Ockham on Reference

William of Ockham (1285-1347) is the most famous so-called “nominalist” in Latin medieval philosophy. He sought to explain our practical and theoretical uses of universals entirely in terms of our relations to existing singular things.

Without losing sight of Plato’s emphasis on the value of pure thought, Aristotle had adopted a broader perspective, starting from the generality of human life. In this context, in contrast to Plato he had emphasized the genuine importance, positive role, and irreducibility of singular beings or things that we encounter in life. “For us” singular beings and things come first, even if they do not come first in the order of the cosmos.

Singular beings and things are more concretely “real” than any generalizations about them. But Aristotle simultaneously upheld the “Platonic” view that knowledge in the strong sense can apply only to generalizations of necessary consequences between things, and not to our experiences of singulars. There can be no necessity in our experience of something purely singular. What I would call the extraordinarily productive tension between Aristotle’s fundamental views of reality (putting singulars first) and of knowledge (putting universals first) created an appearance of paradox that later commentators sought to resolve, often by favoring one side at the expense of the other.

Ockham wanted to explain universals entirely in terms of singulars. In the Cambridge Companion to Ockham, Claude Panaccio summarizes that “Ockham’s project is to explicate all semantical and epistemological features — truth values, for instance — in terms of relations between sign-tokens and singular objects in the world” (p. 58).

Ockham built on the work of many less well-known figures. The Latin world had seen lively inquiries about logic and semantics since the 12th century, when Arabic learning first began to be disseminated across Europe. Within this tradition, there is more than one approach to meaning.

The technical notion of “signification” was a development inspired largely by Augustine’s theory of “signs”. Unlike more recent usages (e.g., in Saussurean linguistics), this kind of signification involves a simple relation of correspondence between a thing taken as a “sign” and some other thing.

Ockham and many of his predecessors held that there is such a thing as natural signification, independent of any language. In this sense, smoke is taken to be a “sign” of a fire. This relation of smoke signifying fire is called “natural”, because in our experience smoke only exists where there is fire, and this has to do with how the world is, rather than with us. This is very different from the conventional imposition of the word “fire” to refer to a fire.

At the same time, this notion of signification also seems to have an irreducible “psychological” component. It has something to do with how the world is, but in a more direct sense, it has to do with something like what the British empiricists later called the association of ideas. Our “natural” association of smoke with fire is not arbitrary. As the empiricists would say, it is grounded in experience. As the Latin scholastics would say, the soul “naturally” tends to associate smoke with fire, and this is as much a truth about the soul — or about the soul existing in the world — as it is a truth about the world.

For Ockham, natural signification applies to concepts, which constitute the core of a sort of “mental language” that is in many ways analogous to spoken or written language, but is more original and does not depend on convention. Concepts on this understanding are subject to all the same kinds of syntactical relationships as individual words in speech.

In this tradition, the meaning of concepts is analyzed by analogy with the role of individual words in speech. This presupposes a view that linguistic meaning overall is founded on the meanings of individual words. The individual concepts of “mental language” that apply to individual real-world things are analogously supposed to have pre-given, natural meanings. Logic and semantics are then a sort of mental hygiene with respect to their proper use.

Ockham offers a rich analysis of connotative terms that modify the concepts corresponding to things.

Again building on the work of many authors in the Latin tradition, he develops the theory of logical “supposition”, which contemporary scholars associate with semantic discussions of reference to real-world objects. This has nothing to do with supposition in the sense of hypothesis; rather, it relates etymologically to a notion of something “standing under” something else.

Notably, Ockham and this whole tradition insist that while individual words independently have signification, only in the context of propositions or assertions expressed by whole sentences do words have the kind of reference associated with supposition. I suspect this is ultimately grounded in Aristotle’s thesis that truth and falsity apply only to whole propositions or assertions; “supposition” is to explain not just meaning, but also truth and falsity. This tradition develops a much more explicit theory of reference than Aristotle did, and the kind of reference it develops is tied to contexts of assertion, or true assertion.

The idea that reference to real-world things should be approached at the level of propositions rather than individual words or concepts has much to recommend it. But for Ockham and the tradition he continued, supposition is still fundamentally governed by signification, and signification begins with individual words or concepts. Individual words or concepts are thought to have pre-given meanings, and Ockham attempts to give this a theoretical grounding with his notion of “mental language”.

As Ockham suggests, there is a way in which notions of syntactic relations apply to pure concepts. But I take this to be an abstraction from actual usage in spoken or written language, and I don’t believe in any pre-given meanings.

Ockham’s general strong privileging of individual things over universals has a deep relation to his voluntarist and fideist theology, which owes much to his fellow Franciscan Duns Scotus. In logic, Scotus is considered a defender of “realism” about universals as opposed to nominalism, but in his theology he developed a strong notion of individuation, tied to a very radical notion of divine omnipotence that refused to subordinate it in any way, even to divine goodness (see Aquinas and Scotus on Power; Being and Representation). Essentially, from this point of view, every single thing that happens is a miracle coming directly from God, and all observed regularity in the world pertains only to a sort of divine “habit” that could be contravened at any moment.

Aquinas aimed at a sort of diplomatic compromise between this extreme theistic view that makes everything solely dependent on God, and Aristotle’s unequivocal assertion of the reality of “secondary” causes. Scotus and Ockham applied high levels of logical sophistication in defense of the extreme view.

Ockham also denied the reality of mathematical objects. Together with his extreme view on divine power, this makes very unlikely the view promoted by some scholars that Ockham in particular represented the strand of medieval thought that most helped promote the emergence of modern science. Ockham’s undeniable logical acumen was dedicated to downplaying rather than elaborating the practical importance of order in nature.

It does seem, though, that views like Ockham’s contributed to the shaping of British empiricist philosophy. Here is another chapter in the complex history of notions of reference and representation. Ockham’s very strong notion of reference as directly grounded in singular real-world objects — combined with that of the natural signification or pre-given meaning of concepts in “mental language” — helped lay the ground for what modern empiricism would treat as common sense.

For most of the 20th century, the mainstream of analytic philosophy seemed to be inseparable from a strongly empiricist direction. But Wittgenstein, Quine, Sellars, Brandom, and others have initiated a new questioning of the assumptions of empiricism from within contemporary analytic philosophy. Analytic philosophy is no longer nearly so opposed to the history of philosophy or to continental philosophy as it was once assumed to be. It is in this context that we can begin to look at a sort of Foucaultian or de Libera-esque “archaeology” of empiricism, in which Ockham certainly deserves an important place.

Hume on Causes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mechanical Metaphors

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

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

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

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

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

Effective vs “Driving”

Modern thinking about causality remains haunted by the figure of “driving” causes on the model of billiard ball impacts, even though the use of sophisticated statistical methods in contemporary science already suggests the obsolescence of that model. I have characterized ordinary Aristotelian actuality as what is effectively operative in a process. This more general “pragmatist” notion of determination pays much more attention, e.g., to the role of the forms of things in shaping processes, but it also subsumes everything that was discussed on the narrower “driving cause” model.

Within the later tradition, the grounds for the early modern reduction of causality to an impact-modeled “driving” sense were laid by scholastic redefinition of Aristotelian efficient causality in terms of activity, and its simultaneous elevation above final and formal causes. I think that for Aristotle, the defining characteristic of an efficient cause is that it is a means by which an end is actualized.

The complete means by which an end is actualized undoubtedly involve activity, but in the example of building a house, for Aristotle it is the art of building that is the pre-eminent efficient cause of the actualized house — the pre-eminent means by which the building of the house is accomplished, even though there are many other contributing means and other causes. But the art of building is not itself an activity. This tells us that activity is not the defining characteristic of an efficient cause. It also brings the notion of efficient cause closer to those of final and formal cause. Taking into account the close relationship of Aristotelian form and matter, it turns out that all four of Aristotle’s causes are integrally related to one another.

I think that for Aristotle, activity is more a practical notion associated with broadly ethical doing, than a basis for theoretical explanation of events and properties. In Aristotle, activity is something inquired about. It does not play the role of an unexplained explainer. (See also Agency; Efficient Cause; Efficient Cause, Again.)

Potentiality and Ends

Perfection for Aristotle is an attractor and not a driver. To be an unmoved mover and to be an efficient cause in the “driving” way this was commonly interpreted in the later tradition are mutually exclusive. Pure act does not act in the normal sense of the word. I am reminded of Lao Tzu, that other great minimalist teacher of unmoved moving.

Plotinus and the later neoplatonic schools reworked the notion of unmoved moving, from Aristotle’s modest notion of the attraction of potentialities to the good, to a principle of overflowing, superabundant positive power that spontaneously generates beings and effects, as a necessary consequence of its very superabundance. Aristotle’s “first cause” affects everything, but only through the collaboration of secondary causes. Though developing nuanced accounts of the grand cycle of procession from the One and ultimate return, the neoplatonists tended to reduce secondary causes to mere effects of the One.

Authors like Aquinas engaged in a tricky balancing act, wanting to assert the supremacy of God while simultaneously recognizing the ethical and epistemological value of Aristotle’s emphasis on the reality of secondary causes. But according to Gwenaëlle Aubry, the theological voluntarism of Duns Scotus and others annulled what I take to be that good Aristotelian concern of Aquinas, completely subordinating nature, truth, and the good to the arbitrary will of God.

This whole historical discussion is greatly complicated by the very different ways in which the same key terms have been interpreted. For example, it makes a great difference whether we consider the art of building or the hammer’s blow to be a better model of the efficient cause. The art of building could be a sort of derived unmoved mover, but the hammer’s blow is a moved mover.

Previously, I have emphasized an interpretation of potentiality in terms of Brandom’s talk about robust counterfactual conditions on the one hand, and a loosely structuralist notion of structure on the other. I read Hegel as recognizing the essential role of this kind of potentiality in any formation of a determinate view of things.

This may sound remote from Aubry’s emphasis on potentiality as a tendency to be attracted by an end, but there is actually a deep connection. Hegel emphasizes the role of potentiality in determination, whereas Aubry emphasizes the role of potentiality as contingency. But Brandom’s counterfactual conditions (an interpretation of Hegelian potentiality) just are contingencies; they are not univocally determined to occur. From the ground up, a kind of pluralism of multiple concrete possibilities is built into the determination of determination.

As Leibniz said, all necessity is of a hypothetical, if-then form. As Kant and Hegel also reminded us, judgments of determination always involve interpretation, and ultimately have a normative form. Brandom makes a similar Kantian point that causality in the modern sense is a product of judgments and inference. These are far from arbitrary; they are subject to a kind of objectivity grounded in counterfactual robustness and mutual recognition. But that objectivity is itself ultimately a normative concept. As Abelard said, the good comes first. (See also Form as Value; Aristotelian Causes.)

Demonstration in Spinoza

Kant and Hegel both objected to Spinoza’s unusual presentation of his Ethics in something resembling the style of Euclid’s geometry. I think of philosophy mainly as interpretation rather than simple declaration, so I am broadly sympathetic to this point. On the other hand, I think Pierre Macherey is profoundly right when he emphasizes the non-foundationalist character of Spinoza’s thought.

The unique meaning Spinoza gives to “Substance” (not to be confused with its Aristotelian, Scholastic, Cartesian, or general early modern senses) is that of a complex relational whole that encompasses everything, rather than a separate starting point for deduction of the details of the world. Because of this, the apparent linearity of his development is just that — a mere appearance.

Hegel does not seem to recognize that Spinoza’s Substance resembles the relational whole of Force that Hegel himself developed in the Phenomenology. This is inseparable from an implicit notion of process in which relations of force are exhibited.

Macherey says Spinoza sees the world in terms of an infinite process, i.e., one without beginning or end or teleological structure (Hegel or Spinoza, p. 75).

(I would argue that neither Aristotle nor Hegel actually endows the world with teleological structure, though they each give ends a significance that Spinoza would deny. For Aristotle, it is particular beings in themselves that have ends. For Hegel, teleological development is a retrospectively meaningful interpretation, not an explanatory theory that could yield truth in advance. But for Spinoza, ends are either merely subjective, or involve an external providence that he explicitly rejects.)

It seems to me that the “point of view of eternity” that Spinoza associates with truth is actually intended to be appropriate to this infinite process. Spinoza points out that eternity does not properly mean a persistence in time that lasts forever, but rather a manner of subsistence that is entirely outside of — or independent of — the linear progression and falling away that characterizes time.

(Kant’s famous assertion of the “ideality of space and time”, which means that space and time are only necessary features of our empirical experience, is not inconsistent with Spinoza’s commendation of the point of view of eternity. Though it has other features Spinoza would be unlikely to accept, Kant’s “transcendental” as distinct from the empirical is thus to be viewed from a perspective not unlike Spinoza’s “point of view of eternity”.)

Spinoza wants to maintain that the order of causes and the order of reasons are the same. Whereas Aristotle deconstructs “cause” into a rich variety of kinds of “reasons why” (none of which resembles the early modern model of an impulse between billiard balls), Spinoza narrows the scope of “cause” to “efficient causes” in a sense that seems close to that of Suárez with inflections from Galilean physics, and suggests that true reasons are causes in this narrower sense. It seems to me that Spinoza’s “order of causes” resembles the infinite field of purely relational “force” that Hegel discusses in the Force and Understanding chapter.

Spinoza wants us to focus on efficient causes of things, but to do so mainly from the “point of view of eternity”. This takes us away from the event-oriented perspective of linear time, toward a consideration of general patterns of the interrelation of different kinds of means by which things end up as they concretely tend to do. In speaking of means rather than forces, I am tacitly substituting what I think is a properly Aristotelian notion of “efficient” cause for the meaning it historically seems to have had for Spinoza.

In pursuit of this, he takes up a stance toward demonstration that is actually like the one I see in Aristotle, in that it is more about improvement of our understanding through its practical exercise in inference than about proof of some truth assumed to be already understood (see also Demonstrative “Science”?). As Macherey puts it, for Spinoza “knowledge is not simply the unfolding of some established truth but the effective genesis of an understanding that nowhere precedes its realization” (p. 50). (Unlike Macherey, though, I think this is true for Aristotle and Hegel as well.)

Demonstration in both Aristotle’s and Spinoza’s sense is intended to improve our normative understanding of concepts by “showing” their inferential uses and points of application. It is only through their inferential use in the demonstrations that Spinoza’s nominal definitions and axioms acquire a meaning Spinoza would call “adequate”.

Spinoza on Teleology

“All the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end” (Spinoza, Collected Works vol. I, Curley trans., p. 439).

“[I]t follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]. It follows, secondly, that men always act on account of an end, viz. on account of their advantage, which they want. Hence they seek to know only the final causes of what has been done, and when they have heard them, they are satisfied, because they have no reason to doubt further” (p. 440).

“Hence, they consider all natural things as means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means that they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and had made all things for their use” (pp. 440-441).

The famous appendix to book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics, from which the above is excerpted, is a sort of psychological exposé of the superstition-like attitude behind the kind of “external” teleology that sees everything in terms of ends, but treats all ends as resulting from the conscious aims or will of a supernatural being or beings, more or less on the model of what theologians have called “particular providence”.

But though he explicitly refers only to this kind of conscious providence that implies ongoing supernatural intervention in the ordinary workings of the world, he nonetheless in an unqualified way dismisses all explanation in terms of ends. At the same time, the notion of determination or causality that he does acknowledge as genuine is too narrow and rigid (too univocal).

Most of the historic criticisms of Spinoza have been extremely unfair; this includes remarks by Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Spinoza rightly pointed out that we tend to overrate the role of conscious intentions in human affairs and the workings of the world. But Leibniz rightly pointed out that Spinoza’s exclusive emphasis on unconditional divine power or omnipotence (as contrasted with goodness) — which reduces everything to efficient causes — has undesirable consequences.

Allison on Kant on Freedom

Eminent Kant scholar Henry Allison writes in the introduction to his Kant’s Theory of Freedom (1990), “Kant’s theory of freedom is the most difficult aspect of his philosophy to interpret, let alone defend. To begin with,… we are confronted with the bewildering number of ways in which Kant characterizes freedom and the variety of distinctions he draws between various kinds or senses of freedom” (p. 1).

Kant advocates “not only a strict determinism at the empirical level but also a psychological determinism” (p. 31) at the level of desires and beliefs. Nonetheless he also famously argues for the pure spontaneity of reason at a transcendental level, and wants to link this to a distinctive “causality of reason” entirely separate from empirical causality. As I’ve said before, I think Kant often presents both the determinist part of this and the indeterminist part in terms that are too strong.

Kant intensifies this difficulty by apparently arguing that the very same human reason that is transcendentally utterly free also has an empirical character that is completely determined. According to Allison, Kant distinguishes between empirical and intelligible “character” (considered as general ways of being, not implying personality) in two different ways. Empirical character is sometimes presented as merely the phenomenal effect of intelligible character, but at other times as the sensible schema of intelligible character. The latter version is interpreted by Allison as implying that “empirical character involves not simply a disposition to behave in certain predictable ways in given situations but a disposition to act on the basis of certain maxims, to pursue certain ends, and to select certain means for the realization of those ends…. Clearly, the causality of reason, even at the empirical level, is inherently purposive. Consequently, explanations of its activity must be teleological rather than mechanistic in nature” (p. 33).

Allison argues that for Kant, not only moral but also prudential judgments exhibit a teleological causality of reason. An end understood in a context generates a moral or prudential “ought”. Allison says that acting on the basis of an ought is for Kant (at least in the first Critique) the defining characteristic of free agency.

“A helpful way of explicating what Kant means by the spontaneity of the understanding in its judgmental activity (epistemic spontaneity) is to consider judgment as the activity of ‘taking as’ or, more precisely, of taking something as a such and such” (p. 37). “[E]ven desire-based or… ‘heteronomous’ action involves the self-determination of the subject and, therefore, a ‘moment’ of spontaneity” (p. 39). “[T]he sensible inclination, which from the point of view of the action’s (and the agent’s) empirical character is viewed straightforwardly as cause, is, from the standpoint of this model, seen as of itself insufficient to determine the will. Moreover, this insufficiency is not of the sort that can be made up for by introducing further empirically accessible causal factors. The missing ingredient is the spontaneity of the agent, the act of taking as or self-determination. Since this can be conceived but not experienced, it is once again something merely intelligible” (ibid).

The association of spontaneity with “taking as” (which is Kant’s independent reinvention of Aristotelian practical judgment) rather than some kind of arbitrariness is a breath of fresh air. (See also Freedom Through Deliberation?)

For Aristotle, there could be no contradiction between determination by ends and a complementary determination by “efficient causes” or means. But for Kant, ends are noumenal or intelligible, while means are phenomenal or empirical.

But in his previous work Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Allison argued that Kant wanted to distinguish between phenomenal and noumenal interpretations rather than to assert the literal existence of ontologically separate phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The noumenal or the intelligible is not otherworldly, but a different way of interpreting the same world we experience.

Fichte’s Ethics

Fichte’s System of Ethics (1798) has been called the most important work of moral philosophy between Kant and Hegel. Unavailable in English till 2005, it is apparently a source for some key themes in Hegel’s Phenomenology. It also shows the more nuanced side of Fichte that impressed Paul Ricoeur. Fichte was an unusually powerful speaker, reportedly electrifying audiences with his intensity and bold rhetorical strokes. His thought greatly influenced German Romanticism.

Fichte begins by asking, “how can something objective ever become something subjective; how can a being for itself ever become something represented (vorgestellt)?” (p. 7). He continues, “No one will ever explain how this remarkable transformation takes place without finding a point where the objective and the subjective are not at all distinct from one another…. The point in question is ‘I-hood’ [Ichheit], intelligence, reason, or whatever one wishes to call it.”

“This absolute identity of the subject and the object in the I can only be inferred; it cannot be demonstrated, so to speak, ‘immediately’, as a fact of actual consciousness. As soon as any actual consciousness occurs, even if it is only the consciousness of ourselves, the separation [between subject and object] ensues…. The entire mechanism of consciousness rests on the various aspects of this separation of what is subjective from what is objective, and, in turn, on the unification of the two” (ibid; brackets and emphasis in original).

Fichte revives an explicit appeal to “intellectual intuition” that Kant had proscribed and I find untenable, but carefully limits its scope, mainly using it for the existence of “the I”. Importantly, as the above quote shows, he does not claim to have a direct intuition of the identity of subject and object.

Next he asks, “how we ever come to take some of our representations to be the ground of a being” (p. 8), and answers, “I find myself to be acting efficaciously in the world of sense” (ibid).

This seems like a good pragmatist insight. Here and above, he asks questions about the status of representation and how it comes to be that anticipate aspects of Brandom’s work in this area.

“Insofar as I know anything at all I know that I am active” (p. 9). “I posit myself as active” (p. 10). Hegel criticized Fichte’s reliance on “positing” or postulation of various key notions.

Fichte goes on to specify that “I ascribe to myself a determinate activity, precisely this one and not another” (p. 11), and determinate activity implies resistance. “Wherever and whenever you see activity, you see resistance as well, for otherwise you see no activity” (p. 12). “[F]reedom can never be posited as able to do anything whatsoever about this situation, since otherwise freedom itself, along with all consciousness and all being, would fall away” (p. 13).

Throughout his career, while picking up and intensifying Kant’s occasional voluntarist rhetoric and even aiming to build a system around it, Fichte made things more interesting and complicated by emphasizing that objectivity always involves a resistance to free action. Fichte goes on to specify that activity involves a kind of agility — i.e., ways of acting successfully in spite of the the object’s or the world’s resistance. Here we find ourselves on the threshold at least of the territory more fully explored by Ricoeur in Freedom and Nature (see Ricoeurian Choice; Voluntary Action).

“I posit myself as free insofar as I explain a sensible acting, or being, as arising from my concept, which is then called the ‘concept of an end'” (p. 14). “[T]he concept of an end, as it is called, is not itself determined in turn by something objective but is determined absolutely by itself” (p. 15).

Freedom here is acting in accordance with concepts or ends. While Kant and Fichte both tended to identify this with a kind of exemption from the natural order, this second move is separable from the first. The need to treat freedom as an exemption presupposes a view of natural causality as completely rigid. But more fluid “tendencies” also exhibit the resistance that Fichte makes characteristic of objectivity.

He then claims in effect that the resistance we encounter in the world of sense is actually nothing but an appearance. “[N]othing is absolute but pure activity…. Nothing is purely true but my self-sufficiency” (p. 17). I think Hegel and Ricoeur would each in their own way regard formulations like this as one-sided, and as a step back from his previous acknowledgement of resistance to our action as a basic fact of life, but that is in part because Hegel and Ricoeur both in a sense vindicate appearance itself as being something more than mere appearance.

Fichte is not actually contradicting himself or going back on a promise here, but moving to a different level. I think his point is that objects as separate are ultimately always a matter of appearance. I would agree as far as strictly separate objects are concerned, but I see objectivity in the first instance as a resistant but non-rigid sea of non-separate relations, tendencies, and currents that is not just an appearance, and is only secondarily divided into separate objects that insofar as they are separate are just appearances.

He comes a bit closer to Hegel again when he says “it is the character of the I that the acting subject and that upon which it acts are one and the same” (p. 28; emphasis in original).

But a few pages later he concludes that “all willing is absolute” and that the will is “absolute indeterminability through anything outside itself” (p. 33). “As an absolute force with consciousness, the I tears itself away — away from the I as a given absolute, lacking force and consciousness” (p. 37). One of Hegel’s main concerns in the Phenomenology was to show the inadequacy and undesirability of this ideal of total “independence”. I take “absolute force” as a kind of poetic language in Fichte’s rhetorical style that I would not adopt.

He repeats Kant’s claim that the will has “the power of causality by means of mere concepts” (p. 41). I agree that concepts can have a kind of efficacy in the world, though I would not call it causality in the narrow modern sense. On the other hand, I think talk about will as if it were a separate power not encompassed by the union of feeling and reason is misguided. I don’t think there is any will-talk that doesn’t have a better analogue in feeling-and-reason talk. So the question of the will’s causality does not even come up for me.

“According to Kant, freedom is the power to begin a state [Zustand] (a being and subsistence) absolutely” (p. 41). I don’t consider formulations like this to be typical of Kant’s thought as a whole. It rhetorically recalls voluntarist views in the Latin medieval tradition that saw human freedom as a sort of microcosmic analogue of creation from nothing. The notion of literal creation from nothing, though it achieved wide circulation in the monotheistic traditions, is actually an extreme view in theology whose main use has been to support radically supernaturalist claims of all sorts that are entirely separable from the broader spiritual purport of the world’s religions. Scholars have pointed out that creation from nothing is not inherent to the Old Testament text, and only emerged as an interpretation in the Hellenistic period with figures like Philo of Alexandria. One of Kant’s great contributions was actually to have developed other ways of talking about freedom that do not presuppose any of this kind of strong supernaturalism. (I adhere to the view commonly attributed to Aristotle in the Latin tradition that nothing comes from nothing in any literal sense.) Fichte of course was not at all a supernaturalist like Philo; but like Kant and even more so, in relation to freedom he nonetheless used some of the same rhetorical strategies originally developed to “rationalize” supernaturalism. (And if nature already participates in divinity, supernaturalism is superfluous.)

Fichte improves things by specifying, “It is not the case that the state that is begun absolutely is simply connected to nothing at all, for a finite rational being thinks only by means of mediation and connections. The connection in question, however, is not a connection to another being, but to a thinking” (ibid).

Much as I welcome this emphasis on mediation and connections, it is important to mention that he earlier strongly relied on the claim of a limited kind of direct intellectual self-intuition (pp. 25ff). Fichte was honest enough to acknowledge that he did not have inferential grounds for his strong notion of “I-hood”. The texture of his thought is a unique hybrid of a sort of inferentialism about things in general with an intuitionism about self. The points at which he relies on intuition are the same places where he applies the bold rhetorical strokes for which he initially became famous and popular with the Romantics. But in the long run, it is his emphasis on mediation — both in the form of inference and in the form of resistance to our projects — that holds the greatest value.

In a somewhat Kantian style that seems both more abstract and more simple and direct than that of Kant himself, Fichte sets out to “deduce” first the principle of morality, then the reality and applicability of the principle. For Fichte, the single principle of morality is the “absolute autonomy of reason” (p. 60). Reason is finite, but depends on nothing outside itself. Consciousness is always limited and in that sense determined by the objects it “finds”, but in conscience there is a pure identity of subject and object. Here again we can see how Hegel was in part taking up Fichtean ways of speaking.

Unlike Hegel, though, for Fichte “Conscience never errs and cannot err, for it is the immediate consciousness of our pure, original I, over and above which there is no other kind of consciousness. Conscience is itself the judge of all convictions and acknowledges no higher judge above itself. It has final jurisdiction and is subject to no appeal. To want to go beyond conscience means to want to go beyond oneself and to separate oneself from oneself” (p. 165).

From this it seems clear that Fichte recognizes no standpoint higher than that of Conscience. He identifies morality with good will (p. 149). Hegel on the other hand regards mutual recognition as a higher standpoint than that of the autonomy of Conscience. Although Fichte briefly refers to the concept of mutual recognition he had developed in Foundations of Natural Right (1797), the System of Ethics revolves mainly around a version of Kantian autonomy: “the formal law of morals [Sitten] is…. do what you can now regard with conviction as a duty, and do it solely because you have convinced yourself that it is a duty” (p. 155).

Surprisingly, he says “all free actions are predestined through reason for all eternity” (p. 216), and claims to have reconciled freedom with predestination. This provides a noteworthy additional perspective on his earlier love-hate relation with Spinoza.

“The world must become for me what my body is. This goal is of course unreachable; but I am nevertheless supposed to draw constantly nearer to it,…. This process of drawing nearer to my final end is my finite end.”

“The fact that nature placed me at one point or another and that nature instead of me took the first step, as it were, on this path to infinity does not infringe upon my freedom” (pp. 217-218). This theme of “drawing nearer” and the “path to infinity” was sharply criticized by Hegel, but I rather like it.

I worry a bit when he says “The necessary goal of all virtuous people is therefore unanimous agreement [and] uniformity of acting” (p. 224). He did however also say that “anyone who acts on authority necessarily acts unconscionably” (p. 167; emphasis in original).

“I possess absolute freedom of thought… freedom before my own conscience…. [I]t is unconscionable for me to make the way in which I tend to the preservation of my body dependent on the opinions of others” (p. 225).

“What lies outside my body, and hence the entire sensible world, is a common good or possession” (ibid). “[I]n communal matters, I ought to act only in accordance with the presumptive general will” (p. 228). “I should… act in such a way that things have to become better. This is purely and simply a duty” (ibid). “As a means for bringing about the rational state, I have to take into account the present condition of the makeshift state” (ibid). In the case of unjust tyranny and oppression, “every honorable person could then in good conscience endeavor to overthrow this [makeshift] state entirely, but only if he has ascertained the common will” (ibid; emphasis in original).

“How then can one become aware of that upon which everyone agrees? This is not something one could learn simply by asking around; hence it must be possible to presuppose something that can be viewed as the creed of the community or as its symbol.”

“It is implicit in the concept of such a symbol or creed that it presents something not in a very precise or determinate manner, but only in a general way…. Moreover,… the symbol is supposed to be appropriate for everyone…. [T]he symbol does not consist in abstract propositions but rather in sensory presentations of the latter. The sensible presentation is merely the costume; what is properly symbolic is the concept. That precisely this presentation had to be chosen is something that was dictated by need… because they were not yet capable of distinguishing the costume that the concept had received by chance from the essence of the concept” (p. 230).

“[W]hat is most essential about every possible symbol or creed is expressed in the proposition, ‘there is something or other that is supersensible and elevated above all nature’…. What this supersensible something may be, the identity of this truly holy and sanctifying spirit, the character of the truly moral way of thinking: it is precisely concerning these points that the community seeks to determine and to unify itself more and more, by mutual interaction” (pp. 230-231).

Here we see some anticipation of Hegel’s account of religion in the Phenomenology.

“Not only am I permitted to have my own private conviction concerning the constitution of the state and the system of the church, I am even obliged by my conscience to develop this same conviction just as self-sufficiently and as broadly as I can.”

“Such development… is possible, however, only by means of reciprocal communication with others.” (p. 233).

Like Hegel, he makes mutual recognition a foundation of religion.

“The distinguishing and characteristic feature of the learned public is absolute freedom and independence of thinking” (p. 238). “Since scholarly inquiry is absolutely free, so must access to it be open to everyone” (p. 239).

“No earthly power has the right to issue commands regarding matters of conscience…. The state and the church must tolerate scholars” (ibid).

“All of a person’s efficacious acting within society has the following goal: all human beings are supposed to be in agreement; but the only matters that all human beings can agree on are those that are purely rational, for this is all they have in common” (p. 241).

“Kant has asserted that every human being is himself an end, and this assertion has received universal assent” (p. 244).

“The moral law, which extends to infinity, absolutely commands us to treat human beings as if they were forever capable of being perfected and remaining so, and this same law absolutely prohibits us from treating human beings in the opposite manner” (p. 229). Fichte argues at some length that this last point would be true no matter how dismal we might judge actual history to be.

Unfortunately, Fichte retained some of the prejudices of his time and place. He thought women should be subordinate to men, and his contribution to early German nationalism was not without a chauvinistic side.

Ricoeur on Historiography

The overarching objective of part 2 of the first volume of Ricoeur’s Time and Narrative is to show that it is indeed plausible to apply a literature-based notion of narrative to the writing of history. This has to be distinguished, however, from a naive notion of “narrative history”.

With his usual honesty, he dwells at length on two major trends in historiography that are typically understood to be completely opposed to a narrative approach — the French Annales school, and work derived from logical positivism. He then builds a case that in spite of everything, there is an essential narrative aspect to history, even if it is only indirect.

Ricoeur sagely observes that debates on historiography often end up in the same philosophical territory as the Latin medieval debates on nominalism and realism. He says he will apply the later Husserl’s concept of “questioning back”, concerned more with the genesis of meaning than with epistemology, to uncover the intentionality of historical knowledge.

The French Annales school is famous for emphasizing long periods in history rather than episodic events, and economics, “mentalities”, and cultural practices over the superficial drama of politics and actions of individuals. Even though he ultimately wants to push this meta-level interpretation in a different direction, Ricoeur dwells at length on his admiration for their achievements. I am myself quite sympathetic to an approach to history broadly of this sort.

From the seemingly unpromising ground of the approach to history that developed from the logical positivism of the Vienna Circle, he extracts the idea of what he calls, following Bachelard, an epistemological break between simple narrative and historical explanation. Historical explanation has goals of objective truth that do not apply to literature. Ricoeur says the break opened up by an emphasis on explanation is real and should be maintained, even if we end up deploying a very different kind of explanation from what those influenced by logical positivism had in mind.

He also discusses the work of Max Weber, Raymond Aron, and Hayden White.

Weber propounded a notion of what Ricoeur calls singular causal imputation in history that is worlds apart from the positivist “covering law” approach of Hempel, which looked for something analogous to mathematical-physical laws in sociology to explain history. Looking for the “adequate” cause of a singular development requires an extensive interpretive effort (Weber’s famous Verstehen method for the human sciences). Weber’s analysis of the relation between Protestantism and capitalism developed a large-scale singular causal chain that involved roles, attitudes, and institutions rather than individuals. Such imputations of cause for large-scale singular things must necessarily consider many dimensions, and many contingent developments. This reminds me of my own characterization of Aristotelian causality.

Raymond Aron famously applied to history what I would call the Kantian point that, as Ricoeur puts it, “Understanding — even the understanding of another person in everyday life — is never a direct intuition but always a reconstruction” (p. 97). No such thing as a historical reality exists ready-made. Historical explanation involves real work.

Ricoeur calls Hayden White’s Metahistory a “poetics” of historiography. White wrote at length about historical “explanation by emplotment”.

Ricoeur refers to the historian’s credo of objectivity as “a secret dream of emulating the cartographer or the diamond cutter” (p. 176) “[T]he facts dealt with in historical works, when they are taken one at a time, interlock with one another in the manner of geographical maps, if the same rules of projection and scale are respected, or, yet again, like the different facets of the same precious stone…. The final corollary is that, precisely because history has objectivity as a project, it can pose the limits of objectivity as a specific problem. This question is foreign to the innocence and naivete of the narrator” (ibid).

“[H]istory replaces the subject of action with entities that are anonymous, in the strict sense of the term…. This new history thus seems to lack characters. And without characters, it could not continue to be narrative…. It no longer seems to refer to the living present of a subjective consciousness…. [The] ‘times of history’, to use Braudel’s expression, seem to be without any apparent relation to the time of action…. [This heightens] the necessity for a new type of dialectic between historical inquiry and narrative competence” (p. 177).

However, criticism of the “covering law” model has already led to a “diversification of explanation that makes it less foreign to narrative understanding, without thereby denying the explanatory vocation” (p. 178). Meanwhile, “to narrate is already to explain…. [and] narrative is in no way bound to the confused and limited perspective of the agents and the eye-witnesses of the events” (ibid).

Ricoeur says that narrative cannot replace an explanatory approach to history. “This question must be unreservedly answered in the negative. A gap remains between narrative explanation and historical explanation, a gap that is inquiry as such. This gap prevents us from treating history… as a species of the genus ‘story'” (p. 179). History has its own explanatory procedures, its own “first order entities”, and its own time, or rather plurality of times.

He argues, however, that “the paradox of historical knowledge… transposes onto a higher level of complexity the paradox constitutive of the operation of narrative configuration” (p. 180). The first-order entities of history will turn out to be quasi-characters that “bear the indelible mark of concrete agents’ participatory belonging to the sphere of praxis and narrative” (p. 181). Weber’s notion of adequate singular causal imputation, he suggests, “constitutes the requisite mediation between the opposing poles of explanation and understanding” (ibid). The kind of contingency built into what Ricoeur now calls “historical causality” would prevent any historical determinism. Historical causality will mediate between narrative explanation and explanation by law.

Ricoeur thinks apparently non-narrative history nonetheless has an indirect narrativity. He tests this through an examination of several works of the Annales school, especially Braudel’s The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. He finds Braudel’s entire work to be organized by a “quasi-plot”. Braudel has “invented a new kind of plot” (p. 216) that “teaches us to unite structures, cycles, and events by joining together heterogeneous temporalities and contradictory chronicles” (ibid).

Ricoeur finds a kind of quasi-events at the level of long duration. “For me, the event is not necessarily something brief and nervous, like some sort of explosion. It is a variable of the plot…. For the historian, the event continually appears in the very midst of structures” (p. 217). Ricoeur argues that people and politics thus remain effectively important for Braudel and the other Annales historians, even though they overtly focus on structures. Looking to several treatments of the French revolution, Ricoeur concludes that their brilliant and convincing analyses of mentality and ideology do not eliminate the role of an event of taking power. “[A]ll change enters the field of history as a quasi-event” (p. 224; emphasis in original).

Earlier, while discussing the work of Raymond Aron, he says the historian in pursuing the work of explanation is concerned with a vast field of “what ifs”. In effect, this invokes something like Aristotelian potentiality, the importance of which Ricoeur has elsewhere explicitly recognized. I would definitely include the historical structures analyzed by the Annales school and others in my previous generalization that structuralist concepts of structure should be understood as defining fields of multiple potentiality, not some kind of univocal determination. Although deeper understanding requires a lengthy detour through the mode of potentiality, it never reduces away the ultimate dependence of potentiality on actuality. I see Ricoeur’s quasi-events as occurring on a plane of actuality correlative to the potentiality of structure. (See also Combining Time and Narrative).