ALFREDO FERRARIN | Il pensare e l’io. Hegel e la critica di Kant | Carocci Editore 2016


By Alfredo Ferrarin

I am very grateful to Elisa Magrì and Guido Frilli for the time and scrupulous attention they devoted to my essay and for their criticisms. Before I discuss them let me put them into context.


I have recently written two books, one on Kant (Ferrarin 2015) and one on Hegel (the book under discussion here).[1] It was only as I was completing them that I realised something I had not thought out as part of the original plan. By the end of my Kant book, I realised that I was often trying to respond to Hegel’s critique of Kant. The traits of Kant’s idea of reason that surfaced with ever greater necessity in my mind gave voice to what I interpreted as Kant’s possible reply to what I began to identify as Hegel’s onesided reading, if not misunderstanding, of Kant.

As I wrote my Hegel book, while deploring that Hegel never took seriously the Doctrine of Method of the First Critique or even the Dialectic which he was one of the few (and first) to praise, I realised that Hegel tried to solve, or give a very different version of, some problems which I had isolated as internal to the Doctrine of Method itself.

Naturally, the two books are mutually independent and address different issues and audiences. Yet, if taken together, they can be portrayed as one complex and sustained argument on reason in Kant and Hegel. This may be why in their critique of my Hegel book both Elisa Magrì and Guido Frilli start out with the relation between Kant and Hegel.

It is my personal belief that writing compelling essays on classic figures in the history of philosophy requires an imaginative effort. Without the understanding’s sharpness and reason’s comprehensive regard philosophy can hardly stake any serious and cogent claim, but without imagination it does not get off the ground and all too often veers towards repetition and paraphrase. Imagination can at times be blind, but analysis is empty without it. Imagination is the arch-enemy of positivism: it revokes what is accepted, it negates the obvious, it keeps possibilities alive for the sake of understanding when facts have decided otherwise, it turns the gaze away from the given it puts in question to enable the conception of an alternative development. In my book on Hegel I see imagination take on different forms and work at various levels. Let me say something about its role in the comparative analysis of rival systems (Kant’s and Hegel’s in the case at hand), and in dialectic.

Magrì and Frilli are right to choose as the point of departure for their comments the relation between Kant and Hegel. In one part of my book (Chapter 5, though references to their confrontation run throughout) what I have tried to do is refuse to accept uncritically and wholesale the so-called overcoming of Kant on Hegel’s part, not because I was interested in salvaging Kant from Hegel, but because I thought it was the indispensable premise to figuring how things between them could have gone otherwise. A counter-factual imagination can be illuminating, especially in quarrels we are asked not to adjudicate rashly.

I think that in his critique of Kant Hegel does not live up to his extraordinary philosophical intelligence. And I am saying this because of what I have learned from Hegel. It is because I learned from Hegel the distinction between different modes of subjectivity, and in particular between reason and consciousness or the finite ‘I’, that I came to see how he conflates these distinct terms in Kant and charges him with subjectivism. It is because I learned from Hegel the shortcomings of separation, the understanding’s paramount procedure, that I came to see how he neglects the unity of reason in Kant and charges him with reducing it to the understanding, ignoring the distinction between style and content, i.e. between a dichotomic exposition and a fundamental unity to the subject-matter to be analysed. It is because I learned from Hegel to value the Transcendental Dialectic and the difference between organism and aggregate that I find it disappointing that he should be so unfair in his assessment of reason’s ideas (as opposed to the understanding’s concepts) and neglect not only the Appendix to the Dialectic but especially also the Doctrine of Method as a whole (the Architectonic in particular being conspicuous in its absence).

I believe that with regard to certain topics Hegel could have shown more appreciation toward Kant’s philosophy and also learnt more from Kant, if only his critique had been less hasty and summary, or more open and receptive. There is a further general point, however. In the history of philosophy the richness of a comparison is often cut short by those who, coming later, translate all points at stake in their own conceptual terms and easily turn everything in their favour. The hands-down victory of those who come later is the positivism of time. It seems to me that we do not sufficiently regret that, instead of considering merits and contents in light of potential alternatives, we are too early called to take a stance, almost invariably favouring the winners without probing the evidence supposedly in their favour. But philosophers are not compelled to answer the draft to arms. Not because they wash their hands, but because conscription silences criticism, which is all philosophy is about. Becoming partisans of either camp, construing the other as defiant and antagonistic, is not an inevitable doom.

Perhaps it is not surprising that in the secondary literature we end up witnessing a dialogue between the deaf. Kantians have little interest in the problems raised by Hegelians insensitive to absolute idealism’s possible misunderstandings or sweeping claims and not keen on philosophical reconsideration. But Hegelians seem even less interested in listening to those who they surmise from the outset are siding with the reasons of finite consciousness and givenness. Actually, in the rich bibliography devoted to the comparison between Kant and Hegel I am not familiar with many essays addressing philosophically readers not already convinced of the necessity of choosing either of them.

Sometimes what passes as Hegel’s solution to an unsolved Kantian problem simplifies what to a Kant scholar is a fluid reality that could have taken on other configurations; or was actually solved by Kant in different ways and in other writings and contexts, i.e. not as Hegel construes it; or, finally, could not be reduced to unity because its sides belonged to irreconcilable fields, so that isolating a core foundation in order to denounce its defective use, as Hegel often does brilliantly, is not possible. I take Hegel’s reductions and simplifications, rather than as the result of an arbitrary or fanciful reading, as the one-sided solution to a basic ambivalence regarding pure reason’s powers on Kant’s part. Ambivalence must be acknowledged as such, lest shortcuts and simplifications become the rule—as they do in Kant’s retrospective reconsideration in 1787, 1788 and 1790 of what he has supposedly accomplished in 1781, and in Hegel. Different possibilities must be weighed and valued in their promise before they are dismissed.

One lesson we can draw from Hegel is to look past the surface for more than meets the eye. What appears is a motley crust that can change form and look, and we must regard it as the provisional reification of a spontaneous movement beyond our control. Seeing in being the becoming that made it what it is, in the present a moment of the whole development from the past to the intimation of a future, in the actual the concretions of some possibilities and not others, in the positive the negative, in identity difference: this is the anti-positivistic core of dialectic. Contrary to popular belief, Hegel celebrates the understanding’s work. Without it we have nothing to go on. Without it we do not get reason, but irrationality. The understanding’s identity, determinacy, univocity are indispensable. But identity is itself one moment of rationality, to be thought together with non-identity. The understanding is one form reason takes. The understanding is necessary, but as a premise that reason must make fluid and comprehend in its movement. Where the understanding looks for univocal definitions, reason seeks the plurivocity of meaning of thought determinations.

In this sense, something in dialectic is comparable to a logic of imagination. Better said, imagination and reason together must invert the fixed truths the understanding pretends to claim. In Hegel’s dialectic it turns out that it is not just being that is said in many ways, as in Aristotle’s metaphysics. All philosophical concepts are said in many ways, and their different meanings require their continuous going back to themselves. This is their dialectic, their plasticity: a lexicon in the making, a dictionary of all philosophical concepts exhibited in their development, where nouns are provisional designations of knots to be untangled rather than titles of a possible solution. In Hegel’s dialectic, something similar to the Freudian displacement is the deliberate result of the work of philosophy: dispossession, disorientation, decentering, inversion of value. For this reason each concept draws its sense and truth relative to what precedes and what follows it, and each concept must be examined as a movement in light of its genesis and its outcome. This is why we can say that identity is one shape of movement among others.

Language is the work of the understanding insofar as it fixates its objects in their identity, whereas dialectic must be able to show their contradictoriness, their becoming, their movement, their fluidity. In its claim to scientificity the understanding, and the ordinary conception of thinking that shares this attitude, takes meanings literally. It requires univocity, determinacy, stable identity. It seeks normativity, and opposes rules to use. It admits metaphors, analogies, rhetorical tropes and imaginative figures of speech to the extent they are devoid of cognitive value. Poets are at liberty to deviate from fixed meanings, but at the price of futility. By contrast, in its sensitivity towards different layers in language, shifts of meaning and plurivocity, dialectic recognises potentialities of meaning where the understanding sees only illegitimate, or playful, divergences from accepted norms.

Dialectic does not have its peculiar language. The pages on the speculative sentence in particular are the demonstration of the limits of language from a reflection internal to it. If determinacy and identity must rule language, language presupposes an ontology made up of distinct and separate entities as well as grammatical and syntactical structures notable for their separateness. Hegel’s logic has the effect of recasting our vocabulary, our whole system of thought. In my book I show how philosophy provides us with a new speculative vocabulary regarding such diverse concepts as thinking, subjectivity, self, concept, actuality, and others, but more thematically reason and the ‘I’.


Among these concepts I could have included memory, too. Hegel distinguishes the language of representation from that of the concept. In my account of logical sublation I have adopted the sense of memory implicit in the language of representation so as to mark the distance of the ordinary, psychological concept of memory from unconsciously preserved meanings in the movement of speculative logic. As Magrì instead argues, a speculative memory is needed in the form of a second nature and habit enabling the logical development that leads to the idea. In her view this memory is integral to Hegel’s redefinition of the notion of “owning oneself” as it allows for the preservation of the results of the logical movement. Magrì thus calls our attention to a very important issue, namely the issue of how in the logical progression the outcomes of past stages are retained and known.

My aim in denying a speculative memory was to show that it may be misleading to speak of memory in this connection because no remembering is involved here and it is crucial to stay away in the logic from a vocabulary that smacks of psychology. As the self-externalization of intelligence, memory (the Gedächtnis of §§ 461–4 of the Berlin Encyclopædia) is the permanent and empty bond of names. Its territory is the space of senseless words that have overcome meaning as an external referent. Borrowing some of these traits to raise memory to a key speculative concept because the concept needs to retain its becoming is an interesting suggestion indeed, but it may create more problems than it solves.

Unlike language or history, thought determinations in logic do not have an independent life and a development across time. Not only is logical becoming an intemporal past; more to the point, ‘past’ determinations survive as negated in subsequent ones, so that each concept is the memory of its becoming. It is only by thinking actively of what is contained in each determination that we can find the development and sublation it has gone through. What appears as an immediacy to thought is thought itself, not thought’s other, the sedimentation in an objective medium. To find in each thought determination the past that made it what it is we cannot turn to some kind of space or storage room where its successive stages are preserved and readily available in the same way in which we can find in certain configurations the activities that made them possible.

The equation of a speculative memory with second nature and habit is problematic because habit and second nature depend on a process that has forgotten itself in a relatively foreign medium. Constitutive of these notions are both the ease, confidence and effortless movement we acquire after training and the fact that the efforts that went into their shaping are no longer perceived. Consider the examples of the State constitution as the result of a pondered and momentous decision of our founding fathers, or a style of play showing the teachings of my first piano instructor, i.e. mores in ethical life as a practice and a shared activity, and a skill such as music playing whereby repeated exercise has built a self-assured competence. By consigning itself to a foreign medium in which it has forgotten itself but from which it can reclaim itself, an activity has given rise to customs and abilities whose progressive stages it can run through again and analyse at will. This is absent in the logical movement. There is no comparable self-reification in an alien medium (a written document, proficient fingers) in logic. Whatever self-affection may take place in the concept does not leave sensible traces in which to find itself again. The logical self-objectification differs from that at work in habit and second nature. For this reason in my book I distinguished the idealisation at work in subjective spirit from the ideality that each thought determination is. Whereas in the former a relationship between inner and outer is key and the activity of assimilation occurs as the wresting of a spiritual content from an outward shell, in the latter there is no opposition, nothing external we must break apart and appropriate. Every side of the thought determination is an ideal moment in a whole in which determinate negation has accomplished its work and lowered each moment to an internal, permanent inadvertent possession.

Magrì is right that I see in “Hegel’s project” a “transformation of Kant’s notion of schematism”. Among other things, the notion of self-affection is pivotal in both Kant and Hegel, but naturally takes on quite different meanings. Accordingly, ‘schematism’ is the name for a problem Kant and Hegel try to solve quite differently. Whereas Kant must show how abstract and otherwise empty (i.e. simply logical) concepts find an intuitive exhibition and thus objective reality, Hegel must face the problem of the self-objectification of the concept in concrete forms. This is true at different levels: from the relationship between Vorstellung and concept (with the complementary movement of purification and sensibilisation) to the progression in idealisation internal to representation in the Philosophy of Subjective spirit, from the relation between the divine and actuality (logos becoming flesh) to Hegel’s reading of the Third Critique, but most generally as the self-reification of thinking.

Magrì is also right, and kind to note, that my previous research on Hegel and Aristotle is brought in this book to “the next level”. In my mind this holds especially for my old treatment of Hegel’s interpretation and assimilation of Aristotle’s intellect, which here finds a new angle and a relevant integration. The nous, which has no form in itself so as to be able to become each form it thinks in turn, is the model for the self-determination of thought in Hegel. Thought is in itself free, has no content, order or rules, but if it wants to claim anything at all it must give itself contents, an order and rules: the determinate contents, order and rules that articulate and bind the exercise of its activity. I believe I can say that the chapter on spontaneity and reification as the movement of thinking, which is in many respects the core of the book, is another way to show the importance of the Aristotelian nous for Hegel.

I find Magrì’s identification of the challenge of this book (“to never be content with what Hegel claims”) flattering. It is the fundamental lesson I have learned from my teachers about Plato’s philosophical eros, including Hegel’s restlessness of the concept (Unruhe des Begriffs), which I try to communicate to my students.

Magrì offers important remarks on self-reference by the end of her critique. The logical form of self-reference, not restricted to human subjectivity and yet diremptive for all its applications and uses including consciousness and individuality, is constitutive of every form of organised being. Without it identity and alterity cannot be brought together. Self-negation, determinate alterity and continuity are the traits Magrì identifies. I hope in her own book she can soon expand on them and make good publicly on the promise these remarks contain.


My zetetic soul would be quite happy with Guido Frilli’s initial comment that “some crucial conclusions of the book contain more questions than answers”, but I know it should not be, for  he means this critically. Frilli makes some claims with which I am not sure I would agree, but he also raises with subtle intelligence some sharp criticisms which deserve more satisfactory answers than I am afraid I can provide. I shall do my best to address them.

I am not sure I would speak about the “embodiment” of thinking in an ‘I’ as does Frilli in his opening remarks because I would not want a metaphorical expression (the ‘I’ is the supposed owner of its thoughts and its body but is naturally nothing bodily) to be misunderstood. This may be an excess of prudence on my part, but the reservation that gives me pause about a generalising claim I do not support (“the transcendentalist reading of Hegel […] is the main polemical target of the book”) is not. Later Frilli—himself the author of a fine book on Fichte—writes that Jacobi, Schelling and Fichte in particular develop “alternative and autonomous solutions to the very questions Ferrarin sees Kant and Hegel as dealing with: the problems concerning a non-subjectivist idea of reason as universal movement that nonetheless needs the activity of self-consciousness to realise itself”. I am willing to defer to Frilli’s judgement on this. Furthermore, I have no qualms admitting that my treatment could have been more comprehensive and inclusive instead of sacrificing much for the sake of brevity, or agreeing that “‘[t]hinking and the I’ could be the fitting title of an original theoretical re-appropriation of classical German philosophy”. But I would not say that I am “ideally suspending time in order to imagine a possible Kantian response to Hegel” (in the same paragraph) because I do not subscribe to (and frankly do not see in my book) a neat opposition between historical reconstruction and abstract theoretical analysis I am in fact in principle against. Finally, I am not sure I see what he means in conclusion when he speaks of the “Idea as a substantial totality of reciprocities” (unless he has in mind a quasi-Heideggerian critique of causa sui).

In Chapter One, in the midst of a discussion aimed at criticising the contemporary idea that self-consciousness is the result of recognition, I refer to Dieter Henrich’s critique of Ernst Tugendhat: without an elementary form of self-knowledge or self-acquaintance (Vertrautheit mit sich), we do not achieve either self-consciousness or the ‘I’ as a subject. The reflexive use of the personal pronoun is itself derivative of a more original phenomenon that grammar cannot ground. The semantic explanation of the ‘I’ is circular, as is all logical explanation of the ‘I’. At the end of Chapter Two I talk about a logic of the ‘I’ in Hegel’s Subjective Logic to show the negative self-relation of thinking in the first person. What I meant to highlight was that no theory of self-consciousness eschewing—in its search for something primitive, underived and immediate—all reference to something outside itself, beginning with the logical concept of self-reference, can hope to stand on its feet. I do not think, and it would have been quite inconsistent with the earlier reference to Henrich if I had wanted to demonstrate that Hegel has thereby a good explanation of the ‘I’ or self-consciousness. He does not. A logic of the ‘I’ is not an explanation of the ‘I’, and individuation is not the aim of Hegel’s point, or mine. Frilli laments that my explanation “does not supply us with a logos of the ‘I’”. I had a narrower ambition: I meant to show that at work even in what to many is a primary given is a logical dynamics and that individual self-consciousness as an immediate datum is sustained by logical mediation. It is quite possible that my use of the word “constitutive” has misled Frilli. By that I meant that without (the logical concept of) self-reference self-consciousness cannot be.

It seems to me that Hegel’s point is that taking self-consciousness as primary is not radical enough because logic is more original and basic than it; and his question is: what does the ‘I’ know itself as? As individual ‘I’ or as the concept and thus for Hegel as the true self? Which is ostensibly not a logos of the ‘I’. But nor does it justify what Frilli reconstructs as my “second explanation”—something I do not recognise as mine and against which in the book I have frequently argued, e.g. pp. 106–7 which Frilli quotes, when I said that Hegel is against Stoicism— according to which “I have to adapt myself to the spontaneous and impersonal self-negativity of thinking which constitutes my inner being”. In fact, I do not think I offered two conflicting explanations (with the second one “deeply puzzling”). I believe I have shown how by realising that the ‘I’ is what we make of it we realise that the true backbone of any possible understanding of the ‘I’ is the concept of self-reference.

Frilli is very sharp in his second critical point, but may be exaggerating when he writes that Hegel is “incapable of displaying a logos of the whole”. It seems to me he is looking for a Jacobian, or Rosenian, answer to this question of the logos of the whole when he writes that only a preliminary intuition of the whole would allow me to claim to have found an all-encompassing result (what could, I wonder, this all-encompassing result possibly be?). But I doubt Hegel believes or wants to persuade us that he has managed to pinpoint the exact coincidence between whole and parts. It is only retrospectively, when we ask for an account, that we are forced to conclude that we are always already moving within the whole. But if so, there is always going to be a gap in thought. If you take the absolute idea seriously, it is impossible to expect an instantaneous grasp of the oneness of whole and parts. The identity of thinking and thought cannot be “conclusive” in any sense of the word. Personally, I am satisfied with my claim that the Idea is not self-transparent because it is run through by a constant disparity, but I am convinced at the same time that this does not mean upsetting a presumed Hegelian teaching. I think this claim is by no means an alternative to or even different from what Hegel thinks.

On the last point regarding the idea’s production, I believe Frilli rightly interprets what I mean when he says that the idea is productive insofar as it is subjective thinking. I have defended that point in the book. But I have also argued that the disparity between thinking and thought is never overcome. Frilli writes:

Thinking needs passivity; but passivity in turn is essentially instinct and negativity; this is why Denken is one, and activity and passivity are two sides of the same reality. But this means that thinking’s oneness is fuelled by asymmetry, not by reciprocity; it is only as active idealisation that thinking gets to self-knowledge, and it is only by reproducing the gap between Denken and its Denkbestimmungen, between spontaneity and reification, that thinking has movement, reality and life.

I entirely agree, and therefore I am at a loss as to the conclusion Frilli draws immediately thereafter:

In the end, we are confronted once again with an unpleasant alternative. Either the Idea is self-productive, causa sui, in a more supernatural sense, as a divine personal thinking and not only as our idealising activity; or thinking cannot be a substantial and truly reciprocal wholeness, except by transcending mediation, discursivity and negativity through an act of intuitive receptivity.

The first horn strikes me as non-Hegelian in the sense I believe I have shown in Chapter 2, where I criticised the realist or foundationalist interpretation of Hegel’s logic (and as any reader of the third section of the Logic of Essence, Actuality, would readily concede). With the second horn, we are back at point 2 above on Jacobi. Except that I do not see why we would want to transcend mediation if knowledge of the whole is marked by disparity throughout anyway. To hen diapheron heautôi, not a mystical union at the expense of difference, is Hegel’s answer.

Received: 1 February 2018.


[1] This latter book is going to appear in English at the end of 2018 (see Ferrarin, forthcoming).


Ferrarin, A. (2015), The Powers of Pure Reason. Kant and the Cosmic Idea of Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

—— (forthcoming), Thinking and the I. Hegel and the Critique of Kant (Evanston: Northwestern University Press).

© Alfredo Ferrarin, 2018.

Having taught at Boston University, Alfredo Ferrarin is now full professor of Theoretical Philosophy at the University of Pisa. His work on Greek, classical German philosophy and phenomenology includes some seventy essays as well as the following volumes: Hegel and Aristotle (Cambridge, 2001), Artificio, desiderio, considerazione di sé. Hobbes e i fondamenti antropologici della politica (Pisa, 2001), Saggezza, immaginazione e giudizio pratico. Studio su Aristotele e Kant (Pisa, 2004), Galilei e la matematica della natura (Pisa, 2014), and The Powers of Pure Reason. Kant and the Idea of Cosmic Philosophy (Chicago, 2015). The book under review here will be published in English translation by Northwestern University Press later this year. Also forthcoming is a volume on imagination and images