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.

Hume on Causes

The great British empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote that “There are no ideas which occur in metaphysics more obscure and uncertain than those of ‘power’, ‘force’, ‘energy’, or ‘necessary connection'” (An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding, Library of Liberal Arts ed., p. 73).

Hume is most famous for his critique of naive or dogmatic assumptions about causality. “[T]here is not, in any particular instance of cause and effect, anything which can suggest the idea of power and necessary connection” (p. 75). To me, it seems to be the idea of an underlying power or force responsible for causality that he is mainly questioning. He has no doubt that we continually experience instances of cause and effect.

“[There is] no such thing as chance in the world” (p. 69). “[T]he conjunction between motives and voluntary actions is as regular and uniform as that between the cause and effect in any part of nature” (p. 98). Clearly, then, he did believe in the reality of cause and effect, but only wanted to reject naive claims about our knowledge of the world that purport to link experienced instances of cause and effect to explanations in terms of the operation of underlying powers. What we actually experience in these cases is just lawful regularity.

“It is certain that the easy and obvious philosophy will always, with the generality of mankind, have the preference above the accurate and abstruse…. The fame of Cicero flourishes at present, but that of Aristotle is utterly decayed” (pp. 16-17). But on the other hand, “All polite letters are nothing but pictures of human life in various attitudes and situations…. An artist must be better qualified to succeed in this undertaking who, besides a delicate taste and a quick apprehension, possesses an accurate knowledge of the internal fabric, the operations of the understanding, the workings of the passions…. However painful soever this inward search or inquiry may appear, it becomes in some manner requisite to those who would describe with success the obvious and outward appearances of life and manners…. Accuracy is, in every case, advantageous to beauty, and just reasoning to delicate sentiment. In vain would we exalt the one by depreciating the other” (p. 19). Clearly, then, Hume’s polemic against scholastic modes of reasoning does not at all mean he simply rejects the values of “accurate and abstruse” philosophy.

Neoplatonizing tendencies in the Aristotelian commentary tradition led to the common Latin scholastic view of causes as metaphysical powers operating behind the scenes that Hume is mainly concerned to criticize. Aristotle himself identified causes more broadly and much less speculatively with every kind of “reasons why” things are as they are and behave as they do. He did so without making extravagant claims to certain knowledge. Whereas scholastic philosophers characteristically debated the pros and cons of accepting various abstract propositions, Aristotle himself was fundamentally concerned with the use of reason to help interpret concrete human experience (see Aristotelian Causes).

Hume is a great philosopher, and so far I have focused on a positive appropriation of his work, having some points in common with themes I have been pursuing about causality and the notion of power. Robert Brandom’s innovative reading of Kant’s response to Hume points out that there are distinct limits to Hume’s approach.

“Kant read Hume’s practical and theoretical philosophies as raising variants of a single question. On the side of practical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of how things are to prescriptions of how they ought to be. How can we rationally justify the move from ‘is’ to ‘ought’? On the side of theoretical reasoning, Hume asks what our warrant is for moving from descriptions of what in fact happens to characterizations of what must happen and what could not happen…. Hume’s predicament is that he finds that even his best understanding of facts doesn’t yield an understanding of either of the two sorts of rules governing and relating those facts, underwriting assessments of which of the things that actually happen (all he thought we can directly experience) ought to happen (are normatively necessary) or must happen (are naturally necessary).”

“Kant’s response to the proposed predicament is that we cannot be in the situation that Hume envisages: understanding matter-of-factual empirical claims perfectly well, but having no idea what is meant by modal or normative ones” (Brandom, Reason in Philosophy, p. 54).

Brandom continues, “To judge, claim, or believe that the cat is on the mat, one must have at least a minimal practical ability to sort material inferences in which that content is involved (as premise or conclusion) into good ones and bad ones, and to discriminate what is from what is not materially incompatible with it. Part of doing that is associating with those inferences ranges of counterfactual robustness…. So, for example, one must have such dispositions as to treat the cat’s being on the mat as compatible with a nearby tree being somewhat nearer, or the temperature a few degrees higher, but not with the sun being as close as the tree or the temperature being thousands of degrees higher. One must know such things as that the cat might chase a mouse or flee from a dog, but that the mat can do neither, and that the mat would remain essentially as it is if one jumped up and down on it or beat it with a stick, while the cat would not. It is not that there is any one of the counterfactual inferences I have mentioned that is necessary for understanding what it is for the cat to be on the mat. But if one makes no distinctions of this sort — treats the possibility of the cat’s jumping off the mat or yawning as on a par with is sprouting wings and starting to fly, or suddenly becoming microscopically small; does not at all distinguish between what can and cannot happen to the cat and what can and cannot happen to the mat — then one does not count as understanding the claim well enough to endorse it” (pp. 54-55).

Brandom concludes, “If that is right, then in being able to employ concepts such as cat and mat in ordinary empirical descriptive claims one already knows how to do everything one needs to know how to do in order to deploy concepts such as possible and necessary — albeit fallibly and imperfectly” (p. 55).

I am actually a little more sympathetic to Hume, in that I don’t read him as categorically rejecting the validity of concepts of necessity, only any possibility of certain knowledge of how they apply to the real world. I personally like the position of Leibnitz that necessity is real but always hypothetical, never categorical. But Brandom is right that Hume does not go on to emphasize how essential our fallible understanding of necessity is to our understanding of ordinary experience.

Mechanical Metaphors

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Italian physicist, astronomer, and engineer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) — regarded by many as the single most important originator of modern, mathematically oriented natural science — was a unified explanation of both astronomical and earthly phenomena by the same set of mathematical principles for analysis of the behavior of physical bodies and matter. This was a generalized mechanics of solid bodies.

The tremendous power of this new way of understanding the physical behavior of bodies is undeniable. At least until the computer age, it has been the main basis of modern engineering and technology.

A historical side effect of this immensely successful development has been the promotion of solid-body mechanics as a kind of privileged metaphor for causality in general. I’ve several times discussed the transformation of Aristotle’s notion of efficient cause (most fundamentally, the means to actualization of an end) into the very different notion of “driving” cause or “motor” by medieval and early modern authors (see Efficient Cause, Again; Suárez on Agents and Action; Effective vs “Driving”; Not Power and Action). In combination with a very un-Aristotelian tendency to reduce other causes to efficient causes, this created a ripe condition for the spread of a view of causality in general in terms of metaphors based on solid-body mechanics. We are now so used to this that it takes effort to imagine any other view.

But the solid-body interaction metaphor ultimately leads to an impoverished, overly narrow view of causality in general. (For an alternative, see Aristotelian Causes.) Even within mechanics proper, solid bodies are no longer the paradigmatic, privileged case. At scales that are too small or too large, analogies to the behavior of medium-sized solid bodies break down. In broader contexts, wave phenomena are as important as the analysis of solid bodies. The great Roman poet-physicist Lucretius already had the insight that in the general case, atoms in aggregate behave more like liquids than like solids.

Irreducible to any purely mechanical paradigm, disciplines like earth sciences, ecology, medicine, economics, and computer science provide many examples of more complex and subtle interactions and structures that suggest a new need for something more like an Aristotelian view of causality, as having more to do with forms of things than with force.

Time and Eternity

One of Kant’s innovations was a new analysis of the constitution of temporal experience. His famous theses about the role of synthesis in experience provide new insight into the paradoxes of temporal being or “becoming”, and its relation or non-relation to something outside of time. These had been raised by pre-Socratics like Heraclitus and Zeno of Elea, and more satisfactorily treated by Plato and Aristotle.

Heraclitus famously said that everything flows, you can’t step into the same river twice, and things change into their opposites. Zeno went in the opposite direction, conceiving space and time in terms of instants and points, neither of which have any magnitude. He then pointed out that motion at a durationless instant is a logical contradiction. On this basis, Zeno claimed to prove various things that violate common sense, such as that an arrow can’t fly, and that the speedy Achilles could never catch up with a turtle that had a head start. From this he concluded that motion, space, and time were mere illusions.

Plato seems to have at first focused on a sharp distinction between true “being” as eternal on the one hand, and becoming in time as mere appearance on the other. This distinction allowed him to have it both ways. But in dialogues that are thought to have been written later such as Theaetetus and The Sophist, he came to suggest that being and time are not simply two disjunct categories.

Aristotle made time and space more intelligible by developing notions of duration and extension. For Aristotle, duration and extension come first, while durationless instants, magnitudeless points, and pure flux are all abstractions. I see him as an early advocate of the primacy of process. For Aristotle, the key to making this viable is to be able to explain how becoming as we experience it is really not just a pure flux, but rather is full of islands of relative stability that allow us — contrary to Heraclitus — to reidentify objects as having an underlying basis of sameness that persists through various kinds of change. It turns out that the edges of the islands are not rigidly distinct, but he developed the notion conventionally translated as “substance” to explain our experience of the relatively persistent form of their middles.

It is here that Kant’s contribution is significant. Aristotle develops a plausible account of the persistence of form through change, but he discusses it mainly from the point of view of how things are, even though he separately suggests that experience is also shaped by processes of interpretation by us. Kant took up that suggestion, and developed it in considerable detail. Kant consistently emphasizes our role in constituting the stability of form of things we experience in time, though he also insists on an “empirical realism” that justifies most of what we get from so-called common sense. This implies that for Kant as well, there implicitly must be some basis in the way things are, for the stable constructs we come up with. Much of Hegel’s Phenomenology was devoted to a further development of these Kantian insights.

The neoplatonists and Augustine insisted that things in time have a source and destination in eternity. Classic neoplatonism attempted to treat this relation as a sort of quasi-logical unfolding of the divine essence, while Augustine identified it with the act of creation. The relation of temporal being to eternity remained a notorious point of difficulty in neoplatonism, while Augustine called it a mystery.

Hegel thought that Augustine ended up locating all reality in the Eternal, and that this resulted in a devaluation of actual life and experience. Aquinas already used ideas from Aristotle to allow for a more positive evaluation of temporal being. Some spiritual traditions go further and suggest that we humans have a sort of co-creator role in the world we experience. But it was Kant who mainly developed the basis for a non-supernatural explanation consonant with the spirit of this. The main point is that the world is not initially given in the form of pre-existing objects. We separate out objects from the sensible continuum, but at the same time this is not an arbitrary operation. We can’t just materialize a unicorn by thinking of one, but we do play a major active role in the construction of universals like “horse”, and in the recognition of persistent individuals.

Essences of things, once constituted, seem to “subsist” in some virtual way outside of time. The traditional view was that essences are straightforwardly built into the nature of things, or else simply dictated by God. Either way, this means that for us, they would be pre-given. I don’t think Aristotle really regards them this way, but only in the special case of biological organisms does he investigate their genealogy. Kant on the other hand effectively develops a generalized genealogy of essences, showing how they can be understood as temporally constituted.

Another of Kant’s big innovations is in explaining how we play a significant role in our own constitution. I think it is a grievous error to regard such processes of self-constitution as beginning with a blank slate, or as magically independent of real-world constraints, but there is a very important way in which we end up defining who we are — not by an explicit decision, but indirectly through the sum total of our commitments, actions, and responses to things.

That ethical “who we are”, while originating in time, is itself an essence with virtual subsistence. As with all essences, considered in its virtual subsistence, it is eternal. Aristotle would say that our essence stops evolving when our temporal being comes to an end. At that point, who we were is finally stabilized, as the total act of a life.

Potential Intellect?

I like to imagine Aristotelian and Kantian judgment flowing together. Moreover, I like to think that for both of them, thought is first and foremost an open-ended, discursive process of interpretation, and ultimately value judgment.

Applying Spinoza’s notion of conatus to Kant, Longuenesse well captures the idea that the Kantian unity of apperception as an achieved state is only a constantly renewed aim. The difference between what she calls the “mere capacity to judge” in Kant and what Aristotle means by thought that “is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks” basically comes down to the difference between a Kantian capacity and an Aristotelian being-in-potentiality. These notions are clearly related both conceptually and historically, but I have recently dwelt quite a bit on various historical transformations of what I take to be the Aristotelian notion of potentiality.

The latter would consist in something like multiform, branching spaces of alternate conditionals, with gradients of difference and consequence, affecting the actualization of ends and constituting a metaphorical topography of relative densities of possibility in our actual world. A Kantian capacity — even one that defines us — is still in some sense a capability we discretely “have”, whereas an Aristotelian potentiality pertains to our being, but also at the same time to that of the world we inhabit.

Aristotelian “thought” — commonly translated “intellect” — has been quite variously interpreted, and often fused with notions of neoplatonic or Augustinian provenance. Aristotle’s own texts dealing with it are quite minimalist. The relatively most extensive one is in On the Soul. I would complement it with what he says about practical judgment and ethos in the Ethics, and about the pursuit of wisdom in book Alpha of the Metaphysics. I take it to refer not to a mind-entity, or an intuitive knowledge, or an engine of predetermined reasoning, but rather to a discursive potentiality, an engagement in thought and valuation and earnest search, and the ethical “spirit” that is the undying essence of a human being.

Aristotle on the Soul

“Since we consider knowledge to be something beautiful and honored, and one sort more so than another either on account of its precision or because it is about better and more wondrous things, on both accounts we should with good reason rank the inquiry about the soul among the primary studies. And it seems that acquaintance with it contributes greatly toward all truth and especially the truth about nature, since the soul is in some way the governing source of living things” (On the Soul I.1, Sachs trans., p. 47).

“But altogether in every way the soul is one of the most difficult things to get any assurance about” (ibid).

“But first, perhaps, it is necessary to decide in which general class it is, and what it is — I mean whether it is an independent thing and a this, or a quality or quantity or some other one of the distinct ways of attributing being to anything, and further whether it whether it belongs among things having being in potency or is rather some sort of being-at-work-staying-itself; for this makes no small difference. And one must also examine whether it is divisible or without parts, and whether all soul is of the same kind, or, if it is not of the same kind, whether souls differ as forms of one general class, or in their general classes. For those who now speak and inquire about the soul seem to consider only the human soul, but one must be on the lookout so that it does not escape notice whether there is one articulation of soul, just as of living thing, or a different one for each, as for horse, dog, human being, and god, while a living thing in general is either nothing at all or a later concern — as would similarly be in question if any other common name were applied.”

“Again, if there are not many souls but parts of one soul, one must consider whether one ought to inquire first about the soul as a whole or about the parts. But it is difficult even to distinguish, among these, which sorts are by nature different from one another, and whether one ought first to inquire about the parts or about the work they do: the thinking or the intellect, the sensing or the sense, and so on in the other cases. But if the work the parts do comes first, one might next be at a loss whether one ought to inquire about the objects of these, such as the thing sensed before the sense, and the thing thought before the intellect. But not only does it seem that knowing what something is would be useful for studying the causes of the things that follow from its thinghood (just as in mathematics, it is useful to know what straight and curved are and what a line and a plane are, for learning how many right angles the angles of a triangle are equal to), but it seems too, on the contrary, that those properties that follow contribute in great part to knowing what the thing is, for it is when we are able to give an account of what is evident about the properties, either all or most of them, that we will be able to speak most aptly about the thinghood of the thing. For in every demonstration the starting point is what something is, so it is clear that those definitions that do not lead to knowing the properties, nor even making them easy to guess at, are formulated in a merely logical way and are all empty.”

“And there is also an impasse about the attributes of the soul, whether all of them belong in common to it and to the thing that has the soul, or any of them belong to the soul alone. It is necessary to take this up, though it is not easy, but it does seem that with most of its attributes, the soul neither does anything nor has anything done to it without the body, as with being angry, being confident, desiring, and every sort of sensing, though thinking seems most of all to belong to the soul by itself; but if this is also some sort of imagination, it would not be possible for even this to be without the body. Now if any of the kinds of work the soul does or any of the things that happen to it happen to it alone, it would be possible for the soul to be separated; but if nothing belongs to it alone, it could not be separate, but in the same way that many things are properties of the straight line as straight, such as touching a sphere at a point, still no separated straight line will touch a bronze sphere in that way, since it is inseparable, if it is always with some sort of body.”

“But all the attributes of the soul seem also to be with a body — spiritedness, gentleness, fear, pity, boldness, and also joy, as well as loving and hating — for together with these the body undergoes something. This is revealed when strong and obvious experiences do not lead to the soul’s being provoked or frightened, while sometimes it is moved by small and obscure ones, when the body is in an excited state and bears itself in the way it does when it is angry. And this makes it still more clear: for when nothing frightening is happening there arise among the feelings of the soul those of one who is frightened. But if this is so, it is evident that the attributes of the soul have materiality in the very statements of them, so that their definitions would be of this sort: being angry is a certain motion of such-and-such a body or part or faculty, moved by this for the sake of that. So already on this account the study concerning the soul belongs to the one who studies nature, either all soul or at least this sort of soul.”

“But the one who studies nature and the logician would define each attribute of the soul differently, for instance what anger is. The one would say it is a craving for revenge, or some such thing, while the other would say it is a boiling of the blood and a heat around the heart. Of these, the one gives an account of the material, the other of the form and meaning. For the one is the articulation of the thing, but this has to be in a certain sort of material if it is to be at all. In the same way, while the meaning of a house is of this sort, a shelter that protects from damage by wind, rain, and the sun’s heat, another person will say that it is stones, bricks, and lumber, and yet another will say that the form is in these latter things for the sake of those former ones.”

“Which of these is the one who studies nature? Is it the one concerned with the material who ignores the meaning or the one concerned with the meaning alone? Or is it rather the one who is concerned with what arises out of both? Or is there not just one sort of person concerned with the attributes of material that are not separate nor even treated as separate, but the one who studies nature is concerned with all the work done by and things done to a certain kind of body or material” (pp. 48-51).

“But since people define the soul most of all by two distinct things, by motion with respect to place and by thinking, understanding, and perceiving, while thinking and understanding seem as though they are some sort of perceiving (for in both of these ways the soul discriminates and recognizes something about being), and the ancients even say that understanding and perceiving are the same — as Empedocles has said ‘wisdom grows for humans as a result of what is present around them’, and elsewhere ‘from this a changed understanding is constantly becoming present to them’, and Homer’s ‘such is the mind’ means the same thing as these, for they all assume that thinking is something bodily like perceiving, and that perceiving and understanding are of like by like, as we described in the chapters at the beginning (and yet they ought to have spoken at the same time about making mistakes as well, for this is more native to living things and the soul goes on for more time in this condition, and thus it would necessarily follow either, as some say, that everything that appears is true, or that a mistake is contact with what is unlike, since that is opposite to recognizing like by like, though it seems that the same mistake, or the same knowledge, concerns opposite things) — nevertheless it is clear that perceiving and understanding are not the same thing, since all animals share in the former, but few in the latter.”

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right” (III.3, pp. 132-133).

“About the part of the soul by which the soul knows and understands, whether it is a separate part, or not separate the way a magnitude is but in its meaning, one must consider what distinguishing characteristic it has, and how thinking ever comes about…. [I]ntellect has no nature at all other than this, that it is a potency. Therefore the aspect of the soul that is called intellect (and I mean by intellect that by which the soul thinks things through and conceives that something is the case) is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks. This is why it is not reasonable that it be mixed with the body…. And it is well said that the soul is a place of forms, except that this is not the whole soul but the thinking soul, and it is not the forms in its being-at-work-staying-itself, but in potency.”

“The absence of attributes is not alike in the perceptive and thinking potencies; this is clear in its application to the sense organs and to perception. For the sense is unable to perceive anything from an excessive perceptible thing, neither any sound from loud sounds, nor to see or smell anything from strong colors and odors, but when the intellect thinks something exceedingly intelligible it is not less able to think the lesser things but even more able, since the perceptive potency is not present without a body, but the potency to think is separate from the body. And when the intellect has come to be each intelligible thing, as the knower is said to do when he is a knower in the active sense (and this happens when he is able to put his knowing to work on its own), the intellect is even then in a sense those objects in potency, but not in the same way it was before it learned and discovered them, and it is then able to think itself” (III.4, pp. 138-140).

“And it is itself intelligible in the same way its intelligible objects are, for in the case of things without material what thinks and what is thought are the same thing, for contemplative knowing and what is known in that way are the same thing (and one must consider the reason why this sort of thinking is not always happening); but among things having material, each of them is potentially something intelligible, so that there is no intellect present in them (since intellect is a potency to be such things without their material), but there is present in them something intelligible” (p. 142).

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time. This does not mean that at one time it thinks but at another time it does not think, but when separated it is just exactly what it is, and this alone is deathless and everlasting (though we have no memory, because this sort of intellect is not acted upon, while the sort that is acted upon is destructible), and without this nothing thinks” (III.5, pp. 142-143).

“Western Metaphysics”?

“Metaphysics” has historically had numerous senses, mostly rather far from the way I read the original Aristotelian context. Neoplatonic commentators and later giants like Avicenna, Aquinas, and Scotus already radically reconfigured its meaning, long before the changes associated with early modernity. Authors like Heidegger and Derrida have famously made sweeping indictments of the whole of “Western metaphysics”, based on overly homogeneous and continuist interpretations of the history of philosophy. More broadly, Plato and Aristotle are far too often blamed for views they never held. Even the medieval Latin tradition was far more diverse and interesting than common stereotypes would allow.

Aquinas and Scotus on Power

Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain (Genesis of the Sovereign God) concludes with chapters on Aquinas and Scotus. She finds that Aquinas systematically substitutes power and action for Aristotle’s less familiar and more subtle ends-oriented concepts of potentiality and act. Aquinas then distinguishes between active power and receptive or passive power, neither of which has much to do with Aristotelian potentiality.

For Aristotle, Aubry says, potentiality is an indwelling tendency of a being to be attracted toward an end. Pure act is the realization of an end (and, I would add, not itself a movement but an unmoved mover that is an attractor). For Aquinas, the receptive power of beings is the power to receive being from God. Pure act is equated with God’s creation from nothing. Aquinas strongly associates being with power; the power of God, pure Being, pure Existence, is for him an active and efficient cause, not an unmoved attractor. On my reading of Aristotle, it is only the less-than-pure acts of moved movers that are active and efficient causes; the “first” cause is an end that attracts beings.

Duns Scotus, according to Aubry, seems to have originated the modern notion of purely logical possibility. For Scotus, anything at all that is noncontradictory is possible, whereas Aristotle considered possibility more pragmatically, in relation to real-world conditions.

Scotus held that the order of the world is radically contingent, able to be reshaped by God’s will. According to Aubry, he explicitly speaks of God’s arbitrary choice, and attributes a power of arbitrary choice to the human will as well. For Aristotle, the source of contingency in the world is the potentialities of things. For Scotus, it is the absolute power of God.

Whereas Bonaventure, Aquinas, and the 14th century pope John XXII treated the “absolute” power of God as only logically distinct from the “ordained” power associated with the order of the world as we know it, and as not actually separately exercised, Scotus insisted that the absolute power of God is actually exercised. He identified the absolute power of God with a kind of pure fact, and insisted that God from eternity could choose to change the order of the world. (I’m inclined to think Abelard was right, and choice is incompatible with eternity.)

God’s choice for Scotus has no reason beyond itself. Scotus explicitly rejects the passage from Plato quoted by Abelard that everything that is has a cause or reason. Aubry says that for Scotus, the good is only good because God wills it so. This is the exact opposite of the argument of Plato, Abelard, and Leibniz that goodness comes first.

Scotus strongly emphasizes the infinity of God in contrast to the finitude of creatures; infinity for Scotus is God’s most important attribute. Moreover, God’s infinite power acts immediately in the world. This reminds me of the extreme positions on omnipotence articulated by Philo and al-Ghazali. According to Aubry, Scotus also says that a worldly prince enjoys a similar absolute power.

In passing, Aubry notes that Descartes — also a voluntarist — held that God creates eternal truths. This seems to be a somewhat Scotist position. (See also Aubry on Aristotle; Leibniz on Justice vs Power; Power of the One?; Disambiguating “Power”; Not Power and Action; Nature and Justice in Augustine; Peter Abelard; 1277; Being and Essence; Being and Representation.)

Being and Representation

In L’Être et représentation (1999), Olivier Boulnois documents the emergence of “metaphysics” in its distinctively non-Aristotelian modern sense among various 13th century authors, including Roger Bacon, Henry of Ghent, and Siger of Brabant, leading to its decisive formulation by the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus in the 14th century. Avicenna had already claimed that metaphysics is about “being in general”, whereas Aristotle himself had emphasized that “being is said in many ways”, which implies that there is no “being in general”.

Boulnois suggests that the 13th century authors just mentioned paved the way for Scotus’ innovations by already treating being as a concept. We are so used to that, that it is hard for us to grasp what Aristotle means in suggesting that “being in general” is not a proper concept at all.

Scotus argued against Aristotle that there is a unifying, logically minimal criterion of being, and it is representability. To be representable is to be “not nothing”. Unicorns and other imaginary creatures are representable, whereas Aristotle would not have called them beings. Scotus’ concept of representation seems to be purely logical; to have a representation of something is not necessarily to have understanding of it. For Scotus, God and creatures are equally representable, even though creatures, as finite, can be properly understood by the human mind and God, as infinite, cannot. Whereas Aristotle never speaks of an infinite being — only of a perfect one — Scotus’ generic concept of being is very explicitly indifferent to distinctions between finite and infinite.

It is one thing to acknowledge representation as a logical concept among others, and quite another to give it the kind of special first place status that Scotus does in his ontology, and that Locke does in his epistemology.

Boulnois says it is with Scotus that metaphysics became linked to what Kant later called ontotheology. While separating metaphysics as the account of being from theology as the separate account of God, Scotus also made God indifferently one of the objects of metaphysics, along with all the other beings. The combination of these changes actually brought metaphysics closer to revealed theology, and helped it to be perceived as the safe handmaiden of the later Latin tradition, rather than as independent philosophical theology that some found threatening.

If one speaks of a subject of representation, it could be — in a sense of “subject” closer to that of Aristotle — that in which something stands for something, or it could be — in a modern sense — the one who represents. “In the context of representation, the soul is not the content of its thought, but rather has a representation, distinct from itself” (Boulnois, op. cit., p. 152, my translation).

It seems that for both Scotus and Locke, the mind has representations. The soul in Aristotle is thoughts and feelings and capabilities, not something standing behind them. (See also Repraesentatio; Ontology; Being, Existence.)

1277

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.