Andy Blunden, August 2010

Concepts, a Critical Approach
Chapter 6. The Story of the Concept

Descartes and the Mind/Matter Dichotomy

Descartes and the Mind/Matter Dichotomy

If we are to investigate forms of consciousness we must begin with Descartes. Although it is very fashionable nowadays, or at least until very recently, to denounce René Descartes for having been guilty of dualism, it is very rare to find a writer who can really address the issues which Descartes was tackling and avoid mind/body dualism. Nowadays, we want to do away with all dichotomies, all forms of dualism. Things are never just black and white, good and bad, male and female; the edges are always blurred and there are always in-betweens, and to deny this in any domain of enquiry is deemed to be not only wrong but reactionary. No-one, it seems, dares to say with Descartes, that thought is something categorically different from matter.

The point is that Descartes effectively discovered the category of ‘consciousness’. By making consciousness in-itself an object of investigation he laid the foundation for both modern philosophy and psychology, the science of consciousness.

Descartes stands at the very beginning of modern European philosophy. He was hostile to all kinds of received knowledge – the literal truth of the Bible, the authority of the ancients in science and common sense – and reflected on the evidence we had for our beliefs, putting no value whatsoever on the inherited wisdom of the past. At the same time, he found the burgeoning interest in the observation of Nature to be naïve. The Empiricists were also sceptical in relation to ‘book knowledge’, but not in relation to perception. They uncritically identified what they apprehended with their senses with what existed outside their consciousness.

Descartes brought a withering scepticism to bear on the Empiricists’ faith that their senses gave them direct access to objective reality, that if they laid all the old books to the side and used their own eyes, then they could discover the necessary laws governing Nature. How could you be sure that what appeared to you was really the case? How could you know that you were not profoundly mistaken? Perhaps you were dreaming. Descartes was the first modern writer to draw attention to the fact our ideas were not replicas of things existing outside of consciousness, given to us in the form of sense-impressions; that consciousness and its forms were distinct from matter and its forms.

But not only that. As the inventor of coordinate geometry he could do some diagrams and algebra on a piece of paper and tell an artillery man at what angle to fire his cannon in order to send a cannon ball over the wall of a besieged city. How was this possible? How was it possible for the mind to represent in symbols and accurately predict the trajectory of a real iron ball as it flew through the air? These symbols were not ‘mirroring’ the cannonball, and yet by thought alone, Descartes could know the movement of the cannon ball even before it was fired, and better than the cannoneer himself.

So Descartes was confronted by two problems: Firstly, was there any certain knowledge? Was there any firm starting point on which science could reliably build? Secondly, given the categorical difference between thought and matter, how were thought and matter connected (as they obviously were) so that the movement of cannon balls and stars could be predicted by Reason? If thought and matter were not connected at some point, then they would be inhabiting two different universes and science would be impossible. How was science possible?

In relation to the problem of certainty, Descartes observed that even though he could trust neither his senses, his own consciousness nor received wisdom, he could at least be sure that his own consciousness existed, for that is what is immediately given to him, even when he is asleep and dreaming, and thus that he, Descartes, exists. He also reasoned that since he did not freely create what was in his consciousness, something else outside of his consciousness and greater than him must also exist. This too was a certainty. From that starting point, remembered in the Latin maxim cogito ergo sum, “I think therefore I am,” Descartes built his system, including a theory of thinking and the emotions. This was an ambitious starting point: to create a foundation for science under conditions in which you could not even rely on the evidence of your own senses and self-consciousness. He still saw consciousness as some kind of endowment given to human beings, while the universe outside of human consciousness was soulless and governed by rational and mechanical laws.

As is well known, this starting point, true and valuable in itself, led Descartes and those who followed him into intractable problems, summed up in the condemnation of Cartesian Dualism. Not only did mind/body dualism pose the problem of finding where and how the two domains of reality interacted with one another, the dualism flowed through to all the forms of thought and matter: how was each form of thought (i.e., concept) connected to the corresponding form of being (i.e., material object) it reflected? Posed this way the problem leads to nothing but nonsense.

Spinoza tried to overcome Descartes’ dualism by declaring Nature, inclusive of human beings, to be not the work of God, but God Himself, and that rather than matter and thought being distinct substances, Spinoza said there was only one Substance, and thought and extension were but two attributes of that one Substance. But this simply displaced the dualism of substances to a dualism of attributes. Spinoza also maintained Descartes’ mechanical conception of Nature, leaving human beings subject to an absolute mechanical fatalism. And it got Spinoza denounced as an Atheist and his works were effectively suppressed for more than a century.

The mainstream response to Descartes was a series of Rationalist critiques of Empiricism which eventually led to the profound scepticism of David Hume and the impossibility of any knowledge of necessity in Nature. If all we know are the images produced on our sense organs, then we can in principle know nothing with certainty outside of that, of what lies beyond sensation.

Kant responded to this with his Critical philosophy which set out to determine the limits of knowledge, on the model of individuals processing the data of experience with an innate faculty of Reason. Kant’s masterful system of concepts stands today as a monument of philosophical precision, and underpins the work of Kantians such as Jean Piaget and Noam Chomsky. But 150 years after Descartes, Kant’s system remained dualistic, with appearances on one side, and unknowable things-in-themselves on the other, and the human subject split between faculties of Intuition and Reason and numerous other such dichotomies. Ridding philosophy of dichotomies proved to be not so easy!

Descartes mixed up the problems of ontology and epistemology. His mistake was not in making a categorical distinction between thought and matter, but in making the ontological distinction between thought and matter the starting point for the solution of problems of epistemology (the theory of knowledge). Ontology is the study of the kinds of things that can exist. Thought, or Consciousness, is what appears to us, immediately, whether asleep or awake, whether animal or human. Thought does not exist. Matter is simply everything outside of thought. That is the beginning and end of what can be deduced or proven from the categorical difference between thought and matter, but it does function to rule out certain kinds of confusion and evasion.

My consciousness is not a form of matter, because the very meaning of the word ‘matter’ is that it is not just in our mind, but exists outside our consciousness. So it would be self-contradictory for me to say that my consciousness is material. But there is a sense in which I can say that your consciousness is material, since it is outside of my consciousness. Your consciousness is not given to me immediately, but on the contrary, like the force of gravity and the ambient temperature, I have to infer it from observation. If I were to extend the category which marks my thought off from the material world, to include your thought, then I am in effect, reifying thought and making it into some kind of ‘stuff’ with an objective existence side-by-side with matter.

Human consciousness arises from the interaction between human physiology and human behaviour. Both these two processes are perfectly objective processes which are observable. Thought cannot be identified with neurons. I can think of a neuron, and I can think with a neuron, but a thought cannot be a neuron or any combination of neurons or neuronal processes. And nor is a thought identical to its object, either in form or content. But when my cat looks behind the mirror to find the other cat, I know what’s in his mind; but it is an appearance, an illusion; it is not my illusion, but his illusion, and such appearances can be studied scientifically.

To say that the consciousness of some other organism is material is not to say that thought is any kind of ‘substance’ in the everyday meaning of the term ‘substance’. In philosophy ‘substance’ means something that is irreducible and is not to be derived from something else. So Descartes’ mistake was to extend the idea of his own consciousness as something immediately given to him, to everyone else’s consciousness, thus transforming an epistemological category into an ontological category. Psychology is a science because consciousness can be an object of science, but not by introspection. When Descartes said that thought was a ‘substance’, he did not mean that thought was some kind of ‘stuff’. Nonetheless, as Lakoff observed (1980; 1999: 235-266), to talk about thought as if it were a substance (in the everyday meaning of the term) is a common metaphor, for the very good reason that it is impossible to talk about thought without metaphorically reifying it in one way or another. Actually, it is quite nonsensical to talk about thought (or consciousness) as if it were some kind of ‘stuff’. But in science, forms of words notwithstanding, we have to understand that thought is not some ‘substance’ (i.e. stuff). Thought is an appearance mediating between two objective, material processes, our behaviour and our physiology.

Lakoff (1999) has a great deal to say about the various metaphors for mind, but in over 600 pages on the topic of “embodied mind,” the closest he can come to explaining the difference between mind and matter are circular and/or evasive formulations like:

The word mental picks out those bodily capacities and performances that constitute our awareness and determine our creative and constructive responses to the situations we encounter. Mind isn’t some mysterious abstract entity that we bring to bear on our experience. Rather mind is part of the very structure and fabric of our interactions with our world (1999: 266).

Granted, thought is not a “mysterious abstract entity,” but what is it? If mind is “embodied” then what is it that is embodied? If mind is “part of” our interactions then what part is it? Did someone say that mind is not embodied? Did someone say that mind is not part of our life? Did someone say that mind is a “mysterious abstract entity"? If the problem of the distinction between mind and matter is evaded in this way, with claims like “mind is embodied” or “thought is material” so as to elide the distinction between thought and matter, then no real break from naïve analytical philosophy is possible. It is easy to ridicule and exaggerate the efforts of others, but not so easy to make the distinction oneself. Every adjective you like can be ascribed to thought: embodied, material, connected, bodily or whatever. What you think of is material. What you think with is material. But if you don’t recognise that your thought is fundamentally something different from what you’re thinking and what you’re thinking about, then either you’re crazy or you don’t understand the question.

So Descartes was correct in marking the distinction between his consciousness and matter, but mistaken in making this ontological distinction the starting point for a study of epistemology. The distinction which properly marks the beginning of the study of the sources and validity of knowledge is the subject/object relation. In this case it is false to treat subject and object in a dualistic or dichotomous way, there are halfway in-betweens, the boundaries are blurred. Subject and object are a mutually constituting unity of opposites. But the subject/object relation is one which can be found not only in relation to a person and the world they know, but it can be found even in the actions of a computer, an institution, or a natural process. The problem of knowledge is the problem of the subject/object relation, not an ontological problem.

Descartes was able to pose the problem of knowledge but he failed to suggest a fruitful method for its solution.

Kant and the Subject/Object Relation

Immanuel Kant was born in 1724, and was the dominant philosopher of his time and remains to this day probably the philosopher who has been the most influential in the development of analytical philosophy and science. Kant’s project was to create a philosophical system which fulfilled the aims of the Enlightenment to place philosophy upon a rational, scientific foundation, free of contradictions and speculation. It was to be a critical philosophy, that is, a philosophy which would know its own limits, and avoid both baseless dogmatism and scepticism.

“I freely admit,” said Kant, “it was David Hume’s remark [that Reason could not prove necessity or causality in Nature] that first, many years ago, interrupted my dogmatic slumber and gave a completely different direction to my enquiries in the field of speculative philosophy” (Kant 1787). Hume’s “Treatise on Human Nature” had been published while Kant was still very young, continuing a line of empiricists and their rationalist critics, whose concern was how ideas originate from sensation. Hume was a sceptic; he demonstrated that causality could not be deduced from experience. One could witness the fact that one event has followed upon another time and time again, but this did not prove that the first was the cause of the second or that the second necessarily followed from the first. This scepticism shocked Kant. If this were true, then there could be no science. In an effort to rescue the possibility of science, Kant set about constructing his ‘third way’ between dogmatism and scepticism, whose aim was to determine the limits of knowledge and draw a line between what was knowable and what was not knowable.

An important step in Kant’s solution was his conception of the transcendental subject:

By this ‘I’, or ‘He’, or ‘It’, who or which thinks, nothing more is represented than a transcendental subject of thought = x, which is cognized only by means of the thoughts that are its predicates (Kant 2007).

So the subject for Kant has no particular nature of its own, other than having access to universal, natural and invariant principles of reason with which to interpret what is given to the subject in experience. This device allowed Kant to avoid the contradictions which had plagued earlier philosophers, but it led to a new range of problems. Kant had escaped the problems of the subject’s interaction with the material world by in effect placing the subject outside of culture and history. What had been a natural scientific problem of how material processes entered the mind, now became an entirely general, logical problem of how the properties of one (object) system could be reproduced in another (subject) system. It is this approach which has, for example, allowed cognitive science to use computer models of cognitive processes, without having to be concerned with the obvious fact that a person is not a computer. The eternal changeless subject could be analysed by the methods of philosophy, without any empirical content, at the cost of reducing the subject to nothing in particular.

One of the consequences of Kant’s transcendental subject was a reformulation of the problem he inherited from the rationalist-empiricist debate: there were two kinds of knowledge, knowledge derived from two distinct sources which had to be combined somehow. On the one hand we had sensation (or ‘intuition’), which was the immediate basis for experience, the beginning of all knowledge, and on the other hand, we had Reason (or ‘concept’). Reason was needed to process the data of experience and mobilise the categories through which sense could be made of experience. So we had two faculties: the faculty of reason and the faculty of intuition, and through reason we could acquire knowledge of the categories, of time and space, logic and so on. This remains the general schema for most cognitive science, including Piaget and Chomsky, for example, with continuing speculation as to the precise nature of the universal, innate faculties which allow human beings to grow up into a diversity of cultures.

One of the other implications, an essential part of how Kant resolved the contradiction he had inherited, was that the world was again divided in two: on our side was the world of appearances, in which we have constructed some meaningful image out of the stream of data from Sensation, using our capacity for Reason. On the other side, beyond and behind appearances, lies the thing-in-itself, about which, in principle, we can know nothing.

Herder, Goethe and Culture

The key insights upon which I will be relying for a critical approach to the psychology of concepts first arose in the philosophical reaction of the Romantic movement to the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, whose foremost philosopher was Immanuel Kant, had overthrown religion, superstition, privilege and narrow parochialism. Behind the banner of the universal rights of man came universal laws of Nature. These laws could be determined by the exercise of Pure Reason, for which every person possessed the innate capacity. Thanks to the universal faculty of Reason and a separate capacity for immediate sensuous observation, the world was divided into appearances on one side and unknowable things-in-themselves on the other. The human being was simultaneously flattened out into a uniform type and broken up, analysed into so many separate faculties and isolated from the world.

Romantic Science reacted against these aspects of the Enlightenment, and its first exponent in philosophy was Johann Gottfried Herder. Herder made his name in 1770 at the age of 26, with a Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772). He was the first philosopher to claim that Reason was not a universal, innate faculty, but rather that consciousness differed radically from one epoch to the next, from one people to another and from one individual to another. This was because how people think would reflect the cultural practices of which they were a part. He held that thinking is essentially dependent on and bounded by language-use, that the formation of concepts is intimately bound up with sensation rather than belonging to a distinct faculty, and that words are to be understood in terms of their practical usages rather than with reified referents (Forster 2007).

Herder (1774) is largely remembered as a philosopher of history, through his enquiry into Zeitgeist (spirit of the times) and Volksgeist (the spirit of a people). He approached the psychology of an individual first of all as that of a member of a definite people and class, with a shared history and culture, rather than proceeding the other way around, as if the nature of a society could be deduced by adding up the nature of its individual citizens.

So Herder was not only the first to propose an intimate connection between thinking and language but is credited as the founder of cultural anthropology, an important philosopher of art, a linguist and the founder of cultural psychology. Herder was not a systematic philosopher however, and unlike Kant and Hegel he did not leave us an elaborate system. Most of his writings were critiques of Enlightenment arrogance.

His friend Goethe rightly said that “The greatest discoveries are made not by individuals but by their age.” And it is probably more true to say that the basic philosophical ideas of cultural psychology and activity theory emerged in Germany from the entire Romantic movement and the Classical movement which followed. Wilhelm von Humboldt, the founder of modern linguistics and creator of the Prussian education system, Goethe – poet and scientist, Fichte who first made Activity the foundation of the psyche, Hegel, the great dialectician, Feuerbach, the first materialist critic of Hegel, Fichte’s follower, Moses Hess who wrote the “Philosophy of the Act” and introduced Marx to communism, and ultimately Karl Marx himself.

Herder, like Goethe, was a pantheist, and as such he risked denunciation as an atheist. This had been Spinoza’s fate. For a century after Spinoza’s death in 1677, Spinoza was a ‘dead dog’. In 1787, Herder published “God, some Conversations” (1940) in which he not only rehabilitated Spinoza but improved on Spinoza’s pantheism. According to Herder, God, i.e., Nature, was active. Nature was not just some gigantic machine, but was full of intentions, of striving, of opposing forces, and human beings were a part of that striving and activity. Activity was natural, and didn’t need to be explained by some extramundane life-force or soul. It was this revised Pantheism which expressed the spirit of Classical German Philosophy and which inspired humanist philosophers who sought scientific explanations for Nature and human life for a century afterwards. Particularly through the popularity and literary brilliance of Goethe, this naturalistic/humanist Pantheism became respectable.

In his studies of national character, Herder said that every people (and every single person) had their Schwerpunkt, which was uniquely theirs and made them what and who they were, and which they could not be forced to part with. Schwerpunkt is one of those untranslatable German words, but I take it as ‘strong point’ (OED 2009): every people, every person has their characteristic ‘strong point’, the activity in which they have the ‘home ground advantage’, so to speak. This idea was further developed by Goethe.

Herder was a somewhat irascible character and never received the recognition he deserved for the revolution in science he initiated. Hegel gives him no credit whatsoever in his History of Philosophy, and Schleiermacher, Fichte and Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt offered no recognition for what they owed to Herder. But Goethe made the philosophical debt he owed to his friend quite explicit and Goethe exercised enormous influence over several generations of philosophers, poets and scientists.

Goethe was the first European celebrity. He became world famous at the age of 25 with his romantic novel, “The Passions of Young Werther,” but he also ran the civil service and public enterprises in Weimar for a decade and was a natural scientist throughout his life. He aimed to develop a completely different approach to natural science, which is known as Romantic Science. Goethe’s influence on culture in the German-speaking world (and Russia), was enormous. His influence was felt over the education of German speakers from Marx and Wundt to Freud and Jung. Even Vygotsky quotes Goethe more often than he quotes Hegel, and the founder of modern neuroscience, A. R. Luria, identified himself as a proponent of Romantic Science.

Romantic Science meant beginning by grasping a process as a whole, rather than analysing it into parts, and emphasised patient and ‘delicate’ observation against artificial experimentation and resisted the invention of invisible forces and arbitrary principles to explain phenomena. Recognising that the practice of science formed part of a community’s metaphysical rationale for its own cultural identity, Romantic scientists also sought methods which were accessible to the participation of non-specialists.

One of the main problems of science to which Goethe addressed himself was the problem of just how to form a concept of a complex process in such a way as to allow you to understand it as a whole, from which all the parts can be understood. Everyone will tell you of the importance of grasping things as a whole, but the point is: how to do it? It’s like the problem of transcending dualism: easy to say, not so easy to do.

The word for such a dynamic, integral whole in German is Gestalt. At that time, Linnaeus’s Species Plantarum categorised all living things according to a taxonomy of size, shape, colour, number of teeth, etc., etc., that is, according to the rules of Set Theory and formal logic, in which a thing belonged to a given set according to whether it exhibited the necessary and sufficient features defining the species. Goethe carried this book with him wherever he went so as to recognise the plants and animals he came across, but he found its methodology quite unsatisfactory and wanted to find a different approach, taking organic life as a Gestalt.

At the same time as Herder was writing his book on Spinoza, Goethe was touring through Italy making botanical sketches, noting the changing form of the various species of plant at different altitudes and latitudes. Goethe arrived at an idea which he called the Urphänomen, or archetypal phenomenon: the simplest imaginable, single example of a phenomenon (plants), stripped of all its particular, contingent attributes, which exhibited the properties of all plants. In that one simple cell, you would see the whole process.

As chronicled in his Italian Journey of 1786-7 (1788/1989), Goethe developed the concept of Urphänomen in letters to Herder. He studied the plants by making botanical sketches of them and sensuously familiarising himself with all the variations of what he took to be the same basic archetype. All plants, he believed, were a realisation, according to conditions, of an underlying form which he called the Urpflanze. Even though the Urpflanze is an image rather than a form of words, it is to be understood as the concept of plant, what it is that makes something a plant rather than something else. Goethe sought to determine this concept by sustained sensory attention to plants in all their variety.

In July 1794, both Goethe (1996) and Schiller had been attending a lecture at the Jena Scientific Society and as the audience filed out, the two poets found themselves embarrassed to be left facing one another. Embarrassed, because much to the frustration of their mutual friends, Goethe had been refusing to speak to Schiller because he felt that since Schiller had “rapturously embraced” the Kantian philosophy, he had been betraying his art, approaching Nature subjectively, “from the standpoint of so many human traits,” rather than “actively observing Nature’s own manner of creating.” Conversation could not be avoided however, and when Schiller remarked that the current “mangled methods of regarding Nature would only repel the lay person who might otherwise take an interest,” Goethe readily agreed, adding that “there might be another way of considering Nature, not piecemeal and isolated but actively at work, as she proceeds from the whole to the parts.”.. And so the pair conversed as they made their way home together. By the time they reached Schiller’s house, Goethe found himself expounding his observations of the metamorphosis of plants, and to illustrate a point made a quick sketch on a piece of paper. “But,” Schiller retorted, “this is not an empirical experience, it is an idea,” drawing upon Kant’s distinction between the faculties of sensation and reason. Goethe fought hard to suppress his rising anger, and politely remarked: “How splendid that I have ideas without knowing it, and can see them before my very eyes.” Thus Goethe drew Schiller’s attention to the unsolved problem in the Kantian philosophy of the objective sources of conceptual knowledge. Then ensued a decade of close friendship and collaboration until Schiller’s death in 1805.

But whilst insisting on the sensuous character of the Urphänomen, Goethe was also adamant that the Urphänomen represented the idea of the genus (1988: 118), not its contingent attributes (1996: 103), and was not arrived at by the abstraction of common attributes, but on the contrary by the discarding of everything accidental (1996: 105). Further, Goethe took the Urphänomen to be the starting point for the scientific understanding of the whole relevant process. The discovery of the Urphänomen is the outcome of a protracted period of reflection; in his ‘delicate empiricism’, Goethe emphasised the importance of sustained contemplation and observation of the object, before discovery of the Urphänomen would be possible. So determination of the Urphänomen marks a nodal point in the development of a science, and a transition from reflection and being-with the object, until a certain aperçu makes possible the leap to an abstract representation of the complex whole in the form of an archetype. After this leap, the development of the science takes the form of an unfolding of what is already implicit in the Urphänomen. For example, Goethe boasted (1788/1989: 256) that he could invent an infinite variety of plants from his Urpflanze.

The point of the Urphänomen is to provide an authentic concept of a whole complex process. We can utter the word ‘Nature’, for example, but it is just a word. In the course of time, as a representation of the whole, a word such as ‘Nature’ will accumulate connotations, nuances and semantic associations which contribute to it as a more concrete representation. But in itself, there is nothing in ‘Nature’ or any other word more than a mark; it just depends on how the word is used, and provides no royal road to a conception of the whole. In itself, it is empty, a mere sign.

A complex which is formed by means of collecting together all those objects sharing some common attribute is an inauthentic whole, and such a conception simply shifts the problem from the thing itself to the attribute without advancing understanding of the thing itself at all. Other complexes may be indicated by the connection of a thing to the social practice in which it arises, or by its subsumption under some genus (both of which presuppose a related existing conception), but a word in itself is insufficient to represent a complex whole.

Goethe ruled out these other approaches to forming a concept of a complex whole, and demonstrated that the whole can be conceived as an integral Gestalt only by finding a particular in which the essential properties of the complex whole are exhibited, and conceivable to the human mind because it is ‘sensible’. Goethe saw this conception as directly opposed to the Newtonian approach of making the whole a production of some hypothetical ‘vibration’ or ‘force’ which is in principle unavailable to the senses, which merely displaces the problem from a form of motion given to the senses to a metaphysical construction which avoids rather than solves the problem.

Thus, the Urphänomen is the principle which allows us to conceptualise a complex whole as a Gestalt, not just as an empty symbol, not as the product of an external metaphysical cause, or an abstract collection united externally by some arbitrary common attribute. The Urphänomen is a particular which contains everything that is essential to the concrete whole:

‘What is the universal?
’the single case.
‘What is the particular?
‘Millions of cases’ (1996: 92).

The Urphänomen is the idea of the complex whole, in a form which is given to the human imagination because it is given to our senses. Because it is the most simple, a particular which is stripped of everything inessential, it cannot be described as stereotypical. It is a sign which directly evokes the whole. It is the archetypal phenomenon, which means that it is not the first in time, a Darwinian original of the whole species or kind, but that which is logically the most primitive.

The discovery of the Urphänomen crowns the pre-history of the effort to form a concept of some complex whole. Once such a concept is attained, the various realisations of the Urphänomen follow by lawful necessity. Goethe’s idea about science is: observation and reflection until you get the Urphänomen, and then from that simple and abstract beginning, unfold that which ‘must follow lawfully’ (1788/1989: 256). As he notes in the 1817 Preface to the Morphology, the archetypal animal is “the concept or idea of the animal” (1988 :69). Grasping that concept is the most important step in understanding something, Such understanding is the outcome of a protracted and difficult process. To determine what is the concept of some complex whole is not something which can be done off-hand, but requires a deep insight into the nature of the thing.

So, we see that the ‘discovery’ of the prototype concept by American cognitivists came about 200 years after it was first proposed by Goethe and Herder, 200 years during which natural scientists belittled Goethe’s scientific work as the ramblings of an amateur and dilettante. C’est la vie. Goethe was well aware of the reception his work would receive from the natural science establishment, at least until such time as the inability of natural scientists to see Nature as a whole would bring the world to the brink of disaster, as he suggested in the finale of Faust.

The two conceptions of prototype are not quite the same however. According to Cognitive Psychology, the prototype is a bundle of the necessary and sufficient attributes (features) of the thing for it to be recognised as falling under a given category, and there is nothing else other than the attributes to be understood, no ‘essence’. According to Goethe, the Urphänomen is stripped of all unnecessary attributes, yes, but so as to allow the principle uniting everything under the concept to be understood. Nonetheless there were problems with Goethe’s conception, and it was Hegel’s appropriation of the Urphänomen which makes the next episode in our narrative.

Hegel’s Appropriation of the Urphänomen.

The rapport between Hegel’s philosophy and Goethe’s scientific work, Hegel’s admiration for Goethe, and their shared hostility to ‘Newtonian’ science are all well known. Hegel repeatedly praised Goethe’s Theory of Colours and cast himself and Goethe as comrades in the fight against Philistinism. Goethe’s spiritual pantheism, his emphasis on development and his holistic approach are widely recognised as attributes he shared with Hegel. The inventor of the Bildungsroman and the philosopher who made development the key principle of Logic, had more than a little in common. Indeed, in the words of Daniel Robinson: ‘[Hegel] and Beethoven were born in the same year. One set Goethe to music, the other to philosophy’ (Robinson 1965: 287). But whereas Beethoven’s admiration for Goethe was reciprocated, Goethe was more measured in his appreciation of Hegel’s philosophy.

But in tracing the story of the concept in the history of philosophy, we find a little-known but powerful link between Goethe’s scientific work and Hegel’s philosophical system. The key concept of Goethe’s scientific work is, as I have shown, the Urphänomen. The Urphänomen was appropriated by Hegel and transformed in such a way as to become the Urphänomen of his whole philosophy. Once this connection is made explicit, a reappropriation of Hegel’s idea suggests itself as a compelling approach to the theory of concepts.

Although Goethe’s notion of Urphänomen can be traced back to discussions with Herder, before his Italian journey (1788/1989) in 1787, and the first evidence of it in Hegel’s writing appears in 1802/03 (1802/1979), an exchange of letters much later provides evidence of a recognition of this relationship by the two writers.

On 24 February 1821, Hegel wrote to Goethe highlighting the importance he attached to the Urphänomen and his reading of its place in Goethean science:

This spiritual breath – it is of this that I really wished to speak and that alone is worth speaking of – is what has necessarily given me such great delight in Your Excellency’s exposition of the phenomena surrounding entopic colors. What is simple and abstract, what you strikingly call the Urphänomen, you place at the very beginning. You then show how the intervention of further spheres of influence and circumstances generates the concrete phenomena, and you regulate the whole progression so that the succession proceeds from simple conditions to the more composite, and so that the complex now appears in full clarity through this decomposition. To ferret out the Urphänomen, to free it from those further environs which are accidental to it, to apprehend as we say abstractly – this I take to be a matter of spiritual intelligence for nature, just as I take that course generally to be the truly scientific knowledge in this field (Hegel 1821/1984: 698).

Hegel goes on to speak of his philosophical appropriation of the Urphänomen:

But may I now still speak to you of the special interest that an Urphänomen, thus cast in relief, has for us philosophers, namely that we can put such a preparation – with Your Excellency’s permission – directly to philosophical use. But if we have at last worked our initially oyster-like Absolute – whether it be grey or entirely black, suit yourself – through towards air and light to the point that the Absolute has itself come to desire this air and light, we now need to throw open the window so as to lead the Absolute fully out into the light of day (Hegel 1821/1984: 699).

Here Hegel recognises that in Goethe’s hands, the concept escapes the airless depths of the philosopher’s study and connects up with Nature and the everyday life of the people. He observes:

the two worlds greet each other: our abstruse world and the world of phenomenal being. Thus out of rocks and even something metallic Your Excellency prepares for us granite, which we can easily get a handle on because of its Trinitarian nature and which we can assimilate (Hegel 1821/1984: 699).

Hegel is here alluding to his own conception of the concept with individual, universal and particular moments, which, according to Hegel, is essential for the concept to have sufficient internal resources so as to function as a true concept, and which will come to presently.

Goethe responded to Hegel’s letter on 13 April, sending him the gift of a prism and a stained glass goblet which Goethe had referred to in the Theory of Colours, with a note saying:

Seeing that you conduct yourself so amicably with the Urphänomen, and that you even recognize in me an affiliation with these demonic essences, I first take the liberty of depositing a pair of such phenomena before the philosopher’s door, persuaded that he will treat them as well as he has treated their brothers (Hegel 1821/1984: 693).

and dedicating the goblet as follows:

The Urphänomen very humbly begs the Absolute to give it a cordial welcome.

In this way, Goethe acknowledged the compliment Hegel had paid him and gave recognition to this lynch-pin connecting their work. Hegel replied, 2 August 1821: “... wine has already lent mighty assistance to natural philosophy, which is concerned to demonstrate that spirit is in nature” (1821/1984: 699).

Hegel and Goethe agreed that in order to conceptualise a complex phenomenon as a Gestalt, it is necessary to form a concept of its simplest unit, an archetypal phenomenon. This archetype is not to be a metaphysical principle or force or hidden structure which is in principle outside of and beyond experience. On the contrary, the archetype is in principle given in experience, and exhibits all the properties of the complex whole, while being simple and indivisible. This is the Urphänomen. Provided we can form a true concept of the Urphänomen, it is the proper starting point and foundation for a scientific understanding of the Gestalt. That is, Hegel adopted the model of science proposed by Goethe, the model in which the essential properties of an entire complex of phenomena is revealed in its simplest particular unit.

But the problem is that whilst Goethe showed how an authentic Gestalt is conceivable only through the apprehension of its simplest particular phenomenon, the basic principle discovered in the Urphänomen still has to be developed. It is one thing to be able to arrange a collection of natural phenomena in sequence, but to trace the unfolding of the logic of the Urphänomen out of itself, is possible only if the Urphänomen is transformed into a true concept. Goethe’s Urphänomen is just a sign, albeit a natural and meaningful sign, but lacks the internal structure required for a true concept. In itself it is insufficient for the development of a science. This brings us to Hegel’s transformation of Goethe’s idea which marks his science off from that of the great naturalist and poet.

This is how the dialectical, developmental conception of a concept was first elaborated.

Whereas Goethe relied upon the sensori-motor grasp of a natural process arising from apprehension of the Urphänomen, Hegel had to work out the nature and structure of a concept in general. And it is to this that I now turn.

Hegel and Mediation

The earliest attempt at a system of philosophy that we have from Hegel is the unfinished 1802/03 manuscript known as the System of Ethical Life, written while Hegel was at the University of Jena. Hegel wrote and lectured at Jena, but he did not receive a salary until the end of 1806. Jena was the centre of German philosophy at the time. Fichte had just left, and Friedrich Schelling, Hegel’s friend and collaborator at the time, was there. Also at the University of Jena until his death in 1808 was Herder. While the influence of Schelling is visible in the structure of this manuscript, perhaps more obvious is the unacknowledged influence of Herder and Fichte.

Hegel was trying to resolve a number of problems in the legacy of Kant. Fichte had endeavoured to overcome the subjective/objective dualism of Kant’s system by using the category of Activity, which is both subjective and objective. The Ego, defined as pure Activity, was the central category of his system, and Fichte aimed to erect on this foundation not only an epistemology, but a complete social theory and system of natural law. This was all very well, but Hegel did not accept that it was rational to begin with the individual, and from the individual deduce the nature of the society. On the contrary, we should begin with a conception of the whole society in the form of people’s collaborative activity and shared culture, and from there deduce the nature of the individual persons (Hegel 1817/1955).

For this, Hegel could draw on Herder’s conception of Volksgeist (the spirit of a people), built up through shared activity and history. The point is that activity is always the activity of individuals, and yet that activity is always social in character. By appropriating Goethe’s approach to overcoming the sensation/conception dichotomy Hegel was able to draw together all the threads of German philosophy at the time to chart a completely new direction which offered the possibility of overcoming Kant’s dichotomies.

Here’s how the System of Ethical Life works. The structure of the work is an alternation between the Concept (i.e., Reason) being subsumed under Intuition (i.e., sensation) and Intuition being subsumed under the Concept. Rather than trying to obliterate the contradiction between Concept and Intuition, Hegel makes the contradiction the driving force for development. To begin with, a human need is satisfied immediately by simply taking from Nature. In such a natural condition, Hegel says the Concept is subsumed under Intuition. But human beings are capable of deferring gratification and a gap opens between needs and the means of their satisfaction; our needs are no longer met directly from Nature. This gap is mediated by labour (Intuition subsumed under the Concept). But labour itself generates new needs in the form of the means of labour, and thus thanks to the deferral of satisfaction, a culture is generated, which mediates between human beings and the natural world. Human life is then occupied in the production and maintenance of this culture. Nature appears to human beings in the form of artefacts.

Although the labour is carried out by an individual, the production of culture goes beyond the individual. Hegel calls the products of labour the universal. The individual contributes to the production of the universal through a particular role within the social division of labour.

The three forms of mediation which, according to Hegel, constitute the construction of the universal were the raising of children, the making and use of tools and the use of language. For human beings, the raising of children is not simply a natural process. If a rational community is to raise children then the parents’ own way of life must be made an object of awareness so that it can be deliberately imparted to the children; raising children is a labour process. Likewise, the making and use of tools requires making the labour process itself an object of awareness and the objectification of the various practices in the form of tools, land/crops, infrastructure, domestic animals, etc., etc., which in turn are subject to continuous improvement. And language, Hegel calls “the tools of Reason.” These ‘thought objects’ are maintained through their use and re-creation in collaborative forms of practice in the community.

These are the fundamental ideas which underlay Hegel’s conception of the concept. He goes on in the System of Ethical Life to sketch the further stages of cultural development with the creation of a social surplus which opens the possibility for entering into trading relations and gaining the recognition of other communities, and thirdly, the formation of a state and system of justice. But these need not concern us here, important as they are for the wider Hegelian project. Although Ethical Life is as challenging to read as any of Hegel’s books, it is only in this early work that Hegel is explicit about the everyday human activity which underlies his philosophical ideas. So it is really important in understanding his mature work which are framed in unrelenting specialist philosophical language.

The work begins:

Knowledge of the Idea of the absolute ethical order depends entirely on the establishment of perfect adequacy between intuition and concept, because the Idea itself is nothing other than the identity of the two.

By “Idea,” Hegel means the development of humanity as an ethical community. He says that the Idea is the identity of intuition and concept, but intuition and concept are never identical. We feel a need, but in endeavouring to satisfy that need we create a new means of mediation, thereby generating new needs. Things never turn out just as we thought; we satisfy a need but we are still dissatisfied. So the ‘identity’ of intuition and concept, Idea, is in fact a non-identity, constituted in a never-ending struggle to overcome its internal contradictions each time only generating more contradictions. This is how the universal is constructed. The Idea is defined as the identity of intuition and concept, but this identity is forever out of reach! Human life is by its very nature contradictory, and in an eternal struggle to overcome this contradiction. Putting this another way: there is always a difference between the particular and the universal. The universal exists only in and through the particular, and is implicit in it, but every particular is also different from the universal. The universal is the idea manifested in every particular, its aim and object.

Intuition and Concept do not indicate for Hegel, distinct faculties of human individuals. Rather each represents a mode of social activity in which one or another aspect is dominant. When a person makes a tool or any artefact, for example by planting a crop, they make their concept into something objective and material (intuition subsumed under concept) which is sensuously present for the entire community. On the other hand, the need driving this production at every stage is intuitively felt and the way the product is apprehended is likewise sensual. The conceptual capacity of human beings is developed and exercised only through the creation and use of universal products of labour, which can be apprehended sensuously and in no other way. Without such products and the activity entailed in their creation and use, conceptual activity is impossible. But the human senses are themselves developed through the creation and use of human products. We perceive only what is meaningful for us. For example, when I read or write a word on the page, this is simultaneously both a sensori-motor and a conceptual act.

Although Nature is always the starting point, Hegel has shifted the focus from relations between human individuals and the material world outside of thought and human life, to the relations between human beings, each other and their own culture. Cultural products are constructed from Nature which remains the ultimate source of human needs, but the understanding of human life means making that life the centre of attention. People living as individuals in Nature is an impossible myth and cannot function as the presupposition for philosophy. Our relation to Nature is mediated by a division of labour within the community and means of production. In Hegel’s terminology, what mediates between the individual person and Nature is Geist (Spirit) or in the terminology of this very early work, the Idea, made up of collaborative forms of activity, a constellation of artefacts and human beings themselves.

Epistemology was posed initially in terms of the relation between the consciousness of an individual and Nature outside of and independently of human activity, and presented intractable problems. When posed in terms of the relation of individuals to their own culture, the situation is transformed. Of course people understand how their own culture works. How could they not, for ‘understanding’ is nothing other than formulating an idea in the terms of one’s own culture? The point then becomes the deeper understanding of the dynamics of culture and the relation of individuals to their own culture and that of others.

One of the observations to be drawn from this work is the nature of Hegel’s concept of Idea. He defines it as the identity of Concept and Intuition, but it then turns out that there is no such identity. The Idea is the process of making that identity.

We will see that for Hegel, concepts are both processes and their product. The other particularly significant aspect of this work is how Hegel is trying to work through Goethe’s idea of artefacts being simultaneously sensuous representations and concepts, as Goethe politely put it to Schiller: “How splendid that I have ideas without knowing it, and can see them before my very eyes.” By looking for a solution in practical activity, Hegel was also taking a leaf from Fichte’s book.

Formations of Consciousness

In 1807, Hegel wrote his first book to receive public attention. In the “Phenomenology of Spirit,” Hegel shows how the normal, non-philosophical way of thinking and living rises to philosophy, in the form of his own mature philosophical system, which begins with the Logic. It is also the connecting link between his early work and his mature work. It is part of his mature work in the sense that it represents the completion of the series of transformations which he went through in his early work, but it is almost unreadable, having been written in a rush to meet the publisher’s deadlines, whilst his ideas were only just coming together.

It would take us much too far afield to go into the content of the “Phenomenology,” but to understand the subject matter of the Logic, where Hegel presents his theory of concepts, we must understand the subject matter of the “Phenomenology.” Hegel says it is about consciousness. It tells the story of the journey of consciousness three times. The first time is the story of thinking as it develops down through history, through a series of distinct stages. Then he tells the same story again but this time instead of systems of thinking, we have social formations. And then the story is told a third time from the standpoint of thought which is “reflected into itself,” i.e., art and religion. Hegel then sums up the narrative from the standpoint of the whole process and its outcome: genuinely philosophical thought that knows that it is the thought of its times.

The object whose development is being described is one and the same object, but from different perspectives. This object, whose change and development through history is described, Hegel calls a Gestalt, a ‘formation of consciousness’, understood as an integral, moving structure or indivisible whole, precisely in the sense in which Goethe approached his study of the morphology of plants as Gestalten. The “Phenomenology” is the Bildungsroman of Western civilisation.

For Hegel, a Gestalt, a ‘formation of consciousness’, is understood as the dissonant unity of a way of thought, a way of life and a certain constellation of material culture. ‘Dissonant’ because at any given moment in the history of any given people these elements are mutually constituting, but not identical. There are laws requiring that people should act in a particular way, but people don’t act in quite that way, ideas change, clothes go out of fashion, bad laws are flouted, and so on. So we have material culture and practical activity and subjective thought all aspects of a single whole or figure, a Gestalt, but always moving, always with internal contradictions.

The “Phenomenology” is concerned with the necessary forms of development of formations of consciousness. In that sense, Hegel is not dealing with a real, empirical history in the “Phenomenology.” He is concerned with consciousness, but with what is necessary and intelligible in consciousness. The natural sciences deal with their subject matter in this same way, concerning themselves with what is necessary and intelligible in phenomena.

With that qualification, Hegel is talking about consciousness, an object which is empirically given and verifiable. He starts with ordinary, unphilosophical consciousness, and he leads the reader through a series of stages leading up to absolute knowledge, that is, the philosophical consciousness exhibited in the exposition of the “Encyclopaedia of Philosophical Sciences.” The “Phenomenology” is not a work of history, either philosophical or social; but it does suggest an approach to history which takes its object as integral forms of life which develop through their own internal contradictions, rather than consciousness being some kind of extra-historical substance.

To recap, what constitutes a Gestalt is:

Each of these three aspects constitutes the others and mediates between them. There is no mind/matter dichotomy here. Hegel never took up a position on epistemology or ontology. He took each of the various systems of epistemology and ontology to be part of a formation of consciousness. All those dichotomies which had tortured the minds of earlier generations of philosophers he simply made the subject of internal critique in tracing the contradictory development of the formations of consciousness. Questions about whether a thought-form corresponds to a natural object outside of thought, interested Hegel only in the sense of asking: under what conditions do people ask questions like that? For Hegel, subject and object always exist in a mutually constituting, more or less adequate, relation to one another. The question is not the correspondence of the subject to the object, but of the capacity of a mutually constituting subject/object, that is, a formation of consciousness, to withstand sceptical criticism. Under the impact of sceptical attack the subject and object will both change. The object changes because it is constituted by the subject, and vice versa. The Gestalt is a subject/object which understands its own activity and its own production according to its own thinking.

The dynamic in the “Phenomenology,” the driver which pushes it on from one Gestalt to another, is its vulnerability to sceptical attack from within, in its own terms. He demonstrates how every one of the Gestalten at a certain point fails to withstand self-criticism and collapses. Some new Gestalt which is proof against this line of reasoning and can withstand the type of attack which the previous Gestalt could not, is then able to develop. And so it goes on.

The way Hegel organised the “Phenomenology” was based on the thesis that in any formation of consciousness there would be one final arbiter of truth, some standard which sceptical attacks against any element of the whole would ultimately come up against. So each main stage in the “Phenomenology” is associated with a criterion of truth or rule of inference which characterises it. So Hegel posits that the touchstone for any formation of consciousness, its basic principle, its Absolute, functions as the Urphänomen or Concept of that formation of consciousness.

It is not necessary to visualise this on the grand historical stage on which this drama is supposed to be played out. In any project or movement or branch of science or paradigm or social practice, which exhibits the features of a Gestalt, there will be just one Concept, one relation, the simplest, most basic concept of all, on which the whole project depends. It is this ‘concrete concept’ which makes the project what it is and which allows us to make sense of the whole and constitutes the project an integral whole.

A formation of consciousness entails a certain line of thinking, a certain set of corresponding practices, and the artefacts around which the project is organised, from specialised language to collective property, technology and so on. Within each project there are basic criteria and associated practices through which claims are tested, which underpin sceptical challenges to the project. Whether this works on the grand historical scale that Hegel claimed for it, is an open question – it is one of those ‘in the last instance’ questions which may mean very little. But in the course of presenting a Bildungsroman of civilisation, Hegel has presented a profound approach to the understanding of human life, tied up in the notions of Gestalt and Urphänomen which he learnt from Goethe.

The Concept

In any formation of consciousness (science, social movement, project, ...) there is a simple concept which functions as its Absolute. Since our aim is to trace the story of the concept, we could put that the other way around. When a concept is taken as the Absolute, it constitutes a social formation, in which a way of thinking, a constellation of artefacts and a system of activity mutually constitute one another, with the Absolute at its heart. The concept is then nothing other than this Gestalt for which it counts as the Absolute.

Such a formation cannot be understood as a real community, for any real community is a rich and complex fabric of innumerable forms of thinking, social practices using an almost infinite variety of artefacts. No project or movement is ever insulated from everything else. We understand a real community, a real culture, as a multiplicity interpenetrating formations of consciousness. But the concept, as here understood, is the basic building block of a real community.

The Absolute inevitably turns out to be relative as it is tested out and subject to attack and its internal contradictions manifested. Concepts are therefore processes continuously in development and change, forever thwarting attempts at definition and delimitation.

But the conception of a concept which we are coming to here is not an entity but a complex process. Think of the concept as manifested in the reflex responses to laboratory tests, and then again as understood and defined when reflected upon, and then again as manifested in the development of a project such as the law or a branch of science. A concept is all these things. Hegel is indispensable if we are going to understand the complexities of the real life of concepts. Simplistic approaches were tried and failed centuries ago in the history of philosophy. But for an approach to a developed theory of the concept we must turn to Hegel’s Logic. Hegel’s psychology, in which he tackled the problem of how individuals appropriate concepts, was first presented in the most famous passage of the “Phenomenology,” but I will return to this later, after the nature of the concept itself has been made clearer.