Aristotelian Actualization

Having just concluded a series broadly on the actualization of freedom in Hegel, I’d like to say a few words on the Aristotelian roots of the important concept of actualization. A discussion of actualization is arguably the centerpiece of Aristotle’s diverse lecture notes related to first philosophy placed by the editor “after the physics”, which came to be traditionally called Metaphysics. From that discussion, actualization is clearly a process, and comes in degrees.

Aristotle also made the pregnant remark that while what he called soul is the “first actuality” or “activity” of the body (associated with its life), intelligence or reason (associated especially with language and ethics) is a kind of second actuality of a human being.

For all Aristotle’s praise of the soul, unlike Plato he did not treat it as an independent substance. It is only the hylomorphic unity of soul and body that gets this key designation. As I read him, things like soul and intellect are complex adverbial and ultimately normative characterizations expressing how we function and act in relation to ends. They are made into nouns only as a matter of convenience.

Aristotle distinguished stages of actualization. In a famous example, an unschooled youth has the potential to learn geometry. Someone who has already acquired an understanding of geometry has the potential to use it. This is an intermediate degree of actualization. In someone who is actively using such an understanding in work on a proof, there is said to be a higher degree of actualization.

This already suggests a kind of process of development that is not reducible to the model of simple organic growth (in which Aristotle was also quite interested). Rather, he approaches such developments in terms of his notion of dialectical inquiry or cumulative exploratory reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty, which in my view is the essential kernel from which Hegel’s very extensive original (and sometimes confusing) development of “dialectic” proceeded.

Commentators on Aristotle like Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century CE) and al-Farabi (10th century CE) further refined this notion of degrees of actualization, especially with regard to intelligence or reason. In the Latin tradition, this was taken up especially by the school of Albert the Great. These writers tended to hypostatize intellect as something transcendent or even divine to which the human soul could nonetheless become progressively “joined”, approximating something like the seamless hylomorphic unity of soul and body. But it is possible to put such claims of strong transcendence in brackets, while focusing on the detailed dialectical development of notions of progressive mixture, layers, and stages. These medieval notions of layered actualization seem to lead in a very different and more interesting direction than the tedious cliché of the “Great Chain of Being”.

Be that as it may, the essential point is that in Aristotle himself, actualization is discussed dialectically rather than in terms of organic growth. (See also Actuality; Second Nature; Parts of the Soul; Intelligence from Outside; Fortunes of Aristotle.)