Ethical Being

Previously I suggested that a modest discourse about beings is all the ontology we need.

At this level, the most distinctive thing about us talking animals is that we are what I would call ethical beings, that is to say beings with potentiality for ethical reason. With Aristotle, I identify each being with its distinctive way of being. Ethical being in the singular is just a name for the quality of being an ethical being. It also translates Hegel’s term sittliches Wesen. Hegelian spirit is actualized by the actions and ethical being of ethical beings. (See also Back to Ethical Being.)

Ricoeur on Memory: Orientation

The first part of Memory, History, Forgetting is devoted to the phenomenology of memory.  Husserl’s notion of intentionality – summarized by the dictum that all consciousness is consciousness of something, which Ricoeur here calls “object oriented” and interprets as putting the what before the who – is suggested as a starting point.  “If one wishes to avoid being stymied by a fruitless aporia, then one must hold in abeyance the question of attributing to someone… the act of remembering and begin with the question ‘What?’” (p. 3).  

He notes that Plato bequeathed to posterity an approach to memory (and also imagination) centered on talking about a kind of presence of an absent thing.  Aristotle is credited with clarifying the distinction between this kind of memory and the kind of doing involved in the effort to remember something.  “Memories, by turns found and sought, are… situated at the crossroads of pragmatics and semantics” (p. 4).  It is the pragmatics of recollection that will eventually provide an appropriate transition to the who of memory, but there will also be a difficulty with an inherent potential for a kind of abuse of active recollection, foreshadowed by Plato’s worries about the manipulative discourse of the Sophist.

It will be important to distinguish memory from imagination as having different kinds of objects, and especially to avoid a too-easy assimilation of memories to images (which he elsewhere applies to imagination as well).  Memory is supposed to be concerned with a real past, and although images do seem to play a role in our experience of memory, Ricoeur suggests it will be a secondary one.

He urges that we consider memory first from the point of view of capacities and their “happy” realization, before questions of pathology and error.  “To put it bluntly, we have nothing better than memory to signify that something has taken place” (p. 21).  He also thinks it is possible to at least “sketch a splintered, but not radically dispersed, phenomenology in which the relation to time remains the ultimate and sole guideline” (p. 22).  

There is a problem of the interconnection between preverbal experience and “the work of language that ineluctably places phenomenology on the path of interpretation, hence of hermeneutics” (p. 24).  There is also an extensive problem of the relation between action and representation.  

Memories are essentially plural, and come in varying degrees of distinctness.  We remember diverse kinds of things in diverse ways — singular events, states of affairs, abstract generalities, and facts.  We have practical know-how that closely resembles an acquired habit, and other memory that apparently has no relation to habit.  There is a contrast between memory as evocation and memory as search.  He recalls Bergson’s notion of a dynamic scheme as a kind of direction of effort for the reconstruction of something.  From Husserl, there is a distinction between retention and reproduction.  There is another polarity between reflexivity and worldliness.  From Bergson, there is another distinction between “pure memory” and a secondary “memory-image”.

Ultimately, memory involves a search for truth, an aim of faithfulness.  It will have to be shown how this is related to its practical dimension, concerned with memory’s uses and abuses.  

What Ricoeur terms the abuses of memory include the Renaissance “art of memory” celebrated by Frances Yates, which connected artificial techniques of memorization with magic and Hermetic secrets.   We will “retreat from the magic of memory in the direction of a pedagogy of memory” (p. 67).  Natural memory, too, as Nietzsche, Freud, and Marx pointed out, can be blocked, manipulated, or abusively controlled.  The phenomena associated with ideology are a part of this.  Communities attempt to obligate us to remember things in certain ways, and to forget certain things.

Ricoeur would like to avoid both the radical subjectivism of “methodological individualism” and an immediate sociological holism of a Durkheimian sort.  In this context, he again pleads for a deferral of the question of the “actual subject of the operations of memory” (p. 93).

Ricoeur on Forgiveness

The epilogue to Ricoeur’s Memory, History, Forgetting is entitled “Difficult Forgiveness” (after this I’ll return to the beginning).  Forgiveness is “an eschatology of the representation of the past.  Forgiveness – if it has a sense, and if it exists – constitutes the horizon common to memory, history, and forgetting.  Always in retreat, this horizon slips away from any grasp” (p. 457).  

Forgiveness results in “unbinding the agent from the act”.  “In order to be bound by a promise, the subject of an action must be able to be released from it through forgiveness” (p. 459).   Nonetheless, some acts are completely unjustifiable; in particular, crimes against humanity.  In these cases, “justice must be done” (p. 473).  “My thesis here is that a significant asymmetry exists between being able to forgive and being able to promise” (p. 459).   In general, we should not too easily forgive ourselves.  And “The commandment to love one’s enemies begins by breaking the rule of reciprocity and demanding the extraordinary” (p. 482).  “[F]orgiveness has a religious aura that promising does not” (p. 487).

Ricoeur recalls Jacques Derrida’s paradox that “forgiveness is directed to the unforgiveable or it does not exist” (p. 468).  He returns to the theme of “fault”, originally developed 40 years earlier in Fallible Man: “[S]elf-recognition is indivisibly action and passion, the action of acting badly and the passion of being affected by one’s own action” (p. 462).   His analyses have been “an exploration of the gap opened between the unforgivable fault and this impossible forgiveness” (p. 490).  He agrees with Derrida that “forgiving the guilty person while condemning his action, would be to forgive a subject other than the one who committed the act” (ibid).  

Still, he thinks there could be “a more radical uncoupling… at the heart of our very power to act – of agency – namely, between the effectuation and the capacity that it actualizes” (ibid).  This would be an instance of Aristotle’s distinction between actuality and potentiality.  Several times in his later works, Ricoeur pointed out the importance of actuality and potentiality in Aristotle, though he tended to assimilate potentiality to a more Platonic notion of power in the sense of “power to”.  This is what is in play in Ricoeur’s oft-expressed concern for “the capable human”.  Plato’s association of being a being with this kind of “power to” was already richly provocative, but Aristotle took the same word dynamis and gave it a much more subtle and developed meaning, which I summarized as “multiple alternative concrete possibilities of realization already implicit in current reality” (see The Importance of Potentiality).  But either way, forgiveness can be understood as a kind of trust in someone’s potentiality over against past actuality. (See also Fallible Humanity; Middle Part of the Soul.)

“For Us”

Plato greatly stressed distinctions between appearance and reality, and I think Aristotle recognized that all our apprehensions as finite talking animals are essentially perspectival. He often talks about how things are “for us”, taking into account both how we learn, and an order of explanation relevant to human life. He also points out how things are “said in many ways”, and his standard approach is dialectical.

Even though they talked about things like essence, Plato and Aristotle were both highly aware that we do not just somehow directly grasp the truth of things. Later writers — at least until Kant and Hegel — were often more dogmatic. I think this attitude of Plato and Aristotle toward human understanding embodies an Aristotelian mean that is also achieved in Hegel and Brandom’s “two-sided” view of normativity. Even more clearly, the same Aristotelian mean concerning understanding appears with new explicitness in Brandom’s admirable treatment of error.

We can be epistemically modest and avoid making overly strong claims about our actual knowledge, but still act with practical confidence, and even treat understanding of things as they are “in themselves” as a guiding aim, though this will be an ongoing task that is never fully complete, and we may encounter surprising twists along the way. Among other things it involves combining multiple perspectives, and stepping outside of our narrower selves. The aim is not to be perfect, but to be better.


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.)


“Imagination” is said in at least three major ways.  Aristotle minimalistically characterized phantasia as a production of images that both plays a role in our experience of sense perception and can operate independent of it, as in dreaming.  Spinoza treated imagination as kind of a passive belief.  For him, this was strongly associated with common illusions and wishful thinking – especially with regard to our status as agents — in ordinary life.  The Romantics identified imagination with creativity.

Beatrice Longuenesse in her marvelous Kant and the Capacity to Judge has developed in detail Kant’s argument that the same basic “categories” used in reflective thought are already implicit in our pre-reflective apprehensions of things in what Kant called a synthesis of imagination.  I think this means not that the Kantian categories have some pre-given or metaphysical status, but rather that for the kind of beings we are, even “pre-reflective” apprehensions have some dependency on previous reflective apprehensions.  We are never either entirely active or entirely passive.  (See also Passive Synthesis, Active Sense; Voluntary Action; Middle Part of the Soul.)

Richard Kearney in On Paul Ricoeur: The Owl of Minerva nicely develops Ricoeur’s view that imagination is not so much a special way of seeing as “the capacity for letting new worlds shape our understanding of ourselves…. This power would not be conveyed by images, but by the emergent meanings in our language” (quoted in Kearney, p. 35).  According to Kearney, Ricoeur associated imagination first and foremost with “semantic innovation”.  What Aristotle in a different context called “searching for a middle term” is an aspect of this creativity with respect to meaning.

The Greek root for “poetry” (poiesis) fundamentally means making or doing in a much more general sense.  The Romantics added a stress on innovation, which they saw as coming from the inner depths of the soul.  Ricoeur’s treatment of imagination as fundamentally involving the emergence of new meaning nicely takes up the Romantic stress on imagination as innovation, without depending on the Romantics’ dubious metaphysical psychology of interiority.  (See also Personhood; Reason, Nature.)

What We Really Want

Aristotle distinguished willing from unwilling actions, noting that there are mixed cases in which we do something we ordinarily would not do, in order to avoid a greater evil or to further a greater good. Hegel suggested that what we actually do is the best guide to understanding what we really want. Does this make Aristotle’s distinction meaningless? I want to say no.

It may be that Hegel would reject Aristotle’s secondary distinction between unwilling actions and mixed cases. Hegel might even say that all of Aristotle’s “willing” and “unwilling” actions are better thought of as mixed. Paul Ricoeur has somewhat similarly argued that agency always involves a combination of active and passive aspects.

Aristotle said that we should either judge mixed cases by the particulars of the relevant tradeoffs, or simply consider them as occasions calling for forgiveness. I think this is compatible with Hegel’s perspective. What we actually did in some situation is not necessarily the key to what we really wanted, full stop, but rather the key to what we really wanted under the applicable conditions. (See also Context; Rethinking Responsibility; Brandomian Forgiveness.)

Formal and Informal Language

Paul Ricoeur suggested that more formal kinds of explanation and informal understanding are related to one another by the first playing a mediating role in the second, and used this in a very nice reconciliation of Aristotelian and Kantian ethics. From the formal side, the mathematician Haskell Curry — whose work has greatly influenced the theory of programming languages — argued in the 1950s that the ultimate metalanguage for all formal languages can only be ordinary natural language. Amid the tremendously rich development of formal languages in the 20th century, this point got somewhat lost, but more recently Robert Brandom’s expansion of Wilfrid Sellars’ work on material inference has provided a detailed account of how this works. The circumscribing role of informal natural language in all formal developments is related to the great Kantian insight of the primacy of practical over theoretical reason.

Aristotelian Probability

Things Aristotle calls “probable” have nothing to with statistics. The legal notion of “probable” cause is much closer to Aristotle’s concept of probability. It refers to conclusions for which there are good reasons, but which are not expected to be established beyond reasonable doubt.

Mathematics achieves certainty and rigorous necessity through the artifice of abstracting away real-world complication and ambiguity. Whenever we are concerned with the real world as we actually experience it, whatever conclusions we reach at best follow probably rather than necessarily.

Keeping in mind the probable character of judgment in general should not prevent us from acting decisively. This kind of “probability” is all the basis we need to have well-founded practical confidence. We can have strong confidence without false pretenses of certainty.

To claim certain knowledge in these cases amounts to what Kant called dogmatism. The deep roots of American pragmatist philosophy have more to do with something like an Aristotelian emphasis on the practical sufficiency of probable judgments than with later reductive, utilitarian theories of value. (See also Aristotelian Dialectic; Dialectic Bootstraps Itself; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Demonstrative “Science”?; Kantian Discipline; Copernican.)

Multiple Explanations

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