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Hegel’s modest metaphysician

Richard Marshall interviews Robert Stern.

Robert Stern is an ice cool metaphysician brooding on Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Deleuze and the whole of nineteenth century philosophy. He has written Hegel, Kant and the Structure of the Object, Transcendental Arguments and Scepticism: Answering the Question of Justification, Hegel and the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegelian Metaphysics and Understanding Moral Obligations: Kant, Hegel, Kierkegaard. He thinks the British Hegelians were heavy dudes and that his own metaphysics isn’t house-trained. He thinks McDowell and Peirce plough the Hegelian groove and that Hegel is the funky bridge between Kant and Frege. Holy Hegeliana Batman!

3:AM: What made you decide to become a philosopher? Were you always in the grip of dialectical musings from an early age?

RS: Like most people, I suppose my development was greatly influenced by my parents and family. My mother and father both came from the Jewish community in London, and both left school without going to university, as they needed to earn a living by taking on jobs. But my mother, in particular, loved debate and argument, so liked to discuss issues in politics and religion. I also had a colourful uncle, who had moved from being a communist in his youth to a Malthusian conservative in his middle age – so he was a constant source of provocation.

If I remember correctly, my mother was also responsible for my first encounter with philosophy as such – she brought home a second-hand copy of Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy, and gave it to me to read when I was about 13. I remember being amazed that such a subject existed, and I was particularly taken by the chapter on Spinoza – I hadn’t realized that speculation on such a grant scale was possible. I don’t recall being quite so struck by the discussion of Kant and Hegel. But I had perhaps come across Hegel a little through an interest I had in T.S. Elliot, which led me to being vaguely aware of the British Idealists (Elliot had written his thesis on Bradley). But Durant gave me some sense of the history of the subject from the beginning, I suppose. Thank goodness my mother didn’t buy me Russell’s awful History of Western Philosophy – that might have put me off Hegel altogether. Anyway, all this awakened a school-boy interest in the subject, and (despite some misgivings from my parents, but encouraged by a much admired school teacher) I decided to study philosophy at university.

3:AM: Hegel has been understood in all sorts of ways. Peirce, Royce and Dewey had their version, Croce and Gentile theirs, Kojève, Sartre, Lukács and the Frankfurt School theirs again. Bradley, McTaggart, Green and Bosanquet made it dark and distant. So what is your Hegel like? Is it a synthesis?

RS: I agree that viewed from a certain perspective, it can look as if there are as many interpretations of Hegel as there are readers, with fundamental differences between them all. And of course, this can encourage hostile critics to believe that Hegel is ultimately a philosophical mess, where his thought lacks coherence and the exposition of his ideas is hopelessly obscure, so in the end anyone can take it any way they like. Indeed, the response to Hegel from the very beginning of his reception history was remarkably various, reflected in the famous division between ‘left’ and ‘right’ Hegelians, as well as the frequently forgotten ‘middle’ Hegelians (such as Karl Rosenkranz).

However, while Hegel’s interpreters do indeed cover a broad spectrum of views, I think this is not a sign of Hegel’s obscurity or incoherence, but really reflects the fundamentally dialectic nature of his project, which is to try to get beyond certain ingrained and very tempting dichotomies in our thinking – between reason and desire, freedom and determinism, theory and practice, the divine and the human, and so on – where his strategy is generally not to pick one side or the other, but to look for some way to combine both in a more stable synthesis. But then, of course, not only is there a danger of failing to satisfy either side, but there is also a danger of interpreters focusing more on one element at the expense of the other, and so seeming to come up with contradictory readings of his views – where again, what is often needed is some balance between them.

So, while ‘left Hegelians’ are no doubt right to emphasise Hegel’s closeness to certain themes in humanism, ‘right Hegelians’ are also correct to emphasise that Hegel is no straightforward atheist, although again to some religious thinkers his view of God may seem to amount to that. Likewise, there are both ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ strands in his political thought, so he can seem to be pushed both ways on this dispute, where really he is trying to get beyond it. So if you like, my view of Hegel is indeed perhaps a synthesis of a number of different readings or approaches to his thought – but that is only because I think his own position involves such a synthesis, not because I am just setting out to be eclectic in my interpretation just for the sake of it! I therefore find I have learnt something about reading Hegel from all the people you mention, and more. Of course, that does not mean there are not real interpretative disagreements and uncertainties over how best to understand Hegel and particular passages in his work – but then that is true of most philosophers.

3:AM: You see Hegel as a bridge between Kant and Frege that often is ignored in discussions of the development of Anglo-American philosophy. Is this the kind of historical absence that has left some thinking there’s a divide that the labels Analytical and Continental philosophy are supposed to identify? What do you think about the claims about there being such a divide?

RS: Yes, I agree that in many standard analytic accounts of the history of modern philosophy, there is a strange jump from Kant to Frege or perhaps Mill, as if post-Kantian German idealism never existed. And that is certainly reflected in the reading of many analytic philosophers. At the same time, it would not be true of the education of most ‘continental’ philosophers, for whom Hegel and the other idealists would all be equally significant. This then means, of course, that there is a crucial point of reference in that tradition which is missing in the analytic one, so that any number of subsequent figures, from Heidegger to Sartre to Derrida to Deleuze are then very hard to make sense of, if one lacks the necessary background in Hegel and German idealism generally. Not only do the issues of concern become hard to fathom, but also the language, terminology, method of argument and so on. (Something similar is also true of Nietzsche, and his place in this historical ‘gap’.)

Ironically, however, I think that once Hegel’s work is taken into account, it can them be seen that the differences between ‘analytic’ and ‘continental’ philosophy are less extreme than when his thought is ignored. So, for example, Hegel can be seen as addressing issues in metaphysics that of interest to both sides, where without Hegel as a mediating figure, this will be obscured. Thus, while there are no doubt other factors involved in the analytic/continental split, until Hegel forms part of the analytic canon, it will remain hard see how it can be overcome. Conversely, it is I think that no accident that figures such as John McDowell and Robert Brandom who have time for Hegel are also comfortable in dealing with thinkers from both traditions.

3:AM: You argue that John McDowell’s Mind and World is an attempt to understand the relationship between Kant and Hegel. He reads Hegel as attempting to complete Kant’s thought in some way. Is that right? Can you say something about this reading?

RS: Fundamentally, I think, McDowell reads Hegel in the way that Hegel often liked to present himself, as attempting to get beyond the dualisms and dichotomies that seem to remain in Kant’s system, notwithstanding its undoubted significance – say, the division between appearances and things-in-themselves, phenomena and noumena, freedom and necessity, reason and desire, duty and inclination, and so on. The central division that concerns McDowell in the book you mention, of course, is that between mind and world, which McDowell traces back to a further distinction in Kant, between intuitions on the one hand, and concepts on the other.

While there are ways of making this distinction that are harmless, McDowell thinks there is a tendency encouraged by Kant to come to hold that the use of concepts in our experience and thinking cuts us off from the world, rather than bringing us closer to it, thereby opening up an apparently unbridgeable gap between the two sides. McDowell urges instead that we should not think of our concepts as bounded on the outside by a world that is alien to them, or imposed on a form of basic experience that is itself non-conceptual, where he attributes something like this view to Hegel, in showing a way beyond Kant and the apparently troubling questions raised by his thought.

Of course, since the publication of Mind and World, all these issues have been much debated, both as interpretations of Kant and Hegel, and in themselves. And it is also true that there are other important historical influences at work on McDowell, including particularly Aristotle and Wittgenstein. Moreover, the way McDowell reads and uses Hegel also differs importantly from the way he is understood by Robert Brandom, who also started to employ Hegel in his own project at around the same time. Nonetheless, I think reading Mind and World still makes a very useful and stimulating way of trying to engage with Hegel, in a way that shows where his significance may lie.

3:AM: So is McDowell right to think of Hegel as he does? And isn’t his version somewhat quietistic compared to Hegel’s and as such, should that give us pause?

RS: As I have said, I think McDowell is right to think of Hegel as trying to ‘complete’ Kant’s project – and in many ways that in itself is pretty uncontroversial. Where it becomes more problematic, is to say (i) in what ways Kant’s project falls short (where Kantians will resist the suggestion that his project needs completing in the first place, while even non-Kantians will differ over where exactly they take the difficulties to lie); (ii) how precisely Hegel proposed to go further; and (iii) whether he succeeded. Moreover, it is increasingly being recognized that Hegel is not the only option available to us here, but that Fichte, Schelling and others may have a claim to be preferred.

Thus, for example, McDowell has been criticized for exaggerating Kant’s dualisms; for being too modest in his reading of Hegel’s alternative; and hence underestimating how problematic Hegel’s own position is. Personally, I would be inclined to defend McDowell on the first point, but do perhaps feel that there are aspects to Hegel’s response to Kant which are downplayed by McDowell, particularly relating to some of Hegel’s metaphysical commitments – though I would in general be prepared to defend them as not too outlandish, and suggest we can (to use a McDowellian phrase) ‘take them in our stride’!

And you are right that this difference between Hegel and McDowell can be related to the question of quietism. Although the issue is complex, quietism may perhaps be thought of as a combination of two views: (a) the claim that philosophical problems can be dissolved rather than directly answered, if it is shown that the framework that gives rise to the problem is itself questionable or misconceived; and (b) the claim that the way to do this is not through more philosophy, in the sense of taking on further metaphysical or ontological commitments, but by turning to our linguistic practices, or common sense, or our ‘form of life’. Now, while I think his dialectical approach means that (a) can be found in Hegel, I am less sure about his commitment to (b). This is because, I think, Hegel held that we cannot avoid having metaphysical commitments, as these are implicit in our language and our ordinary ways of thinking, so there is (so to speak) no escape from philosophy here – instead, we must rather try to do philosophy better, in a way that enables us to get beyond the problems which need to be dissolved.

Now, when it comes to McDowell, it is clear that he opts for (a) as well; and in so far as he is a quietist, it may be that he also hopes to opt for (b). But in fact (as some of his critics have argued), it is not always clear that he actually does so. So, for example, in Mind and World, McDowell hopes to show us how we can avoid the fruitless debates between ‘rampant Platonism’ on the one side, with all its spooky supernatural commitments, and ‘bald naturalism’ on the other, with its reductionism and excessive scientism, hence dissolving the apparently intractable philosophical issues that neither side can really answer satisfactorily.

This approach therefore seems to fit well with (a), and to echo Hegel’s dialectical strategy. But McDowell’s way to achieve this seems to be to argue for a ‘partial re-enchantment of nature’ as a middle way, but where this looks like it might itself be a metaphysically minded suggestion or a form of ontology concerning the way in which values, reasons, norms and so on can be fitted into the natural world; but if so, this would not comply with the second aspect of quietism mentioned above. From my Hegelian perspective, this would not itself be a problem, for as I have said, I think Hegel would also reject (b); and then if so, McDowell’s position would again turn out not to be so far removed from Hegel’s after all – though it would perhaps be further from one of his other heroes, namely Wittgenstein.

3:AM: Diagnosis, therapy and dissolution – you say Hegel introduced this notion of philosophy to European philosophy way before Wittgenstein. Hegel’s approach is a kind of optimism about the Kantian transcendental dialectic in that he thought we might overcome the problems rather than stay stuck. Is that right? Can you say something about this?

RS: Yes, I think Kant is a very important influence here, and gives us another place where Hegel thinks he can ‘go further’, in a more positive direction than Kant did himself. So, when it comes to Kant’s dialectic of reason, there is the suggestion that reason can find itself faced with apparently irresoluble contradictions and aporia, such as Kant’s antinomies, where there is also the suggestion of the therapeutic idea that it is our own thinking that is bewitching us, and leading us into confusion.

However, from Hegel’s perspective, there is also a significant price to be paid for adopting Kant’s approach; for in the resolution Kant offers to his antinomies, much depends on accepting Kant’s distinction between appearances and things-in-themselves, which for Hegel is to set up a kind of limit to our knowledge which he does not want to accept. So, for example, in the Third Antinomy, Kant argues that we may seem to face a contradiction between freedom and determinism; but this can be overcome once we accept transcendental idealism and distinguish between the realm of causally ordered nature as it appears to us, and things in themselves that are outside this order in which freedom can therefore be found.

To Hegel, however, the cure here seems worse than the disease. Instead, he argues, we need to come up with deeper ways of understanding freedom, cause, law, determinism, explanation, reasons and so on, in order to see how both sides can be made compatible, and the tension between them dissolved. Now, Hegel recognizes that this is difficult for us to do, where he agrees with Kant that there is a natural tendency to be led astray here – but against Kant, he holds that this is due to the understanding (Verstand) which thinks in terms of simple polarized categories and thereby creates problems for us in seeing how a resolution is possible, not reason (Vernunft) which can be more dialectical and many-sided in its thinking in a way that the solution requires. So again, we can see how here Hegel turns Kant on his head, where for the latter the understanding is viewed as unproblematic, while it is reason that was seen as leading is astray.

3:AM: A key question for Kant is about how synthetic a priori knowledge is possible? His letter to Herz of 1772 puts the point: ‘[i]f such intellectual representations depend on our inner activity, whence comes the agreement they are supposed to have with objects — how do they agree with these objects, since the agreement has not been reached with the aid of experience?’ Does Hegel really overcome the problem do you think?

RS: This is a good question for the Kantian to press, and oddly perhaps Hegel does not say very much about the issue explicitly. However, I think this is because from his perspective, it is less of a puzzle than it seems to be from Kant’s.

As in other cases, one way to see why is to treat Hegel as holding that Kant is operating here with a false dichotomy: between representations that are directly caused by their objects on the one hand, and those that come about through our ‘inner activity’ on the other. Based on this distinction, Kant not unnaturally holds that the former are unproblematic, and the latter are problematic – for how could a representation that appears to bear no relation to the world outside our minds in fact give us knowledge of it?

But now, suppose I have experience of the world, and then come up with a concept that helps me explain that experience in various ways – such as ‘atom’, or ‘force’, or ‘essence’. Hegel would agree with Kant that such representations are not directly given in experience, in the sense that I do not just observe such things; but on the other hand, it seems wrong to treat them as coming about through my ‘inner activity’ either, as if they had no relation to my encounters with the world around me – on the contrary, they are arrived at precisely to better understand and explain those encounters. But then, if so, is it really such a mystery that concepts of this sort can give us knowledge of the world? From Hegel’s perspective, I don’t think it is – which is why he would take transcendental idealism to be redundant as an attempt to resolve the puzzle Kant poses, as it is based on premises he sees no reason to accept.

Of course, the Kantian might respond to Hegel by saying that even if his answer works for empirical concepts like ‘atom’ and ‘force’, there is still a special difficulty about metaphysics, and its peculiar modal claims like ‘every change must have a cause’ – where, again, it appears we are going way beyond anything given to us in experience in holding such beliefs. But here again, I am not sure Hegel would accept the clear distinction the Kantian is trying to draw. After all, claims in science also involve modal notions (e.g. concerning the necessity of empirical laws), while on the other hand metaphysics also arrives at its theories in an attempt to make sense of the world and our experience of it, rather than being the result of some ‘inner activity’ cut off from that world – where only if this were so, would it be such a mystery how ideas concocted in purely ‘inner space’ could turn out to tell us anything about reality outside it.

Finally, one might instead have a kind of sceptical worry here: how can the mind, which is one thing, be so well equipped at discovering fundamental features of the world, which is something else – how can we assume that using the one we are able to find out about the other? Isn’t this rather miraculous, and so requires an explanation in transcendental idealist terms, if we are to avoid postulating some sort of ‘pre-established’ harmony between the two, underwritten by God? Now, in response to this worry, I think Hegel would again question the starting point, and hold that there is no reason to think the mind and world are so very different from one another in the first place, not because they are put into conformity by God, or because the mind somehow makes the world, but because while the mind is capable of grasping general laws, principles, kinds, universals and so on, the world itself also embodies such things, so it is again no great mystery that we find reality to be intelligible and accessible to our inquiries.

3:AM: You say that there is also a standard objection to Hegel in relation to a whole bunch of post-Kantian philosophers such as Schelling, Feuerbach, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche even Derrida and Deleuze. This is the Nietzschean objection that concepts distort because they generalize and so they can’t pick out the individuality in the word. Is Nietzsche right in this challenge, or do you think Hegel’s notion of the ‘concrete universal’ developed in his Logic gets to grips with the problem?

RS: Yes, I see this as a thread in the critique of Hegel that goes back to the very early days of the reception of his work, and shapes a lot of the issues that we now associate with ‘continental’ philosophy, which is a kind of suspicion that reason, ideas, concepts and thought in general distort or cut us off from reality, and that ultimately some other kind of access to it is required – where the difficulty is that things are inherently individual, specific and particular, whereas thought involves concepts that are inherently general, arrived at by a kind of abstraction from the concrete specificity of things. The worry is, then, that thought leads us into a realm of unreal abstractions, away from the concrete reality of lived experience and an immediate grasp of beings in their unique individuality.

Now, as I see it, Hegel’s doctrine of the ‘concrete universal’ was designed precisely to try to address this worry. According to Hegel, when we form the concept of what he calls ‘abstract universals’, we do in a sense abstract from the difference between things in various ways, and so move from what is specific to what is general: so, for example, when I form the concept ‘red’ by looking at a red bus and a red book, I ignore the differences between the bus and the book, and just focus on what makes them similar.

However, in the case of Hegel’s ‘concrete universals’, he thinks, the situation is different: for example, suppose I have the concept ‘human being’. To grasp that concept, I cannot just abstract away from all the things that make individual human beings different and just focus on what makes them similar, as arguably I would have virtually nothing left and certainly not the richness that is characteristic of our concept. Thus, Hegel argues, the various individual ways of being a human being are included within our concept, so that this concept is not really such an abstraction after all. In this way, he thinks, it is a mistake to think of the concept of a concrete universal like ‘human being’ as ‘hollow and empty’ or somehow cut off from the individuals that exemplify it; on the contrary, they are included under the concept, as part of what thought grasps in grasping the concept itself.

3:AM: As an aside, does talk of the ‘concrete universal’ and his Logic suggest that the British Idealists get left out of contemporary Hegelian talk because these were things they were interested in, and most people skip the Logic because its very very tough? So does the fact that British idealists were asking whether thought distorts because concepts can’t individualise suggest that they’re worth rereading after all and shouldn’t be written off quite as quickly as they usually are these days?

RS: I think that’s right. On the one hand, until relatively recently Hegel’s Logic was generally passed over by commentators (in the English speaking world, at least) in favour of other texts, partly because of its difficulty and partly because of a lack of sympathy with the kind of metaphysical theorizing it involves. On the other hand, for the British Idealists, the Logic was the key text, while they were unabashed metaphysical theorizers! So they were one of the few schools of Hegel reception to make much of his talk of the concrete universal, and other aspects of his metaphysics – which means that, as people are returning to this side of Hegel’s thought, I hope that they might be rediscovered as a helpful resource in speculating about these issues.

3:AM: Did Hegel think that what is rational is actual and what is actual is rational? You say that there are two ways of understanding what he’s arguing in the Doppelsatz, one conservative and one progressive. You reject both and say that really what Hegel is getting at is to ground philosophy in reason. Is this right? Doesn’t this deflate his metaphysics to something rather more tame and domesticated than his reputation suggests? Frederick Beiser would take issue with you wouldn’t he, arguing that against the modest metaphysical project you impute, Hegel ‘ … had a conception of philosophy that … saw the purpose of philosophy as the rational knowledge of the absolute. This conforms to one of the classical senses of the term “metaphysics” a sense given to it by Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason: the attempt to know the unconditioned through pure reason’? So is your Hegel too house- trained?

RS: I think this question runs together two issues, which I would prefer to keep separate if possible.

First, you are right that when it comes to Hegel’s famous (or notorious) Doppelsatz, I want to argue that this should be understood in a normatively neutral way, so that neither the conservative nor progressive readings of it are correct, according to which he is either endorsing the world as it happens to be, or the world as it would be if fully ‘actual’ or further developed in some sense. Instead, I want to suggest that his primary target here is those who think reality is not to be understood through reason and rational inquiry, so that the dictum is really a slogan in defense of his rationalistic approach to philosophy.

Now, other commentators will certainly disagree with me on this – but I am not sure they would do so primarily on the grounds that I hereby make Hegel’s metaphysics too modest or ‘house-trained’.

But you are still right that I have been criticized on this score, for claiming on the one hand to take Hegel seriously as a metaphysician, but on the other not making enough of what appear to be the more outlandish aspects of that metaphysical position, such as his claims concerning absolute knowledge, or his conception of Spirit, and so on.

Now, I certainly think that it is possible to take these aspects of Hegel’s thinking in an extravagant way. However, in practice when one comes to look in detail at what Hegel is actually doing with these notions, I honestly find this impression of extravagance quickly evaporates. So, for example, as Beiser himself allows, we should not take Hegel’s talk of the absolute to imply by this that he means something transcendent – for, as Hegel argues, that would put the finite outside the infinite, and so compromise its infinitude and thus undermine its status as the absolute. But then, metaphysics no longer amounts to speculation about a world beyond the finite, and so is no longer immodest in this sense. I therefore like to think that I am not merely ‘domesticating’ Hegel in my reading of him, or cherry-picking the palatable bits and ignoring the rest!

3:AM: Does this neutral reading link with your plea for modesty in terms of all transcendental arguments? You argue that there’s really no more force to transcendental arguments than demonstrating how things must appear to us or how we must believe them to be, so we should calm down and mute the transcendental urges. Doesn’t this kind of defeat the purpose of transcendental arguments, at least those that Kant and Hegel wanted? And doesn’t it make philosophy less bold and kill its speculative experiments?

RS: Well, perhaps there is a bit of a pattern here, though I confess it isn’t one I have been consciously pursuing as such!

But again, you are right that when it comes to transcendental arguments, I hold that we should perhaps be more modest in what we can expect them to achieve. That is, I broadly go along with Barry Stroud’s view that at most they seem to establish how things must appear to us or how we must believe them to be, not how things are (though my reasons for thinking this differ from Stroud’s). But I then claim that we should not be too disheartened by this, as even such modest claims can be of value against certain forms of scepticism – for example, a form of scepticism which claims we are not justified in believing what we do about the world, because it doesn’t even appear to us as we take it to be.

Now, when it comes to Kant, I am not sure he did intend anything much more ambitious than this – or at least, if he did, he only meant such claims to work within the context of transcendental idealism, which is another kind of modesty. When it comes to Hegel, I agree that in a way he may have wanted to make transcendental claims of a more metaphysical kind. But on the other hand, those claims are also arguably not meant to be Hegel’s way of dealing with the sceptic, who I think Hegel hopes to overcome in a different manner, while I was focusing primarily on the sceptical context – so again, perhaps there is not such a great divergence here either.

3:AM: The American pragmatist Peirce makes the connection between methods of science, realism and what he called Secondness which is that there are real things independent of thought and then attacks Hegel for leaving out this notion so that we end up in his metaphysics with just circles of thought going round without the friction of inhuman reality. This is a version of what many today might say to metaphysics generally and Hegel in particular – the need for metaphysics is over because we have science and that can do all we need. How would Hegel answer both the scientistic and pragmatist challenge?

RS: Well, I guess there are really two challenges you are posing to Hegel here: one in Peirce’s name, that Hegel is not enough of a realist, and another in the name of science, that metaphysics is somehow made irrelevant or ended by the rise of scientific inquiry.

When it comes to the first challenge, you are right that Peirce claimed that Hegel ‘has committed the trifling oversight of forgetting that there is a real world with real actions and reactions’ – remarking with sarcastic understatement that this oversight was ‘rather serious’. Thus, while Peirce had a high regard for certain aspects of Hegel’s philosophy, this was one place where he is critical.

However, I am not sure Peirce is really fair to Hegel here, or properly understood him on this point. In fact, although Peirce knew Hegel’s writings reasonably well in parts, his view of Hegel was greatly influenced by another writer of the time, called Francis Ellingwood Abbot, who treated all the German idealist since Kant in a Berkeleyean manner, as reducing matter to mind, and the world to ideas inside consciousness, and hence opposed idealism in this subjectivist or mentalistic sense to realism. It is therefore understandable that Peirce may have come to think that Hegel is guilty of the ‘trifling oversight’ he mentions.

Nonetheless, I would argue that Peirce has been misled here, and that while Hegel is of course an idealist in some way, this is not because he thinks the external world does not exist outside our minds. Rather, I would say, he is an idealist in holding that that world is not mere matter, but is also form, but where that form is not imposed on the world by the mind – which is why he is perhaps closer to Aristotle than to Kant, and so more of a realist in this sense. Ironically, moreover, Peirce himself has a somewhat similar view, in rejecting nominalism and defending a realism about what he calls Thirdness, or general terms like laws and kinds – so that rather setting them at odds, I like to think that had Peirce been exposed to a more adequate reading of Hegel than Abbot’s, he might have accepted that they were both on the same side!

I also think that Peirce and Hegel are on the same side when it comes to the second issue you raise, which is whether metaphysics has somehow been made irrelevant by the natural sciences. Again, it can appear that they are rather different, where Peirce can seem to have a much greater respect and affinity for the sciences than Hegel, who can appear to insist rather dogmatically on the priority of philosophy over the other disciplines, and to reject the claims of scientific inquiry. However, again it is important not to fall into a view of Hegel that is too limited here: in fact, he was impressively knowledgeable about the science of his time, and took its recent breakthroughs seriously, particularly in chemistry and biology.

Moreover, where I think both Peirce and Hegel agreed is in thinking that science cannot claim to have replaced or surpassed metaphysics, as it inevitably involves certain kinds of metaphysical claims and commitments of its own – so in the end, metaphysics is inescapable. So, for example, Peirce writes: ‘Find a scientific man who proposes to get along without any metaphysics…and you have found one whose doctrines are thoroughly vitiated by the crude and uncriticized metaphysics with which they are packed’. And in general I think this is true – that the sort of scientistic view that claims we can do without metaphysics is generally one that rests upon a rather simplistic metaphysics of its own.

Now of course, not all pragmatists have shared Peirce’s outlook here – where one thinks of Rorty, for example, who I think is made uncomfortable by Peirce precisely because he wants to divorce pragmatism from metaphysics in a way that the latter does not allow. It may be, then, that pragmatists of this sort will have more problems with Hegel, and so will turn instead to other parts of his work (as Rorty does). But this is precisely what interests me in Peirce, where like Hegel we find a philosopher trying to make room for metaphysics in a post-Kantian and scientifically informed world, and so retain a distinctive role for philosophy while abandoning some of the more grandiose and transcendent pretentions of its past.

3:AM: In your book Hegelian Metaphysics you show how Hegel has been influential in the so-called continental tradition, and in particular you defend Hegel against Deleuze and his metaphysics. So what’s this argument about? How seriously should we take Deleuze as a philosopher?

RS: As I mentioned above, I think a central issue for continental philosophy concerns the relation of thought to things, and in particular whether the generality of the former can grasp the individuality of the latter. I therefore see Deleuze’s emphasis on difference as an aspect of this debate, encapsulated in his objection that philosophers like Aristotle, Leibniz and Hegel wanted to capture what makes one thing different from another in conceptual terms, which he thinks cannot be done, as in the end concepts can only tell us what things have in common, not what makes them unique or what they are qua individuals – which is why instead Deleuze seeks to return the medieval idea of ‘haecceity’, or primitive ‘thisness’.

Now, I think this is a fair worry to have about Hegel, but (on good days, at least) I think Hegel has an adequate way of responding, partly by attacking the doctrine of haecceity (as he does, for example, in his account of the sense-certainty in the Phenomenology), and partly by showing how his doctrine of the concrete universal avoids the problem Deleuze raises, as here the universal contains within itself an important element of difference. But I agree that the issues here are extremely complex, so I wouldn’t want to say I think the matter is fully settled, or that I have done full justice to all of Deleuze’s thinking on this matter – where I probably still have a lot to learn.

3:AM: In your latest book Understanding Moral Obligation, you set up an intriguing three-cornered fight between philosophical greats: Kant vs Hegel vs Kierkegaard on the source of the obligatoriness of morality. But you kind of leave it as a draw. So are you arguing that you can’t decide whether moral obligatoriness lies in ourselves (Kant), others (Hegel) or God (Kierkegaard) or that their arguments are all equally good and if considered from any of their views we should be undecided? I guess this is asking about what their views are and whether yours are theirs?

RS: Well, when I started writing the book, I assumed that I would eventually end up picking one of them as the ‘winner’! And it did worry me that perhaps readers would find it unsatisfactory to just leave the matter undecided. But the more I thought about the views, the more I thought it would be dishonest of me to just pick one over the rest, as I could see pros and cons for each of the sides – so I decided to end the book that way, which I hope will not prove annoying or frustrating to its audience!

The way I see it, then, Kant, Hegel and Kierkegaard form a kind of dialectical circle, each finding problems with the other, but each encountering problems of their own. I begin by arguing that because of his concerns about autonomy, Kant did not want obligation to come from God, as on traditional divine command theories, and instead saw obligation as a matter of reason constraining desire. Hegel then resisted this view, as it led Kant to view the self as a divided and as naturally disinclined to act morally, and hence incapable of genuine virtue; he therefore introduced a social command view instead, whereby obligations come from the way in which we hold each other to account.

For Kierkegaard, however, this meant that Hegel could not treat morality as too demanding, as this would push us back to a more Kantian position in which we would resist its claims; but, Kierkegaard argues, morality requires more of us than we can readily achieve, where he thinks this only makes sense if we take it to come from a God that will forgive us if we fail, so returning us to the kind of divine command view which Kant started out by rejecting.

If this historical story is broadly correct, the questions it raises are: How far should considerations of autonomy drive one from a divine command theory to a Kantian one? How far should concerns about dualism drive one to an Hegelian social command theory? And how far should considerations of moral complacency drive one from a social command theory to a Kierkegaardian divine command theory? As I said, when I came to consider these questions, there seemed to me to be no straightforward winner, as much can be said for and against each option – so I hope the interest of the book will lie in how those options are explored, rather than in settling the dispute once and for all. And of course, it may be that these three possibilities do not exhaust all the conceptual space, so maybe there is also some better alternative available – though I have to say that most of the alternatives I have considered tend to fall under one of these three headings. But this is something I may develop further in future work.

3:AM: So as you survey the situation in philosophy now, what role do you see for metaphysics? Is it in ethics, political philosophy and philosophy of history that you think it has the biggest role, or are these just the areas you find of interest? Why should anyone listen to a contemporary metaphysician?

RS: Although I have moved more towards ethics in my most recent work, this is not because I have given up on metaphysics and somehow abandoned it. I know of course that on the one hand metaphysics will always have its critics, and on the other I do not doubt that metaphysics can be done badly. And I do find it strange that contemporary metaphysicians do not take more seriously the problems Kant raised; while Kant sometimes gets a brief nod, his worries are rarely addressed explicitly, so at times modern metaphysicians seem to proceed as if he had never existed.

Again, this is why I prefer to focus on figures like Hegel and Peirce, who were acutely aware of the Kantian challenge, while seeing to evade it. And, as Kant himself warned, there is perhaps a danger of some contemporary debates in metaphysics becoming bogged down in a sterile dispute, with neither side proving able to make headway over the other. But overall, I remain broadly optimistic that metaphysics remains a vital part of the discipline of philosophy, and is no less amenable to rational inquiry than any other aspect of our deepest concerns.

3:AM: Are there any books outside of philosophy that you’ve found enlightening?

RS: When it comes to reading for pleasure, I tend to read mostly fiction, as this makes a change after a day of thinking about philosophy (assuming, of course, philosophy is not fiction too). And that means I also tend to avoid novels with philosophical pretentions. I guess my tastes are pretty predictable: a mix of the standard classics, and more recent work. I very rarely re-read novels, but Joyce’s Ulysses is an exception, as this seems pretty inexhaustible. I also enjoy reading poetry, where I retain my youthful enthusiasm for T. S. Eliot, and the images and atmosphere he conjures up. My interest in Hegel has also led me to think about some literary works which influenced him, such as Antigone.

3:AM: And for the budding metaphysicians here at 3:AM, can you recommend five contemporary books you think will be really helpful?

RS: Given the way I read Hegel, most of the work in contemporary analytic metaphysics I enjoy is broadly within the Aristotelian tradition. So, for example, I would recommend David Wiggins’s Sameness and Substance (the most recent version was published in 2001, though it first appeared in 1980); Michael Loux, Substance and Attribute (1978), and E. J. Lowe’s The Four-Category Ontology (2006). Timothy Williamson’s The Philosophy of Philosophy (2007) is an important recent contribution to reflection on the methodology of metaphysics. Finally, I am currently reading and greatly enjoying Adrian Moore’s new book The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things (2012), which is both historically informed in a way I appreciate and also broad in its tastes, encompassing both analytic and continental philosophers – where (like Hegel and Peirce, as I have been stressing) Adrian also thinks that ‘we are all, to a greater or lesser extent, natural metaphysicians’.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, July 21st, 2012.