The Importance of Potentiality

I think modern philosophy generally is handicapped in its thinking about the empirical world by its lack of a notion like Aristotelian potentiality. To build context, I need to first say a bit more about the role of actuality.

The modern concept of a factual, existing world is relatively close to Aristotelian actuality, but the first big difference is that it is not paired with anything. The modern concept of a factual world is something that is supposed to be complete in itself, whereas for Aristotle, actuality in the world is always complemented by some correlative potentiality. Aristotle did not consider actuality alone to be sufficient to account for the world as we experience it.

Actuality also does not exactly correspond to a state of things, but rather expresses what is effectively operative. This is semantically a bit deeper than a notion of state. At the same time, it does not have state’s strong implications of complete determination. It also does not have the monolithic unity of a state. Actuality in the world consists of many coexisting things. Further, it is not intended by itself to provide all the resources needed to account for change and what happens next. This is related to the fact that for Aristotle, the operative determination of things is not entirely univocal. (See also Equivocal Determination.)

Enter potentiality. Potentiality is exactly what is not univocal in the actual determination of things. It corresponds to multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality. This is a far more specific notion than mere logical possibility. Potentiality is closely tied to and informed by the current actuality, in that it exactly occupies the real gaps or holes in the actuality’s incompletely univocal determination. For each aspect of things where there is not univocal determination, there are instead multiple potential alternatives. This correlates with the fact that, for Aristotle — in contrast to Poincaré’s classic formulation of modern determinism — the present does not completely determine the future.

Poincaré famously claimed that from the state of the universe at any arbitrary point in time, its entire future is completely determined. This resembles the Stoic notion of fate, transferred to a modern event-based model of causality. For both the Stoics and Poincaré, the world is completely univocally determined. Like Aristotle, they emphasized the intelligibility of the world and of change in the world, but they made the very strong assumption of complete univocal determination. Aristotle did not.

Aristotle’s notion of intelligibility was broadly semantic, whereas Poincaré’s was mathematical. With semantic interpretation, there is always a question of how far we develop the account, which in principle could be extended indefinitely. It thus naturally lends itself to an account of incomplete determination, corresponding to some stopping point. Aristotle does not claim any more determination than he can show. Poincaré’s approach, by contrast, requires that we assume there is a complete univocal determination of the world by mathematical laws, even though we can never even come close to knowing enough to show it. This assumption leaves no room for anything like potentiality. Potentiality, it seems to me, could only have a place in a semantic approach to intelligibility.

The modern factual world is usually considered as something that just is, without modal qualification, but I have increasingly begun to doubt whether for Aristotle there is any non-modal account of the world. I read actuality and potentiality both as modal concepts, and everything in the Aristotelian world as parsable into actuality and potentiality.

What’s important about this is that potentiality is not just some mysterious “metaphysical” concept that we could maybe do without. It is a distinct logical/semantic modality supporting multiple virtual alternatives for the same thing. It allows us to intelligibly account for the incomplete determination we really experience, rather than treating real-world incompleteness and ambiguity as if it were a kind of flaw. (See also Structural Causality, Choice; Values, Causality; Structure, Potentiality.)

Values, Causality

I’ve said that normativity consists of derived ends in a space of multiple potentialities. Meanwhile, on the side of actuality, when we interact with the order of efficient causes, we become subject to the constraints of structural causality. In between come our finite choices. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Fragility of the Good.)

Taking responsibility is a profound act that can have a kind of indirect efficacy of its own. Independent of the direct operation of our actual power and the order of efficient causes, taking responsibility can partially rewrite what would have been, at the broader level of meaning. Since we are so much creatures of meaning, this more circuitous route through the much larger space of potentiality can end up affecting an otherwise stubborn actuality, by changing the order of potentialities experienced by others, and thus affecting their choices.

One person alone may have no impact on the actuality, but for many together influencing one another’s choices, the story may turn out quite differently. At times, in this way even one person can end up initiating a much larger process far beyond that person’s individual power, and the total effect of many can be more than additive. In this way, what seems completely impossible can become possible, and the face of reality can be changed.

Freedom from False Freedom

This is just a tricky phrase rather than a new idea, but the idea is vital.

No person or institution has a “right” to do arbitrary things. Here, “arbitrary” means having no justification by ethical reason broadly construed. It thus applies to things like disrespecting others, or engaging in wanton destruction. Freedom should not be allowed to serve as a cover for unethical action.

With regard to wanton destruction, I would point out that we have no right to destroy the planet we live on. This raises issues of diffuse, expansive responsibility that no one wants to deal with, and for which most people at least cannot be individually blamed.

We all need to take more responsibility in cases where we could not be blamed for failing to do so. (See also Expansive Agency; Freedom Without Sovereignty; Mutual Recognition; Stubborn Refusal; Economic Rationality?)

Rationality

Ethical reason can potentially comprehend anything and it can influence things going forward, but it does not make everything or govern events. (See also Fragility of the Good.) Understanding comes late. Reason becomes free or autonomous only by a long, slow process. (See also Iterative Questioning.) Even so-called absolute knowledge — only “absolute” because it is free of the actually self-disruptive presumptions of the false freedom of Mastery — is just this freedom of reason.

There is after all a kind of negative freedom of reason at work here, but it is forever incomplete, and also has nothing to do with any negative freedom of a power, which is a fiction. We negatively free ourselves of unthinking assumptions while positively increasing our ability to make fine distinctions, our sensitivity to subtlety and nuance. This gives us new positive freedom in doing, with our still-finite power.

Schelling

F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) is my least favorite of the major German idealists. He is the one most strongly associated with Romanticism, and has been considered a precursor of existentialism, which does not seem to me like a recommendation. He lacked Hegel’s grounding in Aristotle and more serious engagement with Kant. Even Schelling’s admirers don’t claim much for his rather undisciplined attempt at a Romantic philosophy of nature. He castigated Hegel for his rationalism, while reviving metaphysical use of the pretentious claim of intellectual intuition that Kant and Hegel fought against.

Like Fichte whom he at first followed, Schelling expressed himself in simpler and more approachable terms than Kant or Hegel, but at the cost of sacrificing the multidimensional richness Kant and Hegel both achieved. Like Fichte, he erred in making self-consciousness an immediate intellectual intuition rather than a dialectical development, but unlike Fichte, he also revived general use of intellectual intuition in metaphysics. Fichte is largely antithetical to me due to his hyper-strong subject-centeredness, but he was principled and had a razor-sharp intellect. Schelling is superficially more balanced, but what he balanced his Fichteanism with was a shallow Romantic pseudo-neoplatonism. Having spent a few years in close study of the real Greek neoplatonists, I am very unimpressed by Schelling’s heavy-handed forays into this territory.

Schelling is the one who really does ignore Kant’s warnings about unbridled speculation. Armed with intellectual intuition, he simply leaps into a (pseudo-neoplatonic rather than Hegelian) Absolute. Among his criticisms of Hegel was that Hegel made the Absolute a result attained from a finite starting point. Schelling said this was impossible, since the Absolute is infinite. This reflects a complete failure to understand the misleadingly named Hegelian Absolute, which was precisely not a humanly unachievable theological infinite, but carefully developed in terms that made it an Aristotelian perfection after a kind achievable in an understandable way by a finite rational being without intellectual intuition. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?; Kantian Discipline; Copernican.)

Schelling in his “Identity philosophy” naively propounded the broadly neoplatonic theme of an original self-division of an infinite Absolute, without all the nuances developed by the Greek neoplatonists that made their version more interesting. (For both Aristotle and Hegel, in contrast to Schelling and the neoplatonists, the “first” principle is really an attractor and an end, not the metaphysical-theological origin of everything. I would not say “just” an end, because for both Aristotle and Hegel, ends are more important than origins.)

The late Schelling’s “Positive” philosophy again pitted intellectual intuition against reason, while also appealing to religious revelation. Early in his career, he had been influenced by the fideist F. H. Jacobi’s proto-Kierkegaardian idea that there is an uncrossable gap between “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned”, requiring a leap of faith. But at least after Jacobi publicly attacked him, Schelling distinguished his view from Jacobi’s more extreme anti-rationalism. (See also Being, Consciousness.)

In profound contrast to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, across his career Schelling seems to have had no real interest in ethics. His Romantic reliance on intellectual intuition rather than dialectic also means that although he shares some core vocabulary with Hegel, the same terms have very different meanings. (See also Pure Thinking?)

Suarez on Agents and Action

Among the greatest of the Latin scholastics, Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) was a profoundly original and highly sophisticated theologian-philosopher who significantly influenced early modern thought, and also produced monumental summaries of several centuries of Latin scholastic argument. A full third of his gigantic Metaphysical Disputations was devoted to an extremely detailed and systematic discussion of causality. A large volume entirely dedicated to efficient causes has been translated to English, and a web search popped up several secondary discussions. My comments here will be very high-level, mostly based on those.

In this scholastic context, traditional Aristotelian terms like cause, being, and substance are all given very different explanations from the nonstandard but hopefully both more historical and more useful ones I have been giving them. Latin scholastics tended to have a somewhat neoplatonizing, substantialized notion of Aristotelian causes. A common view was that any cause must be a substantial entity of some sort, whereas causes in the common modern sense are events, and I read Aristotle himself as identifying causes with “reasons why”.

Suárez held to the view of causes as substantial entities, and apparently went on to argue that all causes give Thomistic being (esse) either to a substance or to an accident in a substance. This influx or “influence” is described as a kind of immaterial flowing of being that makes or produces, without diminishing the agent. In the case of an efficient cause, this influence occurs through action, and the substantial efficient cause is called an agent. (By contrast, in the above-linked article, which has brief additional remarks on Suárez, I quoted Aristotle saying in effect that an agent’s action is more properly an efficient cause than the agent, and that something like a technique used in an action is more properly an efficient cause than the action.)

Suárez’s metaphysical emphasis on actions producing being in things has been characterized as transitional to a modern, event-based view of causality. While Suárez himself held to the idea that causes were substantial agents, early modern mechanism indeed seems to have kept his emphasis on action but moved to an event-based view.

It seems to me to have been a historical accident that mathematical natural science arose on the basis of an event-based view. While mathematics certainly can be used to develop precise descriptions of events, any mathematical analysis relevant to this can also be construed as a “reason why” rather than a mere description. On the frontier of analytic philosophy, Brandom is again suggesting that a consideration of reasons actually circumscribes — and is necessary to underwrite — consideration of events and descriptions. This suggests a new motivation for recovering Aristotle’s original reason-based view.

Efficient Cause, Again

Yesterday, I changed my thinking about Aristotle’s “efficient cause”, making a somewhat surprising connection to the modern notion of “structural causality”. Then I had to update my account of generalized unmoved movers to add a case for an unmoved efficient cause.

Aristotle’s whole framework of “causes” (answers to “why” questions) is often misunderstood, and it is especially bad with the so-called efficient cause. A quick web search on the latter turns up mostly accounts that are just wrong. (A wonderful exception is the outstanding article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

At Physics 195b22-25, referring back to an earlier example of a man building a house that was initially said (metonymically, it turns out) to be an efficient cause, Aristotle wrote (Complete Works, Barnes edition) “In investigating the cause of each thing it is always necessary to seek what is most precise (as also in other things): thus a man builds because he is a builder, and a builder builds in virtue of his art of building. This last cause then is prior; and so generally.” So it is the art of building — not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer’s blow — that primarily “builds” the house (i.e., governs the details of the process its construction), and is properly (not just metonymically) called its efficient cause. Once again, for Aristotle it is something at the level of adverbial detail — not the coarse level of agents or action — that is most important.

Having said the other day that Foucaultian discursive regularities are a kind of efficient cause like the art of building, it occurred to me they are also a good example of structural causality, and then that one might say the same about, e.g., the art of building.

Previously, I had been thinking about the efficient cause as functioning like a sort of catalyst. This relatively modest role had led me to privately think of the efficient cause as an “accidental” cause (i.e., one not really contributing to the essence of the thing).

This was at the opposite extreme from the tendency of late scholastics like the great Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) to make efficient causes paradigmatic for causes in general, conceived in a proto-modern sense of being responsible for the fact of a thing’s being or existence rather than for the manner of its being, and as involving an “influence” from an agent rather than reasons. (In this context, ends or “final causes” were also reduced to mental intentions of a natural or supernatural agent, as al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) had done earlier, quite contrary to Aristotle’s own non-mental account. It was this mentalist reinterpretation that was the real target of Spinoza’s eloquent polemic against against teleology.) There is a nice article by Stephan Schmid on these issues in Suárez.

Anyway, an efficient cause as a point of application of structural causality clearly has a much bigger role to play in determining the detailed nature of a thing than the purely external one of a mere catalyst. (I am using the word “nature” here in a sense broader than Aristotle’s, similar to essence but particular to things that come to be, whereas Aristotle further limited it to nonartificial things, which he thought all contained at least a rudimentary internal principle of motion not shared by artificial things.) On my new account, the efficient cause also exemplifies the interweaving of Aristotelian essence with accident or contingency, due to the role of the semantic materiality as well as form of the means of realization of a nature that is its efficient cause.

This is also more conformant to the idea that all Aristotelian causes are supposed to contribute to explaining the natures of things. Ironically, my previous “catalyst” view made the efficient cause a kind of exception that looked more like the sort of cause of existence I have generally been arguing is un-Aristotelian. As a point of application of structural causality, an efficient cause now fits the general pattern of explaining natures, rather than the mere factual existence of things with natures more or less taken for granted.

Structural Causality, Choice

I now have an Aristotelian account of structural causality. It is exercised by the combined form and materiality of actually used means to desired ends, and behaves like a contextual unmoved mover. As usual with Aristotelian “causes”, this puts it in the context of an expressive semantics, rather than any mechanical metaphor. (See also What and Why.)

We choose among available means to our ends (and, I think, also among alternative derived ends, due to the interdependence of derived ends with means). Then through structural causality, each such choice brings with it a block of consequences that are not up to us. This reconciles structural causality with contingency and Kantian freedom. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Structure, Potentiality; Efficient Cause.)

(Often, ends are things we just tacitly accept, but we also have the possibility of critically examining what we have tacitly accepted, and possibly changing our commitment as a result.)

Notwithstanding Brandom’s negative comments in passing about structuralism, I think a similar account of the place of structural causality can be applied in the context of Brandomian choice and practical endorsement of commitments.

Potentiality, Actuality

Potentiality and actuality are Aristotle’s indispensable modal tools, providing resources for a variety of sophisticated analyses. Notable applications include a nonreductive, “dialectical” interweaving of is and ought that allows conditional “oughts” to be constructed subsuming applicable details of a contextual “is”. This allows structural causality to coexist with Kantian freedom.

Modern discourse on the relation of “is” and “ought” has generally oscillated between a reductive ethical naturalism that explains “ought” exclusively in terms of “is” on the one hand, and an unexplainable dualism of “is” and “ought” on the other.

With his explicit distinction between modes of potentiality and actuality, Aristotle had a better way. He also talked about the typical modern modalities of abstract possibility and necessity, but concrete potentiality and actuality are the crown jewels of Aristotle’s modal discourse.

Foucault

Michel Foucault (1926-84) played a very great role in developing approaches to subjectivity as something that is constituted, rather than pre-existing or only one-sidedly constitutive. Despite some nontrivial issues with things he said at different times, this seems like a major contribution. In his later work, he also emphasized that people actively participate in the constitution of their own subjectivity. Foucault was not only a brilliant theorist, but often expressed his ideas in beautiful, sparkling prose.

I see his focus on the constitution of subjectivity itself as an invaluable and necessary complement to the notion of a constituting subjectivity, as exemplified by, e.g., Kantian synthesis.

Much of Foucault’s work tended to fit the common trope of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” — pointing out how liberal reforms actually implemented more efficient strategies of social control, and so on. Unlike most of the people who use this phrase, I think this sort of “suspicion” of usual assumptions can play an invaluable critical role. However, I agree it can also be taken too far.

For example, received truths may turn out to be mere prejudice, and the notion of truth itself may turn out to have been naively hypostasized in many instances. But it is going too far to say — as Foucault did on several occasions — that truth and knowledge as such are inevitably caught up in strategies of domination, or — as Nietzsche and Foucault both did — that there really is no Platonic truth. In matters like this, we need an Aristotelian mean that avoids both naivete and cynicism.

I always preferred to pay more attention to Foucault’s practical multiplication of articulable differences, distinctions, and discontinuities in his historiography than to his negative rhetoric about truth and knowledge in general. During his earlier “archaeological” period, which greatly impressed me in my youth, this multiplication of articulable differences was the positive side of his questioning of too-easy unities, identities, and continuities in history. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Genealogy; Immediacy, Presence.)

In his later work, he developed a distinctive theory of power in society, treating it as distributed everywhere at a micro level, rather than emanating from a central authority. On a practical level, this seems to me to contain valuable lessons, although it also seems to play on an ambiguity between power as capability and power as domination. (It is easy to see that power as capability is ubiquitous, and illuminating to think of how what are really modes of control may be actualized at a micro level. But capabilities and modes of control, while they are both distributed, are two different things that cannot be just identified or assumed to have the same distribution.)

He also pointed out how control can be effectuated through the very formation and self-formation of people and things, without the overt involvement of any sort of repression or repressive apparatus. This seems like another important insight.

Foucault was much influenced by the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem’s investigations of the concept of normality in biology and medicine, which highlighted the importance of pathology for an understanding of normality. (It also appears that within the French context, the term “normativity” has strong connotations of mere empirical “normality” and conformity, in sharp contrast to its value-oriented significance in analytic philosophy and my own usage.) Foucault himself had a sort of fascination with what sociologists call deviance, and a bit of a morbid streak that I never liked.

The discursive regularities he analyzed in his earlier work represent a kind of empirical “normality” rather than an ethical normativity. Again, these are two entirely different concepts.

In Aristotelian terms, discursive regularities fall under the domain of “art” or technique, rather than that of ethos. Technique is the canonical example of an Aristotelian means or efficient cause (not to be confused with later notions of impulse, or a scholastic act of creation). As efficient causes, Foucaultian discursive regularities operate under the mode of actuality. (Ethical normativity, by contrast, involves derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality.)

Foucault’s “archaeological” method can be seen as a specialized historiographical application of what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, concerned with fine distinctions in the ways things actually said might be meant, as well as of Aristotelian dialectic, concerned with making the practical consequences of those distinctions explicit.