Being and Representation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being and Essence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fichte’s Evolution

Fichte was constantly revising the presentation of his core Wissenschaftslehre or “teaching of science”. He was very dissatisfied with the rushed writing of the 1794-95 Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre, translated as The Science of Knowledge, which was the only one published during his lifetime. The 1796-99 Wissenschaftslehre nova methodo, now translated as Foundations of Transcendental Philosophy, does seem more accessible and has many points of interest, but in broad outline carries forward the main theses of his earlier work. His 1804 lectures on the other hand, now translated as The Science of Knowing, contain major innovations.

The goal of both of the earlier works seems to be to elaborate a consistent philosophy based on radical “subject-centeredness”. The second introduction to the 1796-99 work develops a vivid polar contrast between “idealism” (which he says grounds everything in the subject) and “dogmatism” (which he says unsuccessfully attempts to ground everything in being or reality). “Idealism begins with the representing subject; dogmatism begins with the thing” (p. 93).

Kant had famously criticized dogmatic versions of realism with rather broad strokes, but called himself both a transcendental idealist and an empirical realist. Whatever one’s opinion of the Kantian “thing in itself” that would exist in spite of our failure to grasp it, it was clearly part of his concern to retain a notion of objective reality while rejecting its dogmatic use. Normally we contrast idealism with realism, and a critical attitude with dogmatism. By the clever rhetorical device of mixing up these two polarities, Fichte implies that all philosophically “realist” concerns are dogmatic. At this point, Fichte was a radical subjectivist (even though he was never a vulgar subjectivist, since his “subject” was always a subject of reason). In the same work, he further confirms this by talking in an unqualified way about the subject’s “absolute freedom”. He rejects the modest assertion of an unknown thing-in-itself, but claims to have an infallible intellectual intuition of the “I”. “Self-reverting activity and the I are one and the same” (p. 112). “All consciousness is accompanied by an immediate self-consciousness, which is called ‘intellectual intuition’, and this immediate self-consciousness must be presupposed if one is to think at all” (pp. 119-120).

I’m now looking for the first time at his 1804 lectures. Here he significantly modifies aspects of his stance. There is much less emphasis on the I. Instead, “the essence of philosophy would consist in this: to trace all multiplicity (which presses upon us in the usual view of life) back to absolute oneness” (p. 23). “[A]bsolute oneness can no more reside in being than in its correlative consciousness; it can as little be posited in the thing as in the representation of the thing. Rather, it resides in the principle, which we have just discovered, of the absolute oneness and indivisibility of both, which is equally, as we have seen, the principle of their disjunction. We will name this principle pure knowing, knowing in itself, and, thus, completely objectless knowing…. It is distinct from consciousness, which posits a being and is therefore only a half. This is Kant’s discovery, and is what makes him the founder of Transcendental Philosophy. Like Kantian philosophy, the science of knowing… does not posit the absolute in the thing, as previously, or in subjective knowing — which is simply impossible, because whoever reflects on this second term already has the first — but in the oneness of both” (pp. 25-26). “[F]or this kind of philosophy the difference between being and thinking, as valid in itself, totally disappears” (p. 30).

So he seems to have moved from a highly asymmetric view of subject and object to a much more symmetrical one. Unfortunately, the idea of reducing the Many to the One, even if he handles it in less cavalier fashion than Schelling, still leads to what Hegel called the “night in which all cows are black”.

Pure Negativity?

Hegel often characterizes the “Concept” that overcomes the opposition of subject and object in terms of what he calls “pure negativity”. This is very far removed from what contemporary logicians call classical negation (see Contradiction vs Polarity). Hegelian pure negativity is just a name for pure difference or relation with no pre-given, contentful positive terms, where the meaning of every “thing” depends on the meaning of other things, and nothing is absolutely first. This is why he can legitimately call it “absolute”. Such a perspective needs to be taken together with Hegel’s dictum that strictly speaking, there is truth only in the whole development.

Any representation involving contentful positive terms can always be superseded, as Hegel thinks it inevitably will be. But without preconceived contentful positive terms, there is nothing to supersede. Pure difference or relation thus has a kind of finality to it, precisely because it preserves the substantial content and truth we care about within a sort of ideal open-endedness.

Further and crucially, the attitude Hegel is describing is “open” not only in the epistemological sense that it avoids prejudice and may gain new insights, but also in the practical ethical sense that it is “forgiving”.

Harris in his commentary says “The concept (of self-conscious Absolute Knowing) fulfilled itself as ‘forgiveness’ in the ‘self-certain spirit’ that had no content except an ideal community; and it fulfilled itself as a real community in the historical evolution of Religion. But that real community depends for its unity on a projected image (Vorstellung) of its eternal destiny. The self-certainty of the broken-hearted Beautiful Soul must take the place of this Vorstellung…. In this final confrontation it is the singular self who acts and the community that judges. The crucial moment of ‘forgiveness’ belongs therefore to the community; but the absolute knowing belongs to the absolved individual, who thinks and knows at once for herself and for the reconciled community. It is the moral agent who steps out of the reconciled community in action; and it is she who has the knowledge of return and forgiveness. Everyone must recognize the reconciliation; but that communal recognition only preserves the community — it is not a knowing that is capable of further development.”

“In contrast, the ‘absolute knowing’ towards which we are now moving is capable of development. It is the experience precisely of the philosopher.”

“Hegel regards the self-assertion of conscientious action as identical with the advent of ‘pure thought’ — the thinking that can do Hegelian logic” (Hegel’s Ladder II, p. 723).

This last reflects a vitally important insight about Hegel’s perspective as a whole, little recognized until recently. It is one manifestation of the Hegelian version of the primacy of practical (ethical) reason. Harris has already made the better-recognized point that Hegel regarded the standpoint reached at the end of the Phenomenology as identical with that presupposed at the beginning of his Logic. Patiently following out the twists and turns of the Phenomenology with Harris, it seems to me we have come to the inescapable conclusion that — contrary to the way it has been presented by most earlier commentators — the Phenomenology is above all a book of ethics. But this conclusion then has profound implications for what Hegel will mean by “logic”, which is again very different from the way it has been characterized by most commentators. I will have more to say about this in the future.

“Pure knowing is neither judging, nor acting; it involves the letting go (Ablassen) of both ‘determinacies’ of the Concept (the active subjectivity of the agent, and the substantial Objectivity of the community). Thus pure knowing is a kind of return to the paradisal state of ‘innocence’. But we can speedily disabuse ourselves of the idea that there is anything particularly remarkable about it, by reflecting that we ourselves achieved it fairly easily and without much conscious strain, in adopting the posture of speculative observers of consciousness. The Absolute has been with us from the start, in the form of our knowledge of what our own proper position is, and what our behavior as observers should be” (p. 724).

“The Beautiful Soul is the hero of this last movement of Spirit, because its moral act is the withdrawal into Self as a pure observer. It is the antithesis of the self-actualizing Begriff [Concept], because it does not act, and is not actual. It participates in the antithesis; and in so far as it is independent knowledge of the Concept as pure essence, it is self-assertive and ‘evil’. But, in that it has become the simple knowing (observing) of the essence, the knowing that has received forgiveness, and gives it back freely to everything that it observes, it remains ‘good’. It lets the Concept go through the very same motion as Substance, or as the absolute essence. The doubling that occurs in this state of free release lets the Concept be ‘in and for itself’. In this pure knowing, the one-sidedness of self-assertion and the one-sidedness of simple being are both renounced” (ibid).

“The point is that the Spirit is what it makes itself to be, and ‘absolute Spirit’ is the unity of the knowing self with its world…. The movement is the same as in forgiveness, but we should not call it that, because it is more radical. The sides die for each other, exactly as Man and God ‘die’ for each other in the religious Vorstellung” (pp. 724-725).

“This philosophical consciousness that the knowledge-seeking Self is the world’s own necessary process of self-interpretation is the last Gestalt of Consciousness in the Science of its ‘experience'” (p. 726).

As ethical beings we are the agents of the world’s self-interpretation.


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.)

Marcel on Being

I’ve been looking at Marcel’s The Mystery of Being (1950). “[I]t is not possible to treat all experience as coming down in the end to a self’s experience of its own states…. we shall see… how difficult it is to succeed in getting a direct glimpse of whatever it is that we mean by self.” (Vol. 1, p. 63-64; emphasis in original). “I appear to myself both as a somebody and not a somebody, a particular individual and not a particular individual” (p. 106). “This self to which I have to be true is perhaps merely the cry that comes out to me from my own depths — the appeal to me to become that which, literally and apparently, I now am not” (p. 176). Properly speaking, we should not say that our self exists, as this would make it a thing among other things.

Marcel says Truth should not be reduced to what is the case; it is an illumination. He distinguishes between primary reflection, which is objectifying, and secondary reflection, in which we ourselves are part of the reflection. In secondary reflection, we are participants rather than spectators. For example, “my” body is not some thing that I have, but rather something in which I am involved. More problematically from this writer’s point of view, he adds that my body is to me a sort of “non-mediatizable immediate” (p. 135).

To be is to be in a situation, understood in the participatory rather than the objectifying sense. We navigate situations by active processes of recognition and reconnoitring. “[A] being that can say, ‘My situation’… is not… self-contained; on the contrary, such a being is open and exposed” (p. 178; emphasis in original). “My life infinitely transcends my possible conscious grasp of my life… fundamentally and essentially it refuses to tally with itself” (p. 206). We should not represent a life as a series of movie stills.

Being is also being with, or togetherness with others. “[I]ntersubjectivity plays its part also within the life of the subject, even at moments when the latter’s only intercourse is with itself” (p. 224).

We should distinguish between an object and a presence. A presence lies beyond the grasp of any possible prehension, and can only be invoked or evoked. A rose in a poem is present to us in a way that a rose in a seed catalog is not. A mystery for Marcel is something that transcends the realm of technical solutions, in that we cannot hold it at arm’s length and objectify it, because it involves our own very being. Every Marcelian “presence” is mysterious in this way. “A felt quality… is not a mental object” (p. 231). Truth is not a thing, but a spirit. It is in this sort of way, he says, that essence should be understood.

In approaching the question of what Being is, “I have to think not only for myself, but for us… for everyone who may have contact with the thought which is mine” (Vol. 2, p. 6). We must exorcize the ego-centric spirit. “A complete and concrete knowledge of oneself… must be hetero-centric” (p. 9). He contrasts “we are” with “I think”. “[T]he intelligible milieu… is only the projection on an ideal plane of what existentially speaking presents itself to us as the intersubjective nexus” (p. 12). “[I]t is literally true to say that the more exclusively it is I who exist, the less do I exist” (p. 38; emphasis in original). He equates a transcendental ego with solipsism, but says that Being is not reducible to intersubjectivity, either.

Ontology for Marcel is concerned with acts of judgment associated with the “is” of predication, rather than with objects. He contrasts the “fullness” of truth with “the hollowness of a functionalized world” (p. 47). Fullness is not to be confused with totality, and being cannot be reduced to totality. Any fullness of truth involves secondary reflection, from which we cannot separate ourselves as participants. Being cannot be indifferent to value. Faith must be distinguished from opinion; it is a matter of believing in, not believing that. Real prayer, he says, is possible only where intersubjectivity is operative.

A free act is one that “I come to think of, after the event, as having helped to make me what I am” (p. 131). “[W]e are concerned here with a certainty which I am rather than with a certainty which I have… I am a living testimony” (p. 144). Just as there is creative fidelity, there is creative testimony, but the creativity in question involves an active receptivity, not a simple production.

Marcel’s invocations of “being” and “existence”, as well as of “presence” and of “ontology” all seem rather different from the standard, representationally oriented usages of these terms, to which I have expressed various objections. He also did not engage in anything like Heidegger’s dubious historiography of a “forgetting of Being”.

Early in the book, he seemed to reject “what is” questions as inherently objectifying. I think that questions of what and why are most naturally treated as matters of open-ended interpretation, and that ontology, epistemology, and all manner of specific technical disciplines can be subsumed under hermeneutics, which is in turn subsumed under ethics. From my perspective, what Marcel would have regarded as objectifying perspectives can thus be subsumed in a way that undoes their objectifying character.

Although Marcel’s style of exposition and vocabulary are very different from Aristotle’s, the broad spirit of his perspective seems very close in important respects. To a greater extent than most other philosophers, Aristotle and Marcel each in their own way brought to the fore an emphasis on concreteness and the way we encounter things in life. (Marcel’s pessimistic view of “what is” questions is perhaps the most significant difference. Aristotle also did not have explicit analogues of Marcel’s “presence” and “mystery”.)

While I am uncomfortable with Marcel’s top-level characterization of my relation to my body as an un-mediatizable immediacy because I think it involves the mediation of something like the unconscious level of Kantian processes of synthesis, I very much like the ethical contrast of being and having that informs the details of his account of this. Marcel doesn’t explicitly say as I do that “being” is primarily an ethical concept, but his account seems open to such an interpolation. (See also Ricoeur on Embodiment; Platonic Truth; Meant Realities; Being, Consciousness.)

Gabriel Marcel

Having discovered a major convergence between the work of Paul Ricoeur and what I have been doing here, I’m also looking into his mentor, the philosopher and playwrite Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). Marcel held famous Friday evening philosophical meetings that included Ricoeur, Emmanuel Lévinas, Jean Wahl, Nicolas Berdyaev, Simone de Beauvoir, and Jean-Paul Sartre. At one point, he accepted the description “Christian existentialist”, but later he repudiated the term “existentialist”, preferring the term “neo-Socratic”. He was close to Emmanuel Mounier, founder of the personalist movement and the journal Esprit.

To an unusual extent, Marcel centered his philosophy directly on concerns he found to arise in life. He was a significant contributor to the early 20th century quest for a renewal of values in the face of the newly emerging technologically based mass society. Marcel always said he did not intend to present a philosophical system, but rather a path of inquiry that would that would at the same time be a spiritual path.

He sought to develop an alternative to Cartesian views of subjectivity, which he considered to result in a depreciation of the broader concerns of life. He emphasized a distinction between “being” and “having”. For Marcel, our beliefs and the things we care about are not things we “have”, but rather should be considered as part of our being. He emphasized believing in rather than believing that.

Marcel spoke of “ontological exigence” as a need for what he called transcendence, and insisted that this transcendence must be experienceable, but that it is experienced as something entirely beyond our grasp. He distinguished between external “problems” that do not involve the questioner’s being, and instances of “the mysterious”, in which the question does involve the questioner’s own being. These uses of “being” strike me as mainly ethical in import.

He spoke of commitment in terms of a “creative fidelity” that creates a self, and essentially involves remaining open to the other. He stressed the importance of hope as a form of “active patience”. I relate this broadly to Brandom’s emphasis on trust.

Marcel’s strong concern with ethics does not seem to have explicitly emphasized ethical reason as such, but I have already noted that his student Ricoeur combined the ethical concerns of Marcel and Lévinas with a more classical approach grounded in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Marcel on Being.)

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.


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

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

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

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

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