Four Layers of Being Human

This is my own expansion of Aristotle’s classic “rational/talking animal” definition. In common with other animals, we have an organically grounded “imagination” that is a basis for consciousness and emotion. Then we have an acquired emotional disposition or character that corresponds to what Plato called the “middle part” of the soul. This is influenced by all the other layers. Third, our assimilation of language and culture and our more deliberately adopted values and commitments together constitute our ethos, as a kind of deeper essence of who we are. Finally, our vehicle for growth and change is our participation with others in the space of reasons.

Saying as Ethical Doing

Saying is a distinctive kind of doing. This goes way beyond the physical uttering of words, and beyond the immediate social aspects of speech acts. It involves the much broader process of the ongoing constitution of shared meaning in which we talking animals participate.

Before we are empirical beings, we are ethical beings. Meaning is deeply, essentially involved with valuations. The constitution of values is also an ongoing, shared process that in principle involves all rational beings past, present, and future. Our sayings — both extraordinary and everyday — contribute to the ongoing constitution of the space of reasons of which all rational beings are co-stewards. We are constantly implicitly adjudicating what is a good reason for what.

If immediate speech acts have ethical significance, this is all the more true of our implicit contributions to these ongoing, interrelated processes of constitution of meanings, valuations, and reasons. Everything we say becomes a good or bad precedent for the future.

Aristotle consistently treated “said of” relations in a normative rather than a merely empirical, factual, representational or referential way. Brandom has developed a “normative pragmatics” to systematically address related concerns. Numerous analytic philosophers have recognized the key point that to say anything at all is implicitly to commit oneself to it. As Brandom has emphasized, this typically entails other commitments as well. I would add that every commitment has meaning not only in terms of the pragmatic “force” of what is said, but also as a commitment in the ethical sense.

It is through our practices of commitment and follow-through that our ethical character is also constituted. As Robert Pippin has pointed out that Hegel emphasized in a very Aristotelian way, what we really wanted is best understood starting from what we actually did. In contrasting all this with the much narrower concept of speech acts, I want to return to an emphasis on what is said, but at the same time to take the “said” in as expansive a sense as possible. This is deeply interwoven with all our practical doings, and to be considered from the point of view of its actualization into a kind of objectivity as shared meaning that is no longer just “my” intention.

Ethics and Effectiveness

I’m sampling a French anthology edited by Gilbert Romeyer Dherbey and GwenaĆ«lle Aubry, Excellence in Life: On the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics of Aristotle (2002; my translation throughout). Dherbey’s essay “Ethics and Effectivity in Aristotle” aims to show that Aristotle anticipates Hegel in successfully overcoming the apparent opposition between pure principles and the real world. This makes a nice complement to Robert Pippin’s discernment of strongly Aristotelian notions of actuality and actualization in Hegel’s ethics.

Dherbey begins by noting that some people situate pure ethics outside of all real-world effectiveness, while viewing real-world effectiveness as inevitably involving moral compromise, shortfall, deviation, and corruption. He associates this with “romanticism, from Schiller to Sartre” (p. 1). I think of the “beautiful soul” criticized by Hegel. Aristotle avoids this unfortunate result by emphasizing what Dherbey calls the “weight” of ethics, or “the inscription of the moral act in an exteriority that prolongs it” (ibid). Brandom makes the related point that we do not own or control the full scope of our deeds.

“The one who does nothing cannot act well”, Dherbey quotes from Aristotle’s Politics. Moral excellence is not constituted by intentions alone. Dherbey says that for Aristotle, “the validity of the intention is judged by the act that realizes it, or doesn’t realize it” (p.4, emphasis in original). Pippin develops a similar point in more detail in his remarks on actuality in Hegel.

For Aristotle it is not enough just to have the good will that Peter Abelard took to be the basis of virtue. According to Dherbey, Kant’s affirmation that nothing can be called good, if not a good will, makes intention the very source of the goodness of a good act. I am impressed by Nancy Sherman’s argument that Kant came closer to Aristotle than is commonly thought. But in any case, while Aristotle is far from disregarding the importance of what we might call the agent’s subjectivity, for him the goodness of an act depends on more than this.

Dherbey notes a major cleavage between Aristotle and the Stoics on another related point. For Aristotle, “not acting ‘lightly’ signifies that ‘intentional’ action, in order to be virtuous, must take support from a stable foundation, from a support that is none other than ethos or character…. It is indeed character, more than punctual intention in the modern sense of the term, that governs ethical choice” (p. 5; see also What We Really Want). It was the Stoics who bequeathed to later writers a strong notion of punctual decisions. I find the narrowing of ethics to a focus on punctual acts of decision to have consequences that are quite pernicious.

In closing, Dherbey quotes Hegel’s remark in his History of Philosophy lectures that for Aristotle, “The good in general is not defined as an abstract idea, but in such a way that the moment of realization finds itself essentially in it” (p. 12).

I would add that this is deeply related to Aristotle’s argument against Plato that potentiality at least in part depends on actuality, rather than being a power that simply produces the actual (or being a template that fully anticipates the actual, as Leibniz seems to have held).

Good will does not vindicate an action, but it does provide an additional reason to be forgiving in our evaluation of actions that turn out badly.


So, I want to say that distinction is something good, not a defect we ought to remedy. It is a fundamental symptom of life. Stoics, Buddhists and others remind us that it is best not to be too attached to particular forms. This is a wise counsel, but not the whole truth. I am tempted to say there is no compassion without some passion. Caring about anything inevitably involves distinction. It is better to care than not to care.

Everything flows, Heraclitus said. But in order to make distinctions, it has to be possible to compare things. Things must have a character, even if they do not quite ever stay still within their frames. Having a character is being this way and not that. Real being is always being some way or other. Its diversity is something to celebrate.

It is not immoral to prefer one thing to another. We can’t be who we are without definite commitments. Perfect apathy would lead to many sins of omission. It is better to have lived fully. We are not apart from the world, but inhabit the oceans of difference, and sometimes must take a side.

Fallible Humanity

Fallible Man (French ed. 1960) was the next installment after Freedom and Nature in Paul Ricoeur’s project for a philosophy of will. This account of our fallibility was to set the stage for the following installment dealing with the problem of evil, which I will address separately.

The main body of this shorter book develops a nice interweaving of Aristotelian and Kantian anthropology, with special emphasis on the role of feeling. We are “intermediate” beings, mediating beings, and as such there is an inherent “disproportion” in our relations to self. “[T]his ‘disproportion’ of self to self would be the ratio of fallibility” (p. 4; emphasis in original).

Ricoeur says we can retain neither the Cartesian distinction between a finite understanding and an infinite will, nor any other convenient mapping of “finite” and “infinite” to separate faculties. Character makes us finite, but our participation in language involves us in what he calls a kind of infinity. An ethical Self finally uniting these aspects of our being should be considered as an end and ongoing project rather than an actuality.

Philosophical anthropology has to proceed as a “second order elucidation of a nebula of meaning which at first has a pre-philosophical character” (p. 8). As a consequence, method has to be dissociated from the idea of a starting point. “Philosophy does not start anything independently” (ibid).

He adopts the language of Blaise Pascal (1623-62) on the “pathos” of human “misery”. I don’t like such pessimistic rhetoric, but fortunately Ricoeur says the whole pre-comprehension of this “misery” is contained in the more moderate Platonic myths of the soul.

“The [Platonic] soul… is the very movement from the sensible toward the intelligible… its misery is shown in that it is at first perplexed and searches…. The soul holds opinions and makes mistakes; it is not vision… but an aim. It is not contact and possession… but tendency and tension” (pp. 12-13). “Instead of a well-balanced structure, it is a non-determined movement, a system of tensions which emerges” (p. 14). Plato speaks of an ambiguous power of the soul that is affected by both reason and desire, and results from a kind of mixture. For Plato, the account must take a mythical form, because such matters cannot be explained in terms of permanent realities.

My body is a “zero origin” that ties every perception to a point of view (p. 33). Invoking a common Husserlian theme, Ricoeur notes that perception involves inference about the back sides of things that we cannot see, and so on.

More broadly, our character may be viewed as the summation of many limiting “perspectives”, at the same time that our engagement in acts of conceptual determination implicitly involves a degree of “transgression” of those pre-given limitations (p. 38).

Ricoeur argues that our very ability to recognize something as a perspective implicitly involves a “transgression” or escape from limitation by the perspective. “Therefore, I am not merely a situated onlooker, but a being who intends and expresses as an intentional transgression of the situation” (p. 41). “[T]he project of a phenomenology of perception, wherein the moment of saying is postponed and the reciprocity of saying and seeing is destroyed, is ultimately untenable” (p. 42). “I say more than I see” (p. 44). Referring to Hegel, he adds “We are always already in the dimension of truth” (p. 46). “The fact that the self is at variance with itself is the indefeasible worm in the fruit of the immediate” (ibid; emphasis in original). “Here again we must not move too quickly to the side of the subject, act or noesis, but proceed reflectively beginning with the object, content and noema” (p. 49). Referring to Aristotle, he talks about the “power of the verb” to express affirmation and judgment. “I myself become a synthesis of speech and perspective in this projection of objectivity” (p. 61). “[I]f point of view is a characteristic of openness, namely its narrowness, openness indicates that my point of view is transgressed” (p. 62).

Ricoeur says these considerations suggest something like the Kantian transcendental synthesis of imagination, in its mediating role between the passivity of sensible intuition and the activity of thought. He also relates them to the experience of time.

“Plato… advised against rushing headlong into the abyss of the infinite or into that of the One but recommended learning to linger in between…. What Plato said of the One we can apply to the totality. Nothing gives rise to deception more than the idea of totality. All too quickly it has been said: It is here, it is there, it is Mind, it is Nature, it is History. Violence is the next step” (pp. 73-74). Instead, the idea of totality should be taken as a task, a Kantian imperative.

Our practical finitude is summed up in the notion of character. Ricoeur provocatively suggests that our practical “infinitude” with respect to the constitution of meaning is summed up in Aristotle’s notion of happiness. What extends the mediation of the Kantian transcendental synthesis of imagination into the practical domain, he says, is the constitution of the person through Kantian respect.

“Character is the finite openness of my existence taken as a whole” (p. 89). There is no science of character. Ricoeur says “My humanity is my essential community with all that is human outside myself…. [M]y character is that humanity seen from somewhere” (p. 93).

Desire too fundamentally involves a kind of openness. We are not enclosed within our desire. But there is also an affective opacity or closing involved in attachment.

Bergson is quoted saying each feeling of sufficient depth represents the whole soul.

“The person is the Self which was lacking to the ‘I’ of the Kantian ‘I think’…. The Self is aimed at rather than experienced…. There is no experience of the person in itself and for itself” (p. 106). The person is the synthesis of the “antithetical notions” of character and happiness. “[T]he person is primarily the ideal of the person” (p. 110).

According to Ricoeur, feeling already overcomes the duality of subject and object. It simultaneously tells us something about both. Feeling is essentially concerned with values, and simultaneously with what is. “If one does not take into consideration the primordial disproportion of vital desire and intellectual love (or of spiritual joy), one entirely misses the specific nature of human affectivity” (p. 140).

Not pleasure itself but a blind preference for pleasure is evil. “[H]appiness, restored by the reflection on the ‘excellences’ of the ‘good’ man, is ultimately the highest form of the pleasant” (p. 148). Thomistic and Cartesian analysis of the passions fails to see the “innocence of ‘difference’ under the cloak of vain and deadly ‘preference'” (p. 163). “[E]ncountering of another person is what breaks the finite, cyclic pattern of the sensible appetite” (p. 168).

Kantian anthropology should learn from Aristotle’s treatment of pleasure, and seek to discover behind passions an innocent quest that is “no longer mad and in bondage but constitutive of human praxis and the human Self” (p. 170). Later he quotes Hegel saying all great accomplishments involve passion, while a morality that simply condemns passion is deadly and too often hypocritical.

“The quest for reciprocity, which no will to live can account for, is the true passage from consciousness to self-consciousness” (p. 184). “I esteem myself as a thou for another” (p. 188). “[T]his belief, this credence, this trust, constitutes the very feeling of my worth” (p. 189). “[I]ts character of belief makes its corruptions possible: what is believed is presumed; and the presumption of the preesumed can turn into the presumption of the presumptuous” (p. 190). According to Ricoeur, the unstable, ambiguous “middle part” of the soul in Plato’s myth mixes the vital and the spiritual. Feeling prospectively binds things together, in the process creating the disproportion of self to self. This is the fragility of the human being, with immense potential for both good and evil.

Aristotelian Virtue

Aristotelian ethics is not just about cultivating virtue as a kind of good character. Although he does emphasize it a lot, ultimately character is just a means and a potentiality for actualization of the real goal of that part of living well that is under our power. The actualization itself comes from good practice (praxis), grounded in sound, well-rounded deliberation and choice. Aristotle also says the very best life is that of the philosopher. Not only is philosophy valuable in itself, but it also helps us deliberate.

The best deliberation and choice is supported by intellectual virtues, a concern for justice, and a spirit of friendship or love, but it would not even get off the ground without progress in the classic “moral” virtues, which are all said to pertain to our emotions or passions, and to how we are affected by pleasure and pain. Aristotle characterizes each of these emotional virtues as a kind of mean, or balanced emotional state.

Thus, courage is presented as a mean between rashness and cowardice. Temperance is a mean between self-indulgence and insensibility. Interestingly, justice and prudence are also included among emotional virtues, and subjected to a similar analysis. Other emotional virtues are presented as following the same pattern. Unlike the Stoics, neither Plato nor Aristotle advocated suppressing the emotions.

Emotional Intelligence

I originally glossed Aristotelian hexis as something like acquired emotional constitution. In adopting the contemporary term “emotional intelligence” for the kind of good development of hexis that is conducive to ethical development, I have in mind especially its broad association with a strong capacity for empathy and a related kind of self-awareness, rather than the details of a contemporary psychological theory. I also mean to recall something more like a kind of practical wisdom than any connection to what Aristotle said about intellect per se.