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 nominally “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.

Ethical Reason

Ethical reason involves a harmonious combination of all our sources of possible insight, with an aim to determining what is right in an unprejudiced way. Determining what is right involves careful attention to particulars as well as a concern for principles. Our ability to appropriately attend to particulars is deeply intertwined with our ability to appropriately apply principles.

Determining what is right involves putting everything together in a certain way. Ethics in the small — concerned with concrete choices to do this or avoid that in this or that circumstance — implicitly depends on a lot of much bigger questions and developments. Actually doing right in the small requires us to be deeply and broadly thoughtful. “Right” behavior done by rote rule-following is certainly better than wrong behavior, but it is not yet ethical. Ethics is equal parts caring, thinking, and doing. (See also Truth, Beauty; Practical Judgment; Choice, Deliberation; Feeling; Honesty, Kindness; Kantian Synthesis; Rational Ethics.)


Rather than seeking thought’s conformity with objects, we should instead seek objects’ conformity with thought. Such, more or less, was Kant’s famous “Copernican revolution”, announced in the preface to the second (1787) edition of the Critique of Pure Reason. I used to take this as a direct endorsement of subject-centeredness that could only lead to some sort of subjectivism. As such, it made me cringe. Neo-Kantian and other interpretations that made Kant’s persistence in talking about things in themselves an inconsistent absurdity did not help. Neither did Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric.

Fortunately, this can be read very differently. Thought has more to do with discourse than it does with consciousness. Taken seriously, thought is anything but arbitrary. It is not at all just what we might wish it to be. It is concerned with “said of” relations. Thought has its own drives or ethical imperatives — to seek coherence, resolution of conflict, universality, and justification. The honesty of this search is itself the best source and standard of truth we can find, the ground of our commitments.

Kant tried to avoid what would in his sense be “dogmatic” presuppositions as to what an object is, or any kind of naive realism that things are just as they appear to us. He did this not by reducing real objects to objects of consciousness, but by considering objects insofar as they are objects of discourse. (See also Aristotle and Kant.)

My version of the Copernican revolution would be that rather than claiming certainty, we should take responsibility for our claims.

Kantian Intuition

Kant discussed intuition mainly in the Critique of Pure Reason. There, intuition and thought are said to comprise an inseparable hylomorphic unity, like matter and form in Aristotle. So when we speak of Kantian intuition, it is always as an abstracted partial aspect of a larger whole of experience.

Most famously, Kant speaks of the intuition of a sensible manifold. This resembles Aristotle’s account of sensation as mainly passive, but complemented by and interwoven with more active processes (see Passive Synthesis, Active Sense). Kant developed this quite a bit more extensively than Aristotle did. Aristotle hinted at something like passive synthesis, but mainly used its tentative results (common-sense objects) as a provisional starting point. Kant tried to reach back further into the preconscious generative process. My favorite discussion of this is Beatrice Longuenesse, Kant and the Capacity to Judge. (See also Kantian Synthesis.)

More broadly, I think Kantian intuition corresponds to the element of immediacy in experience, including what I have called feeling, as well as a kind of holistic summation of previous experience preconsciously associated with patterns preconsciously discerned in the current manifold. There seems to be a complex reverberation and mutual determination between immediate and mediate elements in experience. This appears both in the Kantian transcendental deduction (see Longuenesse, cited above) and in the Hegelian idea that immediacy is always “mediated immediacy” and thus never purely immediate. It also again reflects the fundamental hylomorphism of intuition and thought.

Something like Hegelian ethical Spirit or the Kantian transcendental is all mediation, in contrast to traditional views of spiritual or mystical experience as something immediate and unanalyzable. I take Kantian intuition, Brandomian sentience, and the main import of Aristotelian soul to be on the immediate side, but subject to the reverberation and mutual determination mentioned above. (See also What is “I”?; Psyche, Subjectivity.)

In contrast to Descartes and Locke, Kant famously rejected the idea of intellectual intuition, or passive reception of thought contents, just as he rejected the medieval notion of the intellectual soul. Anything intellectual would be on the side of thought rather than intuition for Kant, and thought for Kant always involved explicit, active development rather than passive reception. Hegel, Sellars, and Brandom take this as a starting point, and I think Aristotle would concur. (See also Subject.)

Categorical Hegel?

I just discovered a book-length nLab web draft with extremely detailed interpretation of Hegel’s Science of Logic into higher category theory and homotopy type theory. (Reading category theory into Hegel was originally suggested by William Lawvere in the 1960s.) A lot of it is way beyond me, but there is much of interest. nLab in general hosts world-class work in math and logic, as well as applications of it to physics and philosophy. Remarks there about historical philosophers are uneven in quality, but a number of them are interesting, and the more mathematical or logical they are, the better the quality gets. The aforementioned draft does reference old, inadequate generalizations about Hegel as “mystical”, but the detail and scope of the interpretation into state-of-the-art mathematics are awe-inspiring. It also includes a nice formalization of Aristotelian logic, which is mathematically much simpler and relatively easy to understand. I previously found a much shorter page there that explicitly mentions Brandom, and connects with his interest in modal logic. (See also Identity, Isomorphism; Categorical “Evil”; Higher Order.)

Suther on Hegel on Freedom

I’m always nervous about strong emphasis on “Freedom” in treatments of German idealism, but recent literature has considerably improved the situation. Jensen Suther in “Hegel’s Logic of Freedom: Towards a ‘Logical Constitutivism’” makes a number of points I would endorse. While his is a “metaphysical” reading, it also owes something to Sellars and Brandom.

Hegelian logic for Suther is “a logic of freedom not only in the sense that it articulates the logic of what it means to be free, but also in the sense that it is a fully free practice of logic, leaving no presupposition uncontested and demanding of thought that it learn to think for itself” (see my The Autonomy of Reason). Suther also says “the only true or intelligible conception of being is one of which the good is taken to be constitutive” (emphasis in original). He recognizes that purposes are not merely subjective. Further, “it is essential to the intelligibility of what is that it be rendered intelligible, that reasons be given and asked for as to why we take things to be as they are”. He also recognizes the positive importance of error. (See also Reasons; Being, Existence; Freedom and Free Will.)

It gets a bit more problematic when he says “rational agency is not something we achieve, but is instead the distinctive form of living beings that are capable of being initiated into a social and historical process of progressive actualization of the potential for agency”. I don’t see why a distinctive form cannot also be something achieved. He seems mainly concerned to deny that it is an individual achievement, a view he attributes to Robert Pippin. I would agree that rational agency is at least as much a historical achievement as an individual one, but every human qua rational/talking animal or even just every modern person is not thereby a full-fledged rational agent. To be a rational animal (or to be sapient in Brandom’s sense) is just to be capable of being initiated, etc., to borrow Suther’s words quoted above.

In the Aristotelian commentary tradition, al-Farabi (10th century CE) and others explicitly developed a notion of a distinct form of acquired intellect, such that being “acquired” was considered key to the distinctness of that form. (Intellect for al-Farabi was at root more cosmic than cultural, but that is not the point here.) Only second-nature things could be of an acquired kind. The “acquired” status was part of an elaboration of several structural degrees of actualization. A classic example would be someone who has already learned something, say geometry, but is not currently using it. Actualization of intellect only advances to the further degree of “active” by being in use, as when the geometer is busy proving a theorem.

Suther generalizes about “the neo-Aristotelians”, referencing John McDowell and Robert Stern. I appreciate it when people like McDowell make significant positive references to Aristotle, but McDowell is hardly a full-blooded Aristotelian. According to Suther, what counts as freedom for McDowell and Stern is something given in advance. Suther calls this a neo-Aristotelian position. I don’t think Aristotle considered anything to be “given in advance”. He was the original emergentist.

Suther has a great quote from Hegel that “there is nothing degrading about being alive”, and a nice emphasis on the unity of life and knowing. For me, this comes back to the way second nature positively builds on first nature, rather than standing in opposition to it. Suther, though, seems to think there is something essential about death, fear, anxiety, and pain. While these are not entirely absent in Hegel, in this respect Suther’s reading seems influenced by early Heidegger. Contra Heidegger, I would cite Spinoza’s “the philosopher thinks of nothing less than of death”. I prefer Brandom’s explanation of the struggle to the death in the Phenomenology as a dramatic extreme example of a much more general concept of commitment to what we hold dear as willingness to sacrifice something else for it.