it is a serious attempt – and in the case of Hollak: a successful one – to reconcile tradition and modernity, whereas the common tendency of today’s discussions is too often polarizing.