190. (Sebastian Rödl)

Close kin in to his near-simultaneous monograph Self-Consciousness, Sebastian Rödl’s Categories of the Temporal: An Inquiry into the Forms of the Finite Intellect (publ. in German, 2005; in English, translated by Sybille Salewski, 2012) is a book that, despite its daunting title, non-Philosophers would enjoy. The reach of its ambitions, its elegance and efficiency of argument, and the sense of style born of necessity and urgency rather than self-awareness or “charm” are easy to appreciate. If I require justification for writing about it here, on a literature blog, I can say both that it deals centrally with language (though not with languages) and the philosophical logic of grammatical forms, but also that it exemplifies a virtue of the humanities: a charitable and scrupulous reading of the arguments and insights and words of others.

The excitement, though, comes from its ambitions. These might be described variously. Rödl himself couches his aim in terms that, though not modest, are unduly humble:

Wittgenstein’s grammar and Frege’s logic are fundamentally different: the grammatical form of a thought cannot be identified with the system of its deductive relations (although it may have implications for these). Wittgenstein, Anscombe, Ryle, and McDowell do not tell us what it is instead. Our work is to supply this lack: in the first part, we introduce the idea of a philosophical logic that develops a concept of form which is, we submit, the very one that the aforementioned authors employ;in the second part, we present the content of this logic at the highest level of generality. If we succeed in this enterprise, we will have enlightened the tradition that these authors epitomize as to the nature of its object and its method, thereby finding our own place in it.

The phrasing is, not just as a work of philosophy, graceful and deft in its metaphorical arc: “enlightened the tradition that these authors epitomize.”

But that is only one way in which Rödl might have described his ambitions and achievements at the start of the work; as is, they emerge throughout.

He might have said, and he very nearly does say, that he aspires to recover “logic” from a twentieth-century analytic tradition, one that has reduced it to a deductive order and that, as a consequence, has misunderstood philosophers including the late Wittgenstein in the light of our ordinary linguistic practices (this latter charge appears in the penultimate chapter of the book, in a characteristically mordant footnote in which he asserts that “an analytic philosophy of language was up to now hardly able to develop). Put otherwise, He might have said, at the start, that he aims to establish the transcendental logic that grounds deductive logic.

He might have said also that he sought to provide an account of time as the means of thought, something neither projected onto the world by our minds, nor something in the world picked up by our minds, but the means of our thought itself, knowable only in so far as we know our own thinking.

He might have said he will do away with the philosophical foundations claimed by empiricism, not by rejecting the senses but by rejecting the primary of the senses; in line with this, he might have said that he respects Hume sufficiently to recognize that Hume has anticipated most current responses to Hume, that the skeptic has not been denied entry, and that Hume’s arguments must be met at a level that only Kant has reached. He might have said also that he would sustain arguments persistently against Quine, and in so doing, would preserve many of Quine’s contributions, while denying him the foundations he stands upon.

He might have said that he will correct a deep misreading of Kant, especially a reading of Kant’s Analogies, which he says are persistently misread as posing, and failing to answer, the question “how can we know that things temporally succeed or are simultaneous with one another,” rather than an investigation of the forms of thought that ground our perception of things in temporal succession and simultaneity. Kant, Rödl points out, leaves little doubt that we do perceive things in temporal succession and simultaneity with one another: “The first Analogy describes the logical form of what we perceive in virtue of which it is capable of figuring in temporal relations.” And that logical form involves changing states and permanent substances, which can be thought of through forms of tense, forms of movement, and forms of generic thoughts, which in turn depend on substance-forms. But that is to jump ahead.

Rödl proceeds in his arguments by recognizing that Kant himself is reading Aristotle with genius, and that to recall what Kant wants to do, it is helpful to return to the Greek. Kant, however, is not wholly successful in his Aristotelian task. And Rödl might have said that he aims to complete Kant’s restoration of Aristotle for the modern world:

The source of this renewed metaphysical doubt is not the idea of a form of intuition, but the way in which, according to Kant, the form of intuition relates to the form of thought. Kant does not believe that the forms of the understanding characterize it independently of the fact that its object is given to in in sensory intuition (the category, according to Kant, is the form of the finite intellect), but nevertheless believes that they characterize it independently of the fact that its object is given to it in the intuitions of this specific form. This entails, conversely, that the specific form of our intuition belongs to our intuition independently of the fact that it provides thought with sensory content. (Thus Kant can consider the possibility of a finite intellect whose form of intuition differs from ours; see Critique of Pure ReasonB 139). And then the Deduction does not put us in a position to maintain, against metaphysical skepticism, that “form of thought” and “form of being” are different words for the same, for our intuitions then have a formal determination that does not exhaust itself in the form of thought, which means that there is a concept of the object–a pure concept the intellect provides from itself–according to which our form of intuition is external to it.

Metaphysical skepticism does not renew itself because intuitions have a certain form, but because this form is not in itself the form of thought. If we want to recover metaphysics against metaphysical skepticism, we have to be able to recognize that our form of intuition is nothing but the form of thought under a different name….

In Aristotle’s Greek, Rödl points out early in the book, the name was one and the same: the pro-sentence, “to on.”  Kant, he thinks, comes near to recovering Aristotle’s naturalist metaphysics (my phrase, which is perhaps too fraught with baggage of naturalism):

Aristotle’s metaphysics investigates what Kant’s and Hegel’s critical metaphysics investigates. Aristotle’s metaphysics is not critical in the sense defined above. For, it did not occur to him that one might conceive the forms of thought he describes as projections onto a reality that in itself is alien to reason. Aristotle had no reason to assert explicitly that the order of being is none other than the order of thought. His metaphysics is not critical because critical metaphysics regains the Aristotelian question of being against metaphysical skepticism. Therefore, critical metaphysics can directly revert to Aristotle, which is what we will do in what follows.

Hence another statement of Rödl’s intentions might have made central such an Aristotelian return, with the aid of the insights of the greatest contemporary philosophers (Anscombe provides him with the most frequent and unexpected ways out of knots), seeking, of course, to rescue Aristotle from empiricist assumptions that, admittedly, Aristotle, so keenly observant of the world, encourages:

A movement cannot be divided into something that is not divisible in the same way. If we call the supposed indivisible part of a movement a movement-atom, then there is no such thing as a movement-atom. This is a pure synthetic judgment; it elucidates the form of thought relating to intuition. We can see that this pure judgment is true by asking what would be the form predicating a movement-atom, in order to find there is none. This is how Aristotle proceeds in Physics VI, 232a6-17…

When we see that Aristotle talks about the logical form of temporal thoughts, his reflections, just rehearsed, become lucid. If, by contrast, under the narrow influence of logic described in the introduction, we do not recognize this topic, we see in his writings a misguided attempt to prove empirical assertions by means of pure thought.

Nowhere does he say what it seems to me that he comes near to doing, which is to close a gap that we often perceive between Aristotle and Plato. This feat comes in the last, most spectacular chapter, with the dullish title, “Generic Thoughts.” To understand the temporal unity of thought, we must understand first that all thoughts situate objects by means of time, whether we say it or not; that is how they can be true or false; that is how we can appeal to words like “whenever” when we make observational statements; and when we situate objects in time, we are always bringing together in a unified whole, substance and state; states cannot be understood except in reference to the bipolar temporal form of tense (past/present states, which stand in contradiction); but states in turn cannot be understood except by our knowledge of substances which persist over time, through states, and substances are understood by movement form, which is tripolar (Charles Pearce would be pleased), appreciated by aspects of past-progressive, past-perfective, and present-progressive forms (Rödl repeatedly reminds us that he is not concerned with the morphology of specific languages; the different aspects refer to differences in “what is going on,” as, for instance, passive and active voice do not); we know substances by knowing movement; but knowing movement implies, and here the argument wobbles in a moment of real dramatic uncertainty, that we know what something is doing in terms of an end we suppose.

If I say that a rock is falling to the ground, or a bird is returning to its nest, or a man is walking to New York, I am supposing an end; might it not be that I am imposing an end? And if I am imposing the end, then is not the thought of movement subjective, and aspect and therefore state, and time itself subjective, a projection of the mind? No, says Rödl, because the unity of our thought cannot be understood except in terms of a third “Generic Form” of thought, which itself depends on something called a “substance-form.” A generic thought is a time-general thought about a substance; not a particular substance, but the form of a substance. A generic thought, being time, general, can be understood as a law, with the implication that it describes what might be interrupted or have exceptions to it.

Here, we are, though Rödl does not go there, near to Aristotle’s telos (I suspect he leaves Aristotle out because he does not need to bring him in; the argument does not need, cannot afford, distractions at this point). But interruptions and exceptions do not mean a law is not a law; a law takes the form “X [where X is a substance-form] does a” and grants, without enumerating or specifying them, what might be an exception. A substance-form is a substance-form by virtue of the laws it follows, its own laws. Again, Rödl does not insist on a tantalizing path that would connect this work to Self-Consciousness, but in that work, he reads Kant’s notion of “autonomy” as giving oneself a law, meaning self-consciousness of action or belief; the substance-form that is “a human” does this: it sets a law for itself. We know what a bird does; we know what a frog does; we know what a person does when we understand their intention (they have set their own law); and so we can understand the movement-form in a particular instance.

Our sense of knowing what a substance-form is depends on knowing that a substance-form follows laws, that it moves in certain ways, that it progresses in particular paths; we might think that we are back at the gates of empiricism. How are we to know any of this except by patient observation? Are we not forced to accept some version of Quine’s myth of human development, the sort offered in his Web of Belief? The answer is a staunch no. “Generic thoughts” are time-general; they are not quantifiable; that means they do not state what happens in “all” cases; they are not reduced to a number of instances. “Generic thoughts” are explanatory; when we perceive something and we appeal to a generic thought, and a general law, we are explaining what we perceive.

We are not first guided to rules by repeatedly perceiving this and that happening. It is through rules that we perceive something happening. The general formal law, which we know a priori, is incompatible with an empiricist epistemology of specific laws. It is the negation of this epistemology.

That does not mean that experience does not happen; but experience does not come first; it goes hand-in-hand, our thought about the world in inseparable from our experience of the world; the form of the world and our thought about the world are at one:

As the generality of generic thoughts is explanatory, we can recognize in particular substances the laws of their form and, mediated by their shared form, acquire knowledge of one substance through an encounter with another. This is possible only because knowledge of the particular always already contains knowledge of its form. In Kant’s words, knowledge of the form is always encountered in experience of the particular…

We acquire knowledge of what frogs [Rödl’s choice of frogs recalls Aristophanes’ farce on philosophers…] do from observing what a given frog is doing only when nothing interferes. And what decides whether something interferes is the substance form. Hence, unless experience of the particular substance already contains knowledge of its form, it cannot provide it…

If one frog on its own does not provide a basis of knowledge of its form, then neither do many. And if many do, then so does one. Knowledge of substances is always already knowledge of forms.

Thus we arrive at the Kantian position made perfect. But more remains.

How can we describe the thought (where “Q” is a substance-form) “This A is an Q”? Rödl has told us that generic thoughts are unquantifiable. They do not make claims about “All” or “Any.” What are we doing when we think a thought that predicates a substance form. We are, says Rödl, forming a thought that is not time-general, but that is timeless:

It follows that it is impossible to define the open statement X is an N in terms of open statements of these forms. But if there are no empirical criteria that define what it is for something to be an N, then what do we say when we say that something is an N (water, a pear tree, a cat, a man)? Asking this question, we imagine a substance is given and now we must decide under what forms it falls; we look for criteria by which to decide this. If that were the case, a substance form name would have content only if it were defined by empirical criteria. But a substance is given only through its form; a substance and its form enter thought together….

No empirical thought about a substance can be a criteria for its falling under a certain form because every empirical thought about a substance already brings it under a form….

Now, the objects of generic knowledge, forms and their laws, do not affect the senses. Only particular substances and their movements do. It is true that we acquire knowledge of specific forms and laws only as experience is added: as we observe something happening in which the form reveals itself. And yet, as it is irreducible to particular knowledge, knowledge of a form is not tied to knowledge of any particular happening. It follows that the primary subject of generic knowledge is not the particular subject, the subject that is affected…

Then the lid comes off, just for a moment, as if signaling that a sequel is in order (a new release is due in February 2018), if not in store, or more generously, in order to remove any thought that little work remains to be done. An immense vista opens as Rödl considers the nature of being a knowing subject, or knowing ourselves to be a knowing subject:

What holds of a substance form holds of particular substances of this form, but it holds of them not as particular substances distinct from others, but as instances of the form: a movement form is said of a substance because and insofar as it is said of its form. In this way, a substance form is the ground of the movement of particular substances. Now, knowledge is not a movement form or kinesis, but energia as Aristotle observes (Metaphysics 6, 1048b18-34). We have said nothing about this category; it comes on the scene only with a certain specification of the categories of substance and movement, namely, the living and its laws. Yet knowledge may be like movement in the respect just mentioned: someone may know something not as a particular subject distinct from others, but as an instance of a form. Then she would know that…, because and in so far as one knows or we know or it is known that…The thoughts expressed by “one knows…” and “we know…” would not be quantitatively general; they would not refer to all subject, but to a general subject. That a form–a generic “we” or “one”–has certain knowledge would be ground of particular subjects’ having this knowledge. So it is with generic knowledge. The logical category of the object of the knowledge is reflected in the category of its subject: the primary subject of knowledge of forms is a form

But this is a thought that Rödl does not elaborate; it is beyond the scope of his book. What struck me as remarkable reading these closing pages, though, and what I doubt to be a mere coincidence of translation, is how the word “form” and the work that Rödl does with the word, relating it to the “timeless,” articulating an appeal to a substance-form that grounds knowledge of particulars and is known through them, happens by way of them, and the positing of primary subject that is itself a form, hearkens to Plato. I’m not trained in philosophy but the audacity seems immense: finding a way back to Platonic forms, which, however wonderful a fantasy and idea for those first reading philosophy, are official, from what I’ve experienced, dismissed as untenable and unfruitful for later philosophy, whatever their theological fecundity.

But then there is Rödl at the start of his work, situating himself not only in twentieth-century or even modern philosophy, but in the shadow (and lights) of Aristotle and Plato themselves:

thinking the temporal and knowing the changeable come to be the central problem of philosophy. Plato and Aristotle seek to describe, in different ways, the unity that the object of thought (the intelligible, the general, the timeless) must form with the object of the senses (the material, the particular, the changeable). This is what we will be doing as we unfold the forms through which a sensory and thus a temporal reality is thought.

So maybe the scale of the project is there from the start? Not quite, I think–it comes as a deep surprise when the culmination of the book seems a discovery of the Platonic in the Aristotelian, after a recovery of the Aristotle in Kant. For the ultimate position of the book is not just that Aristotle and Plato seek to describe something, but that they are  effective at doing so; that our current philosophical dead-ends and quandaries can be blown open and dissolved if we read them aright, and that doing so, we do not find ourselves at an end, a close to the work of philosophy, but at the frontier of new country. Because of history, because of the changes in how we relate to ourselves and the world, the temptations of thought and the metaphors we possess, our problems of philosophy are genuinely new, different from those that faced Aristotle, Plato, and Kant; but because we can re-read those authors, we can find that our new problems have already been solved, if we read the past aright, with the best techniques of thinking we have developed our way to the new quandaries we face. It is, perhaps, a temporal variation of the hermeneutic circle, not relating a part to a whole, but the old to the new, discovering novelty in what is past, and the past in what is new. Rödl’s work, then, can be admired as being essentially humanistic, engaging in the dialectic of past and present.


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