Saturday, 30 August 2014

Herbart's Theory of Being

This post outlines Herbart's account of being, which is characterized by the credence given to metaphysical analysis in a Leibnizian vein and the critique of Fichte’s idea of the “self creation of man”. We draw for our account on Marcel Mauxion's La Métaphysique de Herbart (1894). Above is an extract from the manuscript of Leibniz's Monadology.

The Theory of Being, or Ontology

Ontology for Herbart concerns being, considered as a concept. Thought in general concerns concepts, in his view. Amongst these, he distinguishes:
 - das Sein – Being
 - das Dasein – the determinate
 - die Wirkliche – the real.
 He asserts:
The determinate (or Existence) is in a framework of other existences. 
das Dasein liegt in einer Reihe mit manchem Anderen. (58). 
The real in his terminology is contrasted with the illusory. This contrast corresponds to Kant’s distinction of objective and subjective phenomena, e.g. the apparent motion of trees seen from a boat in contrast to their “real” stationary position.

In the thought of Christian Wolff, being is a kind of middle term between the possible and the necessary. For Leibniz too, the possible already has a sort of existence, as if in the mind of God; whilst the perfect being (God) is necessary. Herbart however, accepts Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument for God's existence. Being involves an "absolute position" (i.e. positing) according to Herbart. For example, I may ask if my friend’s soul still exists after death, though I cannot say where or how this may be. I posit it absolutely (schlechthin setzen). There are appearances (sensations, Empfindungen) and we are thus led to suppose that there are also real beings. However, we locate these sensations by reference to ourselves and persisting beings (e.g. We see a flash of lightning in the sky.) We might suppose that phenomena are all that there is, but we are not obliged to; or that they are based on the Self, but Herbart undertakes to refute Fichte’s idealism. Mauxion considers the move from appearance to what appears a mere sophism.

Herbart does not endorse objects of common sense as real by wholly rejecting skeptical arguments though. What is given is qualities in spatio-temporal relations; what is to be posited (das Gesetzte) is something different, but not to be identified with the external world of common sense.

Being, he further states, is that which is essentially subject. To say that Being is, is contradictory, for it makes being both subject and attribute of what is essentially subject. Hence we must say "It is something" (Etwas), i.e. determinate. There is a resemblance here to the opening steps of Hegel’s Logic. What essentially is (das Wesen) includes Being (das Sein) and Quality (das Was). It is the what that is the unknown part in this. Unlike Kant, Herbart thinks this might be knowable, by reference to "what is absolutely posited". This excludes negation, he thinks, for negation implies relation, i.e. is not absolute. It also implies simplicity, for complexity implies relation. It excludes quantity, for discrete and continuous quantity each imply relation and intensive quantity (degree) likewise, though more indirectly. 

Having considered absolute Being conceptually, we turn to Herbart’s theory of the standpoint from which it is considered.

Accidental Points of View

Accidental points of view (zufällige Ansichten) arise from the intellect. Being in itself exists without relation and with simple quality. The intellect represents it as an image (als Bild) and can represent several such beings in mutual relation and each with many determinations. Take for example a musical note, that has a place in a scale, or the color blue, which contrasts with green. These are not qualities of being in itself, but their relations illustrate the general point about the nature of our representations. Mauxion here brings in the parallelogram of forces in mechanics, the fact that many curves and lines intersect a point in analytic geometry; or that a quantity can be replaced by “a+b” in algebra. These illustrate the point that we may conceive the same thing under different concepts. The point is familiar in Analytic philosophy as the theory of descriptions. Herbart’s emphasis on mathematical examples is typical of his approach. In the last example of algebra, we may stand in different relations to the original total quantity (“A”) and to its components (“a” and “b”). For example, we may only know the total (e.g. net motion in the parallelogram of forces), or only know the parts. In metaphysics, Herbart thinks, we may represent something simple as having component parts, from an accidental point of view.

Already in metaphysics then, Herbart attempts to introduce mathematical ideas. Unity may be replaced by a complex formula, provided that the complex formula can reconstitute reality. The metaphysical theory of points of view is distinct from both Logic and from intuition (or enthusiasm). It is different from, but plays a similar role to Leibniz’ pre-established harmony. It imparts an idealist spirit to Herbart’s general realism.

Inherence, substance, cause

When we return to experience, we do not find the simple beings without negation or relations that the "principle of absolute position" led us to deduce. Instead, we experience colors, sounds, tastes, smells and form the idea of complex wholes (“things”). These belong to – are related to – the subject, but perhaps they are also qualities of substance. Herbart discusses the notion of a substance (A) distinguished from a property (a). He finds the idea coherent only where the substance has several properties that together form a unity. He rejects the distinction of attribute and mode.

Causes must also share in this multiplicity. They are the same as substances, only conceived differently.

Change gives rise to a trilemma: it may be either a basic fact (“absolute becoming”), or have a cause, which may be either internal (“freedom”) or external (“mechanism”). None of these ideas are coherent, thinks Herbart, and he argues against them.

Firstly, an external cause implies two substances, A and B, such that A acts on B. The active principle in A must leave A and transfer to B. The active principle cannot be conceived without B; hence A cannot be conceived without B, for the active principle is essential to our conception of A. So the beings, A and B, are not really independent. [This seems to work only where the substances cannot be substituted for others in our conception, e.g. when they are conceived as related universals.] Perhaps the active principle is a mere possibility, or power (i.e. if B is present, it operates); then A is defined by a mere possibility, i.e. by what is not. Herbart thus rejects the idea of a transitive cause.

Secondly, an internal principle ("freedom") implies that the same entity divide itself in two parts, one determining, one determined. Also, as the determining part must itself be caused, there is an infinite regress.

This leaves absolute becoming, a concept first articulated by Heraclitus. Here the contradictions are not so apparent, but nevertheless the position cannot stand. It must exclude change to be explanatory, but this means that the movement itself is constant. Again, if A becomes B, it thereby becomes not-A. Must it not then have disappeared before B exists? If yes, there is no liaison; if no, the same thing is both A and not-A, producing a contradiction.

Hence change is impossible and real being is immutable. Yet change is a fact of experience. In experience, some properties change, whilst others do not, for objects have many properties. Thus water retains its weight (mass) when it freezes. This, thinks Herbart, does not address the objections. Herbart thus applies his method of relations to conceive a substance persisting through change. Substance and cause are to be understood through relations, not as a rule imposed on experience by the mind, as Kant would have it. Experience is not deceptive, only incomplete. Herbart says, adapting a Kantian dictum:
Experience is unintelligible without metaphysics; but 
Metaphysics is vain and sterile unless it starts from experience.
Having considered reality and appearance in general, we turn to real phenomena.

The real phenomenon

According to Herbart’s reasoning, real phenomena arise when simple immutable beings enter into relation with each other in such as way that one becomes substance and the others causes and properties. How is this to be conceived? Firstly, the simple beings are not material atoms. Of two simple beings, A and B, several relations may arise. For example:
A may be a + b + g
B may be m + n – g.
Real phenomena will appear as a + b + m + n. Relation g remains invisible, like two forces in equilibrium. Negation in this model is apparent (pertaining to g) rather than real. Relation g plays a central role in the relation of A and B. It is conserved at the level of the real (das wirkliche Geschehen), but not as appearance (Erscheinung). Simple being itself is unknowable. The real phenomenon thus conceived allows a distinctive notion of causality to be elaborated. Mauxion however, thinks that the cause of the relations of the simple beings is unexplained on this model and thus the general theory is of little value.

The Problem of the Self

The idea of the Self, of the mind as substance, is central to Herbart, as to his first teacher Fichte from whom he diverges. We have seen him acknowledge this in earlier posts. He conceives the Self as a crossroads, a central square, for representations. The subject-object self (c.f. Hegel’s Logic, Doctrine of the Concept) too is given in experience, or rather obtained from it by abstraction. Particular representations are like legs supporting a table – any one can be removed, but not all at once. By Self, we commonly mean our determinate Self with its passions and history. Thus far, the Self is similar to other objects of experience.

As with other objects, in line with the general metaphysical method of relations, we are led to suppose a simple substance (mind or soul) underlying experience. The mind preserves itself through acts of representation, which we experience as perception.


Herbart establishes to his own satisfaction by abstract arguments that empirical things with multiple changing properties and the Self are not realities, but expressions of reality resulting from psychic mechanisms which we have yet to study. Hidden behind them are simple, invariable beings capable of being brought into relation, but not of being conceived spatially, though they are comparable perhaps to mathematical points. The mind perceives its own acts of self-preservation, which correspond to transitions amongst simple beings.

In the remainder of his philosophy, Herbart thus assumes a framework of metaphysical existence something like the monads of Leibniz, in terms of which he interprets experience conceived as a phenomenal product of an underlying reality. We might compare this to the Logic of Hegel in which Logic becomes an independent object of study, distinct from the empirical matter (nature and mind) which it sheds light on. Both thinkers share a reaction against the skepticism of Kant about noumena and both take a critical approach to Fichte’s idea of human self-creation, Herbart by rejecting it, Hegel by locating it in historical context.

This mixture of abstract metaphysical argument and empirical observation is common in the German philosophical culture of Herbart and Hegel’s era. It is also found in Christian Wolff, whose writings had made an early impression on Herbart's mind. However, the direction and content of Herbart’s thought is more realist than that of Hegel and less oriented towards history.