Passion, Balance

Plato and Aristotle would not have endorsed the Stoic idea that passion is simply a bad thing to be mastered and exterminated, and that the sage should therefore be completely unaffected. While excess is bad, the right kind of passion can be good, and passion in general can contribute to good. This is even more true for general emotion, and still more so for what I have called feeling. Rather than striving to eliminate passion altogether, it is better to let it be moderated through balanced perspective — seeing things from multiple angles, and stepping outside of one’s immediate reactions to take in a bigger picture. Balanced perspective is a relative thing associated with what I have called emotional reasonableness. It is a moving target; each new situation may present different challenges. (See also Dialogue; Obstacles to Synthesis.)


In New Essays on the Human Understanding, which was a sort of very long Platonic dialogue critically discussing Locke’s landmark Essay, Leibniz took a fascinating and extremely unexpected approach to defending what he took to be the old doctrine of innate ideas that Locke had begun by rejecting. In so doing, he completely transformed its meaning.

Leibniz describes us as inhabiting (or perhaps floating on the surface of) an immense sea of tiny perceptions below the level of conscious awareness. He says that these microperceptions are always ongoing, even in sleep.

This seems to be the first major anticipation of later notions of the unconscious. Perhaps microperceptions might more accurately be called preconscious, as one might say about the Kantian synthesis of intuition, which could be considered to use Leibnizian microperceptions as part of its material. On the other hand, even the Freudian unconscious has been reinterpreted in an expansive way no longer tied to metaphors of depth and containment, which seems to mitigate the difference. (See also Kantian Intuition.)

One may imagine how unconscious microperception might be explained in terms of Leibniz’s monadology, as always-ongoing perceptions of tiny monads included by our larger monad, in his famous image of monads within monads in series without end.

Microperception in the New Essays seems to be attributed to us as natural beings. This is different from what he says about high-level apperception, which was mainly developed in the very different context of his work Principles of Nature and Grace. There, he attributed apperception to participants in what he distinguished from the realm of nature as the community of spirits subject to grace. In terms of the development being pursued here, that would mean that we have apperception as ethical beings directly concerned with normativity, whereas the hypothesis of microperceptions would belong to biological and psychological explanation that is only normative at a methodological level.

Primacy of Perception?

Having mentioned Merleau-Ponty in passing the other day, I should say a bit more. Merleau-Ponty was the leading exponent of existential phenomenology in 20th century France. One of his most central theses was what he called the primacy of perception, first expounded in his most famous work The Phenomenology of Perception.

The Husserlian and existential phenomenological traditions generally put strong emphasis on immediate consciousness or something like it as a universal common-denominator medium of all apprehension and experience. This is a stance quite opposite to that of Hegelian phenomenology, in which “Consciousness” specifically names the lowest and least adequate of many stages of development, and mediation rather than immediacy comes first in the order of explanation.

For Merleau-Ponty in particular, perception was the favored term. He was also especially concerned with our experience of embodiment. As is also the case with Husserl, in spite of a misguided core commitment to an immediacy-first strategy of explanation, his actual accounts of things are full of subtlety and nuance, and of lasting value for their rich detail. Intellectual honesty led both Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in spite of themselves to exhibit what I would interpret as abundant evidence for the always-already mediated character of what presents itself as immediate. They were both already sensitive to the shortcomings of empiricism as it is usually understood, while embodying the best strengths of what might broadly be considered an alternate vision of empiricism, somewhat related to what William James called “radical” empiricism.

Unity of Apperception

Kant’s notion of a unity of apperception seems very useful. The too-easy gloss for this is that it is what properly says “I”. (I call it too easy because in ordinary speech this is typically deeply confused with the empirical, factual “me” for which we also say “I”. Kant rethought personal identity in ethical rather than psychological terms. A transcendental “I” is wholly constituted by a totality of simultaneous implicit commitments.)

The term apperception had been used by Leibniz for a reflective apprehension of content. Apperception for Leibniz — in this way like intellect for Aristotle — was neither an intrinisic characteristic of soul as such, nor continuously present in a given soul. It thus seems already to have had an implicitly normative character. We would, I think, speak of a failure to apperceive rather than a bad apperception. Apperception seems to carry a built-in notion of relative rightness for its context. Nonetheless, one Leibnizian monad’s apperception of a given content would not be the same as that of another, due to inherent differences in the total constitution of each monad. To use a Hegelian word, apperception is all about mediated apprehension.

Unity of apperception is a result of the highest of the three kinds of synthesis Kant discussed, formed from a coherence of many apperceptions that are themselves already syntheses. Brandom has particularly emphasized the status of such unity as an ethical goal, rather than something that just factually happens. This seems like a more refined, clearer notion of what Plotinus obscurely anticipated in speaking of a sort of microcosmic counterpart of the One in the soul. In Aristotelian terms, unity of apperception is a form and an end.

The phrase “unity of apperception” also makes it nicely explicit that we are talking about something that corresponds in the first instance to an adverbial expression, and only derivatively to a simple noun. “I” is like that. I have argued that this is generally true of what is conventionally translated as Aristotelian “substance”. (See also What is “I”; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

The One?

Whether or not there is a One, it and the Others are and are not — and appear and do not appear to be — all manner of things in all manner of ways, both in relation to themselves and to each other.

Such was the cryptic conclusion of Plato’s dialogue Parmenides. The Parmenides provides the most extensive and technical example of Plato’s concept of dialectical argument, which revolved around thorough exploration of both sides of binary alternatives. Some early Platonists and a number of modern readers thought it was mainly a logical exercise.

Plotinus followed the lead of the neo-Pythagoreans in treating the One far less equivocally, as the main theological principle. He explicitly identified it with the Good from Plato’s Republic, and made it the source of all things. In the wake of Plotinus, later neoplatonists read the Parmenides as a theological treatise.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s 1945 Phenomenology of Perception argued that Plotinus was misguided, and really there is no One. Foucault’s 1969 Archaeology of Knowledge was devoted to questioning presumed unities of all sorts. Other pluralists from Aristotle to William James have made broadly similar arguments.

Talk about whether there “is” a One gets tricky. Plotinus associated Being only with his second principle of intellect (nous), not with the One. The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich gave a nod to this when he suggested that to attribute to God the same existence we attribute to objects in the world should be considered blasphemy. In the middle ages Thomas Aquinas went somewhat in the opposite direction, identifying God with pure Being, and therefore he felt no need for a One above being. But the pure Being Aquinas spoke of was a new and innovative concept that is not the same as any worldly existence, so perhaps the two could be reconciled after all.

“The One” has historically been said in many ways. Usually it does not refer to any sort of entity, but rather to a sort of cosmic fusion in which all things participate; or, more properly, to a pure Platonic form of such fusion, perhaps even the form of something slightly anticipating Kantian unity of apperception. Sometimes on the other hand it seems to be beyond form altogether. Plotinus himself largely invented negative theology, and at one point even said the One was just a conventional name for the utterly ineffable. (See also One, Many; Identity, Isomorphism; Univocity; Unity of Apperception.)

The Good

Plato suggested the idea (later much expanded upon by Plotinus) that a single ineffable Good is the highest principle of all things. The Good was characterized as hyperousia, or “beyond ousia“, where ousia is the same word Aristotle glossed as “what it was to have been” a thing, later misleadingly translated into Latin as substantia or substance. In discussions of neoplatonism, hyperousia used to be often loosely understood as “beyond being”, which is confusing and engendered all sorts of arguments. The problem is that modern people tend to think of being primarily in terms of what is really a kind of brute existence, whereas Plato and Aristotle were more concerned with intelligibility. Even existence in its Greek root has more to do with being able to be picked out than just being there indiscriminately. At any rate, Plato and Aristotle both considered ousia something definable (“intelligible being”, if you will), and they both agreed that the Good as such is undefinable, while drawing different conclusions.

The Platonic Good is the archetype of what Aristotle called an end. Plato held fast to the notion that there should be a single idea of the Good, even if we cannot comprehend or define it. He gave it a quasi-definition as that at which all things aim. Aristotle agreed that all things aim at some good, but pointed out that “good” is used equivocally when we say this. He preferred to say that each thing has its own good that is in principle intelligible. To say something is intelligible for Aristotle still does not mean all details are determined in advance. As Brandom has also emphasized, purpose and contingency are deeply interwoven.

Putting aside this difference between Plato and Aristotle for the moment, I want to suggest that for both of them, a consideration of ends and of what ought to be (and thus of ethics and meta-ethics) implicitly comes first in the order of explanation, before any ontology or any putative facts about what is. Kant made this more explicit as what he called the primacy of practical reason. Plato’s first principle is the Good. Aristotle’s nominal “First cause” of pure actuality or at-work-ness is a generalized end implicit in the ends and proper activities of particular things or kinds.


The ethical importance of dialogue can hardly be overstated. The key to ethical dialogue is mutual acceptance of sincere questioning about reasons. To ask a question is not to make a counter-assertion, and no one should ever take offense at a sincere question.

To qualify as based on good judgment or sound reasoning, a commitment or one’s reasons for holding it must be explainable in a shareable way. Sharing of the kind of meaning-based material inference used in everyday reasoning and judgment (as well as most philosophy) is a social process of open-ended dialogue.

The world’s oldest preserved examples of such rational dialogue (or any kind of rational development) are contained in the works of Plato. Earlier figures just wrote down what they saw as the truth. Plato provided many examples of a method of free inquiry. (Aristotle says the atomist Democritus was another initiator of rational inquiry, but the works of Democritus do not survive.) This is yet another reason why Hegel called Plato and Aristotle the greatest teachers of the human race.

Plato bequeathed to us many idealized examples of reasoning by dialogue. He raised them into an art form, creating a new literary genre in the process. His dialogues vary in the degree to which they approximate free open-ended discussion; most often, one character leads the discussion through question and answer, and sometimes even the question and answer is limited. However, since Plato’s dialogues are like plays portraying self-contained conversations, they are very accessible.

The style of question and answer often practiced by Platonic characters like Socrates — commonly known as Socratic method — provides a model for how anyone can contribute to such a development. The questioner tries to reason only from things to which the answerer agrees, but often has to keep questioning to draw out the needed background.

In a fully free and open dialogue characterized by mutual recognition, any party may make contributions of this sort. As Sellars and Brandom would remind us, to assert anything at all is implicitly to take responsibility for that assertion, which is to invite questioning about our reasons.