Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher and theologian of 12th century Europe. He flourished right before the great influx of translations to Latin from Arabic and Hebrew.

For Abelard, common names refer collectively and directly to many individual things, and there are no separate universal things apart from individual things. But in addition to reference, words have signification, or practical informational content.

The signification of sentences, moreover, cannot be reduced to the signification of the nouns and verbs that make them up. Sentences convey irreducible judgments (dicta) about how things are. Abelard has been said to hold an adverbial view of thought.

He opposed two simplified views of understanding commonly attributed to Aristotle in the tradition: that the mind literally takes on the same form that it apprehends, and that images in the mind resemble the things it apprehends.

Abelard endured persecution for opposing the proto-fundamentalist view of Bernard of Clairvaux that sentences about the faith have a “plain meaning” that is beyond question. He also openly acknowledged that Church authorities contradicted one another on numerous points. At the same time, he is said to have rejected views he attributed to his teacher Roscelin that human reason can explain everything; that we should not accept anything that cannot be explained by reason; and that authority has no rational force.

Abelard reportedly held that the agent’s intention alone determines the moral worth of an action, and that obedience to God’s will consists in applying the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Only God has the right to morally judge others. Ethics is not a matter of acting in conformity to law. Nonetheless, human law may legitimately disregard good intentions in punishing actions that had genuinely bad consequences, as a lesson to others.

In Genèse du dieu souverain, Gwenaëlle Aubry says Abelard devoted considerable energy to combatting the notion of a “tyrant God”, citing Daniel’s confrontation with the neo-Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar. Here he seems to me to anticipate Leibniz in connecting theological voluntarism with tyranny. According to Aubry, Abelard argued that “God, if He is at once rational and good, can only choose the good. Further, a God who did not will and do all the good that He could would be not good but jealous. Therefore, God wills and does all the good that he can, and cannot do anything other than what He does do” (p. 123, my translation). “The essential point that separates Abelard from Augustine… is in effect the following…. it is not sufficient to say that divine action is governed by reason and by the good, rather it is also necessary to affirm that human reason can reason about that reason and that good” (ibid). Here again, on this account Abelard seems to anticipate Leibniz.

According to Aubry, Abelard quotes Augustine saying God is omnipotent “because He can do what He wills….[God] is all-powerful, not because He can do all, but because He can do all that he wills” (p. 124, brackets in original). From this Abelard argues that “It is necessary to say not that God could have done something but did not will to do it, but rather that what he does not will, he can in no way do. The scope of power is indeed not more extended than that of divine will…. [I]n God, power and will are united in such a way that where will is lacking, power is also lacking” (p. 125).

“In [Abelard’s] Theologia Christiana, omnipotence is defined as that for which the will suffices by itself to do all that needs to be done. Omnipotence is thus characterized not by an excess over its effects but by an adequation to them. Not that which is capable of more things than it does is omnipotent, but that which has the power sufficient to what it wills to do” (p. 126).

According to Aubry, Abelard insists on the immutability of divine power and action. Augustine too emphasized the eternity of God, which also implies immutability. But in general he treats the human mind as an image of God, whereas Aubry says Abelard warns against thinking about God’s power in terms of human power. In the works I am familiar with, Augustine treats human will as a power of choice. Is divine will a power of choice too for Augustine, or is it the definite will Aubry suggests Abelard implies it is? I don’t currently know the answer.

Is there any way that power of choice could even have meaning for a genuinely eternal being? It has always seemed to me that choice implies temporal conditions that are incompatible with eternity.

Aubry says that referring to Plato’s Timaeus (a fragment of which was the only text of Plato available in Latin at the time), Abelard distances divine power from the creation from nothing with which it is strongly associated in Augustine, in order to associate it essentially with reason. According to Aubry, Abelard says this is not only the best of all possible worlds, but the only possible world, whereas Augustine says this world could be changed by divine will. Aubry relates this to the excess of divine power over divine will in Augustine.

She makes the Platonic-sounding point that Abelard in Theologia Christiana says not that God is by himself the good, but rather that the good is that which one calls God…. In this way, theology is subsumed by ethics rather than ethics by theology” (p. 130). Aubry also says Abelard transposes the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of excluded middle, and the principle of sufficient reason from the realm of ontology to that of axiology or values.

In both Theologia Christiana and Theologia Scholarium, Abelard raises the question, “Could God do more or better than He does, or again not do what he does?” (p. 133). He answers no, because to say yes would degrade the goodness of God.

Ricoeur on Practical Reason

I just found a nice essay on practical reason in Ricoeur’s From Text to Action (French ed. 1986). An account of practical reason must confront “the two great classical problematics of ‘meaningful action’, those of Kant and of Hegel” (p. 189). As Ricoeur himself notes, though, his account has a “greater affinity” (p. 191) with Aristotle’s accounts of choice and practical wisdom than with Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason. Like Aristotle, Ricoeur wants to assert “no break between desire and reason” (ibid).

Practical reason for Ricoeur “must deserve the name of reason, but it must maintain certain features irreducible to scientifico-technical rationality” (p. 188). (I think design in engineering — while it must have a strong technical basis — already goes beyond purely technical concerns, insofar as key criteria of its “goodness” lie in the broad pragmatics of use of its products in real-world contexts.) What Ricoeur has in mind here is that practical reason inherently involves concrete judgments of value that cannot be reduced to calculation.

He adds that practical reason is critical rather than speculative. I would also add that common sense, practical reason, and Reason with a capital “R” all work mainly by material inference, which is concerned with meaning and values from the ground up.

There is a syntactic ordering of reasons-for-acting as relative ends and means, but Ricoeur dislikes Aristotle’s talk of “practical syllogisms” as sharing the same formal structure with theoretical ones. I think Aristotle is right about the formal structure, but Aristotle would agree with Ricoeur that this much narrower kind of reasoning is very far from encompassing practical reason as a whole. Practical reason or wisdom in Aristotle crucially includes processes of judgment behind the formation of the propositions used in syllogisms (and canonical Aristotelian propositions codify material inferences).

Ricoeur emphasizes that practical reason involves interpretation, normativity, and resolution of “opposing normative claims” (p. 195). He commends Aristotle’s definition of virtue for joining together psychological, logical, normative, and personal components. Aristotelian practical wisdom “joins together a true calculus and an upright desire under a principle — a logos — that, in its turn, always includes personal initiative and discernment” (p. 197). There is an “epistemological break between practical reasoning and practical reason” (p. 198).

In the Critique of Practical Reason “Kant, it seems to me, hypostatized one single aspect of our practical experience, namely, the fact of moral obligation, conceived as the constraint of the imperative” (ibid). Though I think Kant tempered this in other places, I am very sympathetic to the thrust of Ricoeur’s criticism (and Brandom’s tendency to follow Kant on this in some contexts has evoked a mixture of criticism and apologetics from me; see, e.g., Necessity in Normativity; Modality and Variation). Ricoeur also says that “by constructing the concept of the practical a priori after the model of that of the theoretical a priori, Kant shifted the investigation of practical reason into a region of knowledge that does not belong to it” (p. 199). I thoroughly agree with Ricoeur that there can be no science of the practical, but here I would also follow Brandom in noting that while the practical cannot be reduced to the theoretical, theoretical reason itself is ultimately subordinate to practical reason (taken in a more Hegelian than Kantian sense).

Ricoeur here follows an old-school reading of Hegel’s Geist as a sort of objective mind directly embodied in the State, and correctly points out how such a notion has great potential for abuse. He prefers the “hypothesis of Husserl, Max Weber, and Alfred Schutz” (p. 205) that would ground communities — including things like the State — in relations of intersubjectivity. (I would note that Brandom’s nuanced and multi-dimensional grounding of Geist and normativity in a vast ensemble of processes of mutual recognition over time provides a convincing, original “deep” reading of Hegel that meets Ricoeur’s criterion of grounding in intersubjectivity, while avoiding what seems to me the very crude and implausible notion of an objective mind that would somehow be capable of being definitively embodied in the State. Any such notion of definitive embodiment of objective mind also involves huge confusion between potentiality and actuality.)

“One must never tire of repeating that practical reason cannot set itself up as a theory of praxis. We must repeat along with Aristotle that there is knowledge only of things that are necessary and immutable…. [P]ractical reason recovers a critical function by losing its theoretical claim to knowledge” (p. 206; emphasis in original).

Finally, he wryly observes that “practical wisdom, in situations of alienation, can never be without a certain madness on the part of the sage, since the values that govern the social bond have themselves become insane” (p. 207). (See also Ricoeur on Justice.)

Ricoeurian Choice

Part 1 of Ricoeur’s Freedom and Nature is devoted to a rich discussion of choice. He says that to will is to think (p. 41), and that deciding is a kind of judging (p. 43). But also “I project my own self into the action to be done. Prior to all reflection about the self which I project, the myself summons itself… it becomes committed…. Prereflexive self-imputation is active, not observational” (p. 59; emphasis in original).

He develops at length how the interdependence of the voluntary and the involuntary can be seen in processes of choice. “The circle of ethics and practice repeats the more basic circle of motive and decision” (p. 77). Motives partially determine us in certain directions, but in deciding we choose which motives to put first. Deciding involves a combination of analysis and judgment with creativity and risk.

We should not think of a decision as an atomic act coming from nowhere. Hesitation and indecision are valid moments of a genuine process of considering alternatives, and this has implications for the self as well. “[T]his inchoate, problematic mode of myself must be grasped as it presents itself. We have no right to substitute for it the image of the triumphant self which is invariably one” (p. 140). The ambiguity inherent in our embodiment means that our decisions cannot be simply governed by a present totality of inclinations or an evident hierarchy of values (p. 143).

Neither an intellectualist approach that tries to reduce decision to air-tight determination from reasons nor a voluntarist one that turns decision into a creation from nothing is valid. “A living dialectic constantly brings us back from one aspect of choice to the other: choice as the peak of previous growth and as the surge of novelty” (p. 164; emphasis in original). “Thus we must say simultaneously that ‘choice follows from the final practical judgment’ and ‘a practical judgment is final when choice irrupts‘” (p. 181; emphasis in original). “Determination of the act and indetermination of the power do not actually represent two separate moments” (p. 186). (For more on the same book, see Phenomenology of Will; Ricoeur on Embodiment; Voluntary Action; Consent?. In general, see also Fallible Humanity; Ricoeurian Ethics; Oneself as Another; Choice, Deliberation; Practical Judgment; Potentiality, Actuality; Brandomian Choice.)

Values, Causality

I’ve said that normativity consists of derived ends in a space of multiple potentialities. Meanwhile, on the side of actuality, when we interact with the order of efficient causes, we become subject to the constraints of structural causality. In between come our finite choices. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Fragility of the Good.)

Taking responsibility is a profound act that can have a kind of indirect efficacy of its own. Independent of the direct operation of our actual power and the order of efficient causes, taking responsibility can partially rewrite what would have been, at the broader level of meaning. Since we are so much creatures of meaning, this more circuitous route through the much larger space of potentiality can end up affecting an otherwise stubborn actuality, by changing the order of potentialities experienced by others, and thus affecting their choices.

One person alone may have no impact on the actuality, but for many together influencing one another’s choices, the story may turn out quite differently. At times, in this way even one person can end up initiating a much larger process far beyond that person’s individual power, and the total effect of many can be more than additive. In this way, what seems completely impossible can become possible, and the face of reality can be changed.

Structural Causality, Choice

I now have an Aristotelian account of structural causality. It is exercised by the combined form and materiality of actually used means to desired ends, and behaves like a contextual unmoved mover. As usual with Aristotelian “causes”, this puts it in the context of an expressive semantics, rather than any mechanical metaphor. (See also What and Why.)

We choose among available means to our ends (and, I think, also among alternative derived ends, due to the interdependence of derived ends with means). Then through structural causality, each such choice brings with it a block of consequences that are not up to us. This reconciles structural causality with contingency and Kantian freedom. (See also Potentiality, Actuality; Structure, Potentiality; Efficient Cause.)

(Often, ends are things we just tacitly accept, but we also have the possibility of critically examining what we have tacitly accepted, and possibly changing our commitment as a result.)

Notwithstanding Brandom’s negative comments in passing about structuralism, I think a similar account of the place of structural causality can be applied in the context of Brandomian choice and practical endorsement of commitments.

Acts in Brandom and Žižek

Both Brandom and Žižek recognize what Brandom has called the “world’s stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency”, and yet hold out for the possibility of transformative action.

Brandom ingeniously secures the practical reality of choice through the indirect route of an Enlightenment idea that we can only be bound by values to which we have at least implicitly committed ourselves. The recalcitrance of the Real prevents this from becoming a subjectivism, specifically by virtue of his complementary thesis that the meaning of our commitments is not up to us. But actively taking responsibility for things beyond our power turns out to indirectly have a kind of efficacy. Retrospectively, this may change meant reality.

A lengthy article by Fabio Vighi and Heiko Feldner discusses agency in Žižek from various angles. This account at least is happily free of the Badiouian narrowing of consideration to a few inflationarily conceived “exceptional” acts that afflicts some of the Žižekians (see “Hard” Kantianism?). The concern is with acts in general, and subjectivity in general. Here I can find a good deal more common ground.

For Žižek, our desires are not our own, but the split in the subject that makes us never fully ourselves also connects us with the social. A subject is contrasted with subjectivation. Although passive, alienating subjectivation is inescapable, it also can never be complete. A subject is positively constituted by its own nonidentity or “impossibility” (i.e., impossibility of complete identity with itself). According to Vighi and Feldner, “this decentred kernel of otherness embodies my self-consciousness, the only place where I have a chance to locate the truth about myself”. The conscious activity of individuals is said to be not free, but we can nonetheless accomplish a free act through identifying with the destabilizing effect of what is “in us more than ourselves”. They argue that Žižek does not hypostatize an abstract negativity in the way that I think Sartre did.

Žižek himself wrote that “To ‘pass to the act’ means to assume the risk that what I am about to do will be inscribed into a framework whose contours elude my grasp” (Tarrying with the Negative, p. 31). This connects agency with the Lacanian Real. He also wrote that freedom corresponds to “my ability to choose/determine which causes will determine me. ‘Ethics’, at its most elementary, stands for the courage to accept this responsibility” (The Parallax View, p. 203).

So, despite huge differences in approach and terminology and Žižek’s negative comments about Brandom, on this question at this level of abstraction, there is a similar practical import.

Brandomian Choice

Aristotle had a reasonable, noninflationary concept of real choice. Choice is up to us, but it is far from arbitrary. Unfortunately, later treatments have largely oscillated between extremes of voluntarism and determinism, making choice either arbitrary or only an unreal appearance.

One of Brandom’s great contributions to ethics is a new account of choice that is reasonable and noninflationary like Aristotle’s. Aristotle developed a notion of real but nonarbitrary choice by defining it as the result of an open deliberation subject to normative standards of inquiry. Brandom reaches a complementary conclusion following a different path. The core of it is a combination of two theses. First, there is a view he associates with the Enlightenment that makes values binding on us only when we have implicitly or explicitly endorsed them. This secures the practical reality of choice, without any ontological assumptions. Second, there is Brandom’s own view that the meaning of the values we endorse is not up to us, but depends on articulation in the space of reasons. As with Aristotle’s notion of deliberation, this establishes the nonarbitrary nature of choice. (See also Intentionality; Self, Subject; Fragility of the Good; Freedom Without Sovereignty.)

Desire, Coherence

We experience all sorts of passing and possibly conflicting impulses or wishes upon which we don’t necessarily act, and to which we never commit ourselves. It would not be appropriate to call these things that we “really” want.

Really wanting something implies what Aristotle would call a choice. This does involve a kind of ethical commitment. As Aristotle and Brandom might jointly remind us, to choose something is also inherently to choose whatever the realization of that thing requires; to choose what follows from the realization of that thing; and not to choose anything else that is incompatible with any of these. That is why Aristotle associates choice with deliberation. Just as emotion and reason interpenetrate in feeling, really wanting something implicitly has a rational and normative component as well as a desiring component.

Of course the possibility remains open that in particular cases, we may be unclear on what we want. In this case, we are back in the territory of wish and impulse. There is still some responsibility even here, but it is shared with others, and generally also matter for forgiveness. But as talking animals, if we explicitly say to someone that we want something, we are in the realm of choice and commitment, and we are responsible to be able to explain ourselves. Our participation in the universal community of ethical reason lifts organic desire into a defeasible rational desire. (See also Unity of Apperception; Dialogue; Scorekeeping.)

Choice, Deliberation

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics book 3 chapter 2 concerns choice. Choice is something willing, but not everything done willingly is done by choice. Things spontaneously done by children and animals and things done on the spur of the moment are done willingly and so are subject to praise or blame, but they are not done by choice.

Choice is not desire or spiritedness or wishing or opinion. It is involved with reason and thinking things through. It is the outcome of deliberation, the subject of chapter 3. It is the deliberate desire of things that are up to us (Sachs translation, p.43). It comes from desire combined with a rational understanding that is for the sake of something (p.103); it is “either intellect fused with desire, or desire fused with thinking, and such a source is a human being” (p.104). (The phrase “fused with” is actually an interpolation by the translator — the Greek actually just has “intellect and desire”, without specifying how they are related.)

We deliberate about things that are up to us and are matters of action. Deliberation is neither knowledge nor opinion. Inquiry about exact sciences or general truths or ends is not deliberation, but deliberation is a kind of inquiry. Deliberation applies to means for achieving ends, when outcomes can be predicted with some confidence, but are still uncertain. On big issues, we consult others. When there is more than one means to an end, deliberation seeks the one that is easier and more beautiful.

Deliberation may also examine how a thing will come about through a particular means, what other means are required for that means, and so on. Aristotle says the analysis of dependencies of means and ends in particular works just like a mathematician’s analysis of a geometrical diagram.

Deliberating well overall belongs to people with good practical judgment (p.112). “What is deliberated and what is chosen are the same thing, except that the thing chosen is already determined, since the thing chosen is what is decided out of the deliberation.” (p.43.) Aristotelian choice is therefore anything but arbitrary. It is a normative and rational determination, emerging from an open, fallible, and pluralistic process. (See also Brandomian Choice.)