Parmenides

The late 6th or early 5th century BCE poet Parmenides of Elea was commonly regarded in the Greek tradition as a philosopher. Apparently his only work was a poem of 800 or so verses in epic hexameter form, of which about 160 are known from quotations in later authors, principally the commentary by the neoplatonist Simplicius on Aristotle’s Physics.

Parmenides may have been the first person to make strong claims purportedly grounded in nothing but pure reason. At the same time, he drew a sharp distinction between appearance and reality. He achieved notoriety among his fellow Greeks because his claims contradicted all experience. His disciple Zeno used Parmenidean principles to “prove” that arrows cannot fly, and that the speedy Achilles could never overtake a tortoise that had a head start.

According to Parmenides, we can “neither know, or attain to, or express, non-being”. He concluded from this that all distinction, becoming, and motion were mere appearances of “the way of error in which the ignorant and double-minded mortals wander. Perplexity of mind sways the erring sense. Those who believe Being and non-being to be the same, and then again not the same, are like deaf and blind men surprised, like hordes confusedly driven”.

“But the truth is only the ‘is’; this is neither begotten of anything else, nor transient, entire, alone in its class, unmoved and without end; it neither was, nor will be, but is at once the all. For what birth wouldst thou seek for it? How and whence should it be augmented? That it should be from that which is not, I shall allow thee neither to say nor to think, for neither can it be said or thought that the ‘is’ is not. What necessity had either later or earlier made it begin from the nothing? Thus must it throughout only be or not be; nor will any force of conviction ever make something else arise out of that which is not. Thus origination has disappeared, and decease is incredible. Being is not separable, for it is entirely like itself; it is nowhere more, else would it not hold together, nor is it less, for everything is full of Being. The all is one coherent whole, for Being flows into unison with Being: it is unchangeable and rests securely in itself; the force of necessity holds it within the bounds of limitation. It cannot hence be said that it is imperfect; for it is without defect, while non-existence is wanting in all” (quoted in Hegel, History of Philosophy vol. 1, Haldane trans., pp. 252-253).

Plato treats Parmenides with considerable respect, but fundamentally rejects his blunt teaching about being and non-being, replacing it with far subtler views, e.g., in The Sophist.

Aristotle says that Plato (and the atomist Democritus, whose writings are lost) were the first practitioners of extended philosophical argument, and I consider that the true beginning of philosophy; it seems to me Parmenides only made assertions and claimed they were grounded in pure reason. In his poem, the key claims are presented as revelations from a goddess. Much later, Kant would argue that nothing follows from pure reason alone.

According to Hegel’s History of Philosophy lectures, “This beginning is certainly still dim and indefinite, and we cannot say much of what it involves; but to take up this position certainly is to develop Philosophy proper, which has not hitherto existed”. Hegel says Spinoza tells us correctly that all determination is based on negation, but “Parmenides says, whatever form the negation may take, it does not exist at all” (p. 254). Spinoza scholars have criticized the claim about Spinoza, but in this context that is a side issue.

Hegel’s association of Parmenides with the beginning of philosophy needs to be understood in terms of his insistence on the inherent defectiveness of beginnings and the positive, provocative role of failures of thought. In differing degrees, Hegel also actually recognizes two other beginnings of philosophy as well — in the figurative thought of the world’s various religious traditions before Parmenides (who appears only halfway through volume 1 of Hegel’s History), and in the dialogues of Plato, with whom Hegel’s second volume begins. For Hegel, Parmenides’ bare thought of Being and denial of the basis of all determination represent an absolute failure of thought and an impossibility, but he nonetheless credits that failure and impossibility as having defined a problem that provoked all later development.

I consider it quite possible that Aristotle’s brief remarks about “being qua being” in two books of the Metaphysics were a kind of response to the Parmenidean problem. Traditionally, this has been claimed to be the subject matter of the Metaphysics, but both times Aristotle raises the problem explicitly, his discussion is limited to arguing for the moral necessity of the principle of noncontradiction, against the Sophists. In effect, he says that serious people must by definition take their commitments seriously, and therefore they do not contradict their own commitments.

Noncontradiction has a great importance for integrity in ethics, which was to be taken up anew by Kant and Hegel, with their emphasis on unity of apperception. But as Hegel points out explicitly in the Logic, pure being by itself is logically empty and sterile. In first philosophy, nothing follows from being qua being. (See also Hegel on Being.)

Zambrana on Actualization

Building on the interpretations of Pipppin and Brandom, Rocío Zambrana in Hegel’s Theory of Intelligibility (2015) argues that Hegel’s logic is based around the same notion of actualization that orients his ethics, and that actualization is none other than Hegel’s reformulation of Kantian synthesis. This is a fascinating complement to my previous focus on the Aristotelian background of Hegelian actualization. She argues that the main significance of the theory of the “absolute” idea in the Science of Logic is to make intelligibility a function of normativity.

She begins, “To be is to be intelligible, according to Hegel” (p. 3). Plato and Aristotle would concur.

Zambrana agrees with Pippin that Hegel defends the complete autonomy of reason, thus radicalizing Kant’s critical project. “For Kant, the sensible given and the postulates of practical reason (freedom, God, the immortality of the soul) are touchstones of knowledge, morality, faith. For Hegel, the only legitimate touchstone of a thoroughgoing critical philosophy is reason itself” (p. 4).

She suggests that intelligibility and normativity for Hegel are a matter of binding between ideality and reality that is always subject to renegotiation.

“In the Logic, Hegel pursues an immanent critique of classical ontology, philosophies of reflection, and transcendental idealism that allows him to elaborate his distinctive view of determinacy as a matter of the dialectical relation between ideality and reality” (p. 6).

“In what is perhaps the most puzzling passage of the Logic, Hegel describes the absolute idea as personality (Persönlichkeit). While puzzling, this passage is not mystifying. It is in fact key. It helps us specify the status of the absolute idea as the concept that elaborates the view that intelligibility is a matter of normative authority. It indicates that binding is the structure of intelligibility” (pp. 5-6; see also Substance and Subject).

“Hegel argues that form is nothing but negation(ibid).

That form is negation for Hegel seems clear. But I constantly struggle to clarify the real meaning of negation in Hegel. For sure, it is not classical negation. But what exactly is it? To me, many of Hegel’s usages of negation and related terms seem metaphorical. Ordinarily, people use concrete metaphors to circuitously express more abstract things, but Hegel often uses the extreme abstraction of negation or negativity as a metaphor for various more concrete things or conditions. Negativity in Hegel therefore doesn’t seem to me to have a single fixed meaning. This ought not to be surprising, given Hegel’s strong opposition to single fixed meanings in general.

I sometimes think Hegel goes too far in this direction. Good definitions retain value for clarity of thought, even if they are always provisional and context-bounded. Hegel himself seems to recognize something like this when he emphasizes that understanding, despite its limitations, plays an essential role. I prefer Aristotle’s style of approaching things as “said in many ways” — where each of the ways is potentially definable, but there may be real question which is applicable in any given case — over unspecified generalized fluidity.

“Negation is necessarily a negation of something — whether a logical category, a philosophical position, a historically specific identity or institution. Form thus requires content in order to be negation. The central claim of Hegel’s theory of determinacy, then, concerns the negativity of form and the necessity of content” (ibid).

I am also very sympathetic to the importance of content, but a bit in doubt about the argument that negation in and of itself straightforwardly requires content to which it is applied. That would be true for negation in a formal sense that is not Hegel’s, but Hegel does not put much stock in fixed definitions, and he often speaks of a pure negativity that doesn’t seem to depend on anything else or refer to anything external to it. This I take to be part of what he calls the “inverted” perspective of otherness.

“Negativity is the inner determination of the way in which intelligibility is articulated within practices and institutions” (p. 7).

“Inner determination” here would be the purely “logical” aspect, as distinct from the social and historical.

“[N]egativity calls into question the assumption that the content of any normative commitment retains authority or stability within a historically specific form of life…. [Concrete forms of intelligibility] are subject not only to reversals of meanings and effects but also to coextensive positive and negative meanings and effects. For these reasons, no determination can be understood as final or fully stable” (ibid).

She seems to think this latter point is implicit but insufficiently emphasized in the readings of Pippin and Brandom. I think they already make it explicit. How much relative emphasis to give to determination versus fluidity is a delicate matter subject to considerations of context.

“[T]he key to Hegel’s idealism and its emphasis on negativity is his treatment of the Kantian problem of synthesis” (p. 12).

“Hegel follows Fichte’s reading of Kantian autonomy [as positing], yet he stresses that positing is a matter of actualization, which he understands in terms of normative authority. The activity of reason is a matter of distinction-making” (p. 37).

Provocatively, she suggests that Hegel makes a three-way identification of reason, imagination, and synthesis.

“Recall that Hegel suggests [in his early work Faith and Knowledge] that the transcendental unity of apperception and the figurative synthesis are one and the same synthetic unity. Hegel calls this one and the same synthetic unity ‘reason’. In fact, he argues that ‘the imagination is nothing but reason itself’…. Reason for Hegel, I want to suggest, is neither an epistemic faculty nor an ontological principle. It is the work of synthesis” (p. 40).

My instinct is still to distinguish reason from imagination, thinking of reasoning as mainly conscious and deliberate and imagination as mainly pre-conscious. Similarly, I am doubtful about early Hegel’s identification of Kantian unity of apperception and figurative synthesis. Both are forms of synthesis, but following Brandom I take the unity of apperception to be a kind of moral imperative, whereas I take the figurative synthesis of imagination to be something that happens pre-consciously. This seems like an important difference.

That the activity of reason in general is one of synthesis, however, is an excellent point.

“A totality of relations of negation is gathered together by inferential patterns that thereby institute a concrete determination of reason. Reason can thus be thought of as concrete forms, figures, or shapes of rationality articulated by a process of actualization” (ibid).

“A logic of actualization indicates that intelligibility is not only historically specific but also precarious and ambivalent” (p. 41).

She points out that for Kant, an individual concept is not itself a product of synthesis, whereas for Hegel it is.

“That a thing, event, idea is always already outside of itself… is not to the detriment of the thing. Rather, it is the thing’s way of becoming what it is” (p. 42).

She recognizes that Hegel’s teleology is Aristotelian rather than “classical” in form, and that teleology for both Aristotle and Hegel is inherently subject to contingency in its actualization. In neither Aristotle nor Hegel is the working out of teleology underwritten by an omnipotent power.

“Hegel does not articulate reason’s purposiveness in terms of a goal that is unambiguously realized, thereby affirming a classical teleology of reason. Hegel argues that reason is purposive ‘in the sense in which Aristotle also determines nature as purposive activity'” (ibid).

She recognizes that the import of Hegel’s famous “substance is also subject” is not an assertion of some cosmic mind, but rather is intended at a much more elemental level.

“The ‘tremendous power of the negative’ is accordingly the capacity of things to unfold in and through conditions that exceed them…. The actualization of reason is the subjectivity of things themselves” (p. 43).

The “subjectivity of things themselves” testifies that we have here moved beyond the opposition of subject and object that Hegel attributes to ordinary consciousness.

“Establishing the objectivity of subjectivity requires action (Handeln)…. Hegel’s appeal to action introduces the thought that Kant’s signature problem of objectivity is in effect a problem of normative authority” (p. 118; see also Hegel on Willing).

I would prefer to say activity rather than action, but in this context that is a nuance.

Foreshadowing the Concept

This will conclude my walk-through of the Preface to Hegel’s Phenomenology. Here he gives an explicit anticipation of what he calls “the concept”, which will be a key term in the Phenomenology‘s successor work, the Science of Logic. Along with “idea”, “concept” for Hegel represents something that is already beyond the naive opposition of subject and object.

If we imagine the naive view of subject and object as a pair of distinct points, a preliminary analogy for Hegelian concept and idea would be a line between the subject and object points. This can be understood as including all the meaningful content of experience, and can be taken as close as you like to either or both endpoints, but does not include either endpoint. Then the inversion of point of view that Hegel speaks of between ordinary consciousness and the standpoint of his logic would correspond to the relation between seeing experience in terms of the static duality of subject and object, and seeing it in terms of “living” concept and idea.

He begins this part with some remarks about mathematics that are overall very negative-sounding. This is setting up for a contrast between mathematics as the paradigm of static “formal” reasoning, and the meaning-oriented, becoming-oriented “dialectical” reasoning he wants to promote. To put the negative remarks in proper perspective, it is worth knowing that he will devote nearly 200 pages in the early part of the Science of Logic to a serious and sympathetic discussion of mathematics that shows good familiarity with the leading mathematical writers of his day.

“As for mathematical truths, one would hardly count as a geometer if one only knew Euclid’s theorems by heart without knowing the proofs” (p. 25).

Here he repeats the important point that knowledge does not consist in bare conclusions or propositions.

However, I think he goes astray when adds that really, “The movement of mathematical proof does not belong to the object but is a doing that is external to the item at hand” (ibid). I would say almost the opposite: the appearance of externality between theorem and proof — the idea that theorems have a status of simple truth independent of their proofs — reflects the very same kind of error that he pointed out before in the separation of results from the development that produced them.

It is true that a mathematical proof viewed as an object does not consist in the kind of becoming of knowing that Hegel attributes to good philosophical thinking. To mix terminology from computer science and Aristotle, mathematical proofs are in principle “statically” evaluable; this means they do not depend on any runtime accidents. In Platonic terms, mathematical objects are “eternal”, and proof is a kind of strict unfolding of their essence that we can imagine after the fact to have been predetermined, even though we don’t see the full predetermination in advance.

Earlier in the Preface, Hegel has argued that in the genuine becoming of knowing, “accidents” play an essential role, just as I would say they do in any actual working out of Aristotelian teleology. The means is not irrelevant to the end to the extent that we care about the end’s actualization. Like Aristotle, Hegel treats the process of actualization as primary.

Thus he is right that the becoming of knowing that philosophy ought to aim at does not — and ought not to — follow the canons of mathematical proof. In philosophy, we learn as much from our mistakes as from our successes, but errors in mathematics do not present the same kind of opportunities for improving our wisdom. Mathematics is not philosophy but something else. It is not “conceptual” in Hegel’s sense that involves a kind of “life” and “self-movement” of the concept.

However, he goes on to say that “In mathematical cognition, insight is an external doing vis-à-vis the item at issue” (p. 26, emphasis added). I don’t find this to be true today, and think it was, if anything, further from true in Hegel’s day.

Surely the maximal externalization of human insight from proof would be today’s computer-based proofs. While it is now possible to produce purely symbolic proofs whose validity depends only on the syntactic rules of a functional programming language, and sometimes even to produce proofs in a fully automated way, the really big successes of computer-based mathematical proof in recent decades have involved automated proof checkers that eschew fully automated proof development in favor of “dialogue” with an insightful human. At least in the current and foreseeable state of the art, human insight is not at all external to the development of mathematical proofs, even though the checking of completed or partial proofs for errors can be fully automated.

I say that mathematics is not philosophy, but its practice is far from being the mindlessly formal “defective cognition” he makes it out to be here in the Preface. Mathematical objects including completed proofs are static, but I say that the doing of mathematics essentially involves the activity of human intelligence.

“[W]hat is formal in mathematical convincingness consists in this — that knowing advances along the line of equality. Precisely because it does not move itself, what is lifeless does not make it all the way to the differences of essence…. For it is magnitude alone, the inessential difference, that mathematics deals with” (p. 27).

Mathematics only deals with things that are in principle strictly univocal. Strictly univocal things lack “life” for Hegel, and are therefore inessential.

“In contrast, philosophy does not study inessential determinations but only those that are essential. The abstract or the non-actual is not its element and content; rather, its element and content is the actual, what is self-positing, what is alive within itself, or existence in its concept. It is the process which creates its own moments and passes through them all; it is the whole movement that constitutes the positive and its truth. This movement just as much includes within itself the negative ” (p. 28).

Philosophy for Hegel is especially concerned with actuality, and as with Aristotle, what is actual is not simply to be identified with what is factual.

“Appearance is both an emergence and a passing away which does not itself emerge and pass away… which constitutes the actuality and the living moment of truth…. Judged in the court of that movement, the individual shapes of spirit do not stably exist any more than do determinate thoughts, but they are also equally positive, necessary moments just as much as they are negative, disappearing moments” (pp. 28-29).

Here he is using “appearance” in a very different way from what Plato called mere appearance. It seems to be something like the concrete manifestation that is necessarily implicit in actuality.

“In the whole of the movement… what distinguishes itself in it and what gives itself existence is preserved as the kind that remembers, as that whose existence is its knowing of itself” (p. 29).

Previously, he said that the true is the whole. In this movement of self-knowing, which is quite different from being an object for oneself, the subject and object that are quite distinct for ordinary consciousness become interwoven.

“It might seem necessary to state at the outset the principal points concerning the method of this movement…. However, its concept lies in what has already been said, and its genuine exposition belongs to logic, or is instead even logic itself, for the method is nothing but the structure of the whole in its pure essentiality” (ibid).

The entry point for what Hegel calls “logic” is what I have glossed as being at home in otherness. For Hegel, logic is not about formal manipulations. It is a very non-ordinary way of looking at things that leaves distinctions of subject and object behind. The Phenomenology is supposed to provide a way into this perspective, starting out from what Aristotle would call the way things (ordinarily) are “for us” (see Otherness; At Home in Otherness).

“In everyday life, consciousness has for its content little bits of knowledge, experiences, sensuous concretions, as well as thoughts, principles, and, in general, it it has its content in whatever is present, or in what counts as a fixed, stable entity or essence…. [I]t conducts itself as if it were an external determining and manipulation of that content” (p. 30).

Ordinary consciousness regards things in the world as fixed, pre-known, and manipulable. It regards itself as somehow standing off to the side from the order of the world, and implicitly as able to act in complete independence from that order. It is “Cartesian”. The weakness of this point of view is progressively exhibited in the Phenomenology.

“Science may organize itself only through the proper life of the concept…. [D]eterminateness… is in science the self-moving soul of the content which has been brought to fulfillment. On the one hand, the movement of ‘what is’ consists in becoming an other to itself and thus in coming to be its own immanent content; on the other hand, it takes this unfolding back into itself, or it takes its existence back into itself, which is to say, it makes itself into a moment, and it simplifies itself into determinateness” (p. 33).

Hegelian rational “science”, sustained in otherness, examines a movement of “logical” unfolding and return that (unlike the unfolding and return in neoplatonism) occurs not in eternity but in worldly coming-to-be. The fact that the return occurs in becoming and in time gives it the form not of a simple circle but of an open-ended spiral that never literally returns to its origin.

“[S]cientific cognition requires… that it give itself over to the life of the object” (ibid, emphasis added).

In the main body of the Phenomenology, the Consciousness chapter shows the limitations of the ordinary view that we are wholly separate from the object, and the Self-Consciousness chapter develops a sharp critique of the attitude of the master who attempts to claim unilateral control over both objects and other people.

“[T]he stable being of existence… is itself its own inequality with itself and its own dissolution — its own inwardness and withdrawal into itself — its coming-to-be. — Since this is the nature of what exists, and to the extent that what exists has this nature for knowing, this knowing is not an activity which treats the content as alien. It is not a reflective turn into itself out of the content… [W]hile knowing sees the content return into its own inwardness, its activity is instead sunken into that content, for the activity is the immanent self of the content as having at the same time returned into itself, since this activity is pure self-equality in otherness” (p. 34).

Here we have a direct statement about what overcoming alienation ought to look like.

“Its determinateness at first seems to be only through its relating itself to an other, and its movement seems imposed on it by an alien power. However, … it has its otherness in itself…, for this is the self-moving and self-distinguishing thought, the thought which is its own inwardness, which is the pure concept. In that way, the intelligibility of the understanding is a coming-to-be, and as this coming-to-be, it is rationality” (p. 35).

Overcoming alienation is anything but the suppression of what is other. Neither is it a return to an original perfection. Rather, it consists in a non-ordinary sense of self that is not opposed to the other or to the field of otherness.

Logical necessity in general consists in the nature of what it is [for something] to be its concept in its being. This alone is the rational, the rhythm of the organic whole, and it is just as much the knowing of the content as that content itself is the concept and the essence…. The concrete shape which sets itself into movement… is only this movement, and [its concrete existence] is immediately logical existence. It is therefore unnecessary to apply externally a formalism to the concrete content. That content is in its own self a transition into this formalism, but it ceases to be the latter external formalism because the form is the indigenous coming-to-be of the concrete content itself” (ibid).

In emphasizing the contentfulness of the concept rather than formal syntax as the true driver of logical necessity, he seems to be talking about something like what Sellars and Brandom call material inference.

“Although what is stated here expresses the concept, it cannot count as more than an anticipatory affirmation. Its truth does not lie in this narrative exposition” (p. 36, emphasis added).

Truth, once again, must lie in an extensive development that is never truly finished by us humans. This remark could reasonably apply to the whole Preface, but I am struck by the reference to the concept and by the place in which it occurs, just after an explicit reference to logic. Here he is looking forward not only to the main body of the Phenomenology, but even more so to what will become the Science of Logic.

He goes on to criticize “clever argumentative thinking” at length, and to contrast it with “comprehending thinking”.

“[C]lever argumentation amounts to freedom from content and to the vanity that stands above all content” (p. 36).

By Hegel’s high standards, any argument that assumes meanings are determined in advance at least tends toward the vanity and irresponsibility of what Plato and Aristotle denounced as sophistry.

Hegel wants to recommend instead that “This vanity is expected to give up this freedom, and, instead of being the arbitrary principle moving the content, it is supposed to let this freedom descend into the content and move itself by its own nature…. This refusal both to insert one’s own views into the immanent rhythm of the concept and to interfere arbitrarily with that rhythm by means of wisdom acquired elsewhere, or this abstinence, are all themselves an essential moment of attentiveness to the concept” (pp. 36-37).

Moreover, what plays the role of the subject of thought is not at all the same for comprehending thinking as it is for clever argumentation.

“[C]lever argumentative thinking is itself the self into which the content returns, and so too, the self in its positive cognition is a represented subject to which the content is related as accident or predicate. This subject constitutes the basis in which the content is bound and on the basis of which the movement runs back and forth” (p. 37).

He continues, “Comprehending thinking conducts itself in quite a different way. While the concept is the object’s own self, or the self which exhibits itself as the object’s coming-to-be, it is not a motionless subject tranquilly supporting the accidents; rather, it is the self-moving concept which takes its determinations back into itself. In this movement, the motionless subject itself breaks down; it enters into the differences and the content and constitutes the determinateness, which is to say, the distinguished content as well as the content’s movement, instead of continuing simply to confront that movement” (pp. 37-38).

Comprehending thinking “enters into the differences and the content”.

“[T]here is an obstacle based in the habit of grasping the speculative predicate according to the form of a proposition instead of grasping it as concept and essence” (p. 41).”

The form of a proposition is simply to be true or false. He may also have in mind the form of predication. Grasping something as concept and essence is treating it as articulable meaning to be interpreted, rather than as a mere thing to be pointed at.

“True thoughts and scientific insight can be won only by the labor of the concept. Concepts alone can produce the universality of knowing” (p. 44).

Aristotle on Explanation

Book 1 chapter 1 of Parts of Animals provides an overview of Aristotle’s perspective on explanation in general. It is a nice synthetic text that brings together many of Aristotle’s core concerns, and shows his vision of how natural science ought to fit in with broader philosophy.

He begins by distinguishing between mere acquaintance with an area of study and being educated in it. “For an educated [person] should be able to form a fair judgment as to the goodness or badness of an exposition” (Complete Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 994). This seems to apply to any subject whatsoever.

Next he raises the more specific question of method. “It is plain then that, in the science which inquires into nature, there must be certain canons, by reference to which a hearer shall be able to criticize the method of a professed exposition, quite independently of the question whether the statements made be true or false” (ibid).

Continuing to emphasize the critical thinking that is the mark of an educated person, he makes it explicit that some of the most important questions about a subject are what I would call second-order questions, having to do with how we ought to approach the matter at hand. The educated person will give due emphasis to these, rather than naively rushing to deliver judgments on questions of fact.

“Ought we, for example (to give an illustration of what I mean) to begin by discussing each separate substance — man, lion, ox, and the like — taking each kind in hand independently of the rest, or ought we rather to lay down the attributes which they have in common in virtue of some common element of their nature? For genera that are quite distinct present many identical phenomena, sleep, for instance, respiration, growth, decay, death, and other similar affections and conditions…. Now it is plain that if we deal with each species independently of the rest, we shall frequently be obliged to repeat ourselves over and over again; for horse and dog and man present every one of the phenomena just enumerated” (ibid).

The educated person looks for explanations, not just facts or correspondences. The specific “dogginess” of a dog, for example, does not explain its sleeping, breathing, and so on. Instead these activities, which it shares with many other animals, are explained by natures common to all of them.

Further, the kind of method Aristotle commends to us is not a matter of following recipes by rote. Instead, it is a thinking approach that involves persistently following the thread of explanations wherever it leads.

“So also there is a like uncertainty as to another point now to be mentioned. Ought the student of nature follow the plan adopted by the mathematicians in their astronomical demonstrations, and after considering the phenomena presented by animals, and their several parts, proceed subsequently to treat of the causes and the reason why; or ought he to follow some other method? Furthermore, the causes concerned in natural generation are, as we see, more than one. There is the cause for the sake of which, and the cause whence the beginning of motion comes. Now we must decide which of these two causes comes first, which second. Plainly, however, that cause is the first which we call that for the sake of which. For this is the account of the thing, and the account forms the starting-point, alike in the works of art and in works of nature. For the doctor and the builder define health or house, either by the intellect or by perception, and then proceed to give the accounts and the causes of each of the things they do and of why they should do it thus” (p. 995).

He raises the question of which kind of cause comes first, because he wants to suggest a different answer from that of the pre-Socratic “physicists” who attempted to explain everything by properties of different kinds of matter. Elsewhere he says that Plato and the atomist Democritus (whose writings are lost) did better than others at following the thread of explanation, but he considers the elaborated account of ends or “that for the sake of which” to be one of his own most important contributions.

Notably he only mentions two kinds of cause here, rather than the classic four. Similarly, there are passages in other texts where he lists a different number of categories than the canonical ten from the Categories. Later authors often viewed things like causes and categories in a reified, univocal way, as susceptible to exact enumeration. But for Aristotle, these are abstractions from a concrete reality that comes first, to be wielded in a context-sensitive way, so the canonical enumerations are not absolute.

Aristotle’s understanding of the “beginning of motion” is different from that promoted by early modern physics. Conventionally in the reading of Aristotle, the “beginning of motion” is associated with the efficient cause, and these two terms are understood in a somewhat circular way, which is really informed by some broadly intuitive sense of what a “beginning” of motion is. Early modern writers assumed that this “beginning” must be some kind of immediate impulse or force. Aquinas associated it with God’s act of creation and with the free acts of created beings. For Aristotle himself it is neither of these.

My best reading of efficient cause is that it is the means by which an end is realized. In many cases the end is realized not by just one means but by a hierarchy of means (e.g., art of building, carpenter, carpenter’s hammer, hammer’s blow). Aristotle and the scholastics emphasized the top of such hierarchies (e.g., the art of building for Aristotle; God or some metaphysical principle for the scholastics), whereas the early moderns emphasized the bottom (e.g., the hammer’s blow), akin to the proximate cause of concern to liability lawyers. For Aristotle, the art of building and not the hammer’s blow is the true “beginning” of the motion of house construction, because it provides the guiding thread of explanation for the whole process of building the house. But even the art of building is still just a means that gets its meaning from the reasons why we would want to build a house in the first place.

He continues, “Now in the works of nature the good and that for the sake of which is still more dominant than in works of art, nor is necessity a factor with the same significance in them all; though almost all writers try to refer their accounts to this, failing to distinguish the several ways in which necessity is spoken of. For there is absolute necessity, manifested in eternal phenomena; and there is hypothetical necessity, manifested in everything that is generated as in everything that is produced by art, be it a house or what it may. For if a house or other such final object is to be realized, it is necessary that first this and then that shall be produced and set in motion, and so on in continuous succession, until the end is reached, for the sake of which each prior thing is produced and exists. So also is it with the productions of nature. The mode of necessity, however, and the mode of demonstration are different in natural science from what they are in the theoretical sciences [e.g., mathematics]…. For in the latter the starting-point is that which is; in the former that which is to be. For since health, or a man, is of such and such a character, it is necessary for this or that to exist or be produced; it is not the case that, since this or that exists or has been produced, that of necessity exists or will exist. Nor is it possible to trace back the necessity of demonstrations of this sort to a starting-point, of which you can say that, since this exists, that exists [as one might do in mathematics]” (ibid).

In Aristotle’s usage, “nature” applies to terrestrial things that are observably subject to generation and corruption. He earlier referred to astronomical phenomena like the apparent motions of the stars and planets as “eternal” because on a human scale of time, these are not observably subject to generation and corruption. For Aristotle, absolute necessity could only apply to things that are absolutely unchanging. We may have a different perspective on astronomy, but that does not affect the logical distinction Aristotle is making. His key point here is that things subject to generation are not subject to absolute necessity. Leibniz took this a step further and argued that hypothetical necessity is the only kind there is. Kant, in arguing that hypothetical and disjunctive judgment (“if A then B” and “not both A and B“) are more fundamental than categorical judgment (“A is B“), made a related move.

Hypothetical necessity has a particular form that is worth noting. As Aristotle points out in the quote above, under hypothetical necessity “it is not the case that, since this or that exists or has been produced, that of necessity exists or will exist”. To give a positive example, hypothetical necessity says that to continue living, we must eat. But it does not in any way dictate a particular series of motions that is the only way this can be accomplished, let alone the whole series of eating-related actions throughout one’s life. Neither does it dictate that we will eat in any particular instance.

How we meet a particular need is up to us. The reality of this flexibility built into nature is all we need to explain freedom of action. Humans can also affirmatively embrace commitments and act on them; that too is up to us. Freedom is not an arbitrary or supernatural power; it simply consists in the fact that nature is flexible, and many things are up to us.

Aristotle contrasts the way a thing is naturally generated with the way it is. “The best course appears to be that we follow the method already mentioned — begin with the phenomena presented by each group of animals, and, when this is done, proceed afterwards to state the causes of those phenomena — in the case of generation too. For in house building too, these things come about because the form of the house is such and such, rather than its being the case that the house is such and such because it comes about thus…. Art indeed consists in the account of the product without its matter. So too with chance products; for they are produced in the same way as products of art” (pp. 995-996).

“The fittest mode, then, of treatment is to say, a man has such and such parts, because the essence of man is such and such, and because they are necessarily conditions of his existence, or, if we cannot quite say this then the next thing to it, namely, that it is either quite impossible for a man to exist without them, or, at any rate, that it is good that they should be there. And this follows: because man is such and such the process of his development is necessarily such as it is; and therefore this part is formed first, that next; and after a like fashion should we explain the generation of all other works of nature” (p. 996).

This way of reasoning backwards from an essence to its prerequisites is complemented by the fact that for Aristotle (and Plato) essences themselves are a prime subject of investigation, and not something assumed. “Begin with the phenomena”, he says.

Many 20th century philosophers have objected to presumptuous talk about the “essence of man”, and to any explanation in terms of essence. But these objections presuppose that the essence is something assumed, rather than being an object of investigation as it clearly was for Plato and Aristotle. Here also it is needful to distinguish between what we might call the distinguishing essence of humanity used to pick out humans — e.g., “rational/talking animal” — and what Leibniz later called the complete essence of each individual. Clearly also, the parts of the human body do not follow directly from “rational/talking animal”, but from many other attributes “presented in the phenomena”. It turns out that humans share these attributes with other animals, and they can therefore be conceptualized as attributes of common genera to which we and those other animals belong.

Because essences themselves are a prime subject of investigation and are ultimately inferred from phenomena, the kind of teleological reasoning Aristotle recommends always has a contingent character, which is how it naturally accounts for what the moderns call freedom. This contingency is built into in the “hypothetical” character of hypothetical necessity.

“Does, then, configuration and color constitute the essence of the various animals and their several parts? For if so, what Democritus says will be correct…. And yet a dead body has exactly the same configuration as a living one; but for all that it is not a man. So also no hand of bronze or wood or constituted in any but the appropriate way can possibly be a hand in more than name. For like a physician in a painting, or like a flute in a sculpture, it will be unable to perform its function” (p. 997).

Aristotle was the historic pioneer of “functional” explanation. Here he insists that the essences of living beings and their parts must be understood in terms of their characteristic activities. This development for the sake of biology parallels the deeper development of the meaning of “substance” in the Metaphysics as “what it was to be” a thing, and as actuality and potentiality.

“If now the form of the living being is the soul, or part of the soul, or something that without the soul cannot exist; as would seem to be the case, seeing at any rate that when the soul departs, what is left is no longer an animal, and that none of the parts remain what they were before, excepting in mere configuration, like the animals that in the fable are turned into stone; if, I say, this is so, then it will come within the province of the natural scientist to inform himself concerning the soul, and to treat of it, either in its entirety, or, at any rate, of that part of it which constitutes the essential character of an animal; and it will be his duty to say what a soul or this part of a soul is” (ibid).

Here it is important that we consider soul in the “phenomena first” way that Aristotle develops it.

“What has been said suggests the question, whether it is the whole soul or only some part of it, the consideration of which comes within the province of natural science. Now if it be of the whole soul that this should treat, then there is no place for any philosophy beside it…. But perhaps it is not the whole soul, nor all of its parts collectively, that constitutes the source of motion; but there may be one part, identical with that in plants, which is the source of growth, another, namely the sensory part, which is the source of change of quality, while still another, and this is not the intellectual part, is the source of locomotion. For other animals than man have the power of locomotion, but in none but him is there intellect. Thus it is plain that it is not of the whole soul that we have to treat. For it is not the whole soul that constitutes the animal nature, but only some part or parts of it” (p. 998).

Aristotle’s opposition to treating the soul as a single lump reflects his overall functional, activity-oriented, and phenomena-first approach.

“Again, whenever there is plainly some final end, to which a motion tends should nothing stand in its way, we always say that the one is for the sake of the other; and from this it is evident that there must be something of the kind, corresponding to what we call nature” (ibid).

Overall teleology always has to do with tendencies, not absolute determinations. He begins to wrap up this introduction by giving another example of the hypothetical necessity whose concept he pioneered.

“For if a piece of wood is to be split with an axe, the axe must of necessity be hard; and, if hard, must of necessity be made of bronze or iron. Now in exactly the same way the body, since it is an instrument — for both the body as a whole and its several parts individually are for the sake of something — if it is to do its work, must of necessity be of such and such a character, and made of such and such materials.”

“It is plain then that there are two modes of causation, and that both of these must, so far as possible, be taken into account, or at any rate an attempt must be made to include them both; and that those who fail in this tell us in reality nothing about nature” (p. 999).

Again, the two modes here are “that for the sake of which” and the phenomena associated with generation. Considering either of these in isolation yields an incomplete understanding, as we see respectively in bad scholasticism and bad empiricism.

“The reason why our predecessors failed to hit on this method of treatment was, that they were not in possession of the notion of essence, nor of any definition of substance. The first who came near it was Democritus, and he was far from adopting it as a necessary method in natural science, but was merely brought to it by constraint of facts. In the time of Socrates a nearer approach was made to the method. But at this period men gave up inquiring into nature, and philosophers diverted their attention to political science and to the virtues that benefit mankind” (ibid).

Socrates and Plato initially pioneered the notion of “that for the sake of which”, but in turning away from the phenomena of generation and becoming, they gave it a somewhat one-sided character.

The subtle way in which Aristotle wields the concept of essence avoids treating it as an absolute, or as something strictly univocal. In any given context, there is a clear relative distinction between essence and accident, but the distinction is not the same across all contexts. Hypothetical necessity provides the mechanism by which what is “accident” at one level of analysis can be incorporated into “essence” at another level. (See also Hermeneutic Biology?; Aristotelian Causes; Secondary Causes; Aristotle’s Critique of Dichotomy; Classification.)

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.