Not Power and Action

My copy of Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain arrived today, and I’ve started to look at the front matter. She begins by explaining why Aristotelian potentiality and actuality are not reducible to concepts of power and action. In the Metaphysics, the most sophisticated sense of being and substance is associated with the pair en dunamei and energeia. Whereas the grammatical nominative form dunamis could connote an active power, she says the dative form en dunamei was used by Aristotle precisely to distinguish from this. The other essential distinguishing feature of Aristotle’s approach was to make the en dunamei dependent on an energeia (act, actuality, or at-work-ness), a term of Aristotle’s own invention. In French, Aubry translates en dunamei for potentiality as en-puissance, as distinct from the puissance that means power.

“[Potentiality] names, for a given being, the principle of a movement oriented by the act that is also its end and its proper good” (p. 10, my translation throughout). Actuality and potentiality, she says, thus provide an alternative model to that of efficient causality based on the relation between an active and a passive power.

“In the same way that potentiality is not power (active or passive), act is not action. Act does not act [L’act n’agit pas]. On the contrary, it names that for which we act or move: the telos or end, which is also the good” (ibid). Nor should the relation between potentiality and actuality be reduced to that between matter and form. She notes that Aristotle never referred to god as “pure form”.

She observes that book Lambda of the Metaphysics (1071a 4-5) singles out potentiality and actuality as applicable by analogy to all substances of all kinds. (Scholars debate whether “by analogy” adequately translates Aristotle’s pros hen or “toward one”, but that is a side issue.) “This assures at the same time the generality of the ontological discourse and the real primacy of the theological principle” (ibid). (I prefer to avoid the term “ontology”, but that is another side issue.)

“Determining [god] as pure act, [Aristotle’s view based on potentiality and actuality] poses [god] as at the same time identical with the good” (p. 11). She reads Aristotle’s statement of the project of the Metaphysics in book Alpha as “posing the good as a principle and identifying the causality proper to it” (p. 12). The Latin medieval tradition mostly followed Avicenna in treating the Metaphysics as what Duns Scotus called ontology, but the great commentator Averroes characterized the Metaphysics as a philosophical theology, and Aubry also calls it an axiology, or study of goodness and value.

Circling Toward Absoluteness

Hegel prominently refers to “absolute” knowledge as a kind of circle. Here I think he has in mind Aristotle’s notion of the “perfection” of circular motion. This in turn presupposes a Greek notion of “perfection” that — unlike the more theological sense it acquired later — is intended to be something realizable or finitely achievable, a kind of completeness within itself of a finite essence with respect to its ends that is still compatible with life and motion, and indeed requires the latter. The perfection of absolute knowledge also has to be construed in a way that is modest enough to allow for the contingency that comes with inhabiting a world. It is actually much more ethical than epistemological.

The circle metaphor here also involves an aspect of returning to the beginning. The immediate subjective “certainty” that throughout Hegel’s long development has been distinguished from real essential “truth” finally becomes adequate to the expression of “truth”, in part by going through development and learning from its mistakes, and in part by letting go of its self-centered pretensions.

The specific kind of completeness within itself involved here has to do with the way knowing, doing, and forgiving are brought together. Harris in his commentary says that for Hegel the putting together of knowing and doing — when its implications are followed out — leads “logically” to what Hegel has been calling the breaking of the hard heart, which Hegel also identifies with the forgiveness stressed in historic religious traditions.

“‘Immediate Dasein‘ [concrete, implicitly human being] already has no other significance than that of ‘pure knowing’ for the active Conscience. My conscientious conviction is that I have done the best I can in the circumstances as they are known to me; my ‘pure knowledge’ is precisely that it is my duty to do that. We expect, in simple justice, to be forgiven for the errors caused by ignorance; the [Sophoclean tragedy] Oedipus at Colonus already makes this point quite clearly. Of course, in my uneasy ‘shifting’, I do learn how ‘impure’ my motives always are. But the forgiving community comprehends and forgives the fact that I saw the whole situation in my way, and defined my duty according to some personal interest that is not universally (or as Kant would say ‘categorically’) imperative. Thus the community reduces ‘actuality’ to the pure knowledge of what the inevitable conditions of acting are.”

“The ‘determinate Dasein‘ that arises from action and judgment in their ‘relationship’ is the forgiving that comprehends the action in its concreteness. The acceptance of the action as ‘conscientious’ — or as objectively rational — involves as its ‘third moment’ the Spirit that says ‘Yes’ (rather than ‘No’, as the moral spirit must say). When the two sides are thus reconciled, the ‘universality’ or ‘essence’ in which both are comprehended is the ‘I = I’ or ‘the Self’s pure knowing of itself’.”

“This ‘pure knowing’, as a concrete experience, is necessarily both an achievement (for the two sides do indeed clasp hands in reconciliation) and an end or goal to be achieved (for we may spend a lifetime trying to comprehend the objective rationality of the other’s act or judgment)…. [I]n principle, this is how the singular rational self — the recognized Conscience or justified sinner, simul peccator et justus [simultaneously sinner and justified] in Luther’s phrase — both constitutes the community, and is constituted by it” (Hegel’s Ladder II, pp. 720-721).

“If consciousness is to come to the comprehension of what ‘truth’ is, (or what the word signifies) through a process of self-criticism that we [readers of the Phenomenology] simply observe, then we must necessarily begin from the side of the ‘for-itself’. The communal substance of our rationality is the ‘in-itself’ which can only gradually come to be ‘for itself’; and its last step must be later….”

“It is, of course, the motion of ‘the Concept’ as self-critical that drives both sides onward; but it is a mistake to identify the motion of the Concept with philosophy as speculation (or even as both speculation and critique) because the concrete historical movement of the whole world… is so essential to it. The lesson that philosophy is not to be understood apart from its history is widely understood; what Hegel’s science of experience teaches us is the much more demanding imperative that philosophy and religion must be comprehended together in the context of the actual history of the human community” (p. 722).

“The Concept” is Hegel’s term for concrete human thought for which there is none of the separateness that the object always has for what he calls Consciousness. This realizes Aristotle’s suggestion that in the case of pure thought, we ought not to separate the act of thinking or the thinker from the thing thought.

In the corresponding part of his separate quick overview Hegel: Phenomenology and System, Harris says, “The Self of Cognition has been shown to be the mediating moment between the finite spirit and the absolute Spirit. It is the self of the infinite community — the incarnate Logos, the ‘I that is We’. Now we have to show (on the one hand) how this absolute Concept comprehends all the experiences that have led us to it and (on the other hand) how we, as singular consciousness, actually comprehend it. We all embody the Concept (before we do any philosophizing at all) because it comprehends us — that is, it provides the context of all that we intelligently say and do, and of everything that we understand about what is unintelligent.” (p. 92).

“The human self is Yorick [the skull contemplated by Hamlet, as Hegel recalls]; our singularity is identical with our ‘thinghood’…. Finally, the sensible thing has to be understood as the essence of the self. This happened for us in the stabilization of the moral self as Conscience” (p. 93).

Conscience already identifies (its own point of view on) what it actually does as a direct expression of its essence. But what Conscience actually did and its consequences also have the same kind of retrospective, socially available “objective” status as Yorick’s skull.

Finally “It is the perfection of Conscience in Forgiveness that gives rise to the singular self as the pure knowing of the community” (ibid).

Real Individuality?

“Real Individuality is the last singular shape of Consciousness” (H. S. Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 77). After this, the focus will move to shareable contents.

We are still in the “Reason” chapter of the Phenomenology. Aristotelian considerations of actualization figure prominently here, along with Hegel’s concerns about Kant’s use of autonomy as an ethical criterion.

According to Harris, in the “internal language of Individuality”, “I am my own project, which is always ‘self-expression’; and the realization of my ‘self’ in some external material is the publication of what I am to others…. The little girl, of whom I once heard in a philosophy class, who asked ‘How can I know what I think, until I see what I say?’ had her feet set firmly on the path towards a Real Individuality that will not deceive itself” (p. 88). “We are all ‘expressing ourselves’ as perfectly as possible all the time” (p. 89). But this means that Real Individuality cannot be used as a criterion of truth, or as an ethical criterion.

“Hegel insists that the identity of project and performance, the identity of the Real End with what is actually done, is so fundamental, so essential, that even the most spontaneous feelings of success… or of failure and regret… are illegitimate. Not even the agent is allowed to compare the project with the performance, because the certainty of Reason that it is all reality implies that the whole ‘inner consciousness’ of the agent is an illusory fiction” (p. 90). (Robert Pippin’s account of this is similar but not quite so sharply worded.) On this view, strictly speaking it would never be legitimate to say I didn’t really mean to do what I actually did, or to neglect what I actually neglected. At the end of the “Spirit” chapter though, Hegel will balance this ultra-strong notion of responsibility with an unprecedentedly strong notion of forgiveness.

“We ourselves find out what we are by seeing what we do” (p. 91). “In any case, what my words mean is a matter of interpretation, and I am not in a privileged position on that question” (ibid). “It is in the Werk [work, or product of action], says Hegel, that consciousness comes to be for itself what it truly is. In his view it is the ’empty concept’ of Real Individuality that disappears as a result. The Werk is what survives; and it survives as belonging to everyone. So the immediate identity of thought and speech… must give way to actions that leave a record of self-realization” (p. 93). “The first ‘experience’ of Real Individuality is the discovery that it is not the agent and the process that is real. What is real is the result, the product” (p. 94).

“What the ‘self-identical form of pure action’ really constructs is the harmony that Leibniz had to ascribe to God’s pre-establishment at the moment of Creation” (p. 96). “We have reached the spiritual ‘perception’ of Reason as a Thing” (p. 97).

But this is Hegel, and there is seemingly always another consequent “shape” of things waiting to emerge beyond the current one. Harris continues, “[N]ow the Werk vanishes back into the vanishing action; in this reciprocal process ‘vanishing vanishes’. For the ‘objective actuality’ of the Werk is only a vanishing moment of the actuality that is truly objective” (p. 97). Harris says Hegel is here switching from use of a pre-Kantian notion of objectivity as independence from us, to a Kantian notion of objectivity as universality. A bit later, the question of independence from us will re-emerge again.

“What Hegel wants to emphasize is that I am my own other, I am always beyond what I say; I can react to it myself…. But it is very useful to have the reaction of another self (especially one that says ‘Nohow’ or ‘Contrariwise’) if I am to become conscious that when I reformulate what I said the first time, my self-critical activity is controlled by an ‘objective’ standard. I want to put something ‘right’ that was ‘not right’ before. ‘Feelings of lamentation and repentance’ are not out of place now; and when I feel that I have got it right finally, the feeling may even be one of ‘exaltation'” (p. 98). Here the Real Individual seems to assert its rights again.

But this leads to a new worry about the Real Individual’s objectivity. “[A]s the naive consciousness of the [thing itself], Real Individuality is the perfectly reconciled or Happy Consciousness. Its own ideal standard always applies to its action in some way or other. The action always deserves to be ‘honored’ by everyone, once the agent has presented it in the right light” (p. 101). “The ‘honor’ of this consciousness arises from its not putting its thoughts together. Anything said, done, thought, or just luckily found can be made into the [thing itself]” (ibid). This I think is related to Hegel’s critique of the Kantian autonomy criterion of normativity, which — contrary to what Kant clearly wanted to be the case — Hegel found to leave the door open to arbitrariness on the part of the autonomous Real Individual.

I have previously claimed that it is not really that hard to be what the Greeks called “blameless”, and I still think that is true. But I would certainly concede to Hegel that there is no way for a third party to conclusively distinguish valid self-certification from subtly self-serving attitudes, which is why Hegel argued that mutual recognition is a better criterion. On the other hand, much as I generally admire it, the universal forgiveness that Hegel will ultimately recommend seems to downplay the spectrum of distinction between ordinary human fallibility and real evil. It is better to err on the side of charity. But it is also better to avoid error when we can…

Infinity, Finitude

Here is another area where I find myself with mixed sympathies.

Plato seems to have regarded infinity — or what he called the Unlimited — as something bad. Aristotle argued that infinity exists only in potentiality and not in actuality, a view I find highly attractive. I think I encounter a world of seemingly infinite structure but only finite actualization.

Some time in the later Hellenistic period, notions of a radical spiritual infinity seem to have appeared in the West for the first time, associated with the rise of monotheism and the various trends now commonly called Gnostic. This kind of intensive rather than extensive infinity sometimes seems to be folded back on itself, evoking infinities of infinities and more. The most sophisticated development of a positive theological infinite in later Western antiquity occurred in the more religious rethinking of Greek philosophy by neoplatonists like Plotinus, Proclus, and Damascius.

In 14th century CE Latin Europe, Duns Scotus developed an influential theology that made infinity the principal attribute of God, in contrast to the pure Being favored by Aquinas. Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in 1600, was a bombastic early defender of Copernican astronomy and notorious critic of established religion who espoused a curious hybrid of Lucretian atomistic materialism, neoplatonism, and magic. He proclaimed the physical existence of an infinity of worlds like our Earth.

Mathematical applications of infinity are a later development, mainly associated with Newton and Leibniz. Leibniz in particular enthusiastically endorsed a speculative reversal of Aristotle’s negative verdict on “actual infinity”. Nineteenth century mathematicians were embarrassed by this, and developed more rigorous reformulations of the calculus based on limits rather than actual infinity. The limit-based formulation is what is generally taught today. Cantor seemingly went in the opposite direction, developing infinities of infinities in pure mathematics. I believe there has been another reformulation of analysis using category theory that claims to equal the rigor of 19th century analysis while recovering an approach closer to that of Leibniz, which might be taken to refute an argument against infinity based solely on lack of rigor according to the standards of contemporary professional mathematicians. One might accept this and still prefer an Aristotelian interpretation of infinity as not applicable to actual things, though it is important to recall that for Aristotle, the actual is not all there is.

The philosophy of Spinoza and even more so Leibniz is permeated with a positive view of the infinite — both mathematical and theological — that in a more measured way was later also taken up by Hegel, who distinguished between a “bad” infinite that seems to have been an “actual” mathematical infinite having the form of an infinite regress, and a “good” infinite that I would gloss as having to do with the interpretation of life and all within it. Nietzsche’s Eternal Return seems to involve an infinite folding back on itself of a world of finite beings. (See also Bounty of Nature; Reason, Nature; Echoes of the Deed; Poetry and Mathematics.)

On the side of the finite, I am tremendously impressed with Aristotle’s affirmative development of what also in a more Kantian style might be termed a multi-faceted “dignity” of finite beings. While infinity may be inspiring or even intoxicating, I think we should be wary of the possibility that immoderate embrace of infinity may lead — even if unwittingly — to a devaluation of finite being, and ultimately of life. I also believe notions of infinite or unconditional power (see Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Arbitrariness, Inflation) are prone to abuse. In any case, ethics is mainly concerned with finite things.

Power and Act

I would say without hesitation that having a concept of power and act is better than not having one. Nonetheless, despite my tremendous admiration both for the work of Paul Ricoeur and for the classic developments of Leibniz and Spinoza, I think Ricoeur was mistaken to associate Spinoza, Leibniz, Freud, or Bergson with a properly Aristotelian notion of potentiality and actuality (see The Importance of Potentiality; Potentiality, Actuality). Ricoeur on several occasions in his late works identified Spinoza’s conatus, or the desire and effort of beings to continue being — as well as the appetite or desire of each monad in Leibniz, and desire in Freud — with potentiality in Aristotle.

I think Ricoeur was absolutely right to emphasize both the great value of potentiality and actuality in Aristotle and the generally salutary role of the other concepts mentioned, but I don’t think they are the same. Aristotelian actuality refers not just to a current state of things, but more profoundly to what is effectively operative in a process. In Aristotelian terms, I take notions like Platonic “power”, desire, or conatus to express aspects of this more profound, higher-order, and “dynamic” notion of actuality. This is all good as far as it goes, but such richer notions of actuality still do not give us true Aristotelian potentiality or its pairing with actuality, which I regard as an even greater treasure.

Potentiality consists in the concrete counterfactual conditions that give shape, generality, and a kind of substance or “thickness” to the determination of things in the present. It is always indexed to a specific actuality, supplementing and complementing it. It gives us an explicit way to talk about incomplete determination, multiple possibilities, and openness within that actuality, while still recognizing the reality of determination and concrete constraints. It helps us express real determination without overstating it. It is not itself a power, but rather what defines what our power can do.

Spinoza, in consistently following through his idea that there is only one substance, developed a fascinating relational perspective on things, but he strongly adhered to the early modern notion of a complete and univocal determination analogous to what is found in mathematics, which is ultimately incompatible with the Aristotelian notion of incomplete determination expressed in the idea of potentiality and actuality.

Leibniz’s notion of determination had a teleological as well as a mathematical component. He gave admirable consideration to variety, multiplicity, and alternate possibilities in the development of his thought. Nonetheless his notion of pre-established harmony seems to be a sophisticated variant of theological doctrines of predestination, according to which every tiny detail of the world’s unfolding follows from a divine plan.

A notion that each being has or is a kind of Platonic power is actually compatible with a notion of complete determination. For many years, this was the kind of answer I would have given as to how freedom and determination can be reconciled. In a view like this, the freedom of a being is explained in terms of its having a finite power and efficacy, and determination is explained in terms of how all the powers interact. (Leibniz of course denied real interaction, virtualizing it all into the pre-established harmony.)

In more recent years, I have wanted to stress instead that determination is real but incomplete. This is how I now read Aristotle and Hegel. Of all the major modern philosophers, it now seems to me to be Hegel who actually comes closest to recovering an Aristotelian notion of actuality and potentiality. Unlike Aristotle he does not explicitly talk about potentiality, but Hegel’s rich notion of actualization implicitly captures the nuances of the interaction of actuality and potentiality. (See also Aristotelian Actualization.)

Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

Ricoeurian Choice

Part 1 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to a rich discussion of choice. He says that to will is to think (p. 41), and that deciding is a kind of judging (p. 43). But also “I project my own self into the action to be done. Prior to all reflection about the self which I project, the myself summons itself… it becomes committed…. Prereflexive self-imputation is active, not observational” (p. 59; emphasis in original).

He develops at length how the interdependence of the voluntary and the involuntary can be seen in processes of choice. “The circle of ethics and practice repeats the more basic circle of motive and decision” (p. 77). Motives partially determine us in certain directions, but in deciding we choose which motives to put first. Deciding involves a combination of analysis and judgment with creativity and risk.

We should not think of a decision as an atomic act coming from nowhere. Hesitation and indecision are valid moments of a genuine process of considering alternatives, and this has implications for the self as well. “[T]his inchoate, problematic mode of myself must be grasped as it presents itself. We have no right to substitute for it the image of the triumphant self which is invariably one” (p. 140). The ambiguity inherent in our embodiment means that our decisions cannot be simply governed by a present totality of inclinations or an evident hierarchy of values (p. 143).

Neither an intellectualist approach that tries to reduce decision to air-tight determination from reasons nor a voluntarist one that turns decision into a creation from nothing is valid. “A living dialectic constantly brings us back from one aspect of choice to the other: choice as the peak of previous growth and as the surge of novelty” (p. 164; emphasis in original). “Thus we must say simultaneously that ‘choice follows from the final practical judgment’ and ‘a practical judgment is final when choice irrupts‘” (p. 181; emphasis in original). “Determination of the act and indetermination of the power do not actually represent two separate moments” (p. 186). (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Fallible Humanity; Ricoeurian Ethics; Oneself as Another; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Potentiality, Actuality; Brandomian Choice.)

Ricoeurian Ethics

In the final chapters of Oneself as Another, Ricoeur develops a meta-level discourse about ethics, and concludes with a few “ontological” suggestions. Universalizing Kantian morality and the obligation it entails are said to provide a valuable extension to Aristotelian ethics, but ultimately to require supplementation by a return to Aristotelian practical judgment. This seems just about exactly right.

On the Kantian side, norms are said to concretize Aristotelian aims. The most important and general Kantian norm, according to Ricoeur, is reciprocity. He argues for the importance of the golden rule, citing Rabbi Hillel and the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The distinction between “power over” and “power to” is discussed. The notion of persons as ends in themselves is emphasized. Procedural justice is seen to complement Aristotelian distributive justice. John Rawls’ summary of justice as fairness is endorsed. Although it is ultimately necessary to return to the openness of practical judgment, the passage through universalizing morality is equally necessary, as a safeguard against arbitrariness. Universality and contextuality go hand in hand, much as I have been arguing.

Writing at a time when French anti-Hegelianism was still quite influential and before the rise of new interest in Hegel, Ricoeur did not think Hegelian Geist — which he mistakenly saw as turning the state into an “agency capable of thinking itself by itself” (p. 255) — fit well with the notion of self Ricoeur wanted to advance. He did not want to follow what he saw as Hegel’s path in returning to an ethics of Sittlichkeit or mores embedded in concrete culture, but saw great potential value in a Sittlichkeit separated from the “ontology of Geist” (ibid) and the “thesis of the objective mind” (p. 256), especially if Sittlichkeit were “bent” in the direction of the openness of Aristotelian practical judgment. (A reading of Geist free of such ontology has more recently been argued by Brandom and others to be a better reading of Hegel himself.) “Our final word in this ‘little ethics’… will be to suggest that the practical wisdom we are seeking aims at reconciling Aristotle’s phronesis, by way of Kant’s Moralität, with Hegel’s Sittlichkeit” (p. 290).

On other matters such as the broad thrust of Hegel’s critique of atomistic individualism in the Philosophy of Right and the general value of dialectic, Ricoeur defended Hegel. The Hegelian concept of Right, he says, “surpasses the concept of justice on every side” (p. 253). The “problematic of realization, of the actualization of freedom, is ours as well in this study” (ibid). Reflection, he says, needs the mediation of analysis.

He says that institutionalized conflict is an essential feature of democracy. We should be accepting of conflict, but draw the line at violence. The idea of Rawls that argumentation is “the critical agency operating at the heart of convictions” (p. 288; emphasis in original), raising convictions to the level of considered convictions and resulting in a “reflective equilibrium”, is cited with approval. Ricoeur speaks of a “reflective equilibrium between the ethics of argumentation and considered convictions” (p. 289).

Respect for persons should take priority over respect for the law. The importance of keeping promises extends beyond its role with respect to personal identity to the space of reciprocity and the golden rule. Gabriel Marcel is quoted as saying all commitment is a response to an other. A notion of imputability is introduced as an ascription of action “under the condition of ethical and moral predicates” (p. 292). To this is added a notion of responsibility. Finally, he endorses Hegel’s concept of mutual recognition.

Unlike Brandom, Ricoeur construed the philosophy of language as analytically separate from ethics. He thus saw a need to go beyond its boundaries, and characterized that as an “ontological” moment. This seems to have two main ingredients.

First, the key to understanding the notion of self he wants to advance lies in Aristotelian potentiality and actuality. He also wants to understand actuality and self in connection with Heideggerian being-in-the-world. “[S]elf and being-in-the-world are basic correlates” (p. 313). Actuality should not be thought in terms of presence. Self should not be confused with “man”, and is not a foundation. Spinoza’s conatus or the general effort of beings to persevere finds its highest expression in Aristotelian energeia or actuality, and thus overflows its deterministic origins. The distinction between actuality and potentiality is associated with that between selfhood and sameness. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Second, a discussion of Husserl’s distinction between the body (viewed externally) and “flesh” in which we live leads eventually to the conclusion that a dialectic of the Same and the Other cannot be constructed “in a unilateral manner” (p. 331). A final discussion of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Lévinas leads to an “ultimate equivocalness with respect to the Other in the phenomenon of conscience” (p. 353). We need an alternative to “constitution in and through the ego” (p. 334), and he thinks an adaptation of Husserl’s notion of flesh provides this. Unfortunately, he speaks in passing of an “originary, immediate givenness of the flesh to itself” (p. 333). I think the notion of flesh is supposed to suggest something that softens the kind of rigid boundaries between self and other that we associate with an ego, and that is all good. But the other big issue with constitution of meaning through the ego is precisely that the ego was supposed to be a locus of originary, immediate givenness. It seems to me that one of the great values of a hermeneutic perspective is that it does not need to assume anything like that.

With the exception of this brief reference and his apparent attribution in passing of a reflexive “self” to Aristotle, the degree of convergence with what I have been developing here is impressive indeed.

(I think the kind of reflexivity Ricoeur had in mind in the latter case was only intended to be related to action, so his intent was to capture the fact that we can and do act on ourselves. This, I think, is a true and important observation. My quibble there is with attributing a notion of self as a simple unity to Aristotle.)

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.)

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 something like structural causality to coexist with something like 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. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)