Aristotelian Identity

Aristotle’s notion of identity is initially relational or structural, and ultimately processual. I read his emphasis on concrete entities in the Categories as pragmatic rather than ontological, and as of a piece with his general methodological recommendations about starting from what is close to us. Aristotelian starting points normally end up being substantially revised or discarded in the actual carrying out of an inquiry; they are intended just to begin a discussion in an accessible way. In the Metaphysics and the biological works, a nuanced and multi-leveled notion of form is developed that also represents Aristotle’s best thought on what we call identity.

For Aristotle, the identity of a thing at a given moment is almost reducible to what is true of it at that moment, i.e., to its articulable properties. There is no ineffable but contentful remainder underpinning individuality, like a Scotist haeccitas would seem to be.

I say almost reducible because the relational or structural criteria for identity of “this” continuing thing may change substantially over time, either straightforwardly because the thing itself changed, or more subtly because something else changed in the context of evaluation. Aristotle shares Hume’s scruples about applying identity in the first case, and Hegel’s about applying it in the second. Like Hegel but unlike Hume, he is also concerned to articulate and progressively improve criteria for higher-order stability of conceptual articulation in the face of first-order flux. This in a sense re-vindicates most of what is behind the common-sense notion of persisting “things”, provided we avoid overly rigid notions of the identity of those things. (See also Substance; Things Said; Aristotelian Dialectic; Being, Existence.)

Truth, Beauty

In my very first post here, I mentioned a reversal of order of precedence in my own top-level view of things. An always ongoing quest for better understanding of things large and small, combined with intuitive sympathy or empathy for others, used to seem to come first. (Such “understanding” would not be the univocal representational Understanding that Hegel talked about, but something broader and more open-endedly interpretive.) Ethics would thus have basically taken care of itself, and would at most have been a matter of working out details.

At another intermediate point, I thought what should come first would be to seek beauty in all things, incorporating a sort of ancient Greek notion of beautiful actions. Again, ethics would have basically taken care of itself. If queried about this, I might have added that provided one sincerely cares, it is better to be light of heart than worried all the time. (See also Affirmation.)

Now I have come to think that understanding of things large and small is itself at root an ethical or meta-ethical activity, and have even begun to speak of a normative monism. The point I want to make here, though, is that there is a common theme across all three of these stages.

The common theme is a profound interdependence between how the world is for us, how we ought to think about it, and how we ought to act. The three phases represent not changes of values that would result in different ground-level ethical conclusions, but rather a progressively deepening “self-consciousness”. (According to Brandom, this sort of autobiographical Hegelian genealogy itself plays an important role in the improvement of what I am here loosely calling “understanding”.)

From a Kantian critical point of view, we know that there will always be a difference between how we think the world is and how it actually is (and ultimately that anything like Cartesian certainty can only be a dogmatic illusion). But from an Aristotelian pragmatic point of view, we can go ahead and work with our current best understanding. Then from a Hegelian point of view, without forgetting that our understanding will never be the last word, we can charitably or forgivingly recognize that current best understanding as an expression of Reality and Truth. (See also Objectivity; Brandom on Truth.)

Metaphysical, Nonmetaphysical

There is a large current debate over so-called “metaphysical” versus “nonmetaphysical” readings of Hegel. Brandom, Robert Pippin, and Terry Pinkard are considered to be in the nonmetaphysical camp, and my sympathies are generally on this side. I also think that the “metaphysical” camp makes many unwarranted assumptions about what metaphysics must be; and that the so-called nonmetaphysical approach to Hegel is actually much closer to what emerges from an unbiased and historiographically aware close textual reading of Aristotelian metaphysics. (Justification of this obviously large claim is a work in progress, far exceeding the scope of a single post. But see menu for many related notes on Aristotle and Hegel.)

I take the term “metaphysics” to refer in the first instance to concerns addressed in the collection of Aristotelian texts later editors placed “after the Physics”, when physics itself had already been developed in terms of a kind of semantics of the becoming of sensible things. Aristotelian “metaphysics” is dedicated to a further exploration of higher-order interpretive concepts already employed throughout his works.

Many layers of very non-Aristotelian Neoplatonic and theological interpretation affect the way Aristotelian texts are still commonly read today. To the extent that they relate to Aristotle at all, common connotations of the term “metaphysics” almost exclusively pick out what were actually non-Aristotelian biases in historical readings of Aristotle. Interpretations I refer to as biased in this way were often highly sophisticated and interesting in their own right, but that is not the point here.

Rethinking Responsibility

Until very recently, I took something like what Brandom calls the alienated “contractive” view of responsibility more or less for granted. Aristotle and Kant agree that responsibility should be “contracted” so as not to apply to unintended consequences of actions. What could be wrong with that?

Actually, it’s not so much that something is wrong as that there is a better alternative no one seems to have thought of before. Brandom’s ingenious reversal of common wisdom on this subject is but one product of a monumental labor. He spent 40 years writing A Spirit of Trust, devoted to Hegel’s Phenomenology. Around a quarter of the final version’s 800 pages are devoted to a comprehensive exposition of the concluding eleven ultra-dense paragraphs of the Phenomenology’s chapter on Spirit, involving a hard-hearted judge, confession, forgiveness, and the breaking of the hard heart, which Brandom considers to be the climax of Hegel’s book.

He seems to have found/made something there that to my knowledge no one else saw before — an ethical way to complete the overcoming of the subject-object dichotomy, and thus an ethically grounded approach to an actually attainable Hegelian Absolute. As an added bonus, the recommended approach is itself compelling in purely ethical terms, independent of all of that.

To abbreviate in the extreme, the solution is to return to taking responsibility for unintended consequences, with the difference that everyone shares responsibility for all of them. Since unintended consequences were the last missing piece, everything whatsoever thus ends up included in the field of overlapping responsibilities, leading to what I have started to call normative monism. All determination can then be uniformly located at the historicized transcendental level. Brandom is the most thorough philosophical writer I have ever encountered; his argument is as large and many-faceted as those of Kant and Hegel, and a good deal more perspicuous. (See also Expansive Agency; Brandomian Forgiveness.)


People concerned with formal transformations distinguish “bookkeeping” operations from more substantive ones. On reflection, I think something like this is all that is needed to resolve the difficulty I created for myself with apparently conflicting requirements to preserve distinctions between empirical and transcendental subjectivity on the one hand, while implementing the normative monism I have attributed to Brandom on the other.

For each distinguished lump of empirical subjectivity initially kept separate alongside a transcendental synthesis, there should be some isolable correlate expressible in terms of further transcendental content not included in the synthesis. So although this further content is separate from the particular synthesis in question, unlike the starting lumps of empirical subjectivity, it will be transcendental in character. Thus the initial empirical residue can be “lifted” into the transcendental context by some appropriate process, leaving no remainder. Thus monism can be restored.

I’m metaphorically applying a functional programming concept here. When the specification of a program is fully separated from its execution, it becomes possible to do things like construct or transform a complete, possibly side-effecting program inside another program, without executing the first program or incurring the side effect when the second program is executed. This makes it possible to write a higher-order program that has no side effects (“transcendental”), but returns a value that is itself executable and that will cause side effects when executed (“empirical”).

Expansive Agency

[F]orgiveness and trust embody an expansion strategy, by which self-conscious individuals identify with actual goings-on over which they exert some real, but always only partial authority, identify themselves as the seats of responsibilities that outrun their own capacity to fulfill.

A Spirit of Trust, p. 623

I have said that to be an agent is to be subject to a certain kind of interpretation, independent of any consideration of causal power in the modern sense. The expansive approach to agency that Brandom recommends accordingly involves an expansive interpretation. Characteristically, he expresses this in terms of identification, authority and responsibility.

When they implement practices of what Brandom calls “postmodern” forgiveness and trust, “self-conscious individuals” (metonymically substituted for the applicable transcendental syntheses that actually include identification; see Substance Also Subject) are said to identify with actual goings-on. Consistent with Brandom’s expansive strategy, this should mean they identify with actual goings-on tout court, i.e., everything that happens. This in turn helps with the implementation of normative monism.

The syntheses in question are said to have real partial authority over these same goings-on. Since what is important in an action (as distinct from, say, an event) is its normative status, how that will be evaluated, and what other normative consequences that will have — not first-nature causal efficacy — real but partial authority is all that is required of an agent. As with what was said about identification above, that real but partial authority also extends to everything that happens. A postmodern ethical being functions as a co-steward of the world.

Brandom compares this expansive approach with Leibnizian optimism that we inhabit the best of all possible worlds. For Brandom, realization of this world as the best of all possible worlds is the task postmodern ethical beings set for themselves. Postmodern ethical beings accept co-responsibility for all things, and remain light of heart in doing so.

In the spirit of postmodern heroism, commitment knowingly and happily takes on responsibilities are greater than it could possibly fulfill, then does the best it can, freely confesses where it fell short, and rests confident in the knowledge that it deserves to be forgiven for those shortcomings. That is its essential dignity.

Having a History

Having established that there is a non-absurd interpretation of talk about “essentially self-conscious” entities, we can go on to specify that these will be the entities we will say have a history and not just a past, where “history” refers to progressive changes in the entity’s self-constituting normative stance, attitude, identification, commitment. (Once again, “self-constituting” implies no magic bootstrapping from nothing, just that what the self-conscious entity takes to be the case contributes to its constitution; and “entity” is just an anaphoric reference to a previous mention.)

Brandom does not use second-nature talk, so he speaks of these entities as having a history instead of a nature. In a general context, I find it helpful to speak of second-natured things as having second nature as well as first nature; and of second nature as the sort of thing that intrinsically has a history, whereas a composite of first and second nature derivatively has a history.

This creates a nuancial difference in the identity of the entities Brandom and I respectively may be mentioning in this sort of context — his entities that have a history seem to be entirely constituted by what I am calling second nature, which would be a nonempirical normative status, whereas mine at least could also be the larger wholes that include a first-nature empirical “me” with factual characteristics as well as a transcendental “I” indexing second-nature commitments in a unity of apperception.

An entity that has a history and no first nature would be just whatever entity we associate with the second-nature commitments in question, whereas an entity that has a history and a first nature would be associated with both a “historical” second nature and an “unhistorical” first nature. In any given case, I think it is important to be clear which of these is at issue.

My preferred variant — based on a strong concern to avoid implicit too-easy identification of empirical and transcendental subjectivity — imposes or brings to light additional burdens on the normative monism I have attributed to Brandom, which would aim to explain everything that needs to be preserved about the empirical, in terms of the transcendental. I believe this can be resolved in principle with a bit of added bookkeeping. (See also One, Many; Individuation; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet.)

Also, “history” is said in many ways. Aside from the transcendental-only sense discussed above, there is another in which I would want to say that nature too has a history (think of things like historical geology, evolution, and ecological succession); and that non-Whiggish history of human culture also has its place. See Aristotelian Matter; Historiography; Archaeology of Knowledge.)