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.)

Suarez on Agents and Action

Among the greatest of the Latin scholastics, Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) was a profoundly original and highly sophisticated theologian-philosopher who significantly influenced early modern thought, and also produced monumental summaries of several centuries of Latin scholastic argument. A full third of his gigantic Metaphysical Disputations was devoted to an extremely detailed and systematic discussion of causality. A large volume entirely dedicated to efficient causes has been translated to English, and a web search popped up several secondary discussions. My comments here will be very high-level, mostly based on those.

In this scholastic context, traditional Aristotelian terms like cause, being, and substance are all given very different explanations from the nonstandard but hopefully both more historical and more useful ones I have been giving them. Latin scholastics tended to have a somewhat neoplatonizing, substantialized notion of Aristotelian causes. A common view was that any cause must be a substantial entity of some sort, whereas causes in the common modern sense are events, and I read Aristotle himself as identifying causes with “reasons why”.

Suárez held to the view of causes as substantial entities, and apparently went on to argue that all causes give Thomistic being (esse) either to a substance or to an accident in a substance. This influx or “influence” is described as a kind of immaterial flowing of being that makes or produces, without diminishing the agent. In the case of an efficient cause, this influence occurs through action, and the substantial efficient cause is called an agent. (By contrast, in the above-linked article, which has brief additional remarks on Suárez, I quoted Aristotle saying in effect that an agent’s action is more properly an efficient cause than the agent, and that something like a technique used in an action is more properly an efficient cause than the action.)

Suárez’s metaphysical emphasis on actions producing being in things has been characterized as transitional to a modern, event-based view of causality. While Suárez himself held to the idea that causes were substantial agents, early modern mechanism indeed seems to have kept his emphasis on action but moved to an event-based view.

It seems to me to have been a historical accident that mathematical natural science arose on the basis of an event-based view. While mathematics certainly can be used to develop precise descriptions of events, any mathematical analysis relevant to this can also be construed as a “reason why” rather than a mere description. On the frontier of analytic philosophy, Brandom is again suggesting that a consideration of reasons actually circumscribes — and is necessary to underwrite — consideration of events and descriptions. This suggests a new motivation for recovering Aristotle’s original reason-based view.

Efficient Cause, Again

Yesterday, I changed my thinking about Aristotle’s “efficient cause”, making a somewhat surprising connection to the modern notion of “structural causality”. Then I had to update my account of generalized unmoved movers to add a case for an unmoved efficient cause.

Aristotle’s whole framework of “causes” (answers to “why” questions) is often misunderstood, and it is especially bad with the so-called efficient cause. A quick web search on the latter turns up mostly accounts that are just wrong. (A wonderful exception is the outstanding article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

At Physics 195b22-25, referring back to an earlier example of a man building a house that was initially said (metonymically, it turns out) to be an efficient cause, Aristotle wrote (Complete Works, Barnes edition) “In investigating the cause of each thing it is always necessary to seek what is most precise (as also in other things): thus a man builds because he is a builder, and a builder builds in virtue of his art of building. This last cause then is prior; and so generally.” So it is the art of building — not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer’s blow — that primarily “builds” the house (i.e., governs the details of the process its construction), and is properly (not just metonymically) called its efficient cause. Once again, for Aristotle it is something at the level of adverbial detail — not the coarse level of agents or action — that is most important.

Having said the other day that Foucaultian discursive regularities are a kind of efficient cause like the art of building, it occurred to me they are also a good example of structural causality, and then that one might say the same about, e.g., the art of building.

Previously, I had been thinking about the efficient cause as functioning like a sort of catalyst. This relatively modest role had led me to privately think of the efficient cause as an “accidental” cause (i.e., one not really contributing to the essence of the thing).

This was at the opposite extreme from the tendency of late scholastics like the great Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) to make efficient causes paradigmatic for causes in general, conceived in a proto-modern sense of being responsible for the fact of a thing’s being or existence rather than for the manner of its being, and as involving an “influence” from an agent rather than reasons. (In this context, ends or “final causes” were also reduced to mental intentions of a natural or supernatural agent, as al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) had done earlier, quite contrary to Aristotle’s own non-mental account. It was this mentalist reinterpretation that was the real target of Spinoza’s eloquent polemic against against teleology.) There is a nice article by Stephan Schmid on these issues in Suárez.

Anyway, an efficient cause as a point of application of structural causality clearly has a much bigger role to play in determining the detailed nature of a thing than the purely external one of a mere catalyst. (I am using the word “nature” here in a sense broader than Aristotle’s, similar to essence but particular to things that come to be, whereas Aristotle further limited it to nonartificial things, which he thought all contained at least a rudimentary internal principle of motion not shared by artificial things.) On my new account, the efficient cause also exemplifies the interweaving of Aristotelian essence with accident or contingency, due to the role of the semantic materiality as well as form of the means of realization of a nature that is its efficient cause.

This is also more conformant to the idea that all Aristotelian causes are supposed to contribute to explaining the natures of things. Ironically, my previous “catalyst” view made the efficient cause a kind of exception that looked more like the sort of cause of existence I have generally been arguing is un-Aristotelian. As a point of application of structural causality, an efficient cause now fits the general pattern of explaining natures, rather than the mere factual existence of things with natures more or less taken for granted.

Structural Causality, Choice

I now have an Aristotelian account of structural causality. It is exercised by the combined form and materiality of actually used means to desired ends, and behaves like a contextual unmoved mover. As usual with Aristotelian “causes”, this puts it in the context of an expressive semantics, rather than any mechanical metaphor. (See also What and Why.)

We choose among available means to our ends (and, I think, also among alternative derived ends, due to the interdependence of derived ends with means). Then through structural causality, each such choice brings with it a block of consequences that are not up to us. This reconciles structural causality with contingency and Kantian freedom. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Structure, Potentiality; Efficient Cause.)

(Often, ends are things we just tacitly accept, but we also have the possibility of critically examining what we have tacitly accepted, and possibly changing our commitment as a result.)

Notwithstanding Brandom’s negative comments in passing about structuralism, I think a similar account of the place of structural causality can be applied in the context of Brandomian choice and practical endorsement of commitments.

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 structural causality to coexist with 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.

Heidegger

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.

Meaning, Consciousness

I generally translate talk about consciousness into talk about meaning and related commitments. It doesn’t seem to me that anything is lost in the conversion; all the content is still there.

The notion of consciousness as a sort of generalized transparent medium of immediate presence that is somehow also tied to our sense of self and agency may seem intuitive, but it is actually the product of a long cultural development. It seems to belong to what Lacan called the Imaginary. Plato and Aristotle addressed the full range of human experience without any dependency on something like this. (See also Intentionality.)

Contradiction

Contradiction is a kind of logical judgment of error in things said. It applies when things said are either syntactically or semantically incompatible with one another. To be incompatible is to be incapable of “properly” coexisting in a single context or unity of apperception. Aristotle strongly emphasized this normative aspect of the principle of noncontradiction.

In the syntactic case, the concern is with purely formal rules for the well-formedness of expressions. A syntactic contradiction would be something like “A, and also not-A”, where either A and not-A have both been explicitly said, or both are implied by things that have been said. In this case, we need know nothing at all about the meaning of “A”. We are only concerned with generic rules for the application of logical operators like “and” and “not”.

In the semantic case, contradiction involves the specific meanings of concrete expressions, applied together to some one meant reality. Unlike the syntactic case, background knowledge is essential to judging whether or not meanings can compatibly coexist. We may also think we know the whole story when we don’t. New facts or understandings may change our generalizations and schemas of classification. (See also Interpretation; Error.)

Nothing follows from the principle of noncontradiction alone. Given some inputs, we can judge whether or not they are contradictory — by rigorous analysis in the syntactic case, and up to some level of practical confidence in the semantic case.

Hegel sometimes used the word “contradiction” in an idiosyncratic, highly metonymical or metaphorical way, straining language to the breaking point as part of a larger effort to draw out the complexities and subtleties involved in applying logic to concrete meanings and the real world, when no vocabulary existed for many of the subtleties involved. (See also Three Logical Moments.)

Some people, mainly Marxists, have talked about real-world conflict and social injustice as “contradictions” objectively existing in the world. Conflict and injustice are very real, but it is a misunderstanding of Hegelian dialectic and an inappropriate mixing of levels to associate them directly with contradiction. (See also Contradiction vs Polarity.)

Especially since the mid-20th century, many authors have pointed out common errors and issues associated with too-easy assumptions about identity. (See also Aristotelian Identity.) The Žižekian school has developed a sophisticated variant of the old talk about objective contradictions, by explaining it largely in terms of the issues with identity. If this were just a new metonymical or metaphorical usage in the style of Hegel, we could simply note that “contradiction” is being said in a nonstandard way, and move on. But unfortunately, the Žižekians have gone further, and also claimed that the logical principle of noncontradiction ultimately fails to hold, even though this logical (or illogical) claim is not necessary to address the social concerns that according to them need to be addressed, or to explain the things that according to them need to be explained. (See Split Subject, Contradiction.) We have to be very careful in moving back and forth between very different levels of analysis like this.

Just as on an interpersonal level we can reduce conflict by omitting those too-easy assumptions about identity, omitting those assumptions with respect to things said — and thus making more distinctions — also greatly reduces the potential for logical contradiction.

It is a category mistake to talk about contradiction driving events. Actual change does not result in contradiction either. Different things are true at different times, and the explanation for that is not “contradiction” but change.

Why is this important? The simple answer is that denial of the principle of noncontradiction allows someone to argue absolutely anything, including nonsensical and false things, and to sophistically respond to any refutation by simply introducing more inconsistency. This rejection of responsibility effectively ends the possibility of dialogue.

There ought to be no conflict between social criticism and the possibility of dialogue. Social criticism should be based on shareable, rational analysis. It may be unreasonable to suppose that all social issues can be resolved through dialogue (see Stubborn Refusal), but I do think all those concerned with doing something about those issues ought to be able to resolve their differences through dialogue.

I think Brandom has made an epic contribution in this area by finding a new way to simultaneously affirm — as Aristotle implicitly anticipated long ago — both the world’s recalcitrance to mastery and identity and its fundamentally rational, intelligible character. (See also Self-Evidence?)

Split Subject, Contradiction

The Žižekians, referencing Lacan, like to talk about a “split subject” that is noncoincident with itself. In broad terms, I think this is useful. What we call subjectivity is divided, and lacking in strong unity. (See also Pure Negativity?; Acts in Brandom and Žižek.) But it seems to me that if we try to speak carefully about this, we should not then go on using singular articles like “the” or “a”.

I tend to think subjectivity is not just fractured or un-whole, but also actually consists of a complex overlay of different things that we tend to blur together. In particular, it seems clear to me that a common-sense, biographical “self” whose relative unity over time is trackable by relation to the “same” physical body — or by Lockean continuity of memory — is not the same as what we might in a given moment view from a distance as an individualized ethos, or up close as a unity of apperception. This is, I believe, the same distinction that Brandom discusses in terms of sentience and sapience.

Ethos and unity of apperception, and their constituent values and conceptions — the very things that most properly say “I”, and play the functional role of an ethical “subject”, or of a subject of knowledge — are profoundly involved with language, social relations, and what Lacan in his earlier work called the Symbolic and the “Other”. These instances of sapience are pure forms whose identity can only be expressed in terms of sameness of form — nonempirical, but inseparable from a larger ethical world — and simultaneously intimate to us, but by no means strictly “ours”. (See also Self, Subject.)

Where I am still a bit torn is that I also feel that emotions — which I’ve been locating on the former, “self” side — are fundamental to subjectivity as a whole, but I have theoretically separated them from the main locus of transcendental ethical and epistemic subjectivity, even though they play an essential role in making it possible. One logical solution would be to say this just means subjectivity as a whole is more than just ethical and epistemic. Another would be to say that there is a separate kind of emotional subjectivity. I’m not entirely satisfied yet, because I think feeling combines these, but the noncoincidence of our factual selves with our ethical and epistemic being seems very important in understanding how we overcome empirical limitations.

The Žižekians will perhaps remind us that they were not talking about a split between self and subject, but about a split within the subject. I think we habitually overstate the degree of unity and identity we attribute to selves, subjects, and things in general, so I’m fine with that, too. They also want to expand this into a general “ontological” point, which I see as a semantic point.

Perhaps the Žižekians are more comfortable talking about “a” or “the” subject in part due to their doctrine of the ubiquity of contradiction. Todd McGowan in Emancipation After Hegel (2019) nicely distinguishes the Žižekian notion from the old confusion between contradiction and conflict or polarity — and from immediate self-contradiction — but still wants to maintain that the standard logical law of noncontradiction ultimately “refutes itself”, and that Hegel thought this as well. This argument combines a laudable awareness of some of the practical issues with identity, with a logically invalid use of the distinction between explicit and implicit self-contradiction.

Hegel meditated profoundly on the difficulties of applying logic to meaningful content and to real life. He strained language to the breaking point trying to express his conclusions.

On the frontiers of mathematical logic today, the so-called law of identity has been replaced by a requirement to specify identity criteria for each formally defined type, and identity in general has been weakened to isomorphism. (See also Form as a Unique Thing.)

Real-world applications of strong identity typically involve loose “extensional” reference to things assumed to be the same, and a lot of forgetting. The linchpin of old “identity thinking” was inattention to difficulties of formalization from ordinary language — basically an illegitimate moving back and forth between formal and informal domains, resulting in lots of homogenizing confusion of things that ought to be distinct. Weaker, “intensional” assertions about identity as specifiable sameness of form make it the exception rather than the rule. What come first conceptually are distinctions within the manifold, not pre-synthesized things already possessed of identity. Where things are not the same to begin with, contradiction — far from being omnipresent — is not even potentially at issue. (See also Self-Evidence?)

Meanwhile, Sellars and Brandom have revived material inference about meant realities in contrast to formal logic, which deals with purely syntactic relations between presumed extensional “things” with presumed identity. Things Kant and Hegel said about Understanding and Reason can be nicely understood in terms of the relation between syntactic inference about symbolic terms standing for formless extensional “things” and substantive, material inference about the actual form of meant realities. Especially in the reading of Hegel, not having the resource of this distinction available now seems positively crippling.

Finally, Aristotle, who originated the law of noncontradiction as a kind of ethical imperative, and stands in the background to all of Hegel’s discussions of logic, was himself rather cautious and tentative about applying identity to real things, and in his logic was also mainly concerned with (composition of) material inferences, which have more to do with the actual form of things .

Hegel never violated Aristotle’s imperative not to say opposite things about the same thing said in the same way. What he did was to constantly point out the gap between reality and traditional semi-formal logic applied to ordinary language — not to encourage us to reject logic, but rather to refine and sublimate it. (See also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic.)

Brandomian Choice

Aristotle had a reasonable, noninflationary concept of real choice. Choice is up to us, but it is far from arbitrary. Unfortunately, later treatments have largely oscillated between extremes of voluntarism and determinism, making choice either arbitrary or only an unreal appearance.

One of Brandom’s great contributions to ethics is a new account of choice that is reasonable and noninflationary like Aristotle’s. Aristotle developed a notion of real but nonarbitrary choice by defining it as the result of an open deliberation subject to normative standards of inquiry. Brandom reaches a complementary conclusion following a different path. The core of it is a combination of two theses. First, there is a view he associates with the Enlightenment that makes values binding on us only when we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them. This secures the practical reality of choice, without any ontological assumptions. Second, there is Brandom’s own view that the meaning of the values we endorse is not up to us, but depends on articulation in the space of reasons. As with Aristotle’s notion of deliberation, this establishes the nonarbitrary nature of choice. (See also Intentionality; Self, Subject; Fragility of the Good; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)