More on Contemplation

I’m still, as it were, contemplating Aristotelian contemplation or theoria (see also But What Is Contemplation?; Kantian “Contemplation”?).

The two main English meanings of theoria — “contemplation” and “theory” — have a rather different connotative feel. What is tricky is that by all accounts, contemplation is also an activity. But it is not grammatically obvious that the English “theory” is an activity. Indeed, a theory is commonly taken to be a kind of inert representation, and not an activity.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to say that “theory” by itself can also refer to a corresponding activity. Theory’s activity would be contemplative, and would not in itself aim at any external result. At least on a relative scale applicable to humans, it would be pure thinking. Meanwhile, contemplation for Aristotle is a kind of activity that does not in itself have an external result.

In the contemporary revival of American pragmatist philosophy, figures like Brandom and Pippin insist that thinking is a kind of doing. Rather than a distinction between theory and practice, this leads to a distinction between specifically “contemplative” or “theoretical” practice, and practice in general. Doing and practice in English can thus have the full generality that activity has in Aristotle. Not all doing is “external” doing; not all practice is “external” practice.

Human pure thinking may implicitly issue in a kind of result — a relatively coherent representation, or broadly speaking a “theory” of what it holds to be the case — but it may still be said that this implicit result is “internal”, until some additional external action gives the representation some kind of embodiment.

However, Hegel might remind us that the very distinction between “internal” and “external” is problematic. He argues that it is not really possible to draw an unambiguous line between them, and that internal and external are instead related by a kind of continuity.

(Hegel confusingly calls this a speculative “identity”, though he is very clear that a speculative identity is not a formal, exact identity. Having come to see the value in what Paul Ricoeur calls narrative identity — another “identity” that is not a formal, exact identity — I don’t object as strenuously to Hegel’s nonstandard uses of “identity” as I once did, though I still prefer to use some other word when what is meant is anything weaker than exact isomorphism or substitutional equivalence.)

The continuity of internal and external seems to me like a very Aristotelian point, albeit one that Aristotle does not himself make. But unlike Hegel, Aristotle has no need to respond to a sharp Cartesian or Lockean dualism between consciousness and its representations on the one hand, and everything else on the other.

I think most people would allow that contemplation may involve representations, but contemplation itself is neither an activity of representing, nor a simple consciousness of static representations.

The English connotations of contemplation and reflection are closely aligned. Connotations of words do not count as a philosophical argument for identifying terms that might be claimed to stand for different concepts, but such alignment is nonetheless helpful, because in doing philosophy we are also concerned with communicating clearly, and there are always issues with translated terms not meaning quite the same thing on the two sides of a translation.

Aristotle identifies contemplation with thought thinking itself. I am suggesting that thought thinking itself can be strongly identified with reflection in the sense discussed by Kant, Hegel, Ricoeur, and Pippin, which builds on the common one. That would mean that contemplation can be identified with reflection.

Though the precise meanings of reflection and apperception in Kant are debated by scholars, there seems to be broad agreement that Kant strongly connects pure reflection with pure or transcendental apperception, and a more empirical reflection with a more empirical apperception. (See also Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity).

These same concepts are fundamental to Hegel’s Logic. The three “logics” he develops there concern mere assertion; reflection or reflective constitution; and reflective or apperceptive judgment. Hegel innovatively explains the constitution of essence in terms of a pure reflective determination that presupposes no fixed terms, but builds determination from relations between terms. Then he explains judgment as normatively applying reflective determination to appearances.

I want to suggest that Hegelian reflective or apperceptive judgment should be considered as a more detailed elaboration of Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment.

All of this leads to the conclusion that Aristotelian contemplation — at least the contemplation that he explicitly makes the goal of human life — can be explained as the exercise of reflective or apperceptive judgment. It is not clear to me that the contemplation attributed to the first cause also issues in judgment, but it certainly does seem to be a kind of pure reflection such as Hegel associates with the determination of essence, and this tracks with Aristotle’s claim that the what-it-is of things depends on the first cause.