Being and Essence

The early short work of Thomas Aquinas Being and Essence argued very influentially that the essence or “whatness” of a thing can be understood independent of its existence, and therefore its existence must be something separate from its essence. Aquinas’ fellow student of Albert the Great, Dietrich of Freiberg (1250-1310), held on the contrary that there is no real distinction between being and essence, and that they are only distinct by their modes of signification, or ways in which they are said of things.

Aquinas points out that although essence is also called form, properly speaking the essence of non-simple beings or “composite substances” not only should not be identified with matter, but also should not be identified with form. The essence of a composite substance must include both the form and the matter. However, according to Aquinas, the composite of form and matter still has to separately be given being or existence by the Creator.

In contrast to common neo-Augustinian views that were more sharply dualistic than Augustine himself, Aquinas advanced a distinctive variant of hylomorphism, or the interdependence of form and matter. “Through the form, surely, which is the act of the matter, the matter is made a being in act and a certain kind of thing” (chapter 2).

This is a novel formulation using Aristotelian vocabulary in a somewhat Aristotelian style, and it has a kind of intrinsic appeal. The hylomorphic and implicitly anti-dualist sentiment is admirable. The suggestion that “form is the act of the matter” is appealing in its simplicity, but I don’t find Aristotle using act to explain the relation of form and matter.

Aristotle leaves the relation of form and matter happily underdetermined. He is more interested in ranges of variation of concrete things than in propositions with all abstract terms, however intriguing. That through the act of the matter, the matter is made a being in act is an intelligible and interesting claim, but I don’t think Aristotle would have said that either.

The notion of “act” in Aquinas is moreover not the same as it is in Aristotle. As Gwenaëlle Aubry notes, pure act in Aristotle is a final cause only, and explicitly not an efficient cause, whereas pure act in Aquinas is action, which is precisely and primarily an efficient cause. Aristotle’s first cause is the good that attracts beings; Aquinas’ God creates beings from nothing.

Aquinas goes on to give a novel account of being, famously arguing that in God — but only in God — essence and existence are indistinguishable. God for Aquinas — “I am who am” — is pure Being. His essence is pure existence. He has no other essence, and alone of all beings essentially exists. All other beings get their being or existence from God, and therefore their essence is really distinct from their existence.

Aquinas’ teaching of God as pure Being has to be understood as deliberately counterposed to the neoplatonic One beyond being. It is also incompatible with Plato’s Good that is more ancient and powerful than being.

Dietrich of Freiberg made the Aristotelian point that being is said in different ways for different kinds of things. He argued against Aquinas that the essence of a thing refers to everything about it, just as its being does. A human and a human being, he says, are exactly the same thing. Essence as such already involves being, and there is no being that is not the being of some essence. There is a nice little French edition L’Être et l’essence (1996), edited by Alain de Libera and Cyrille Michon, that has Latin and French texts of both Aquinas’ and Dietrich’s works by this title, with commentary.

Dietrich’s own theology was a highly original Aristotelianizing Christian neoplatonism. He tended to identify God with the neoplatonic One. He was known for his interest in natural science, and developed a detailed, accurate account of the optics of rainbows. According to de Libera and Michon, he spoke of a kind of natural providence. Inspired by Arabic Aristotelianism, he developed an elaborate cosmological-ethical theory of creative intellect. He argued that the human intellect does not just passively receive images of things, but has an active, creative component.

Dietrich was in Paris in the 1270s. Without a doubt he later became a leading light of the German Albertism that de Libera and others have associated both with the so-called “radical Aristotelianism” condemned in 1277 and with the rise of German mysticism. His slightly younger contemporary Meister Eckhart is known to have been influenced by his work.


I’m still slowly working my way through Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain. She notes that Peter Abelard’s student Peter Lombard (1096-1160) — whose Sentences became the standard textbook of Christian theology throughout the later European middle ages — rejected the novel teachings of Abelard, and defended basically Augustinian views on omnipotence. A more radical notion of omnipotence was advanced by Hugh of Saint-Cher (c. 1200-1263), who first introduced the distinction between God’s potentia absoluta or “absolute” power, and what he called potentia conditionata or “conditioned” power, which later authors referred to as potentia ordinata. Although Bonaventure, Albert the Great, and Thomas Aquinas among others rejected Hugh’s distinction, it would later be adopted by Duns Scotus and many others.

Aubry argues that Bishop of Paris Etienne Tempier’s condemnation of 219 propositions in 1277 actually reflected a less extreme, more traditionally Augustinian, stance on omnipotence than the “absolute power” of Hugh of Saint-Cher. I’ve briefly commented on the 1277 condemnation before.

The accepted mid-20th century view was that the condemnation was prompted by the emergence of a trend of “Latin Averroism”, of which Siger of Brabant and Boethius of Dacia were supposed to have been the leading representatives. The translations of Averroes’ commentaries on Aristotle from the Arabic were largely responsible for the rise of Latin Aristotelianisms, but closer scholarship has shown that even the most “Averroist” Latin thinkers considered themselves simply as Aristotelian, and diverged from the more particular views of Averroes on important details. A revised view of the condemnation was that it simply addressed “radical Aristotelianism” — a wholehearted embrace of Aristotle and various Arabic philosophers that was deemed to be in conflict with Christianity.

Alain de Libera has emphasized, however, that what the condemnation addressed was not merely doctrinal or academic matters, but the first social emergence of “intellectuals” in Europe, along with the idea of an ethical Aristotelianism as a way of life. While some authors have seen this as an essentially secular development and as a direct challenge to Christianity, de Libera, Kurt Flasch, and Burkhard Mojsisch have made the picture much more complicated by documenting on the one hand how this development was continued by the German students of Albert the Great, and on the other that the trend of Rhenish mysticism that included the great Meister Eckhart developed out of German Albertism.

The condemned propositions themselves are quite diverse — from praise of philosophy, reason, and this-worldly ethics to general questioning of authority; to assertion of various limits on God’s power; to Aristotelian emphasis on the importance of “secondary” causes; to theses on the characteristics of neoplatonic separate intellects; to expressions of astrological determinism; to rejection of specific points of accepted Christian doctrine. It is unlikely that any single person adhered to them all; certainly the German Albertist Dominicans whom de Libera, Flasch, and Mojsisch have associated with the broader trend addressed by the condemnation would have not have endorsed the rejection of points of common doctrine.

Those who have seen a theological-political confrontation between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism in the condemnation are not wrong, but it is more complicated than that. The Albertists did not see themselves as opposed to Augustine.

Scholars have debated whether any of the condemned propositions were intended to target Thomas Aquinas. Shortly after the condemnation, Bishop Tempier in fact attempted a move against the teaching of the not-yet-canonized Aquinas, which was thwarted in part by the efforts of Albert the Great, who traveled back to Paris to defend the reputation of his recently deceased student. In between, Tempier succeeded in getting the theologian Giles of Rome reprimanded, although Giles was allowed to resume teaching shortly thereafter and did not much change his arguments. Giles was himself the author of a treatise on the “errors of the philosophers”, but this did not prevent him from making use of philosophical arguments in his theology. Theology during this time generally became far more involved with philosophical questions than it had been.

Albert the Great, who along with Roger Bacon was the first European to lecture on the main body of Aristotle’s works after they were translated from the Arabic, developed a style in which he would alternately say “now I speak as a philosopher” and then “now I speak as a theologian”. This was in contrast to Aquinas, who preferred to emphasize the unity of truth. Around the time of Tempier’s condemnation, unnamed “Averroists” were accused of holding that Christianity and “philosophy” contradicted one another but were somehow both true. Scholars have generally concluded that no one literally held such a view, but it strikes me that it might have originated as a hostile caricature of Albert.


When I talk about beings, or us as beings, I mean this in a very ordinary, pre-philosophical way. It seems to me that to informally qualify as a “being”, something must have a degree of coherence; a degree of resilience or persistence in the face of change; and relations to other beings.

We might form a notion of something absolutely singular or self-contained, but it would not be a notion of a being. The classic notion of something absolutely singular was the One of Plotinus, which for him explicitly preceded all being. For Plotinus, we should only begin to talk about being when we have something that is “both one and many”.

If we speak of beings, it makes some sense to inquire about the being of beings. To me, though, this just means a higher-order consideration of the ordinary “being a being” of ordinary beings. It does not imply some very different “Being with a capital B” that gives being to all ordinary beings.

When Aristotle inquired about “being as being”, he reached two main conclusions. First, “being is said in many ways”. That is to say, being is not a univocal concept; it has multiple meanings. More profoundly, what we nonetheless informally call being itself is itself analogous to something that is nonunivocal rather than univocal. The non-self-containedness that seems to be characteristic of beings means that if we look closely, what we call individual beings do not have univocal identity, but rather are “identified” by a kind of family resemblance to themselves. Beings do not have sharp edges that would unambiguously separate an inside from an outside, and sometimes they change profoundly. Second, being a being nonetheless always involves being some way that is distinguishable from some other way. Calling something a being or saying it “is” in any sense thus expresses a kind of commitment on our part, and as Aristotle and Brandom would both remind us, the very nature of commitments implicitly commits us to abstain from or correct other incompatible commitments.

Being a being in whatever sense thus involves both a determinateness and an openness. Determinateness and openness in turn have to be understood in ways that permit their coexistence. (See also Equivocal Determination; Openness of Reason; Bounty of Nature.)

I want to say that everything important about being a being belongs in the register of “whatness”, or what was traditionally called essence. Contrary to the great arguments of Aquinas as well as to the 20th century mystique of existentialism, I don’t find value in an allegedly separate register of existence. Some people have argued that Aristotle did not have a proper concept of existence, as if this were a shortcoming. I find Aristotle’s direction of our attention to the “what” of being to be noninflationary in a quite salutary way. (See also Substance; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities.)

Modernity, Voluntarism

A draft chapter on pre-Hegelian stages in the history of normativity that Brandom removed from the published Spirit of Trust is now separately available on the internet. Parts or aspects of this historical narrative are the main source of issues I’ve had with Brandom in recent times. I take his removal of the chapter as confirmation that this historical argument should be viewed as an independent, optional supplement to the main philosophical argument of this truly great work. But Brandom still implicitly relies on it in summarily characterizing what he calls the single most important transformation in history — having to do with the status of normativity in the Enlightenment — and I have issues with those statements as well.

He begins by recalling a number of core themes I would wholeheartedly endorse.  Hegel “fully appreciated, as many of Kant’s readers have not” that Kant fundamentally rethought notions of self, self-consciousness, apperception, and “consciousness in the sense of apperception” in normative terms.  This is a vitally important point.

“Judgment is the minimal form of apperceptive awareness because judgments are the smallest units one can commit oneself to, make oneself responsible for”.  The “I” in “I think” that Kant called the “emptiest of all representations” is a kind of formal mark of taking responsibility for the judging.  What is represented in the judgment is what one makes oneself responsible to, and the “I” in turn only acquires determinate reference from what we implicitly or explicitly take responsibility for.  What Brandom following popular usage still calls “conscious selves”, he glosses with precision as “apperceptively unified constellations of commitments”.

Concepts are “rules that determine what commitments are reasons for and against”, and as such govern the synthesis of apperceptive unities, but they should not be thought of as pre-existing.  “Judgeable contents take methodological pride of place because of their role in Kant’s normative account of judging”.  Concepts used in judgments acquire their content from the activity of judging, from what one does in applying them.  Brandom thinks Hegel sees Kant as a “semantic pragmatist” not just in the Fichtean sense of the primacy of practical philosophy over theoretical philosophy, but in the more radical sense that for Kant, a normative account of discursive activity has methodological explanatory authority over the determination of discursive content in both theoretical and practical philosophy.

Brandom identifies Hegel’s Geist or Spirit with discursive normativity, and says Hegel sees earlier moral theorists as offering important insights not just about morality, but about normativity as such.  Hegel himself starts from conceptual norms expressed in language, rather than from moral norms.  He says that “language is the Dasein [“being there”] of Geist”.  “In another (completely unprecedented) move, Hegel historicizes his social metaphysics of normativity”.  Normativity is for the first time explicitly recognized as having a history.  

“The traditional metaphysics of normativity that Hegel sees all subsequent forms of understanding as developing from the rejection of is the subordination-obedience model.”  On this model, obligation is instituted by the command of a superior.  Brandom notes that Hegel initially discussed it under the famous figure of the relation of Master and Servant.

Protestant natural-law theorists – including Grotius, Cumberland, Hobbes, Pufendorf, Thomasius, and Locke — secularized and naturalized the voluntarism of medieval Catholic theologians like Scotus and Occam, tracing the binding force of law from “the antecedent existence of a superior-subordinate relationship”.  For the theological voluntarists, Brandom says, such relations of subordination were not only matters of objective fact, but “in some sense the fundamental objective metaphysical structure of reality”, embodied in Arthur Lovejoy’s figure of a broadly neoplatonic “Great Chain of Being”.  The natural-law theorists explained relations of subordination among humans in terms of different theories of God’s dominion over humans.  Brandom notes that on the obedience model, the status of being a superior is itself a normatively significant status entailing a right to legislate and command, but having that status relative to other humans is reduced to a non-normative matter of presumed objective fact.  (We should not rely on presumption in such important matters, and all attempts to reduce normativity to something non-normative stand in opposition to the autonomy of ethical reason championed by Kant.)

Brandom says the natural-law theorists began to question the subordination-obedience model in two ways – first by attaching some normative criteria to the status of being a superior, and second by suggesting that the right of a human to command might depend on some kind of implicit consent or attitude of the affected subordinates.  I would emphasize that any such move is already a move away from voluntarism.  As Brandom says, the subordination-obedience model is incapable of being extended to explain a normative status of being entitled to command.  The invocation of the consent of subordinates, he says, is an “even more momentous” step forward.  It is distinctive of Brandomian modernity to take normative statuses to be instituted by attitudes of acknowledgement.  Ultimately, modernity for Brandom is thus related to the emergence of democratic politics.

Brandom says that for Hegel, the modern model of attitude-dependence of normative statuses expresses a genuine and important truth, but like the subordination-obedience model, it is ultimately one-sided.  Hegel’s own view will make room for both an objectivity and an attititude-dependence of norms and normative statuses, by deriving objectivity itself from a vast ensemble of processes of normative mutual recognition over time.  Brandom translates Hegel’s vocabulary of “independence” and “dependence” into authority and responsibility, and says that for Hegel, what self-conscious beings are “in themselves” depends on what they are “for themselves”, on what they take themselves to be, as well as on what others take them to be.  What is “in itself” or “for itself” is thus a matter of normative interpretation, rather than of metaphysics in the traditional sense.

All of this seems both fine and important.  Things begin to become much more problematic, however, when he briefly discusses the contrast between voluntarist and “intellectualist” views of the will in medieval Latin theology.  He ends up valorizing the voluntarism of Occam at the expense of the so-called intellectualism of Aquinas, on the ground that voluntarism can be taken as grounding normativity in attitudes attributed to God.  Even though he notes that Occam’s nominalism makes all universals – including normativity — the product of “brute arbitrariness”, while recognizing that for Aquinas normativity is always grounded in reasons, he is more impressed by the fact that in Aquinas, those reasons are traceable to objective statuses.  Brandom’s language suggests that any reliance whatseoever on attitudes — even if they are arbitrary and do not involve any kind of recognition of an other — is ethically preferable to reliance on objective statuses.  

I on the contrary much prefer Aquinas’ appeal to reasons – in spite of the fact that Aquinas ultimately relies on assumed objective statuses – to Occam’s appeal to arbitrariness, even though the latter can be argued to implicitly involve attitudes.  It is a rather common motif of shallow accounts of the prehistory of modern science to valorize Occam and nominalism generally as anticipating modern developments, while overlooking both the negative ethical consequences of voluntarism and the positive value of the ethically “intellectualist” emphasis on reason.

I want to put greater stress on the contrast between arbitrariness and reasons than on that between relying on assumed objective statuses and relying on attitudes.  Of course I agree that objective normative statuses should not be simply assumed.  But I see nothing at all progressive in arbitrariness glossed as the product of an arbitrary attitude.  The result is still arbitrariness.  So, I cannot at all agree that theological voluntarism is “the thin leading edge of the wedge of modernity”, if modernity is supposed to be anything good.  I think a transition to relying on attitudes for the constitution of normativity only becomes progressive when those attitudes are non-arbitrary.

The other odd thing in Brandom’s account is the complete absence of any mention of Plato and Aristotle.  Unlike most authors of the Enlightenment, Plato and Aristotle put no limits on the free use of reason.  They explicitly treated reason as bound up with normativity.  And even though they did not question existing distinctions of social status as much as we might, nothing in their ethics actually presupposes the subordination-obedience model.  Thus I locate the single greatest historical break with Plato and Aristotle’s invention of rational ethics, rather than with the Enlightenment’s appeal to attitudes.  

However one takes the ethical “intellectualism” of Aquinas, it combines Plato and Aristotle’s merger of normativity and reason with doctrinal concerns.  The assumptions about objective statuses that Brandom objects to belong to the doctrinal component of his synthesis rather than its Platonic-Aristotelian component.  If we are looking for historical antecedents of the ethically good aspects of modernity, we should look to Plato and Aristotle.

Voluntarism’s endorsement of arbitrariness over reasons is quite simply the short path to evil.  It is the bad attitude of the Master discussed by Hegel, raised to a sort of anti-philosophical principle.  Brandom is a great champion of the importance of reasons, and presents an exemplary reading of Mastery as an evolutionary dead end with no progressive role to play, so I think it would be more consistent for him to avoid any historical valorization of voluntarist positions.


Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a tremendously original, highly influential, and troublesome philosopher. What makes his work troublesome is not only conceptual difficulty and a deliberate practice of translating the familiar into the unfamiliar, but also his never clearly repudiated attempt to influence the Nazi movement in Germany. He seems to have been a cultural and linguistic chauvinist who rejected pseudo-biological racism, but nonetheless put hopes in an “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism as an alternative to American and Soviet materialism. This identification puts a dark cloud over the interpretation of his writing, which was, however, generally very far removed from politics. The question is, how much it is possible to detach his work from a stance that seems worse than one of mere bad judgment.

A serious and innovative reader of Aristotle who also developed thought-provoking readings of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Heidegger combined a sympathetic but critical take on Husserl’s phenomenology with an interest in the hermeneutics of Wilhem Dilthey. Widely read as an “existentialist”, he sharply repudiated Sartre’s appropriation of his work. In his later works, he approached philosophy as a kind of poetic meditation.

His most famous thesis was that Western thought largely lost its way from Plato onward, neglecting the question of the meaning of Being in favor of preoccupation with things. While he made good points about the preconceptions involved in our ordinary encounters with things, I think he too sharply rejected “ontic” engagement with empirical, factual concerns in favor of a purified ontology. He also promoted a valorization of what I would call the pre-philosophical thought of the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Parmenides. I think Plato and especially Aristotle represented a gigantic leap forward from this.

Some of Heidegger’s very early work was on the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who seems to have originated the standard notion of ontology later promoted by Wolff and others. In sharp contrast to the tradition stemming from Scotus, Heidegger argued that Being is not the most generic concept, and wanted to emphasize a “Being of beings” in contrast to their factual, empirical presentation. He did not follow the path of Aquinas in identifying pure Being with God, either, and Aquinas probably would have rejected his talk of the Being of beings.

I think his most important contribution was an emphasis on what he called “being-in-the-world” as a way of overcoming the dichotomy of subject and object. His associated critique of Cartesian subjectivity has been highly influential. In later works, he also recommended putting difference before identity, and relations before things. Although the way he expounded these notions was quite original, I prefer to emphasize their roots in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Being, Existence; Being, Consciousness; Beings; Phenomenological Reduction?; Memory, History, Forgetfulness — Conclusion.)

Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul

In the 13th century, Christian theologians worried in varying degrees about the way “the” Commentator, Averroes, tended to separate intellect from the individual human soul (see digression on this aspect of Averroes in What Is “I”?) — enough so that the reception of Aristotle into the Latin world was for a time threatened. Aquinas wrote a famous little treatise in 1270 On the Unity of the Intellect, mustering as many arguments as possible for a reading of Aristotle that avoided this separation, and gave each soul its own individual intellect. Due to the minimalist nature of Aristotle’s own account, the argument has continued to the present day. Both sides of the dispute have some textual basis on their side. Supported by Augustinian orthodoxy and the writings of Avicenna, the theologians generally argued for a strongly unified intellectual soul. Part of their concern seems to have been a clearly nonphilosophical one, having to do with moral justification of the possible eternal damnation of a human. More purely philosophical readers of Aristotle tended to be less worried about these matters.

The French Thomist scholar E. H. Wéber wrote a couple of fascinating books, L’Homme en Discussion a l’Université de Paris en 1270 (1970) and La Personne Humaine au XIIIe Siècle (1991), about the way Aquinas in this context also, rather unexpectedly, drew on the early Christian neoplatonic writings attributed to a fictitious Greek disciple of the apostle Paul called Dionysius the Areopagite.

Both Albert the Great and Aquinas made considerable use of pseudo-Dionysius in their theology. A bit like Augustine in this regard, pseudo-Dionysius had a strong neoplatonic notion of divine illumination in the soul. As with intellect in Averroes, this also comes from outside, but unlike anything in Averroes, it involves a direct relation between God and the soul. Wéber argued that this played a larger role in the thought of Aquinas than has been generally recognized, and it does seem to me that when Aquinas talks about the natural light of reason, it has something of the character of a divine illumination, quite different from the mainly linguistic, social, and ethical view of reason I find in Aristotle. This view of reason as divine illumination in the soul did not require any “separate” intellect, leaving Aquinas free to argue that both the active and the potential intellect were strictly parts of the individual soul.

Wéber recounts that Aquinas (like Albert) was initially only moderately concerned about the views of Averroes on the soul, but later took a stronger position, harshly condemning this aspect of Averroes’ thought. Politically speaking, it seems that Aristotle had to be separated from Averroes on this matter, in order to make Aristotle safe for Christianity at the time. Matters of theological diplomacy were an important practical part of the unity of truth in Aquinas. Whatever we think of this particular development, we should be grateful to Aquinas for his role in historically securing Latin acceptance of Aristotle. (See also Archaeology of the Subject; Intelligence from Outside; Parts of the Soul; God and the Soul; Fortunes of Aristotle; Errors of the Philosophers; Subject; Mind Without Mentalism. )

Errors of the Philosophers

As the works of Aristotle and other authors translated from the Arabic became unbanned and began to be understood, this caused considerable tension in the previously insular Latin West. Albert the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and others worked to reconcile the two intersecting traditions. Secular masters of arts who were not theologians often concentrated mainly on reading the new texts as they stood — a tradition that continued through the Renaissance. The bishop of Paris issued lists of condemned propositions in 1270 and 1277 (see Wikipedia and Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Scholars generally agree that there was no coherent group or single individual targeted by the whole of the longer 1277 one, which also contained a few propositions endorsed by the not-yet-canonized Aquinas.

In the 20th century, Pierre Duhem influentially claimed that the 1277 condemnation had a large positive effect on nascent medieval natural science, by freeing it from the alleged dogmatism of Aristotle, but with more research, scholarly consensus has backed sharply away from this (although I think there is still some distance to go). This is a good example of the lingering effects of anti-Aristotelian prejudice. Contrary to the stereotype, medieval Aristotelians often cheerfully adopted new ideas when they seemed to have merit, and Italian Aristotelianism in particular was especially friendly to such developments.

A little treatise attributed to Giles of Rome (excerpt relating to Aristotle here) on “the errors of the philosophers” appeared around 1270. In other writings, Giles was by no means hostile to all philosophy, but here he focused on matters of theological concern at the time, with a bit more motivation and analysis than the actual condemnations. “Philosophers” refers with some specificity to the canon of falsafa translated from the Arabic.

As Giles analyzed it, the main issue underlying concerns about Aristotle himself lay in the principle that later scholastics referred to as “nothing comes from nothing”, and that Leibniz later endorsed as the principle of sufficient reason. Leibniz and others found this constructive-flavored notion implicit in Aristotelian and neoplatonic thought to be compatible with theological concerns. More generally, many theologians have found ways to read the broad spirit of Greek rationalism and naturalism as not inherently opposed to their concerns. Greek rationalism and naturalism, unlike many of their modern variants, were not reductive in nature. The thought of Aristotle in particular provides sophisticated resources for integrating concepts of immanent purpose in a rational account of the world that makes no special pleadings.

The notion of creation from nothing is itself a theological interpretation not literally present in Genesis, but creation in time is literally present, and many theologians have been reluctant to give it a figurative interpretation, even though broad principles of interpretation as far back as Augustine allow for figurative interpretation when there are issues with a literal reading. Aquinas, for one, took a diplomatic middle position that reason cannot decide between possibilities of eternal creation or creation in time, so he adopted a forgiving attitude toward Aristotle on the related question of the eternity of the world. I believe Aristotle and the neoplatonists on the other hand clearly thought reason did rule out a creation in time, and that this did not in any way destroy higher spiritual values. Personally, I want to say that they were right on this, so I respectfully disagree with the diplomatic Thomistic position, while considering it historically progressive in its context. (See also Fortunes of Aristotle; God and the Soul; Strong Omnipotence; Occasionalism; Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul.)

Truth and Judgment

Negative reactions to Brandom are a veritable industry these days. Another one I just encountered, by Karl Hahn, comes from a Thomistic direction, and mainly wants to reassert an incompatible view of truth. This yields a useful delineation.

Humanity owes Thomas Aquinas an immense debt of gratitude for helping end the European dark ages and usher in the high medieval development that led to the Renaissance, by making Aristotle acceptable to the Church. But while I am broadly sympathetic to Aristotelian tendencies in theology, I also think theological “improvements” to Aristotle were not improvements.

Aquinas had a very distinctive and sophisticated view of truth. It was extremely remote, however, from that of Brandom and the one I attribute to Aristotle. Aquinas wanted to combine Aristotelian learning and ethical discourse with Christian revelation and the broadly Augustinian tradition of faith seeking understanding, into one seamless edifice. From this perspective, there are truths of reason, truths of experience, and truths of revelation, but truth must agree with truth, so things must be interpreted in a way adequate to them all.

Hahn, following Alasdair MacIntyre, summarizes the Thomistic view of truth as something said primarily of intellect, rather than of propositions. Aristotle discussed truth in the context of things said, but Plotinus already articulated something like MacIntyre’s view, which apparently puts a kind of immediate synthetic mental apprehension ahead of any extended articulation. Simultaneously, Plotinus contributed to a shift in emphasis from form or concept to something more like what we think of as a subjective “mind”. (I would argue that Aristotle’s own notion of intellect is fundamentally not subjective in the modern sense; see Substance Also Subject.)

When we speak of some understanding as “true”, I take that as a sort of poetic metonymy, not a literal statement. Truth can be derivatively said of an act of understanding, based on judgment of that understanding’s soundness and circumstantial appropriateness, which is to say not only the inferential but also the broader emotional and social reasonableness of its articulable content. Understanding-as-truth could almost be taken to hint at something like Hegelian truth-as-process, except that for Plotinus or Aquinas it is an achieved result that should be valid for all time.

Hahn is wary of “intra-rational” criteria for the evaluation of reasons, relating this to what he calls idealist-pragmatist “relativism”. Such worries about relativism depend on a huge equivocation between views that want to take more distinctions into account, and views that implausibly deny the reality of all distinctions. (For Aristotle as well as Kant, distinctions rather than assertions form the basis for evaluation and determination of content. Responsible, serious assertion is an outcome of evaluation.)

Thomism, while placing high value on reason, is fundamentally at odds with the Kantian autonomy of reason, which is an ethical imperative that evaluation be exclusively “intra-rational”. Here, “rational” means not just narrowly logical, but substantively reasonable.

I see strong textual evidence for anticipation of Kant’s autonomy-of-reason thesis in Plato and Aristotle. While we should respect the opinions of the wise, no opinion or received truth can be the final word. An assertion is just as good as the evaluation on which it is based.

As important as reasoning is for Aquinas, it is ultimately subordinate to a body of received truths, both of revelation and of what he calls natural light. (Along with Duns Scotus, Aquinas was an important precursor of modern doctrines of truth-first representationalism that stand in contrast to Aristotle and Brandom’s reason-first inferentialism.)

My view is that even the most polite, well-intentioned claims of received truth prematurely end the possibility of real dialogue about what is reasonable and good, and that they are in that way opposed to truth in a deeper sense like the Hegelian truth-as-process (or, I would argue, even Platonic truth). Kant called claims of received truth “dogmatism”. Genuinely good insights are diminished by being presented with inappropriate finality. (See also What and Why; Theology; God and the Soul; “Said Of”; Justification; Realism, Idealism; Metaphysical, Nonmetaphysical; Weak Nature Alone; Brandomian Forgiveness.)


Representation was not invented by Descartes, as Brandom tends to suggest. Concepts of representation had wide currency in the middle ages. The word used was literally repraesentatio. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary, which traces its philosophical use to the Latin translations of Avicenna.

John Duns Scotus (1266 -1308) wanted to rewrite Aristotle by insisting that there is a single meaning for “being” that underlies all the different meanings Aristotle had distinguished. The underlying minimal definition of being he proposed was precisely representability. Olivier Boulnois documents how Scotus believed he had invented a unified ontology that Aristotle thought was impossible, and did so on the basis of a doctrine of being as pure representability. Scotus thus appears as an arch-representationalist. Whatever else one may say about it, his notion of representation is clearly not the same as resemblance. Every medieval university had a Scotist on the faculty.

If memory serves, Aquinas had a doctrine of the possibility of perfect representation. Since it is perfect, this cannot be reducible to mere resemblance. Perfect representation is effectively equivalent to a kind of immediacy.

Some contemporary scholars also translate Greek Stoic phantasma as “representation”, based on the functional role it plays in the Stoic system. The Stoic theory in question dealt with sense perception, and was part physiological and part epistemological. It purported to provide a foundation for immediate certain knowledge of represented objects from their mental representations in perception. This sounds like representation before inference, and also like another variant of putatively perfect representation, which therefore would again not be reducible to resemblance, and would again be effectively equivalent to immediacy.