“Moral”, “Judgment”

Hegel regarded a forgiving stance as transcending what he called the Moral World-View. Other writers have made distinctions between “ethics” and “morality”. I used to distinguish “morality”, as reducing ethics to simple compliance with externally given norms, from “ethics”, as concerned with inquiry into what really is right. But as a result of engagement with the literature on Kant, I have adopted a more Kantian usage that makes “morality” too a subject of inquiry in the best Socratic sense. I now use the word “moral” in the broad sense of what used to be called “moral philosophy”.

However sophisticated the underlying judgment may be, any unforgivingly judgmental attitude is prone to find fault with the world and with others. The Moral World-View in Hegel is several steps removed from the traditional attitude that norms are simply given. Its presentation is implicitly a critique of Kantian and Fichtean ethics. Here the judgment is rational. We are seriously thinking for ourselves about what is right. We are sincerely seeking to develop a point of view that is globally consistent and fair, and that takes everything relevant into account. But however nuanced a point of view we develop, it is still ultimately only a single point of view.

Hegel’s approach to ethics is singularly attuned to avoiding self-righteousness in all its forms. Hegelian forgiveness involves the recognition that no single point of view — no matter what subtleties it encompasses — is ever by itself finally adequate in the determination of what is right. For Hegel the ultimate arbiter of what is right is the universal community consisting of all rational beings everywhere, past, present, and future. Because it includes the future, the last word is never said.

This is far removed from the banality that all points of view are equally valid. Rather, everyone gets or should get an equal chance to participate in the dialogue, to be heard and to have their voice considered. But for each of us, the validity of our point of view is subject to evaluation by others, as Brandom has emphasized. We don’t get to individually self-certify. Nor is the validity of a point of view decidable by majority vote. Validation is not a matter of tallying up the conclusions of individuals, or of achieving consensus in a present community. It involves assessment of how the conclusions were reached. Previously accepted conclusions are always implicitly subject to re-examination.

On an individual level too, I like to stress the open-endedness of Aristotelian (and Kantian) practical judgment. The need to act requires that deliberation be cut short at some point. We aim to act with relatively robust confidence that we are doing the right thing, but the best practical confidence is not knowledge. Aristotle takes care to remind us that ethics is not a science. There are many things in life that we do not know, but in which we have justified practical confidence. Ethical judgment is like that.

Properly Human, More Than Human?

The conclusion of Aubry’s essay has a very different character from what preceded it. It rejoins her development elsewhere of a purely Aristotelian theology, and provides an interesting complement or contrast to the medieval debates about the spiritual significance of Aristotelian “intellect” that I have reviewed recently. As usual, in reading this it is best to forget what we think we know about what “intellect” is. It also seems to me there are a few resonances here with Harris’ reading of Hegel’s views on religion.

“Aristotelian ethics poses the possibility, for every human, of acceding to the divine in oneself. Far from being the prerogative of luck and of the blessings of the gods, this possibility is inscribed in the essence of every rational being: it demands to be developed and modified by virtuous work, the exercise of reason and of freedom. Thus, the access to this immanent transcendence, instead of being a natural gift or the effect of a divine inspiration, requires the mediation of the specifically human faculties: it is in being fully human that one can, for Aristotle, accede to the divine in oneself” (Aubry in Dherbey and Aubry, eds., L’excellence de la vie, p. 91, my translation).

I very much like the formulation “it is in being fully human”. This is an ethical criterion. Being human for Aristotle has little to do with biological species — any rational animal would be human. I have noted that being a rational animal is only having a certain potential. To be fully human is to actualize that potential.

Aubry notes that Aristotle “rejects the ethics of privilege and election as well as that of the natural good and of talent: he does not believe in conversion, in a first choice to which one can only, throughout one’s life, remain faithful” (ibid).

Aristotelian potentiality in its ethical dimension, Aubry says, is a conceptual translation of the figure of the Platonic daimon. This suggestion is new to me. She particularly refers to the myth of Er in Plato’s Republic, in which the human is said to choose her daimon rather than being chosen by it. In the same way, she says that for Aristotle the human chooses her potentiality instead of being determined by it.

She credits her colleague Dherbey at the end, and I think Dherbey’s remark that for Aristotle choice is more a matter of character than of punctual decision is highly relevant here. Putting the two together suggests a kind of reciprocal determination between character and this sort of nonpunctual choice. Paul Ricoeur has richly developed this kind of reciprocal relation, with explicit reference to Aristotle’s notion of character.

Next she moves to Aristotle’s brief explicit discussion of a kind of immortality, which does not seem to me to be an immortality of the soul. Aristotle linked immortality to what he calls intellect (nous) but left many details open, which later led to extensive debates between Thomists, Averroists, and Alexandrists like Pietro Pomponazzi (1462-1525).

“One could even say that Aristotle radicalizes the Platonic project: for the Platonic injunction to ‘immortalize oneself insofar as it is possible’ becomes, in Aristotle, an invitation to ‘immortalize oneself according to potentiality’. The divine is not in the human as a simple possibility, but indeed as a real potential. The human contains by nature her beyond-nature: she bears within herself an immanent principle of [self-] exceeding” (p. 92, emphasis in original).

This would seem to be a reference to the potential intellect, much discussed by Alexander of Aphrodisias, Averroes, Aquinas, and others. Despite their differences, these writers all basically agreed that potential intellect is fundamental to what distinguishes rational animals. For all of them, to be a fully realized rational animal is to have a certain relation to “intellect”, which transcends the biological organism.

Aubry continues, “One has seen in effect that the definitional dunamis [potentiality] that the ethical effort aims to realize is reason…. To the definitional dunamis of the human corresponds a double ergon [work] — for, if the first is properly human, the other is a bit more than human” (ibid). She had introduced the idea of “definitional potentiality” earlier in the essay. I think this just means the potentiality inherent to any rational animal. As noted above, the commentary tradition links this specifically to potential intellect.

Next she quotes from Nicomachean Ethics book 10 chapter 7. I will substitute a slightly longer version of the quote from Joe Sachs’ translation:

“But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue. So if the intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with the intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful [Aubry has “noble”, and I don’t have my Greek text handy] thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part; it would be strange, then, if anyone were to choose not his own life but that of something else. What was said before will be fitting now too: what is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest” (Sachs trans., p. 193).

Aristotle compresses a tremendous amount into a few lines here. Many have found him too minimalist on these topics. I take his minimalism as reflecting an admirable intellectual modesty, carefully avoiding claims that are beyond human knowledge.

Traditional scholastic readings expanding on this aspect of Aristotle narrowly emphasize elaborating his very schematic, sketch-like remarks about intellect. I think the work of Paul Ricoeur (and of Hegel, particularly as read by Brandom, Pippin, and Harris) provides rich, multidimensional alternative expansions of Aristotle’s minimalist formulations on the ultimate ends of human life that are genuinely Aristotelian in spirit.

Aubry continues, “To be human in act, therefore, can signify being human among humans, or being a bit divine. One is certainly far, here, from the tragic wisdom, from an ethic of resignation and of limit. The Aristotelian ethic includes rather an irreducible dimension of [what from the tragic point of view would be] hubris [pride]. Divine knowledge is not posed as a simple ‘ideal’, nor divinization as a ‘regulative, not constitutive, principle’: on the contrary, and we underline it, the divine element that nous [intellect] is in the human, this immanent transcendent, is indeed a constitutive potentiality, a faculty to be actualized, and not a simple possibility. This actualization is nonetheless mediated: it is by the intermediary of humanity that the human rejoins the divine in herself, in exercising her reason, her virtue, her freedom. If the Aristotelian ethic is an ethic of surpassing, it passes nonetheless through full humanity: the daimon of Aristotelian eudaimonism [pursuit of happiness] is not enthusiasm, delirium, possession, or an irrational guide, arbitrary and infallible…. [I]t is possible, at the end of becoming virtuous, to be perfect and happy, even though this accomplishment, hindered by matter, broken by fatigue, is only ephemeral.”

“To the God of pure act of the Metaphysics, that God without power who has no other force than the desire he arouses, thus corresponds, in the Ethics, the divine posed in human potentiality” (p. 93).

Later religious traditions have often regarded talk about divinization of the human as objectionable. The great Persian Sufi Mansur al-Hallaj (858-922 CE) was stoned to death for saying “I am the Real”. Teachings of the great Christian theologian-philosopher-mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328) were condemned in the West.

Aristotle, however, has a very positive concept of a kind of pride that he calls “greatness of soul” (see Magnanimity), which he actually makes into a key virtue. He sees it as as promoting other virtues, and as prompting people to help others and be forgiving. Alain de Libera and Kurt Flasch have emphasized that the affirmative view of human life in Aristotelian ethics found a significant audience even in the middle ages.

All this provides an interesting contrast to both sides of the debate about humanism in 1960s France.

Virtue Not a Potential

I picked up L’excellence de la vie especially for the early essay of Gwenaëlle Aubry, “Actuality and Potentiality in Aristotelian Ethics” (my translation). Here she makes a number of important distinctions. Contrary to some modern interpretations, Aristotle’s natural teleology and values-first approach to ultimate philosophical questions do not lead to what 20th century philosophers called ethical naturalism, or to any kind of nature-based elitism. I’ve been assuming this all along, but it is good to spell out the argument.

Virtue can sound like the optimal realization of a healthy nature, but for Aristotle it is actually a kind of habit, so it cannot be straightforwardly natural. In Nicomachean Ethics book 2 chapter 1, Aristotle points out that we can throw a stone up in the air a thousand times, but this doesn’t change its natural tendency to fall back to the ground. One may be born with a penchant for courage, justice, or temperance, but for these qualities to become true virtues requires the engagement of reason and what Aubry calls the “transcendental” intellectual virtue of practical judgment (phronesis). Virtue is not an unevenly distributed innate talent, but a result of extensive practice that is available to all. It requires effort and “seriousness”.

If biological nature itself is shaped by implicit ends, what distinguishes human ethical development? “[T]he position of Aristotle is clear: virtue is not natural, but neither is it contrary to nature” (Aubry, p. 78, emphasis in original). Here we are in the territory of what the commentary tradition called “second nature”. Virtue for Aristotle is an acquired disposition. This rules out the notion that it is just the unfolding of something innate. Aubry says that ethical practice is a mediation between nature and something beyond nature. Before the fact, Aristotle evicts both naturalism and supernaturalism, in the way that these are commonly understood.

According to Aubry, in the ethical domain Aristotle’s standard notion of potentiality is subject to a triple modification. First, the goal of virtue is not to “be all you can be”. It is selective. Only the “definitional” potentiality of the human — to be what makes us properly human — is involved in virtue. Second, one only becomes fully human under the condition of actively choosing what one is essentially. “If everyone tends naturally toward the good, no one is naturally virtuous” (p. 79). Third, virtue can only be actualized in the context of a free exercise of reason.

“Virtue, albeit a necessary condition for the actualization of the definitional potentiality of the human, is not itself a potentiality” (p. 81). She quotes Aristotle in book 2 chapter 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics, “It is neither by nature nor against nature that the virtues are born in us, but nature has given us the capacity to receive them, and this capacity is brought to maturity by habit [hexis]” (p. 82). And again from the same, “All that we have naturally, we receive first in a state of potentiality, and it is later that we manifest it in act, as is clear in the case of the sensory faculties…. For the virtues on the contrary, their possession presupposes a previous exercise, as is the case for the other arts” (p. 83).

Aubry notes that this might seem like a vicious circle: it is necessary to act well to become capable of acting well. And in avoiding naturalism, have we replaced it with the opposite excess of a pure imposition? But this is artificial, and resembles the false paradoxes of learning. To be a good musician, one must play an instrument well, and one learns this through repeated practice. To become virtuous, one “practices” doing the right thing in the right way.

Ethics and Effectiveness

I’m sampling a French anthology edited by Gilbert Romeyer Dherbey and Gwenaëlle Aubry, Excellence in Life: On the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics of Aristotle (2002; my translation throughout). Dherbey’s essay “Ethics and Effectivity in Aristotle” aims to show that Aristotle anticipates Hegel in successfully overcoming the apparent opposition between pure principles and the real world. This makes a nice complement to Robert Pippin’s discernment of strongly Aristotelian notions of actuality and actualization in Hegel’s ethics.

Dherbey begins by noting that some people situate pure ethics outside of all real-world effectiveness, while viewing real-world effectiveness as inevitably involving moral compromise, shortfall, deviation, and corruption. He associates this with “romanticism, from Schiller to Sartre” (p. 1). I think of the “beautiful soul” criticized by Hegel. Aristotle avoids this unfortunate result by emphasizing what Dherbey calls the “weight” of ethics, or “the inscription of the moral act in an exteriority that prolongs it” (ibid). Brandom makes the related point that we do not own or control the full scope of our deeds.

“The one who does nothing cannot act well”, Dherbey quotes from Aristotle’s Politics. Moral excellence is not constituted by intentions alone. Dherbey says that for Aristotle, “the validity of the intention is judged by the act that realizes it, or doesn’t realize it” (p.4, emphasis in original). Pippin develops a similar point in more detail in his remarks on actuality in Hegel.

For Aristotle it is not enough just to have the good will that Peter Abelard took to be the basis of virtue. According to Dherbey, Kant’s affirmation that nothing can be called good, if not a good will, makes intention the very source of the goodness of a good act. I am impressed by Nancy Sherman’s argument that Kant came closer to Aristotle than is commonly thought. But in any case, while Aristotle is far from disregarding the importance of what we might call the agent’s subjectivity, for him the goodness of an act depends on more than this.

Dherbey notes a major cleavage between Aristotle and the Stoics on another related point. For Aristotle, “not acting ‘lightly’ signifies that ‘intentional’ action, in order to be virtuous, must take support from a stable foundation, from a support that is none other than ethos or character…. It is indeed character, more than punctual intention in the modern sense of the term, that governs ethical choice” (p. 5; see also What We Really Want). It was the Stoics who bequeathed to later writers a strong notion of punctual decisions. I find the narrowing of ethics to a focus on punctual acts of decision to have consequences that are quite pernicious.

In closing, Dherbey quotes Hegel’s remark in his History of Philosophy lectures that for Aristotle, “The good in general is not defined as an abstract idea, but in such a way that the moment of realization finds itself essentially in it” (p. 12).

I would add that this is deeply related to Aristotle’s argument against Plato that potentiality at least in part depends on actuality, rather than being a power that simply produces the actual (or being a template that fully anticipates the actual, as Leibniz seems to have held).

Good will does not vindicate an action, but it does provide an additional reason to be forgiving in our evaluation of actions that turn out badly.

Ethical Practice

In Kant, practical means ethical. This initially seemed counter-intuitive to me. Like many, I used to think of the “practical” in technical and utilitarian terms, as how we realize desired results. I also used to think considerations of value needed to be guided by considerations of truth, and that pursuing the truth far enough and sincerely enough would spontaneously provide sufficient answers to ethical questions. I would no longer put it that way. I now think that the pursuit of truth, taken far enough, shows things to be “normative all the way down”, in Brandom’s phrase. Even the most narrowly technical considerations ultimately involve questions of value. Conversely, inquiry into values is the one kind of inquiry that need not presuppose any other.

Ethics are not a spontaneous byproduct of inquiry into the truth. In order to sincerely inquire into the truth, we need to deliberately focus on all the questions of value that come up along the way and affect our judgments. As a result, I now think of ethical practice as subsuming every other kind of practice.

Ethical inquiry is concerned with what we should do, which includes the details of how we do it. Every kind of doing is subject to this kind of consideration.

Engineering, to take one non-obvious example, is not just about coming up with designs that “work”, but about coming up with good designs. Various kinds of arguments that are relatively “value free” can be made about criteria for good design in specific contexts, but ultimately what matters most is that the design be “good” or better than the alternatives, however that is to be understood in the particular case.

An ethics-first view of philosophy puts ethics or “axiology” (inquiry into values) before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic in the order of explanation.

All doing has ethical implications of one sort or another, and all inquiry (also a kind of doing) ultimately involves questions of value.

Consciousness, Personhood

There is a common modern view that aims to explain who I am in terms of my consciousness. Locke, who popularized his friend the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth’s coinage of the new English word “consciousness”, already seems to have thought this way. Historically, a gradual increase in emphasis on the immediate awareness central to the thought of Descartes and Locke can be traced through Plotinus, Augustine, Avicenna, and the Latin scholastics. The curious thing is that consciousness is commonly supposed to be both a sort of universal transparent medium of experience and the locus of our personal self. I don’t think it is either of these.

I want to question the claim that there is any universal transparent medium of experience. It seems to me that the multitude of forms of awareness we experience is rooted more concretely in particular “contents”, rather than in a medium that allegedly contains them. In Lockean terms, particular kinds of awareness would be built into particular “ideas”. Ideas would no longer be inert representations as they are for Locke, but would have an active aspect of their own. In Aristotelian terms, I think the primary locus of human awareness is in our “imaginings” (see Imagination, Emotion, Opinion).

Personhood, I want to say, is neither psychological nor metaphysical but rather primarily ethical in nature. Who we are comes not from our consciousness but from our character and what we do. With respect to character, this is almost a tautology, but that is kind of the point.

Character is not inborn but acquired. It is Aristotelian ethos as particularly manifested in individuals. Ethos begins as a social acquisition of culture, but everyone completes it for themselves through the detail of their ethical practice.

Imagination, Emotion, Opinion

In humans, the ethos associated with cultural, ethical, and spiritual life comes interwoven with what I have called “animal imagination”, tied to our organic being. The kind of imagination at issue here is not the modern, post-Romantic notion associated with artistic creativity, but part of the basic functioning of many animals. Aristotle associates it with what he calls the “common” sense, which again is not what we call common sense, but rather something fundamental to all perception, that also comes into play in the formation (what Kant would call synthesis) of perceptual wholes from the input of multiple senses. Aristotelian “imagination” involves activations of the common sense in the absence of inputs from external sense. It plays an essential role in memory and dreams. Like much in Aristotle, this is not really an explanatory theory, just an interpretive description of things we experience in ordinary life.

Aristotle is concerned to distinguish imagination from opinion, precisely because there is a close connection between the two. Much later, Spinoza essentially identified opinion with imagination. Aristotle emphasizes that opinion involves an additional element of belief that is not inherent to all imagination. He says there are animals that have imagination but no belief.

Opinion is closely related to Aristotelian practical judgment, although the latter classically refers to a deliberative process whose outcome is action rather than belief, whereas opinion is a kind of belief that is not knowledge. Opinion may be a result of past deliberation or reflection, but very often it is more or less spontaneous. I think Spinoza means to suggest that our less reflective opinions arise from a kind of imagination. Like practical judgment, imagination is concerned with particulars.

Spinoza especially brings out the connection of imagination with emotion. It seems to me these are strongly interdependent. Our emotions both shape our imaginings and are shaped by them. These are what mainly guide our initial responses to things, and we have this in common with other animals.

Even after we have more developed, reflective views of things, there is still an element of spontaneous imagination in any application of those views to new particulars.

Emotion is strongly connected with our apprehensions of value. Again, there are dependencies in both directions. Emotion is a source of many valuations, especially initial ones; but valuations also help shape emotion.

Being a rational animal is mainly a matter of potential. Degrees of actual reasonableness have to do mainly with our emotional constitution, not how much we know.

Responsibility as Two-Sided

It is all too easy to judge others — to hold them unilaterally responsible for what we deem to be wrong. The saying “Judge not lest ye be judged” recognizes that there is something wrong with this.

I wanted to say a bit more about Brandom’s account of responsibility as inherently two-sided. This is related to the very simple — if uncommon — idea that there should be a correlation between the degree of one’s responsibility for something and one’s authority over it. This means that in ethical terms, no one has a monopoly on authority over anything, and no one is responsible for something without having some authority over it. Two-sided responsibility comes hand in hand with the sharing of authority.

In the Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel develops an allegory of the softening of the heart of a hard-hearted judge. For Brandom in A Spirit of Trust, this allegory serves as a kind of climax of Hegel’s monumental work.

Traditional views commonly define morality in terms of obedience or conformity to authority. What we should do is simply given to us from an external source. Brandom calls this the authority-obedience model.

At least from the time of Socrates, those concerned with ethics have recognized that mere obedience or conformity is at best only a very rudimentary level of ethical development, and therefore the same must apply to naked authority.

In diametric opposition to the authority-obedience model, Kant famously emphasized autonomy as a necessary basis of morality. For Kant, we are only truly moral insofar as we genuinely think our judgments through for ourselves, rather than relying on external authority.

While fully endorsing Kant’s rejection of the authority-obedience model, Hegel criticized the Kantian alternative of autonomy as one-sidedly individualistic. It would be a bit arrogant to claim that we really did think everything through all by ourselves. Moreover, there is a kind of symmetry in the all-or-nothing attitudes of the authority-obedience model and the autonomy model. It would be more reasonable to acknowledge that most things in life depend partly on us and partly on something or someone(s) outside of us.

As Brandom reconstructs Hegel’s argument, Hegel wants to say that genuine moral responsibility is always two-sided. The hard-hearted judge in the allegory, moved by a lawbreaker’s sincere confession, confesses in turn that she too is not without fault. I think this applies even more clearly to conflicts and people’s judgments of one another outside a judicial setting.

The point is not at all to obliterate distinctions or impose an artificial equivalence between the actions of the participants. It is rather just to recognize that nothing of this sort is ever completely unilateral, and then to systematically take heed of this in real life.

Brandom and Pippin on Hegelian Ethics

Robert Brandom and Robert Pippin are two major “deflationary” readers of Hegel these days. Counter to the old bad stereotype of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician who turned his back on Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics, they both see Hegel as further developing the most essential aspects of Kant’s innovations. Both aim to carry forward Wilfrid Sellars’ Kant-inspired critique of the “myth of the given”. They both see human intentions in terms of shareable meanings rather than private mental contents.

Brandom sees Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition not only as leading to a radically new, expanded notion of responsibility, but also as providing a basis for a novel general account of the objectivity of knowledge. Pippin meanwhile has developed an innovative, strongly Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s practical philosophy. I like putting the two of these together.

Brandom radicalizes the Kantian theme of the primacy of practical reason, effectively putting ethical inquiry before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic. He replaces metaphysics with a new kind of meta-ethics. Unlike many who have used the term “meta-ethics”, he does not seek some naturalistic or empirical foundation for ethics; rather, he sees “normativity all the way down”. Normative considerations are involved in the interpretation of anything at all. Judgments of fact depend on value judgments, and value judgments implicitly depend on the possibility of dialogue under conditions of mutual respect. It is principally through being subject to open-ended rational dialogue that judgments are verified.

Brandom’s expanded notion of responsibility is aimed at promoting greater and wider forgiveness, while simultaneously eliminating common excuses for misdeeds. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already promoted the idea that people should not be blamed or punished for unintended consequences of their actions (or for things they were coerced into doing). Brandom attributes to Hegel the novel view that everyone shares responsibility for all unintended consequences.

Pippin makes the profoundly Aristotelian point that what we actually did is the best guide to what our intentions really were. He argues that for Hegel, our own interpretation of our intentions has no privileged status in comparison to the interpretations of others. He would undercut excuses of the sort “I did x, but I really wanted y“. Rather, he would say that what we really wanted — not in the abstract, but under all the conditions that actually applied — was just what we did.

The actuality referenced here is a matter neither of simple fact nor of empirical consensus or majority opinion, but is itself a matter of normative evaluation under conditions of rational dialogue and respect for all.

Actuality, Existence

I have been using the English “actuality”, following old standard translations of Aristotle. As with any Aristotelian technical term, in interpreting its meaning I try to rely on what the Aristotelian texts say about it, and to avoid importing connotations associated with other uses of the English word used to translate it. Aristotle’s Greek term is energeia, a word he apparently invented himself from existing Greek roots. Joe Sachs translates it as “being at work”, which I think is good provided “being” is taken in the ordinary sense that we transitively say something “is” at work, rather than taking “being” as a noun. The word is formed from the noun ergon, which in its root sense means “work”; the prefix en, which corresponds to the preposition “in”; and the suffix eia, which makes the whole thing into a noun, like English “-ness” or “-ity”. So, in the most literal sense, energeia means something like “in-work-ness”.

Even the literal sense is a bit misleading, because Aristotle is very clear that the primary reference of energeia is not to a present state or a factual state of affairs, but to a primitive or ultimate end, understood as a kind of fullness or achievable perfection after its kind.

We are not used to thinking seriously about achievable perfection, but Aristotle’s fundamental intention regarding “perfection” is that it not be out of reach of finite beings. The “perfection” Aristotle has in mind is not a godlike attribute of unqualified or infinite perfection, but rather something like what modern ecology calls a “climax state” of an ecosystem (like the exceedingly rich environment of a rain forest).

Ecological succession involves a series of states that lead to other states, whereas a climax state leads back to itself, as in Aristotle’s other related coined word entelechy, which Sachs renders “being at work staying itself”, and is literally something like “in-end-having”. An ecosystem in a climax state is maximally resilient to perturbation; it is more able to recover its health when something throws it out of balance.

When Aristotle speaks of “substances” persisting through change, it is not a simple persistence of given properties that he has in mind, but rather something more like a stable (i.e., highly resilient, not unchanging) ecosystem. Stability in ecosystems and populations comes from biodiversity, which is a modern scientific analogue of Aristotelian “perfection”. Diversity provides a richer set of capabilities. With respect to human individuals, the analogue would be something like a “well-rounded” character. In ethics, we could speak of a well-rounded pursuit of ends, in contrast with a narrow or selfish one.

Thus the concept of “actuality” in Aristotle has to do with a kind of immanent teleology or interpretation of things based on ends and values, which for Aristotle takes the place of what later writers called “ontology”, as a supposed fundamental account of what exists.

Some contemporary analytic philosophers have spoken of “actualism” as an alternative to the possible worlds interpretation of modal logic. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in this context “actuality” is simply equated with factual existence. Instead of making confusing claims about the reality of non-actual possible worlds, this approach locates alternate possibilities within the actual world instead of somehow alongside it. As far as it goes, I have some sympathy for this. But I want to resist some of the conclusions with which it is commonly associated, which follow from the very non-Aristotelian identification of actuality with mere factuality. (See also Redding on Morals and Modality.)

I said above that actuality in Aristotle’s sense refers to processes and states of actualization relative to ends and values, not just to present existence or the current factual state of affairs. Readers of Aristotle as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and Gwenaëlle Aubry are united in stressing the primacy of “in-act-ness” over mere factuality in the interpretation of “actuality”. Robert Pippin’s account of actuality in Hegel (see also here) in an ethical context spells out the consequences of this very nicely. I think Aristotle would endorse the views Pippin attributes to Hegel in this context.