At Home in Otherness

This is part 3 of my direct walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology. It seems that the phrase “being at home in otherness” originated in my own notes on H.S. Harris’ commentary, and literally occurs neither in Hegel nor in Harris. Nonetheless, I still want to suggest that the underlying idea is central to the perspective Hegel wants to recommend. Hegel speaks at length about what might be called thinking in the element of otherness, and provocatively ties it to the overcoming of alienation, thereby seeking to transform our pre-existing notions of what that might mean.

More conventionally, the overcoming of alienation has been represented as the recovery of a lost possession or lost innocence that we originally had, like a figurative return to the garden of Eden. The German Romantics of Hegel’s time had popularized this sort of comfortable and reassuring notion. Hegel wants to give it an altogether different and much more challenging meaning.

He points out the inherent weakness of all isolated theses and unelaborated statements of principle.

“[A]ny further so-called fundamental proposition or first principle of philosophy, if it is true, is for this reason alone also false just because it is a fundamental proposition or principle. — It is consequently very easily refuted. Its refutation consist in demonstrating its defects; however, it is defective because it is only the universal, or, only a principle, or, it is only the beginning. If the refutation is thorough, then it is derived from and developed out of that fundamental proposition or principle itself — the refutation is not pulled off by bringing in counter-assertions and impressions external to the principle. Such a refutation would thus genuinely be the development of the fundamental proposition itself” (Pinkard trans., p. 15).

No matter how good the principle, a shallow statement of it will be “false”.

“Conversely, the genuinely positive working out of the beginning is at the same time just as much a negative posture toward its beginning; namely, a negative posture toward its one-sided form, which is to be at first only immediately” (p. 16).

Everything that Hegel would recognize as genuine development and improvement begins with thoughtful criticism of what went before.

“[Spirit] must be, to itself, an object, but it must likewise immediately be a mediated object, which is to say, it must be a sublated object reflected into itself” (ibid).

“To sublate” translates German aufheben, a famous Hegelian term that means simultaneously to absorb and to transform (literally, “to on-lift”).

“Pure self-knowing in absolute otherness, this ether as such, is the very ground and soil of science, or knowing in its universality. The beginning of philosophy presupposes or demands that consciousness is situated in this element. However, this element itself has its culmination and its transparency only through the movement of its coming-to-be. It is pure spirituality, or, the universal in the mode of simple immediacy. Because it is the immediacy of spirit, because it is the substance of spirit, it is transfigured essentiality, reflection that is itself simple, or, is immediacy; it is being that is a reflective turn into itself” (pp. 16-17).

In a very characteristic gesture, he begins to point out that in human life, even mediation and immediacy don’t just stand alongside each other as statically independent opposites. Rather, we end up with all sorts of mixed forms of “mediated immediacy” and “immediatized mediation”. This interweaving is especially typical of what he calls “spirit”.

By “science”, once again, he means mediated rational understanding. “Absolute otherness” is the antithesis of the identity-oriented simplicity and rigidity of the point of view of ordinary consciousness. What we mainly encounter in life are mixtures of these two, with a tilt toward the ordinary. I’m inclined to think there could be no human experience at all without some admixture of otherness. A stronger otherness disturbs our complacency and takes us out of our comfort zone, but Hegel wants to gently suggest that this can be a good thing.

“However much the standpoint of consciousness, which is to say, the standpoint of knowing objective things to be opposed to itself and knowing itself to be opposed to them, counts as the other to science — the other, in which consciousness is at one with itself, counts instead as the loss of spirit — still, in comparison, the element of science possesses for consciousness an other-worldly remoteness in which consciousness is no longer in possession of itself. Each of these two parts seems to the other to be an inversion of the truth” (p. 17).

Here he acknowledges that what he is recommending must seem incredibly strange from the perspective of ordinary consciousness.

He continues, “For the natural consciousness to entrust itself immediately to science would be to make an attempt, induced by it knows not what, to walk upside down all of a sudden. The compulsion to accept this unaccustomed attitude and to transport itself in that way would be, so it would seem, a violence imposed on it with neither any advance preparation nor with any necessity. — Science may be in its own self what it will, but in its relationship to immediate self-consciousness, it presents itself as an inversion of the latter…. Lacking actuality, science is the in-itself, the purpose, which at the start is still something inner, at first not as spirit but only as spiritual substance. It has to express itself and become for itself, and this means nothing else than that it has to posit self-consciousness as being at one with itself” (ibid).

Hegel’s own favored attitudes, like rationality or “science”, are not exempt from the general requirement of development. To simply try to foist “science” or our favored view of rationality or the value of otherness on the public as ready-made conclusions differs little from attempts to socially impose any arbitrary prejudice. It is a means not at all suited to the ends of philosophy.

In speaking of “immediate self-consciousness”, he applies another paradoxical mixed form. The very essence of self-consciousness for Hegel is mediation, or the opposite of immediacy. But even the most highly mediated form can also be named, pointed at, presented, represented, or recalled in a more immediate way. Every level of development has its own characteristic reflection in relative immediacy.

He continues, “This coming-to-be of science itself, or, of knowing, is what is presented in this phenomenology of spirit” (ibid).

“Knowing, as it is at first, or, as immediate spirit, is devoid of spirit, is sensuous consciousness. In order to become genuine knowing, or, in order to beget the element of science which is its pure concept, immediate spirit must laboriously travel down a long path…. In any case, it is something very different from the inspiration which begins immediately, like a shot from a pistol, with absolute knowledge, and which has already finished with all other standpoints simply by declaring that it will take no notice of them” (pp. 17-18).

Immediate spirit is devoid of spirit in the deeper sense that travels down a long path. But still it contains a beginning.

“The aim is spirit’s insight into what knowing is. Impatience demands the impossible, which is to say, to achieve the end without the means. On the one hand, the length of the path has to be endured, for each moment is necessary — but on the other hand, one must linger at every stage along the way, for each stage is itself an entire individual shape” (p. 19).

Rational understanding has to grow organically — to be actively taken up and worked over by its participants — to realize its value. Once again, it is never enough to just present summary conclusions and expect the world to agree, no matter how right they are. A long, patient working out is essential to achieving the goal he has in mind.

“In this movement… what still remains is the representation of and the familiarity with the forms” (ibid).

“The element thus still has the same character of uncomprehended immediacy, or, of unmoved indifference as existence itself, or, it has only passed over into representational thought. — As a result, it is at the same time familiar to us, or, it is the sort of thing that spirit has finished with, in which spirit has no more activity, and, as a result, in which spirit has no further interest” (ibid).

Familiarity is an issue because it leads us to take things for granted and become inattentive. Hegel contrasts all forms of static representation of knowledge with the kind of active coming-to-be of knowing he is aiming at.

He continues, “However much the activity, which is finished with existence, is itself the immediate, or however much it is the existing mediation and thereby the movement only of the particular spirit which is not comprehending itself, still in contrast knowing is directed against the representational thought which has come about through this immediacy, is directed against this familiarity, and it is thus the doing of the universal self and the interest of thinking” (ibid).

In more Aristotelian language, once an understanding is acquired, it becomes passively available for easy use. The mode of this availability and easiness is a kind of habit. Habits have a great utility for action and responding to the world, but in exercising a habit we are not learning anything new. The active becoming of knowing, on the other hand, demands continuous learning.

“What is familiar and well-known as such is not really known for the very reason that it is familiar and well-known. In the case of cognition, the most common form of self-deception and deception of others is when one presupposes something as well known and then makes one’s peace with it. In that kind of back-and-forth chatter about pros and cons, such knowing, without knowing how it happens to it, never really gets anywhere. Subject and object, God, nature, understanding, sensibility, etc., are, as is well known, all unquestioningly laid as foundation stones which constitute fixed points from which to start and to which to return…. Thus, for a person to grasp and to examine matters consists only in seeing whether he finds everything said by everybody else to match up with his own idea of the matter, or with whether it seems that way to him and whether or not it is something with which he is familiar” (p. 20).

“To break up a representation into its original elements is to return to its moments, which at least do not have the form of a representation which one has merely stumbled across, but which instead constitute the immediate possession of the self. To be sure, this analysis would only arrive at thoughts which are themselves familiar and fixed…. However, what is separated, the non-actual itself, is itself an essential moment, for the concrete is self-moving only because it divides itself and turns itself into the non-actual” (ibid).

Actualization as a process is not just the tranquil extension of what is already actual. The emergence of new actuality essentially depends on what is currently non-actual.

He continues, “The activity of separating is the force and labor of understanding, the most astonishing and the greatest of all the powers, or rather, which is the absolute power” (ibid).

Hegel is better known as a sharp critic of the limits of the understanding that divides and sees only fixed things. But here, against the Romantics he defends analytical understanding’s creatively disruptive role in unsettling our complacency.

He continues, “The circle, which, enclosed within itself, is at rest and which, as substance, sustains its moments, is the immediate and is, for that reason, an unsurprising relationship. However, the accidental, separated from its surroundings, attains an isolated freedom and its own proper existence only in its being bound to other actualities and only as existing in their context; as such, it is the tremendous power of the negative; it is the energy of thinking, of the pure I” (ibid).

Just as new actualization depends on what is non-actual, the complacency of substantial existence is only spurred to new learning by what first appears as accident.

“Spirit only wins its truth by finding its feet in its absolute disruption” (p. 21).

To “find its feet in absolute disruption” is to be at home in otherness.

He continues, “Spirit is not this power which, as the positive, avoids looking at the negative, as is the case when we say of something that it is nothing, or that it is false, and then, being done with it, go off on our own way on to something else. No, spirit is this power only by looking the negative in the face and lingering with it” (ibid).

“Negation” for Hegel is not the simple thing that it is in Boolean logic. Boolean negation is purely formal, and yields the exact opposite of its input. For Hegel, every manifestation of otherness is a sort of “negation”. Personally, I prefer the language of otherness. Thus I would say, “looking otherness in the face and lingering with it”. This involves looking beyond fixed thoughts and everything that has the form of givenness.

“[I]n modern times, the individual finds the abstract ready-made…. Nowadays the task before us consists not so much in purifying the individual of the sensuously immediate and in making him into a thinking substance… It consists in actualizing and spiritually animating the universal through the sublation of fixed and determinate thoughts. However, it is much more difficult to set fixed thoughts into fluid motion than it is to bring sensuous existence into such fluidity” (ibid).

Ready-made abstractions are the bane of deeper understanding. It is far easier to announce that we ought to overcome them than to actually succeed in doing so.

“Thoughts become fluid by pure thinking, this inner immediacy, recognizing itself as a moment, or, by pure self-certainty abstracting itself from itself — it does not consist in only omitting itself, or, setting itself off to one side. Rather, it consists in giving up the fixity of its self-positing as well as the fixity of the purely concrete…. Through this movement, pure thoughts become concepts, and are for the first time what they are in truth: self-moving movements” (pp. 21-22).

In Hegel’s usage, a “concept” is not a fixed thought but an active rational disposition. Further, he suggests that real immersion in active thought implicitly involves letting go of a fixed presupposed self separate from the activity of thinking. At the same time thoughts, instead of being identified with inert fixed contents, become “self-moving movements” (see Ideas Are Not Inert).

“[I]t ceases to be the type of philosophizing which seeks to ground the truth in only clever argumentation about pros and cons or in inferences based on fully determinate thoughts and the consequences following from them. Instead, through the movement of the concept, this path will encompass the complete worldliness of consciousness in its necessity” (p. 22).

The “complete worldliness” of consciousness is the overcoming of the habitual duality of consciousness and object in which consciousness “sets itself off to one side” from everything else.

“Consciousness knows and comprehends nothing but what is in experience, for what is in experience is just spiritual substance, namely, as the object of its own self. However, spirit becomes the object, for it is this movement of becoming an other to itself…. And experience is the name of this very movement in which the immediate, the non-experienced, i.e., the abstract (whether the abstract is that of sensuous being or of ‘a simple’ which has only been thought about) alienates itself and then comes around to itself out of this alienation” (pp. 22-23).

“The inequality which takes place in consciousness between the I and the substance which is its object is their difference, the negative itself. It can be viewed as the defect of the two, but it is their very soul or is what moves them” (p. 23).

Here inequality manifests otherness. Notably he refers to it “taking place” rather than simply existing.

Even the core defect of the standpoint of ordinary consciousness — its duality, in which consciousness stands “off to one side” of its objects — in its capacity as a source of unrest already points beyond itself, kicking off the whole long movement that the Phenomenology aims to characterize.

“However much this negative now initially appears as the inequality between the I and the object, still it is just as much the inequality of the substance with itself. What seems to take place outside of the substance, to be an activity directed against it, is its own doing, and substance shows that it is essentially subject” (ibid).

Unqualified “substance” in Hegel’s sense really encompasses everything there is, even though we imagine that we are somewhere off to the side. Thus the apparent duality between us and substance that we think about turns out to be internal to substance itself. What seemed to be “our” separate activity turns out to be equally the activity of substance that is no longer “just” substance. The substance that is thought of loses its fixity and becomes an active thought.

“Why bother with the false at all?…. Ordinary ideas on this subject especially obstruct the entrance to the truth…. To be sure, we can know falsely. For something to be known falsely means that knowing is unequal to its substance. Yet this very inequality is the differentiating per se, the essential moment. It is indeed out of this differentiation that its equality comes to be, and this equality, which has come to be, is truth. However, it is not truth in the sense that would just discard inequality, like discarding the slag from pure metal, nor even is it truth in the way that a finished vessel bears no trace of the instruments that shaped it. Rather, as the negative, inequality is still itself immediately present, just as the self in the true as such is itself present” (pp. 23-24).

Hegel’s usage of “knowing” is much more inclusive than the strict Platonic or Kantian sense that I have been recommending here.

Here we reach another delicate point. What is false, he is saying, is not purely and simply false, because it also creates the unrest that is the impetus for further development. But this is very easily misunderstood, and can lead to complete nonsense.

To avoid this kind of misunderstanding, he continues, “For that reason, it cannot be said that the false constitutes a moment or even a constitutive part of the true. Take the saying that ‘In every falsehood, there is something true’ — in this expression both of them are regarded as oil and water, which cannot mix and are only externally combined. It is precisely for the sake of pointing out the significance of the moment of complete otherness that their expression must no longer be employed in the instances where their otherness has been sublated. Just as the expressions, ‘unity of subject and object’ or of ‘the finite and the infinite’, or of ‘being and thinking’, etc., have a certain type of clumsiness to them in that subject and object, etc., mean what they are outside of their unity, and therefore in their unity, they are not meant in the way that their expression states them, so too the false as the false is no longer a moment of truth” (pp. 24-25).

Here he is employing an Aristotelian “said in many ways” distinction to avoid confusion and nonsense. It remains the case that everything for Hegel being more than it “just” is requires a great wakefulness on the part of the reader, to avoid slipping into just the kind of nonsense he is warning about.

Incidentally, he suggests that “otherness” is a better alternative to talk about the unity of subject and object, finite and infinite, being and thinking, etc.

Wrapping up this part of the argument, he continues, “The dogmatism of the way of thinking, in both the knowing of philosophy and the study of it, is nothing but the opinion that truth consists either in a proposition which is a fixed result or else in a proposition which is immediately known…. [E]ven bare truths… do not exist without the movement of self-consciousness…. Even in the case of immediate intuition, acquaintance with them is linked to the reasons behind it” (p. 25).

Active and Passive

“What strikes us now is the ambiguity in speaking of a decision that come[s] to pass on its own or in the matter itself, namely, as undergoing a decision that just arises, and the deciding position-taking that is carried out on the part of the ego as the ego’s reaction” (Husserl, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 92).

At this point in his lectures on passive synthesis, Husserl is beginning to explicitly consider the interrelation of passive and active aspects in perception and judgment, which had already implicitly arisen earlier. He rightly recognizes that there is an important relative distinction between preconscious and conscious dimensions of the overall process.

Already at the outset, though, it appears again that the active aspects seem to be straightforwardly attributed to the ego. A bit later, the shorthand phrase “egoic acts” that troubled me in the previous post gets repeated and elaborated. I still think it would be less prejudicial to attribute the (more) active aspects to something like “conscious deliberation and judgment”, and leave the postulated underlying ego-agent out of it. As Beatrice Longuenesse put it in her discussion of Kant’s treatment of related subject matter, “I who affect myself from within by my own representative act am forever unknowable to me”. I prefer to speak of the process of continually approaching and re-approaching a teleological unity of apperception, rather than punctual acts of an ego. But this is Husserl, who is well known for believing in a unitary rational ego. Luckily, most of his development does not really depend on this.

The other worry that occurs to me here is that the above-quoted passage is far from unique in emphasizing the place of decision on the active side. For instance, he says, “Judging is always deciding this or that…. In all these actions, judging is always only a process of conferring or denying validity that stems from the ego” (p. 93).

I much prefer an Aristotelian emphasis on an extended process of deliberation, and the point of view that it is the rational course of the deliberation that drives the eventual conclusion or choice, rather than a punctual, “free” decision. Larger patterns of activity, I say, are far more important than punctual acts, and subsume anything that can be explained by punctual acts. I had been hoping Husserl would come closer to this.

“[T]he ego passes judgment on its own position-taking…. We will see shortly that this position-taking or this group of position-takings are completely non-independent from the standpoint of intentionality, namely, insofar as they presuppose passive doxa [belief]…. The ego does not always take a position judicatively in this strict sense [e.g., when] it simply perceives, when it is merely aware” (ibid).

I very much like the non-independence part, but the last part raises a new problem, in that it is said to be the ego that perceives and is aware. I prefer to simply say that we have perception and awareness, rather than that we have egos that have perception and awareness.

“[Our position-takings] are completely non-independent insofar as they have their motivation founded in what goes on in perception itself, in perception’s proper and potentially purely passive course. Perception has its own intentionality that as yet does not harbor anything of the active comportment of the ego” (p. 94).

The part about perception having its own intentionality seems to have been a guiding inspiration for Merleau-Ponty. However, Husserl’s reference to the “potentially purely passive” character of perception seems surprising in light of his important point about perceptual “adumbration”.

“‘Active acceptance’ is what carries out a peculiar appropriation, determination, thereby establishing this being as valid for me from now on and abidingly” (p. 95).

This way of putting things seems perfectly fine as it stands, though it is followed by a long ego-centric elaboration. The ego talk continues into the part on “questioning as a multilayered striving”, where, e.g., he refers to questioning as “an activity that is obviously peculiar to the ego” (p. 100).

I would say that questioning is an activity peculiar to rational or talking animals, not to their putative egos.

“[T]he cognitive life, the life of logos, indeed like life in general, runs its course in a fundamental stratification. (1) Passivity and receptivity. We can include receptivity in this first level, namely, as that primordial function of the active ego that merely consists in making patent, regarding and attentively grasping what is constituted in passivity itself as formations of its own intentionality. (2) That spontaneous activity of the ego (the activity of intellectus agens [agent intellect]) that puts into play the peculiar accomplishments of the ego, as was the case with judicative decisions” (p. 105).

I contrast “spontaneous” with “deliberate”, seeing the former as more tied to preconscious synthesis and the latter to conscious synthesis. Spontaneous activity of an ego identified as the agent of deliberate conscious synthesis therefore makes no sense to me. Husserl is not alone in this strange usage of “spontaneity”; Kant, though he doesn’t talk about an ego, seems to have preceded him in speaking of a spontaneity of reason. In both cases, I think the motive was to separate rational motivation from psycho-physical causality, which I do support. (See Spontaneity.)

Here Husserl also explicitly identifies the ego with agent or “active” intellect. It’s unclear to me what Aquinas would think of this identification, but it would only make sense on the broadly Thomistic view that intellect is a proper part of the soul and is the basis of our conscious awareness. I’m guessing Husserl was unaware of the subtleties of scholastic debates about intellect, in which potential intellect in fact played a greater role. (I’ve been suggesting that in Aristotelian terms, imagination rather than intellect is the main basis of consciousness, and attempting to relate this to the Kantian idea of a productive synthesis of imagination, which Husserl identifies as a predecessor of his own notion of passive synthesis.)

All in all, I’m disappointed with this part of Husserl’s text. In spite of his recognition of a sort of active receptivity that is intermediate between activity and passivity, this part repeatedly suggests a rather sharp duality between activity and passivity. Instead of a “fundamental stratification” between passive and active synthesis, I want to imagine a more dynamic interleaving working itself out over time, in which no part is completely passive or completely active. In particular, through shared access to memory, I think the more passive aspects may build on past results from the more active aspects.

It appears initially that the remainder of Husserl’s text does not have the “egocentric” character that bothered me in this part.

Actuality, Existence

I have been using the English “actuality”, following old standard translations of Aristotle. As with any Aristotelian technical term, in interpreting its meaning I try to rely on what the Aristotelian texts say about it, and to avoid importing connotations associated with other uses of the English word used to translate it. Aristotle’s Greek term is energeia, a word he apparently invented himself from existing Greek roots. Joe Sachs translates it as “being at work”, which I think is good provided “being” is taken in the ordinary sense that we transitively say something “is” at work, rather than taking “being” as a noun. The word is formed from the noun ergon, which in its root sense means “work”; the prefix en, which corresponds to the preposition “in”; and the suffix eia, which makes the whole thing into a noun, like English “-ness” or “-ity”. So, in the most literal sense, energeia means something like “in-work-ness”.

Even the literal sense is a bit misleading, because Aristotle is very clear that the primary reference of energeia is not to a present state or a factual state of affairs, but to a primitive or ultimate end, understood as a kind of fullness or achievable perfection after its kind.

We are not used to thinking seriously about achievable perfection, but Aristotle’s fundamental intention regarding “perfection” is that it not be out of reach of finite beings. The “perfection” Aristotle has in mind is not a godlike attribute of unqualified or infinite perfection, but rather something like what modern ecology calls a “climax state” of an ecosystem (like the exceedingly rich environment of a rain forest).

Ecological succession involves a series of states that lead to other states, whereas a climax state leads back to itself, as in Aristotle’s other related coined word entelechy, which Sachs renders “being at work staying itself”, and is literally something like “in-end-having”. An ecosystem in a climax state is maximally resilient to perturbation; it is more able to recover its health when something throws it out of balance.

When Aristotle speaks of “substances” persisting through change, it is not a simple persistence of given properties that he has in mind, but rather something more like a stable (i.e., highly resilient, not unchanging) ecosystem. Stability in ecosystems and populations comes from biodiversity, which is a modern scientific analogue of Aristotelian “perfection”. Diversity provides a richer set of capabilities. With respect to human individuals, the analogue would be something like a “well-rounded” character. In ethics, we could speak of a well-rounded pursuit of ends, in contrast with a narrow or selfish one.

Thus the concept of “actuality” in Aristotle has to do with a kind of immanent teleology or interpretation of things based on ends and values, which for Aristotle takes the place of what later writers called “ontology”, as a supposed fundamental account of what exists.

Some contemporary analytic philosophers have spoken of “actualism” as an alternative to the possible worlds interpretation of modal logic. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, in this context “actuality” is simply equated with factual existence. Instead of making confusing claims about the reality of non-actual possible worlds, this approach locates alternate possibilities within the actual world instead of somehow alongside it. As far as it goes, I have some sympathy for this. But I want to resist some of the conclusions with which it is commonly associated, which follow from the very non-Aristotelian identification of actuality with mere factuality. (See also Redding on Morals and Modality.)

I said above that actuality in Aristotle’s sense refers to processes and states of actualization relative to ends and values, not just to present existence or the current factual state of affairs. Readers of Aristotle as diverse as Thomas Aquinas and Gwenaëlle Aubry are united in stressing the primacy of “in-act-ness” over mere factuality in the interpretation of “actuality”. Robert Pippin’s account of actuality in Hegel (see also here) in an ethical context spells out the consequences of this very nicely. I think Aristotle would endorse the views Pippin attributes to Hegel in this context.

Aquinas on the Soul

Lately I’ve repeatedly mentioned Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), and I feel some additional due diligence is in order. Though I have browsed his major works, I am assuredly no Aquinas scholar, so I want to tread carefully. This is an exploration, and conclusions may be revised.

My currently interrupted arc treating Alain de Libera’s Archaeology of the Subject has brought to light some unfamiliar suggestions regarding Aquinas’ role in the formation of the modern concept of action as a central explanatory term. Act, action, and actuality are three distinct things in Aristotle, and they seem to be three different distinct things in Aquinas. We have to be careful that all these distinctions are not confused. So, I am embarking on a little detour to get a clearer sense of what they specifically mean in Aquinas.

The most famous theologian of the Catholic church, Aquinas is a very substantial figure whose work has given rise to diverse interpretations. His principal concern was what is called revealed theology, which properly speaking is outside my scope here, but he was perhaps best known (and initially controversial) for his philosophical theology, and for fusing discourses of theology and philosophy. Without ever losing sight of things he considered to be known by faith, he gave an unprecedented place to philosophical arguments in his theological works, and also developed a highly original purely philosophical theology, which he held to independently point in the same direction as his revealed theology.

Contrary to the myth that the Latin middle ages were dogmatically Aristotelian, the place of Aristotelian learning and the social status of philosophy in Aquinas’ lifetime were actually quite precarious, encountering widespread opposition from religious conservatives. Were it not for the conciliatory work of Aquinas and its eventual acceptance by the Church, conservatives might have succeeded in rolling back the great cultural advances that began in the 12th and 13th centuries with the influx of Arabic, Hebrew, and Greek learning into the hitherto rather barbarous world of Latin-speaking Europe. If I often sound critical of Aquinas and disagree with his extraordinarily original redeployment of some key Aristotelian terms, that should be taken in the context of this larger historical debt.

On the question of the soul, Thomist scholar Ralph McInerny explains in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that Aquinas in questions 75 and 76 of the first part of Summa Theologica distinguishes between a substance and a “subsistent”. He also develops a concept of a being’s actus essendi or “act of existence”. Both of these details — which have no precedent in Aristotle — are new to me. This is the same part of Summa Theologica that de Libera was focusing on.

The human soul for Aquinas is not an independent spiritual substance as an angel would be; rather it is the subsistent substantial form and formal principle of an embodied human being. It makes the human what she is, but is not complete in itself. As a principle of a nature, it has no nature of its own, and is not a substance in its own right. Its nature is to be the formal element of a complete (embodied) substance.

According to McInerny, Aquinas stresses that “the soul exists in a living being as the substantial form of an animal”. Socrates as a human has all the vital activities of a living animal. For Aquinas none of these are distinctive activities of the soul itself, because they are involved with bodily functions. On the other hand, the intellect of Socrates is said by Aquinas to be a distinctive activity or “operation” of Socrates’ soul itself that involves no corporeal organ, and this operation is said to be able to exist independent of the body.

Aquinas acknowledges this to be an unnatural state, since the soul is not complete in itself. But he holds that it is enough to establish that the human soul has an operation that does not depend on a bodily organ, in order to show that the human soul is an incorporeal subsistent that can exist independent of the body. Souls of nonhuman animals have no nonbodily operation, and therefore are not immaterial subsistents. At the same time, the intellectual soul of a human is distinguished from an angel precisely because it is the substantial form of an animal.

Taking it as established that Socrates as an embodied human being is not the same as the soul of Socrates, Aquinas according to McInerny argues that Socrates and his soul nonetheless are both “subjects” of one identical activity or operation. Intellect is an activity of Socrates’ soul that is equally an activity of Socrates the complete human. Aquinas holds that for an animal with an intellectual operation, the intellectual soul and the animal (and vegetable) soul are one and the same.

McInerny summarizes, “In the case of other animals it is the animal itself, the living substance, that is the subject of the act of existence, and both soul and body have existence through the substance. Here in the human case, the soul is said to be the subject of the act of existence because it has its own operation.”

Rationality — or acting knowingly and willingly — “is the distinctive form that intelligence takes in human beings as animals. Rationality involves the back and forth of argument moving from one thing known to another, and advancing in knowledge by such movement. Thus, for Thomas, while angels and God can be said to be intelligent, they are not rational.”

“Reason does not distinguish us from animals; it distinguishes us as animals. So according to Aquinas, while it is true that the activities of intellect and will are not the actualities of any physical organs, they are nonetheless the activities of the living human animal. It is Socrates the animal who knows and wills, not his mind interacting with his body.”

If acting knowingly and willingly has the plain ordinary meaning it does in the discussions of responsibility in Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I could fully subscribe to each individual statement in the last two paragraphs. This has no fancy metaphysical prerequisites. But a premise about acting knowingly and willingly does not seem to me to justify a conclusion about the activities of knowing and willing as such. Nor do I think that knowing and willing is the proper activity of Aristotelian nous or “intellect”.

(I think even Averroes would agree that it is Socrates the animal who “knows and wills”, in the sense that those terms have in Aristotle’s ethics. I think he would like the distinction between intellect and the reason of the rational animal. But I think Averroes would go on to specify that knowing and willing and rationality attach to the animal by way of a development of the animal’s “imagination”. I would myself also emphasize the role of language and ethos.)

I am not sure about calling intellect an operation “of the soul itself”, or indeed an “operation” at all. But I truly have no idea what an “act of existence” would be in Aristotelian terms. Plotinus spoke of the natural act of a being as its good. But “act of existence” to my ear suggests something more like Spinoza’s conatus or effort to exist, which seems at least in part to have a Stoic heritage. Neither of these meanings seems applicable to God. But then, neither is it yet clear to me how the “act of existence” of a created being is related to Aquinas’ notion of the pure act of pure Being, which I have understood as conferring the existence of beings.

Form Revisited

My original skeletal note on form dates back to the first months of my writing here. This is intended to be the beginning of a better treatment.

When I speak of form, I have in mind first of all the various uses of the term in Aristotle, but secondly a family of ways of looking at the world largely in terms of what we call form, as one might broadly say that both Plato and Aristotle did. Then there is a very different but also interesting family of uses in Kant. There are also important 20th century notions of “structure”.

Form in its Platonic and Aristotelian senses is closely related to what we might call essence, provided we recognize that essence is not something obvious or pre-given. At the most superficial level it may refer to a kind of shape, but it may involve much more.

Plato was classically understood to assert the existence of self-subsistent intelligible “forms” that do not depend on any mind or body. I prefer to emphasize that he put a notion of form first in the order of explanation — ahead of any notion of something standing under something else, ahead of notions of force or action, ahead of particular instances of things. Related to this, he put the contents of thought before the thinker, and used the figure of Socrates to argue that a thing is not good because God wills it to be so, but rather that God wills a thing because it is good.

Aristotle identified form with the “what it is” of a thing. He put form and things like it first in the order of explanation, but explicitly argued that form is not self-subsistent. At the same time, he made the notion of form much more lively. While Plato had already suggested that form has an active character and that the soul is a kind of form, most of his examples of form were static, like the form of a triangle or the form of a chair. Aristotle on the other hand was very interested in the forms of the apparent motions of the stars; the marvelous variety of the forms of animals, considering not only their anatomy but patterns of activity and ways of life; and the diverse forms of human communities, their ways of life and institutionalized concepts of good. Form figures prominently in the development of the notion of ousia (“what it was to have been” a thing) into potentiality, actualization, and prior actuality in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotelian form is interdependent with logical “matter” in such a way that I think the distinction is only relative. It is also inseparable from a consideration of ends. (See also Form as Value; Form, Substance.)

At first glance, Kant’s notion of form seems like the “mere form” of formalism, contrasted with something substantive called “content”. A certain notion of formalism is so strongly identified with Kant that in some contexts it has become a name for whatever was Kant’s position. I think some of Hegel’s criticisms of Kantian formalism are legitimate, and some overstated. In any case, the categorical imperative and its consequences of respect for others and the value of seeking to universalize ethical precepts — perhaps the first really original constellation of ethical ideas since Aristotle — are deeply tied to Kant’s so-called ethical formalism. Kant seeks a formalist path to the highest good, and argues that only a formalist path can truly reach it. The fact that it is a path to the highest good has deep implications for the meaning of this kind of “formalism”, and sets it apart from what is referred to as formalism in mathematics, logic, or law. This could also be related to Kant’s idea that ethical reason comes before tool-like reason in the order of explanation.

The 20th century notion of “structure” — to hazard a simplifying generalization — is about understanding each thing in terms of its relations to other things — principally how things are distinguished from one another, and how one thing entails another. Structure is form interpreted in a relational way that transcends fixed objects and properties. Objects and properties can be defined by relations of distinction and entailment.

Questioning the Role of Action

Which comes first in the order of explanation: action, as immediate doing; or patterns of activity or practice, as extended, intricately developed over time, mediated, purposeful, and responsive to circumstance? I think it is more the latter.

What I aim to question here is not at all the reality of change or activity, but rather what might be called the “action model” — a way of explaining extended processes and changes and human reality in general in terms of punctual and immediate actions or events. The question is, do we focus on understanding larger processes and developments as the sum of discrete actions, or do we focus on understanding more or less immediate actions in terms of their place in larger processes and developments?

There is more than just a simple polarity here — meaning consists of both concrete detail and a larger context, and we need each of these to help elaborate the other. Nonetheless I want to suggest that it is better to explain things from the larger perspective of activities rather than the narrower one of actions.

A “Mind-Soul Problem”?

Still slowly making my way through volume 3 part 1 of Alain de Libera’s Archéologie du sujet, I’ve passed through a section in which he raises the question of a “mind-soul problem”. In the wake of Descartes’ mind/body dualism, many modern authors have spoken of a “mind-body problem”, and proposed materialist or spiritualist alternatives to the dualism of Descartes. Hardly anyone in modern times has addressed a “mind-soul problem”.

My own usage of “soul” is intended purely as a translation of what Aristotle called psyche. I usually avoid “mind”, which has a heritage going back to Augustine’s mens, but has come to be widely used both for everything in the sphere of conscious awareness and for the object studied by modern psychology. Modern philosophers may speak of a philosophy of mind, but what is mind, really? In French and German, the word for spirit takes the place of the English “mind”.

The medieval term “intellect” (a translation of Aristotle’s nous) has much more specific connotations than any of these, though it might be argued that the role Aquinas gave it relative to underwriting the soul’s immortality played an important role in the emergence of modern notions of mind or spirit as something assumed to be a relatively uniform singular thing. Mind in Augustine does seem to have a kind of simplicity also, though Augustine’s soul/body dualism was very different from Aquinas’ combination of Aristotelian hylomorphism with his own non-Aristotelian metaphysical notion of intellectual soul.

De Libera points out that numerous medieval authors discussed the contrast between intellectio (thought, concerned with universals) and cogitatio (the soul’s awareness, concerned with particulars and grounded in what was called imagination). I like to read the discourse about intellect as pointing toward what Kant would later call transcendental considerations, whereas cogitation would belong to the empirical domain.

The common translation of Descartes’ cogito as “I think” confusingly crosses this boundary. The “I” part has also been questioned by various authors, but clearly Descartes was talking about a concrete awareness informed by many particulars, although he gave it a privileged metaphysical status. Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding was certainly also concerned with concrete, empirical awareness, but when he had it translated to Latin, the Latin for “intellect” was used to render “understanding”.

As de Libera says, the “mind-soul problem” is concerned with questions like whether the being that has awareness of sensation is the same as the being that thinks. I imagine that there is a kind of sharing, overlap, and community between the two, but not an identity. Many ancient cultures East and West saw distinctions in this area, where most of the Latin Scholastics and Western modernity insisted on an overarching strong unity or formal uniformity of the “intellectual soul” or mind.

And again, what is thinking?

Speaking in the common way, “I think” that thinking is something more profound than the action of an ego. It’s not at all clear to me that it is entirely “mine”; I tend to think the contrary. And I think there is a big element of receptivity in the apprehension of reality. I don’t mean that anything is just handed to us ready-made, but I think it is equally wrong to say that we make it all. What’s interesting to me is the region in between. Thinking has an active component, but it is not simply an “action”. Models for action include creation from nothing and mechanical impulse; neither of these seems to me like a good analogy for thought. Activity is much wider than action.

Activity, Embodiment, Essence

I think any finite activity requires some sort of embodiment, and consequently that anything like the practically engaged spirits Berkeley talks about must also have some embodiment. On the other hand, the various strands of activity from which our eventual essence is precipitated over time — commitments, thoughts, feelings — are not strictly tied to single individuals, but are capable of being shared or spread between individuals.

Most notably, this often happens with parents and their children, but it also applies whenever someone significantly influences the commitments, thoughts, and feelings of someone else. I feel very strongly that I partially embody the essence and characters of both my late parents — who they were as human beings — and I see the same in my two sisters. Aristotle suggests that this concrete transference of embodied essence from parents to children is a kind of immortality that goes beyond the eternal virtual persistence of our essence itself.

Our commitments, thoughts, and feelings are not mere accidents, but rather comprise the activity that constitutes our essence. I put commitments first, because they are the least ephemeral. In mentioning commitments I mean above all the real, effective, enduring commitments embodied in what we do and how we act.

Ideas Are Not Inert

In the British empiricist tradition, “ideas” are supposed to be inert contents of an active “mind”, and to be either identical with sensible contents or derived from sensory experience. They are supposed to have content that just “is what it is”, but is nonetheless sufficient to serve as a basis for our conclusions and motivations.

I want to argue instead that the only possible basis for our conclusions and motivations is other conclusions and motivations. As individuals we always start in the middle, with some already existing conclusions and motivations that were not necessarily individually ours to begin with. Language and culture and upbringing provide us with a stock of pre-existing conclusions and particularly shaped motivations.

Further, I don’t see ideas as inert. The notion that ideas are completely inert comes from an extreme polarization between active mind and passive idea that results from entirely subordinating this relation to the grammatical model of subject and predicate. Aristotle’s rather minimalist account of these matters effectively treats objects and ideas as having some activity of their own. For Aristotle, “we” do not hold a monopoly on activity. There is also activity in the world that is independent of us, and much of our activity is our particular reflection of the world’s activity. Indeed for Aristotle I take it to be thought rather than an assumed “thinker” that is primarily active.

Hegel has often been criticized for speaking as if “the Idea” had life of its own, independent of us humans. If one holds an empiricist view of ideas, this can only sound like nonsense, or some kind of animism. But with an Aristotelian view of thoughts as a kind of intrinsically active “contents”, that is not the case. If thoughts are intrinsically active, we need not posit a separate mental “subject” distinct from any actual thought or perception or content as the source of all activity, behind thought.

Plato compared the human soul to a city — a kind of unity to be sure, but a weak one consisting of a federated community and relatively specific “culture” of thoughts and perceptions, subject to varying degrees of coherence. Only under the influence of later theology did it come to be assumed that the soul must necessarily have the far stronger unity of a simple substance. A looser unity of the soul is very compatible with a view of thoughts and perceptions as multiple fibers of activity, from which the overall activity we attribute to the soul or mind is constituted.