Potentiality and Ends

Perfection for Aristotle is an attractor and not a driver. To be an unmoved mover and to be an efficient cause in the “driving” way this was commonly interpreted in the later tradition are mutually exclusive. Pure act does not act in the normal sense of the word. I am reminded of Lao Tzu, that other great minimalist teacher of unmoved moving.

Plotinus and the later neoplatonic schools reworked the notion of unmoved moving, from Aristotle’s modest notion of the attraction of potentialities to the good, to a principle of overflowing, superabundant positive power that spontaneously generates beings and effects, as a necessary consequence of its very superabundance. Aristotle’s “first cause” affects everything, but only through the collaboration of secondary causes. Though developing nuanced accounts of the grand cycle of procession from the One and ultimate return, the neoplatonists tended to reduce secondary causes to mere effects of the One.

Authors like Aquinas engaged in a tricky balancing act, wanting to assert the supremacy of God while simultaneously recognizing the ethical and epistemological value of Aristotle’s emphasis on the reality of secondary causes. But according to Gwenaëlle Aubry, the theological voluntarism of Duns Scotus and others annulled what I take to be that good Aristotelian concern of Aquinas, completely subordinating nature, truth, and the good to the arbitrary will of God.

This whole historical discussion is greatly complicated by the very different ways in which the same key terms have been interpreted. For example, it makes a great difference whether we consider the art of building or the hammer’s blow to be a better model of the efficient cause. The art of building could be a sort of derived unmoved mover, but the hammer’s blow is a moved mover.

Previously, I have emphasized an interpretation of potentiality in terms of Brandom’s talk about robust counterfactual conditions on the one hand, and a loosely structuralist notion of structure on the other. I read Hegel as recognizing the essential role of this kind of potentiality in any formation of a determinate view of things.

This may sound remote from Aubry’s emphasis on potentiality as a tendency to be attracted by an end, but there is actually a deep connection. Hegel emphasizes the role of potentiality in determination, whereas Aubry emphasizes the role of potentiality as contingency. But Brandom’s counterfactual conditions (an interpretation of Hegelian potentiality) just are contingencies; they are not univocally determined to occur. From the ground up, a kind of pluralism of multiple concrete possibilities is built into the determination of determination.

As Leibniz said, all necessity is of a hypothetical, if-then form. As Kant and Hegel also reminded us, judgments of determination always involve interpretation, and ultimately have a normative form. Brandom makes a similar Kantian point that causality in the modern sense is a product of judgments and inference. These are far from arbitrary; they are subject to a kind of objectivity grounded in counterfactual robustness and mutual recognition. But that objectivity is itself ultimately a normative concept. As Abelard said, the good comes first. (See also Form as Value; Aristotelian Causes.)