Reflection, Judgment, Process

Reflection is a key concept both for later Kant and for Hegel (see, e.g., Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity; More on Contemplation). We have seen that it led Kant to deepen the notion of judgment he had already used in the Critique of Pure Reason, giving more explicit attention to what I have called the process of interpretation, in contrast to the eventual conclusions that had been the exclusive preoccupation of early modern logic. He had already criticized the latter for confusing judgment with predication.

When judgment is identified with simple predication, the process of interpretation entirely disappears. Indeed, both early modern and contemporary formal logic are explicitly concerned with mechanical syntactic manipulation of uninterpreted terms.

Kant’s narrower point in the first Critique had been that only categorical judgments (those having the simple form A is B) can be analyzed as linguistic predications. Against the early modern tradition, Kant pointed out that neither hypothetical judgments (if A then B) nor disjunctive judgments (if A then not-B) can be understood in this way.

Whereas the early modern tradition strongly privileged categorical judgments, taking simple predications straightforwardly as simple assertions, Kant argues that hypothetical and disjunctive judgments have at least equal significance for thought, if not more. Hypothetical and disjunctive judgments are irreducibly inferential, as can be seen from the presence of “if” and “then” in their forms. What Kant suggests about this in the first Critique is that the inferential aspect of judgment is more fundamental than its assertive aspect. Brandom makes the further suggestion that the kinds of inferences Kant is primarily concerned with in this context are informal “material” inferences, which are grounded in the meanings of terms rather than in formal syntax.

With the enhanced concept of reflective judgment developed in the Critique of Judgment, Kant begins to take an even wider range of interpretive processes into account in his view of judgment overall. Reflective judgment is primarily focused on the process of interpretation, though it also reaches conclusions. This makes the contrast between Kantian judgment and judgment in early modern logic even more profound. Early modern logic codifies a “conclusory” notion of judgment grounded in simple assertion, and makes the formal manipulation of such assertions the paradigm for all reasoning. Kantian judgment on the other hand begins as primarily inferential, and comes to emphasize the wider, open-ended, reflective process of interpretation.

The “logic of being” that Hegel presents as a kind of necessary preliminary failure in his Logic is precisely the logic of simple assertion. From any arbitrary assertions, we can deductively generate more assertions that will be consistent with these, and we can classify other assertions according to whether they are consistent with the accepted ones or not. But Hegel is concerned with the possibility of genuine intelligibility and knowledge. Starting only from mere assertions, we can never reach these. The most we can achieve is some kind of relational discrimination between the implications of different assertions, whose meaning is merely assumed.

Kantian reflection is the main theme of Hegel’s “logic of essence”. Hegel’s conclusion is that the ultimate ground of essence is none other than pure reflection, which embodies a kind of reflective infinity of mutually referencing relations, that presupposes no fixed terms. Essence, as a kind of deeper truth of things than the shallow one of logical consistency alone, is not based on “fixed” concepts of the sort that are always assumed in formal logic. Rather, essence for Hegel is grounded in reflection all the way down, which we can pursue as deeply as we like. Socratic inquiry can be seen as a foreshadowing of this.

I see an important parallel to book Lambda of Aristotle’s Metaphysics here. There, the ground of the what-it-is of things is the pure contemplation of thought thinking itself. In other words, the ground of essence is pure reflection, just as Hegel says. The pure actuality or pure entelechy of Aristotle’s first cause is an actuality or entelechy of what Hegel calls pure reflection.

A major difference between Aristotle’s first cause and ourselves, as I read it, is that the purity of the first cause makes it only concerned with essence or deep truth, whereas we rational animals also live in a world of appearances, and therefore also have to deal with these. Because we live in a world of appearances, we humans have a need for judgment that Aristotle’s first cause does not share.

In the “logic of the concept” with which he concludes his Logic, Hegel gives a thoroughly Kantian treatment of judgment, effectively identifying all judgment with reflective judgment in Kant’s sense. If the logic of essence was concerned with the objective determination of essence from pure reflection, the “subjective” logic of the concept is concerned with applying reflection to particular appearances that we encounter in life. This is something we rational animals have to do that Aristotle’s first cause does not.

Pure reflection is a kind of ideal thing that is analytically separable from process, but the kind of reflection that we embodied beings engage in only occurs as part of a concrete process that involves particular appearances and development in time.

More on Contemplation

I’m still, as it were, contemplating Aristotelian contemplation or theoria (see also But What Is Contemplation?; Kantian “Contemplation”?).

The two main English meanings of theoria — “contemplation” and “theory” — have a rather different connotative feel. What is tricky is that by all accounts, contemplation is also an activity. But it is not grammatically obvious that the English “theory” is an activity. Indeed, a theory is commonly taken to be a kind of inert representation, and not an activity.

Nonetheless, it seems reasonable to say that “theory” by itself can also refer to a corresponding activity. Theory’s activity would be contemplative, and would not in itself aim at any external result. At least on a relative scale applicable to humans, it would be pure thinking. Meanwhile, contemplation for Aristotle is a kind of activity that does not in itself have an external result.

In the contemporary revival of American pragmatist philosophy, figures like Brandom and Pippin insist that thinking is a kind of doing. Rather than a distinction between theory and practice, this leads to a distinction between specifically “contemplative” or “theoretical” practice, and practice in general. Doing and practice in English can thus have the full generality that activity has in Aristotle. Not all doing is “external” doing; not all practice is “external” practice.

Human pure thinking may implicitly issue in a kind of result — a relatively coherent representation, or broadly speaking a “theory” of what it holds to be the case — but it may still be said that this implicit result is “internal”, until some additional external action gives the representation some kind of embodiment.

However, Hegel might remind us that the very distinction between “internal” and “external” is problematic. He argues that it is not really possible to draw an unambiguous line between them, and that internal and external are instead related by a kind of continuity.

(Hegel confusingly calls this a speculative “identity”, though he is very clear that a speculative identity is not a formal, exact identity. Having come to see the value in what Paul Ricoeur calls narrative identity — another “identity” that is not a formal, exact identity — I don’t object as strenuously to Hegel’s nonstandard uses of “identity” as I once did, though I still prefer to use some other word when what is meant is anything weaker than exact isomorphism or substitutional equivalence.)

The continuity of internal and external seems to me like a very Aristotelian point, albeit one that Aristotle does not himself make. But unlike Hegel, Aristotle has no need to respond to a sharp Cartesian or Lockean dualism between consciousness and its representations on the one hand, and everything else on the other.

I think most people would allow that contemplation may involve representations, but contemplation itself is neither an activity of representing, nor a simple consciousness of static representations.

The English connotations of contemplation and reflection are closely aligned. Connotations of words do not count as a philosophical argument for identifying terms that might be claimed to stand for different concepts, but such alignment is nonetheless helpful, because in doing philosophy we are also concerned with communicating clearly, and there are always issues with translated terms not meaning quite the same thing on the two sides of a translation.

Aristotle identifies contemplation with thought thinking itself. I am suggesting that thought thinking itself can be strongly identified with reflection in the sense discussed by Kant, Hegel, Ricoeur, and Pippin, which builds on the common one. That would mean that contemplation can be identified with reflection.

Though the precise meanings of reflection and apperception in Kant are debated by scholars, there seems to be broad agreement that Kant strongly connects pure reflection with pure or transcendental apperception, and a more empirical reflection with a more empirical apperception. (See also Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity).

These same concepts are fundamental to Hegel’s Logic. The three “logics” he develops there concern mere assertion; reflection or reflective constitution; and reflective or apperceptive judgment. Hegel innovatively explains the constitution of essence in terms of a pure reflective determination that presupposes no fixed terms, but builds determination from relations between terms. Then he explains judgment as normatively applying reflective determination to appearances.

I want to suggest that Hegelian reflective or apperceptive judgment should be considered as a more detailed elaboration of Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment.

All of this leads to the conclusion that Aristotelian contemplation — at least the contemplation that he explicitly makes the goal of human life — can be explained as the exercise of reflective or apperceptive judgment. It is not clear to me that the contemplation attributed to the first cause also issues in judgment, but it certainly does seem to be a kind of pure reflection such as Hegel associates with the determination of essence, and this tracks with Aristotle’s claim that the what-it-is of things depends on the first cause.

Kantian “Contemplation”?

Since what Aristotle says about theoria or “contemplation” in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Metaphysics seems highly important but still rather minimal, I wanted to consider what other historical resources there are for its interpretation.

On this score, the version of theoria in Plotinus yielded less than I had hoped. I had expected that in Plotinus, contemplation would look like what Kant calls an intellectual intuition, but hoped there would at least be a significant tie-in to the key Aristotelian notion of entelechy. But on closer examination, it seemed like the delicately nuanced Aristotelian framework of teleological explanation gets drowned out first by Plotinus’ emphasis on the One as the source of all, and then by his explicit reversal of Aristotle’s innovation of asserting the priority of actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment, which is critical to the way that Aristotle’s teleology works.

I already hinted at a connection of Aristotelian contemplation first with the Kantian notion of reflection, and then with the closely related notion of apperception. This is what I will explore next.

Plotinus on Contemplation

“Supposing we played a little before entering upon our serious concern and maintained that all things are striving after Contemplation, looking to Vision as their one end — and this, not merely beings endowed with reason but even the unreasoning animals, the Principle that rules in growing things, and the Earth that produces these — and that all achieve their purpose in the measure possible to their kind, each attaining Vision and possessing itself of the End in its own way and degree, some things in entire reality, other in mimicry and image — we would scarcely find anyone to endure so strange a thesis. But in a discussion entirely among ourselves there is no risk in a light handling of our own ideas (Plotinus, Enneads III.8, ch. 1, MacKenna tr., p. 239).

Thus begins Plotinus’ great essay that we know by the title “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”. The remainder of the text suggests that he is in fact fairly serious in what he suggests, but this disclaimer shows that he recognizes its unusual character. He does at a later point say in effect, “and now for the serious part”. In the “playful” part, he is deliberately stretching the meaning of contemplation, challenging us to apply it in many more cases than we would expect. In the “serious” part, he narrows the meaning to cases that come close to instantiating the identity Aristotle speaks of between thought and what it thinks.

Scholars believe this essay was part of Plotinus’ single largest work, which his student and editor Porphyry divided into four separate pieces, including “On the Intellectual Beauty” and “Against the Gnostics”. I wanted to compare what he says about contemplation with what Aristotle says. I find that even when I don’t agree with Plotinus, his work often has a kind of poetic appeal.

Aristotle speaks of contemplation as the characteristic activity of the gods, and as the ultimate end of human life. Plotinus here suggests that all nature aims at contemplation. Aristotle never says that, but it is in a way implicit between the lines. If the first cause is characterized by pure contemplation, and is the ultimate end behind all particular ends for which things do what they do, then in that sense all things aim at contemplation.

The characterization of contemplation as “Vision” is not one I would want to endorse in an Aristotelian context, at least without major qualification. The way Plotinus speaks of it, this Vision seems like a case of what Kant would call intellectual intuition — a kind of immediate grasping of some deep content.

I agree with Kant and Hegel that humans can “immediately” grasp deep content in holistic fashion only after and because we have previously done the work needed to understand it, which typically involves what Aristotle calls “thinking things through”, and what I have called interpretation and (after Paul Ricoeur) the long detour. I want to read Aristotle in a way that is compatible with this.

As it stands, Plotinus’ notion of Vision seems designed to exclude mediation, consonant with his emphasis on the simplicity of the One as the source of all things. For Plotinus, Vision is an immediate holistic “seeing” of deep truth.

I think Aristotelian contemplation is holistic too, but that any holistic Vision or immediate intuition achievable by humans and acceptable to Aristotle must have a cumulative, retrospective, reflective character that depends on previous insight and work, like apperception does in Kant and Hegel. I would suggest that Aristotelian contemplation could be elaborated as apperceptive entelechy.

“Well — in the play of this very moment am I engaged in the act of Contemplation? Yes; I and all that enter this play are in Contemplation: our play aims at Vision; and there is every reason to believe that child or man, in sport or earnest, is playing or working only towards Vision, that every act is an effort towards Vision; the compulsory act, which tends rather to bring the Vision down to outward things, and the act thought of as voluntary, less concerned with the outer, originate alike in the effort towards Vision” (ibid).

Here we begin to see in detail the vast extension of contemplation Plotinus is “playfully” suggesting. All things either are contemplation or aim at contemplation. In effect, he is treating Vision as a name for the Good at which all things aim.

“[L]et us speak, first, of the earth and of the trees and vegetation in general, asking ourselves what is the nature of the Contemplation in them, how we relate to any Contemplative activity the labor and productiveness of the earth, how Nature, held to be devoid of reason and even of conscious representation, can either harbour Contemplation or produce by means of the Contemplation which it does not possess” (ibid).

For Aristotle, the earth has a nature or internal source of motion, and plants as living things have an elementary kind of soul corresponding to their abilities for growth and nutrition. But even motion is a primitive kind of entelechy, of which contemplation is the highest form. Aristotle may not see contemplation everywhere, but he does see entelechy everywhere.

Incidentally, the English word “consciousness” was first coined by Locke’s friend, the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, to express ideas he found in Plotinus.

“To begin with, since in all [Nature’s] production it is stationary and intact, a Reason-Principle [logos] self-indwelling, it is in its own nature a Contemplative act. All doing must be guided by an Idea, and will therefore be distinct from that Idea: the Reason-Principle then, as accompanying and guiding the work, will be distinct from the work; not being action but Reason-Principle it is, necessarily, Contemplation” (ch. 3, p. 240).

Plotinus generally seems to use logos in a sense that is derived from Stoicism, rather than any Platonic or Aristotelian source. Logos is a — arguably the — fundamental explanatory principle in Stoicism. It has relations with Platonic and Aristotelian concepts, but is a distinct notion or family of notions in its own right. For the Stoics, everything has an indwelling logos or rational principle that internally governs it, and the logos has a divine origin.

“And does this Reason-Principle, Nature, spring from a contemplation? Wholly and solely” (ibid).

He doesn’t explain this, but instead proceeds to qualify it.

“The Contemplation springing from the reasoning faculty — that, I mean, of planning its own content — [Nature] does not possess” (p. 241).

Nature neither reasons explicitly, nor plans how to achieve its aims.

“Because to plan for a thing is to lack it: Nature does not lack; it creates because it possesses. Its creative act is simply its possession of its own characteristic Essence; now its Essence, since it is a Reason-Principle, is to be at once an act of contemplation and an object of contemplation” (ibid).

The idea of starting from fullness rather than lack is appealing. Aristotle’s way of doing this is to emphasize entelechies everywhere. Every entelechy is in a way complete in itself.

Aristotle complements this by saying that the living things that have natures are more immediately moved by desire. Plato, however, strongly identifies desire with a kind of lack. Plotinus therefore seems to want to downplay the role of desire, and identifies nature with the fullness of a creative act. If this is not the creativity of the translator, we have here a reference to creation, as distinct from making. Creation is also not part of Platonic or Aristotelian vocabulary.

Plotinus is said to have read works by Numenius, a Neo-Pythagorean who was impressed by the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. I don’t have my Loeb edition handy to check the Greek. (Incidentally, Armstrong’s complete translation of Plotinus in the Loeb edition is more accurate and less flowery than the more common MacKenna I am using here. Kevin Corrigan’s translation in his Reading Plotinus is also better, but I don’t have that handy either.)

The “act” part seems to be a reference to actuality or being-at-work. This is also an important concept for Plotinus, though in contrast to Aristotle he ultimately subordinates it to potentiality.

“Thus the act of production is seen to be in Nature an act of contemplation, for creation is the outcome of a contemplation which never becomes anything else, which never does anything else, but creates by simply being a contemplation” (ibid).

Aristotle makes the more specific claim that the what-it-is of things is the outcome of thought thinking itself that contemplates. He would not collapse this together as Plotinus does, into a claim that nature’s act of production is an act of contemplation.

“[W]hat we know as Nature is a Soul, offspring of a yet earlier Soul of more powerful life; that it possesses, therefore, in its repose, a vision within itself; that it has no tendency upward nor even downward but is at peace, steadfast, in its own Essence;” (ch. 4, p. 241).

Aristotle calls nature an internal source of motion, but not a soul (psyche). On the other hand, the things he regards as having a nature (plants and animals) he also regards as having a soul. But the notions of soul in Aristotle and Plotinus are also vastly different. While Aristotle is careful to stay close to what can be observed by anyone, Plotinus makes the soul a much grander thing with much stronger properties.

“Of course, while it may be convenient to speak of ‘understanding’ or ‘perception’ in the Nature-Principle, this is not in the full sense…; we are applying to sleep a word borrowed from the wake” (pp. 241-242).

Here he acknowledges he is stretching things.

“In the same way, human beings, when weak on the side of contemplation, find in action their trace of vision and of reason: their spiritual feebleness unfits them for contemplation; they are left with a void, because they cannot adequately seize the vision; yet they long for it; they are hurried into action as their way to the vision which they cannot attain by intellection. They act from the desire of seeing their action, and of making it visible and sensible to others when the result shall prove fairly well equal to the plan. Everywhere, doing and making will be found to be either an attenuation or a complement of vision” (p. 242).

Long ago, I was profoundly impressed by this argument that all action aims at contemplation, which he returns to further on. Looking at it now, it strikes me that this thesis may be implicitly counterposed to Aristotle’s idea of the priority of actuality, which, as we will see, Plotinus does not agree with. Aristotle also would never be so one-sidedly dismissive of doing and making, even though he agrees that contemplation is “even more” to be valued.

“The primal phase of the Soul — inhabitant of the Supreme… — remains unchangeably There; but in virtue of that first participation, … a secondary phase also participates in the Supreme, and this secondary goes forth ceaselessly as Life streaming from Life; for energy runs through the universe and there is no extremity at which it dwindles out” (ch. 5, p. 242).

“Energy” here is actuality or being-at-work, now explicitly associated with something secondary.

“All goes softly since nothing here demands the parade of thought or act upon external things: it is a Soul in vision and, by this vision, creating its own subsequent — this Principle (of Nature), itself also contemplative but in the feebler degree… a Vision creates the Vision ” (p. 243).

The implicit complaint against the “parade of thought” has to do with Plotinus’ strong bias for intuitive immediacy over what Aristotle would call “thinking things through”. I think Plotinus is perhaps the best proponent of this view that I disagree with — certainly better than the followers of Schelling and Jacobi who attacked Hegel.

“[T]his explains how the Soul’s creation is everywhere: where can this thing fail to be, which is one identical thing in every soul? Vision is not cabined within the bournes of magnitude.”

In Plotinus’ modified Platonic view, Soul is not just the form of a living body, but plays a huge role in the formation and governance of the world. There is a soul of the world or soul of the all; nature is a kind of soul; and there is a transcendent Soul that is Nature’s prior. Every individual soul has a direct connection to the transcendent Soul.

“This, of course, does not mean that the Soul is present at the same strength in each and every place and thing — any more than it is at the same strength in each of its phases.”

“The Charioteer (the Leading Principle of the Soul, in the Phaedrus myth) gives the two horses (its two dissonant faculties) what he has seen and they, taking that gift, showed that they were hungry for that vision; there was something lacking to them: if in their desire they acted, their action aimed at what they craved for — and that was vision, and an object of vision” (ibid).

Here he refers to imagery from Plato’s Phaedrus, while re-centering the myth around his own notion of Vision. He again dwells on the superiority of contemplation to action.

“Action, thus, is set towards contemplation and an object of contemplation, so that even those whose life is in doing have seeing as their object” (ch. 6, p. 243).

“[T]hey desired a certain thing to come about, not in order to be unaware of it but to know it, to see it present before the mind…. We act for the sake of some good; this means not for something to remain outside of ourselves, not in order that we may possess nothing but that we may hold the good of the action. And hold it, where? Where but in the mind?” (ibid).

“This vision achieved, the acting instinct pauses; the mind is satisfied and seeks nothing further” (p. 244).

Aristotle would agree that a maximally complete entelechy like contemplation is in a way better than any incomplete entelechy, such as would be associated with action. Even so, his emphasis on the priority of actuality leads to a much more positive valuation of acting, doing, and making. Also, for Aristotle contemplation is a being-at-work. And I at least also think of it as a particular kind of acting and doing, even though it is different from external acting and doing.

“[N]ow we come to the serious treatment of the subject — In proportion to the truth with which the knowing faculty knows, it comes to identification with the object of its knowledge” (ibid).

What he says here about knowledge resembles the Aristotelian identity of thought and the thing thought, broadened to include a kind of proportional applicability. On the other hand, Aristotle seems to view knowledge as a discrete relation, which if taken strictly would seem to rule out any kind of proportional applicability or approximation.

“Hence the Idea must not be left to lie outside but must be made one identical thing with the Soul of the novice so that he finds it really his own. The Soul, once domiciled within that Idea and brought to likeness to it, becomes productive, active; what it always held by its primary nature it now grasps with knowledge and applies in deed, so becoming, as it were, a new thing and, informed as it now is by the purely intellectual, it sees (in its outgoing act) as a stranger looking upon a strange world” (ibid).

Though the strong implications of Soul and the initiatory rhetoric are distinctive to Plotinus, what is really essential here is that “the Idea must not be left to lie outside”. Aristotle and Hegel would both wholeheartedly endorse this part.

“The Sage, then, has gone through a process of reasoning when he expounds his act to others; but in relation to himself he is Vision” (ibid).

Plotinus has a much more individualist point of view than Aristotle. For him we are ultimately each “alone with the Alone”. A direct personal relation to the One makes all human social relations seem insignificant by comparison. For Aristotle, participation in social relations is essential to being human, and this is a good thing, not just a distraction from personal spiritual development.

“All the forms of Authentic Existence spring from vision and are a vision. Everything that springs from these Authentic Existences in their vision is an object of vision — manifest to sensation or to true knowledge or to surface-awareness. All act aims at this knowing; all impulse is toward knowledge” (ch. 7, p. 245).

Now in the “serious” part, he repeats what was initially supposed to be the “playful” claim that all things either are contemplation or are oriented toward it.

“[T]he creating powers operate not for the sake of creation and action but in order to produce an object of vision. This same vision is the ultimate purpose of all the acts of the mind and, even further downward, of all sensation, since sensation also is an effort towards knowledge; lower still, Nature, producing similarly its subsequent principle, brings into being the vision and Idea that we know in it. It is certain, also, that as the Firsts exist in vision all other things must be straining towards the same condition; the starting point is, universally, the goal” (ibid).

Aristotle would never speak of “creating powers”. While he certainly recognizes distinctions between immediate, intermediate, and ultimate ends, he would also never deny that what a thing essentially does is its end.

“[T]he procreative act is the expression of a contemplation, a travail towards the creation of many forms, many objects of contemplation, so that the universe may be filled full of Reason-Principles and that contemplation may be, as nearly as possible, endless…. So Love, too, is vision with the pursuit of Ideal-Form” (ibid).

Again this has a kind of poetic charm, but taking it literally relies on a collapsing of distinctions.

“In the advancing stages of Contemplation rising from that in Nature, to that in the Soul and thence again to that in the Intellectual-Principle itself, the object contemplated becomes progressively a more and more intimate possession of the Contemplating Beings, more and more one with them” (ch. 8, p. 245).

Here he returns to what we know from Aristotle as the strict identity of pure thought and what it thinks. As before, he wants to first greatly generalize and then to relativize it.

“[I]n the Intellectual-Principle itself, there is complete identity of Knower and Known, and this not by way of domiciliation, as in the case of even the highest soul, but by Essence, by the fact that, there, no distinction exists between Being and Knowing” (ibid).

Aristotle would agree.

“The Supreme must be an entity in which the two are one; it will, therefore, be a Seeing that lives, not an object of vision like things existing in something other than themselves” (pp. 245-246).

The Supreme in Plotinus is a name for the One. Aristotle’s first cause is identified with thought thinking itself, more or less equivalent to the Intellectual-Principle here. Plotinus is clearly not satisfied with Aristotle’s first cause, and posits the One above it. Aristotle in the Metaphysics argues at length why we should not follow the Pythagoreans and Plato in regarding the One as a source or cause.

“Every life is some form of thought…. But while men may recognize grades in life they reject grades in thought; to them there are thoughts (full and perfect) and anything else is no thought” (p. 246).

This is an important point. The thoughts that we embodied beings have in ordinary life are far from “full and perfect”, but we tend to act as though they were full and perfect.

“The essential is to observe that, here again, all reasoning shows that whatever exists is a bye-work [sic] of visioning” (ibid).

Once again, for Plotinus the immediate whole of the One is the complete source of everything. By contrast, Aristotle complements his account of the dependency of all things on the first cause by insisting that everything also depends on particular causes.

“The Highest began as a unity but did not remain as it began; all unknown to itself, it became manifold; it grew, as it were, pregnant: desiring universal possession, it flung itself outward, though it were better had it never known the desire by which a Secondary came into being…. The Whence is better; the Whither is less good: the Whence is not the same as the Whence-followed-by-a-Whither; the Whence alone is greater than with the Whither added to it” (ibid).

Overall, Plotinus seems to be conflicted about the goodness of manifestation and actualization. There are many texts like “On the Intellectual Beauty” that seem to present these in a positive light, and he sharply criticizes the Gnostics for their negative views of life in the world. But here he repeats in three different wordings that the One shut up within itself is better than the One complemented by a world.

For Aristotle, manifestation and actualization as such are unequivocally good, even if some true facts are not good. For Aristotle — in diametrical contrast to Plotinus here — the highest good should be called not a Whence but a Whither, the ultimate end of all things, that-for-the-sake-of-which. The first cause is a pure end.

“If, then, neither the Intellectual-Principle nor the Intelligible Object can be the First Existent, what is? Our answer can only be: The source of both…. Yet: our knowledge of everything else comes by way of our intelligence; our power is that of knowing the intelligible by means of the intelligence: but this Entity transcends all of the intellectual nature; by what direct intuition, then, can it be brought within our grasp?” (ch. 9, p. 247).

Here and below, Plotinus seems to refer to the One as a Being. In other texts, he says that the One is beyond being, and associates being with intellect. Even here, he associates all knowledge with intellect (the One would be beyond knowledge).

“To this question the answer is that we can know it only in the degree of human faculty: we indicate it by virtue of what in ourselves is like it. For in us, also, there is something of that Being; nay, nothing, ripe for that participation, can be void of it. Wherever you be, you have only to range over against this omnipresent Being that in you which is capable of drawing from It, and you have your share in it” (pp. 247-248).

Now he uses “knowledge” in a much looser way than above. The idea that what is highest is not entirely inaccessible to us is appealing.

“The Intellectual-Principle in us must mount to its origins: essentially a thing facing two ways, it must deliver itself over to those powers within it which tend upward; if it seeks the vision of that Being, it must become something more than Intellect.”

Elsewhere, Plotinus seems to suggest that if each thing “turns upward” toward what is above it and away from what is below, that which is below it will spontaneously carry on in the best possible way — i.e., better than if we were more actively looking down into it and intervening in it. Very different presentation notwithstanding, this always reminded me of the Tao Te Ching‘s idea of getting things done in the best possible way by “non-action”.

“For the Intellectual-Principle is the earliest form of Life: it is the Activity presiding over the outflowing of the universal Order — the outflow, that is, of the first moment, not that of the continuous process” (p. 248).

He identifies neither intellect nor the the One with the whole of things.

“[I]t must of necessity derive from some other Being, from one that does not emanate but is the Principle of Emanation, of Life, of Intellect, and of the Universe…. [T]his can be no thing among things but must be prior to all things” (ibid).

The One is not a “thing” at all. For Aristotle, the first cause is a particular thing that is prior in nature to all other things. To be a being in the proper sense is to be a particular independent thing.

“And what will such a Principle essentially be? The potentiality of the Universe: the potentiality whose non-existence would mean the non-existence of all the Universe and even of the Intellectual-Principle which is the primal Life and all Life” (ch. 10, p. 248).

Here he makes the potentiality of the One prior to any actuality. Aristotle would strenuously object to this.

“Imagine a spring that has no source outside itself; it gives itself to all the rivers, yet is never exhausted by what they take, but remains always integrally what it was…. Or: think of the Life coursing throughout some mighty tree… it is the giver of the entire and manifold life of the tree, but remains unmoved in itself” (p. 249).

This image of something that constantly gives and never needs anything is powerful. Plotinus radicalizes and generalizes Aristotle’s notion of unmoved moving, making it a complete cause of things, which Aristotle never claimed it was.

“Thus we are always brought back to The One. Every particular thing has a One of its own to which it may be traced; the All has its One, its Prior but not yet the Absolute One; through this we reach that Absolute One, where all such references come to an end. Now when we reach a One — the stationary Principle — in the tree, in the animal, in Soul, in the All — we have in every case the most powerful, precious element: when we come to the One in Authentically Existent Beings — their Principle and source and potentiality — shall we lose confidence and suspect it of being — nothing?” (ibid).

I probably should go back to the Metaphysics, and pull out Aristotle’s discussions of oneness and the Pythagorean-Platonic claims that the One is something separate. I think he pretty conclusively shows that claims for a separate One are incoherent.

“Certainly, this Absolute is none of the things of which it is the source — its nature is that nothing can be affirmed of it — not existence, not essence, not life — since it is That which transcends all these. But possess yourself of it by the very elimination of Being and you hold a marvel. Thrusting forward to This, attaining, and resting in its content, seek to grasp it more and more — understanding it by that intuitive thrust alone, but knowing its greatness by the Beings that follow upon it and exist by its power” (ibid).

This seems like his more standard position that the One is not a Being. It also at least suggests the very useful approach of understanding a cause or a higher thing by examining what follows from it. But the extent to which Plotinus puts this into practice is limited.

“The Intellectual-Principle is a Seeing, and a Seeing which itself sees; therefore it is a potentiality which has become effective…. All actual seeing implies duality; before the seeing takes place there is the pure unity (of the power of seeing)” (ch. 11, p. 249).

The assertion that all seeing — and implicitly, all knowing — implies duality suggests a denial of Aristotle’s thesis that pure thought is simply identical with what it thinks. But again there is a mismatch that could also allow for doubt. Where Aristotle speaks of thinking, Plotinus speaks of seeing, and of knowing in some broad sense. For Aristotle, thinking and knowing are primarily discursive; for Plotinus, they are primarily intuitive.

“Now as our sight requires the world of sense for its satisfaction and realization, so the vision in the Intellectual-Principle demands, for its completion, The Good” (pp. 249-250).

Here he implicitly rejects Aristotle’s identification of thought thinking itself with the good. In modern terms, we are back to the model of the duality of consciousness of an object that is not Aristotle’s, and that Hegel strove mightily to overcome in favor of a more Aristotelian solution.

“It cannot be, itself, The Good, since then it would not need to see or to perform any other Act; for The Good is the center of all else, and it is by means of The Good that every thing has Act, while The Good is in need of nothing and therefore possesses nothing beyond itself” (p. 250).

For Plotinus, intellect sees and acts, while the One or The Good is above all that. For Aristotle, pure intellect is a pure entelechy that is also the the ultimate good for all things. Whether or not we say that it sees and acts depends on the meaning we attribute to seeing and acting.

“Once you have uttered ‘The Good’, add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency. Do not even say that it has Intellection; you would be dividing it; it would become a duality, Intellect and The Good” (ibid).

“[W]e form a conception of its true character from its image playing upon the Intellectual-Principle (ibid).

“[A]ll the striving is on the side of the Intellect, which is the eternal striver and eternally the attainer (ibid).

For Aristotle, intellect is an entelechy, which I think would be exempt from “striving”. It is composite things that do the striving.

“The Source of all this cannot be an Intellect…. [T]here is That before them which neither needs nor possesses anything, since, needing or possessing anything else, it would not be what it is — The Good” (ibid).

Once again, Aristotle does not claim that his first cause is the “Source of all this”. Rather, it is the destination of all this.

But What Is Contemplation?

Once again, a dictionary is not very helpful. I want to suggest that for Aristotle, contemplation (theoria) is best understood by the phrase that he famously uses to characterize the first cause: thought thinking itself. I want to contrast this with the model of consciousness of an object that seems to be widely regarded as applicable.

These two interpretations of contemplation — consciousness of an object, and thought thinking itself — are quite literally separated by the entire development of Hegel’s Phenomenology. Hegel’s whole effort there is by patient labor to overcome the Cartesian/Lockean dualism of consciousness and its object. What he finally arrives at is something he identifies with Aristotle’s thought thinking itself, and which seems to be all mediation, with no outside or inside. (See, e.g., Consciousness in Locke and Hegel; Sense Certainty?; Otherness; Long Detour?; Apperceptive Judgment.)

I associate thought thinking itself with “reflection”, as that term is used by Kant, Hegel, and Ricoeur. In writing about reflection before, I used the image of a hall of mirrors, in which one might figuratively lose oneself in all the richness of reflections of reflections. Along these lines, I would also suggest that contemplation exhibits higher-order structure, or is higher-order thinking. (See also Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity.)

One of Plotinus’ greatest works is his treatise “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”, to which I will devote an upcoming post. Plotinus, despite his major differences from Aristotle, also adopted a great deal from Aristotle, while transforming it. His particular notion of contemplation is quite different from the one I want to attribute to Aristotle. It seems to be a form of what Kant would call intellectual intuition, which is exactly what I want to avoid attributing to Aristotle. But in the broader scheme of things, it nonetheless plays a somewhat analogous role. His account of it is more developed, and interesting in its own right, though I found that the analogy with Aristotle is a lot weaker than I expected.

The Goal of Human Life

Book X of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with the ultimate goal of human life. Things said here about the key undefined terms of “intellect” and “contemplation” provide important background for what is said about them in book Lambda of the Metaphysics.

He begins with a discussion of pleasure. “For some people say that pleasure is the good, while others at the opposite extreme say it is completely base, some of them perhaps being convinced that it is that way, but others believing that it is better for our life to make pleasure appear to be something base, even if it is not, on the grounds that most people are heavily inclined toward it and are enslaved to their pleasures” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 181).

First, he suggests that it is not pleasure in its own right that is base, but a kind of enslavement to its pursuit.

Still referring to those who say pleasure is base, he continues, “But it may well be that this is not a good thing to say. For words that concern things in the realm of feelings and actions are less believable than deeds are…. For if someone who condemns pleasure is seen sometimes going after it, he seems to incline toward it because all of it is good, since making distinctions is not something that most people do. So true statements seem to be the most useful ones, not only for knowing but also for life; for since they are in tune with one’s deeds they are believed, and they encourage those who understand them to live by them” (ibid).

Saying that words are less believable than deeds expresses in very simple language the same point for which I have repeatedly cited Robert Pippin’s account of the ethical consequences of the Aristotelian priority of actuality in Hegel.

In passing, Aristotle observes that most humans over-generalize, whereas the philosopher is careful to make distinctions.

“Now Eudoxus believed that pleasure is the good, because one sees that all beings, both rational and irrational, aim at it, while in all things what is choiceworthy is good and what is most choiceworthy is best; so the fact that all things are carried to the same goal reveals that this is the best thing for them all (for each thing discovers what is good for itself, just as it discovers its food), and what is good for all things, and at which all things aim, is the good. His arguments were convincing on account of the virtue of his character, more than on their own account, since he seemed to be an exceptionally temperate man, so that he seemed to be saying these things not as a lover of pleasure but because that is the way things are in truth” (ch. 2, p. 181).

Here Aristotle again concretely applies the priority of actuality or being-at-work. In disputed ethical matters, the character of the speaker as observable by others in her deeds often has even greater importance than the quality of the speaker’s arguments.

“But what is most choiceworthy is what we choose neither on account of anything else nor for the sake of anything else; and such, by general agreement, is pleasure, since no one asks for what purpose one feels pleasure, because pleasure is chosen for itself. And when pleasure is added to any good thing whatever, such as acting justly or being temperate, it makes it more choiceworthy, but it is by itself that the good is augmented.”

It is always a key distinction for Aristotle whether something is chosen for its own sake or for the sake of something else.

“But surely the latter argument, at any rate, seems to show that pleasure is among the things that are good, but no more so than any other, since every one of them is more choiceworthy along with another good thing than when it is alone. Indeed, Plato argues in rebuttal by that sort of argument that pleasure is not the good, since a pleasant life is more choiceworthy along with intelligence than apart from it, but if the mixture is better, then pleasure is not the good, for the good does not become more choiceworthy when something is added to it. And it is clear that nothing else that becomes more choiceworthy along with any of the things that are good in themselves would be the good either” (pp. 181-182).

With the help of Plato, he leads us through a dialectical reversal of the apparent endorsement of Eudoxus’ position above. This last argument about pleasure holds true for any particular good, and therefore does not suffice to establish that pleasure is the good in an unqualified sense. We need to distinguish between any particular end that may be sought and the good in its own right, which he also calls beautiful.

He continues, “But what is of that sort, that we have any share in? For that is the sort of thing being sought. On the other hand, those who argue in opposition that what all things aim at is not good are not saying anything; for those things that seem so to all people, we declare to be so, and someone who destroys that trust will not very likely say anything that is more to be trusted” (p. 182).

Those who argue that what all things aim at is not the good are “not saying anything”. Here he seems to make two separate points. First, by calling this “not saying anything”, he implies that a denial that all things aim at the good ought to be considered as leading to debilitating incoherence. Such a denial does not just contradict the contrary view shared by Eudoxus and Plato, that the good (whatever else it may be) is that at which all things aim. What supports the view of Eudoxus and Plato is the possibility of mutual articulation and clarification between the what-it-is of the good and the what-it-is of the aims of things. The contrary view rejects that correlation, and offers nothing in its place to support articulation and clarification. In that way, it undermines intelligibility and discourse. This is not a proof that all things aim at the good, only a rationally persuasive argument.

Second, he claims that people in general — or what we might call common sense — in fact presuppose the correlation between the good and aims posited by Eudoxus and Plato. Again, this is only a rationally persuasive argument, not a proof.

He continues, “For if it were only things without intelligence that desire pleasant things, there would be something in what they say, but if beings with judgment desire them as well, how could they be saying anything? And perhaps even in the lower animals there is something naturally good that is stronger than they themselves are, that aims at their proper good” (ibid).

Here he tacitly equates intelligence with good judgment. Most things in life cannot be adequately dealt with using only logical reasoning from what can be known in a strict sense. In animals that do not have the ability to deliberate and make judgments of what ought to be done, he suggests that their nature as their indwelling source of motion takes the place of judgment.

“Nor is it the case that, if pleasure is not classed among the qualities, it is for that reason not among good things either; for the ways of being-at-work that belong to virtue are not qualities, and neither is happiness” (ch. 3, p. 182).

Pleasure, virtue, and happiness are not simple qualities. As was said more generally about states of things in the Physics, they involve complex relations.

“To those who bring up pleasures that are matters of reproach, one might say that these are not pleasant (for just because they are pleasurable to people who are in a bad condition, one ought not to suppose that they would also be pleasant to anyone except these…), … or else pleasures differ in kind, for the ones that come from beautiful things are different from the ones that come from shameful things, for it is not possible to feel the pleasure that comes from something just without being a just person, or the pleasure that comes from something musical without being a musical person, and similarly in the other cases. And the fact that a friend is different from a flatterer seems to make it clear that pleasure is either not good or varies in kind” (p. 184).

He concludes, “It seems to be clear, then, that pleasure is not the good and that not every pleasure is choiceworthy, and that there are some pleasures that are choiceworthy in themselves, differing in kind or in the things they come from” (ibid).

Pleasure is not the good, but pleasures associated with that he calls “beautiful” things, which are those that are good in their own right, are nonetheless choiceworthy in their own right.

“Now the activity of seeing seems to be complete over any time whatever, for there is nothing it lacks which would complete its form by coming about at a later time; pleasure too is like something of this sort. For it is something whole, and there is no time at which one could take a pleasure, the form of which would become complete after it went on for a longer time. Hence pleasure is not a motion…. But all the motions that are in parts of time are incomplete, and are different in form from the whole and from one another. For setting stones together is different from making grooves in a column, and these motions differ from the making of a temple; the making of the temple is something complete (for it is lacking in nothing in relation to what was intended), but the making of the foundation or of a decorative tablet is incomplete, since each of these is the making of a part. They are different in form, then, and it is not possible to find a motion complete in its form in any time whatever except in the whole” (ch. 4, pp. 184-185).

“But the form of a pleasure is complete in any time whatever…. [I]t is not possible to be in motion except in a stretch of time, but it is possible to feel pleasure, for what is in the now is something whole” (p. 185).

Pleasure, like seeing, is its own entelechy (something complete in itself), and not a motion. In the Physics, he treats the continuity of any given motion as itself a kind of imperfect entelechy, but here he emphasizes the contrast between motion and any more perfect entelechy.

“Now since every one of the senses is at work in relation to something perceptible, and is completely at work when it is in its best condition and directed toward the most beautiful of the things perceptible by that sense (for it seems that its complete being-at-work is of this sort most of all, and let it make no difference to speak of the sense itself, or of the organ in which it is present, as being-at-work), for each sense, that way of being-at-work is best that belongs to what is in its best condition, directed toward the best of what is perceptible by it. This would be most complete and most pleasant” (p. 186).

It is common to hear claims that perception for Aristotle is unequivocally passive. It does have a passive aspect that he emphasizes in On the Soul. But here he emphasizes that all perception is a being-at-work or actuality, and thus also an entelechy, by way of his identification of actuality with entelechy.

“[F]or there is a pleasure that goes with each of the senses, and similarly with thinking and contemplation, and its most complete activity is most pleasant, and it is most complete when it belongs to a power that is in good condition directed toward that which is of most serious worth among the things apprehended by it, and the pleasure brings the activity to completion” (ibid).

The greatest pleasure accompanies the most complete entelechy. This also applies to the first cause, which he conceives as an entelechy that is complete in an unqualified sense.

“When the thing perceiving and the thing perceived are at their best, there will always be pleasure when what acts and what is acted upon are present to one another. But the pleasure brings the activity to completion not as an active condition present within it all along, but as something that comes over it, like the bloom of well-being in people who are at the peak of their powers” (ibid).

Pleasure follows from the fulfillment of nature. But it is something that supervenes on that fulfillment.

“So as long as the intelligible or perceptible thing, and the power that discerns or contemplates it, are such as they ought to be, there will be pleasure in their being-at-work, for while the thing acted upon and the thing acting remain as they are and have the same relation to one another, the same thing comes about…. [But] it is impossible for anything belonging to human beings to be at-work continuously” (p. 187).

Being-at-work and entelechy inherently generate pleasure.

“But one might assume that all beings reach out for pleasure because they all desire to live. Life is a certain kind of being-at-work…. The pleasure brings the activities to completion and hence brings living to completion, which is what they all strive for…. For without being-at-work, no pleasure comes about, and pleasure brings every way of being-at-work to completion” (ibid).

All life is being-at-work and entelechy. There is no genuine pleasure apart from these.

“[W]ays of being-at-work that are different in kind are brought to completion by means that differ in kind…. [E]ach of the pleasures is bound up with the activity it completes, since the appropriate pleasure contributes to the growth of the activity. For those who are at-work with pleasure discern each sort of thing better and are more precise about it” (pp. 187-188).

To be at-work and to feel pleasure in it makes us better at whatever we are doing.

“Now since ways of being-at-work differ in decency and baseness, and since some are to be chosen, others are to be avoided, and still others are neutral, their pleasures also differ similarly, since a special pleasure goes with each activity. The special pleasure in an activity of serious worth is decent, and the special pleasure in a base activity is corrupt” (p. 188).

Here he distinguishes what I above called “genuine” pleasure from spurious apparent pleasure associated with a corrupt nature.

“Decency” (epieikeia) means ethical sensitivity. More specifically, for Aristotle it is an attitude that tempers the strict application of rules or laws with kindness and charitable interpretation. Leibniz also emphasized this in his philosophy of jurisprudence. Ethics answers to a higher calling than mere rules or law. This doesn’t mean that all rules and law should be thrown out. It does mean that within reason, kindness and charity and attention to particulars should take precedence over the rigid application of rules.

“But in all such matters, it seems that a thing is what it shows itself to be to a person of serious moral stature. And if this is beautifully said, as it seems to be, then the measure of each thing is virtue, or a good person, insofar as he is good, and what appear to be pleasures to this person would be pleasures, and the things he enjoys will be pleasant. And if some things that are hard for this person to endure appear pleasant to someone, that is nothing to be wondered at, since many kinds of corruption and damage happen to human beings” (p. 189).

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle interprets Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things” as a subjectivism that undermines any possibility of discourse. Here is Aristotle’s positive alternative: the virtue of a good person is the measure of all things. Intelligibility depends on normativity.

“[B]ut among the pleasures that seem to be decent, which sort or which one ought one to say is that of a human being? Or is this clear from the ways of being-at-work, since the pleasures follow upon these? So if there is one or more than one activity belonging to the man who is fulfilled and blessed, the pleasures that bring them to completion should be spoken of, in the governing sense, as the pleasures of a human being, while the rest are pleasures in a secondary and greatly diminished sense, corresponding to their activities” (pp. 189-190).

The highest pleasure of a human being will turn out to come from the entelechy of contemplative intellect.

“Now that the things having to do with the virtues, with friendships, and with pleasures have been discussed, what remains is to go through in outline what has to do with happiness, since we set this down as the end at which human beings aim. And the account of it would be shorter for those who take up again what has been said before” (ch. 6, p. 190).

The virtues and friendship are discussed in earlier books of the Ethics. Now he turns from pleasure to eudaimonia or “happiness”, which for Aristotle is a condition to be judged objectively, and not a subjective feeling.

“[O]ne ought… to place happiness in some form of being-at-work…. [O]ne ought to place happiness among those that are chosen for their own sake and not among those that are for the sake of something else, since happiness stands in need of nothing but is self-sufficient. And those activities are chosen for their own sake from which nothing is sought beyond the being-at-work; and actions in accord with virtue seem to be of this sort, since performing actions that are beautiful and serious is something chosen for its own sake” (ch. 6, p. 190).

Happiness comes from a substantial engagement in activities chosen for their own sake. No human gets to do this exclusively, but we do have the ability to choose some things only for their own sake.

“Even children believe that the things valued by themselves are the best things. So it is reasonable that, just as different things appear worthwhile to children and to men, so too do different things appear worthwhile to people of a low sort and to decent people…. [T]o each person, the way of being-at-work that results from his own active condition is the most choiceworthy, and to a person of serious worth that is the activity that results from virtue” (pp. 190-191).

At a certain level, we cannot avoid dealing with apparent goods. The way he approaches these is to focus on what seems good to fundamentally kind, reasonable people who take ethics seriously.

“But to be earnest and to labor for the sake of play seems foolish and too childish. But to play in order to be serious… seems to be right, since play seems like relaxation, and since people are incapable of laboring continuously, they need relaxation. So relaxation is not the end, since it comes about for the sake of being-at-work. And the happy life seems to be in accord with virtue, and this involves seriousness and does not consist in play” (p. 191).

He argues against the shallow association of happiness with play. Seriousness means not a dour attitude, but caring about what is reasonable and ethical.

“But if happiness is being-at-work in accord with virtue, it is reasonable that it would be in accord with the most powerful virtue, and this would belong to the best part. Now whether this is intellect or some other part that seems by nature to rule and lead and have a conception about things that are beautiful and divine, and to be either divine itself or the most divine of the things that are in us, the being-at-work of this part in accord with its own proper virtue would be complete happiness. That this way of being-at-work is contemplative has been said. And this would seem to be in agreement with the things said before and with the truth. For this way of being-at-work is the most powerful (since the intellect is the most powerful of the things in us, and the things with which the intellect is concerned are the most powerful of the things that can be known); it is also the most continuous, for we are more able to contemplate continuously than to act in any way whatever” (ch. 7, pp. 191-192).

This helps fill out what is said about the nature of the first cause in book Lambda of the Metaphysics. I think it tends to support the identification of contemplation with thought thinking itself.

“And we believe that pleasure must be mixed in with happiness, and by general agreement the most pleasant of the ways of being-at-work in accord with virtue is that which goes along with wisdom; at any rate, philosophy seems to have pleasures that are wonderful in their purity and stability…. And what is referred to as self-sufficiency would be present most of all in the contemplative life, for… the wise person is able to contemplate even when he is by himself, and more so to the extent that he is more wise. He will contemplate better, no doubt, when he has people to work with, but he is still the most self-sufficient person” (p. 192).

The highest pleasure is being-at-work in accordance with wisdom. Contemplation is more complete in itself (more of an entelechy) than anything else.

“And contemplation seems to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake, for nothing comes to be from it beyond the contemplating, while from things involving action we gain something for ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent, beyond the action” (ibid).

Contemplating is distinguished from the kind of acting that is the official concern of practical judgment (phronesis), as well as from any kind of making. For Aristotle, it is a more pure example of being-at-work than acting or making.

“So if, among actions in accord with the virtues, those that pertain to politics and war are pre-eminent in beauty and magnitude, but they are unleisured and aim at some end and are chosen not for their own sake, while the being-at-work of the intellect seems to excel in seriousness, and to be contemplative and aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its own pleasure (which increases its activity), so that what is as self-sufficient, leisured, and unwearied as possible for a human being, and all the other things that are attributed to a blessed person, show themselves as the things that result from this way of being-at-work, then this would be the complete happiness of a human being, if it takes in a complete span of life, for none of the things that belong to happiness is incomplete” (pp. 192-193).

For Aristotle, happiness or its absence is a characteristic of a whole life viewed in its completion.

“But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue” (p. 193).

Intellect “surpasses the compound being”. Once again, this suggests that for Aristotle, intellect is more than just a part of the soul that is a constituent of that compound.

“So if intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would even seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part” (ibid).

For Aristotle, intellect is immortal, although memory depends on the body. He is suggesting that we identify as much as we can with the immortal thing that both is within us and surpasses us. (See also Properly Human, More Than Human?.)

“[W]hat is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest” (ibid).

The same thing — intellect — that was said to be greater than what accords with an empirical human being, is now said to be “most of all” a human being in a non-empirical, normative sense.

“The life in accord with the rest of virtue is happy in a secondary way, since the activities that result from it are human ones…. Some of them even seem to derive from the body, and in many respects virtue of character is bound up together with our feelings. And practical judgment is linked together with virtue of character, and it with practical judgment, if the sources of practical judgment are dependent on virtues of character, while the right thing belonging to virtues of character is dependent upon practical judgment” (ch. 8, p. 193).

Here we have the source of claims that Aristotle regards practical judgment (phronesis) as distinctly inferior to contemplative intellect. This ought to be considered carefully.

It is true that practical judgement is inseparable from how we deal with our emotions, whereas he wants to say that intellect is not. But being inseparable from how we deal with our emotions need not at all imply being compulsively driven by the raw emotions we are dealing with. In passing, we feel all sorts of things that we do not act upon, because we judge that it would not really be appropriate to do so. We can have various degrees of detachment from things that we feel, even though we still feel them.

I want to say that there is a kind of contemplative, reflective, deliberative, interpretive judgment that is like practical judgment in that it is primarily concerned with particulars, but different in that its primary outcome is interpretation rather than action. I think that practical judgment about the right action could not function without relying on many interpretive judgments about relevant details, and indeed that such interpretive judgment is what does all the deliberative work in practical judgment, independent of whether that work results in action or not.

“But the happiness that belongs to the intellect is separate…. And it would seem to have little need of external props, or less than virtue of character has…. For the generous person will need money for performing generous acts…, and a courageous person will need strength, … and a temperate person will need opportunity” (p. 194).

He points out that the outcome of actions depends on circumstances. Contemplation has some minimal conditions too, but once those are met, its outcome does not depend on circumstances. But it is only the actions that have these additional dependencies on circumstance, not interpretive judgments as such.

“It is also a matter of dispute whether the choice or the actions are more determining of virtue, since it is present in both; it is clear that the completeness of it would consist in both together” (ibid).

Both intentions and outcomes are important for any normative appraisal of actions. Good intentions may warrant forgiveness for bad outcomes. But at the same time, deeds count more than words in the assessment of what someone’s intentions and values really were.

“[B]ut for the actions many things are needed, and more of them to the extent that the actions are of greater magnitude and more beautiful. But for someone who contemplates there is no need of such things for his being-at-work; rather, one might say that they get in the way of his contemplating. But insofar as he is a human being and lives in company with a number of people, he chooses to do the things that have to do with virtue, and thus will have need of such things in order to live a human life” (ibid).

A contemplative human being will almost always also be involved in non-contemplative actions and social interactions. For Aristotle, involvement in social relations is an essential aspect of what it is to be human.

“That complete happiness is a contemplative activity would also be made clear by the following consideration: we assume that the gods are most of all blessed and happy, but what sort of actions will it be right to attribute to them?… And for someone who goes through them all, it would be obvious that the things involved in actions are small and unworthy of the gods. But surely everyone supposes that they are alive at any rate, and are therefore at work…. But when someone who is living is deprived of acting, and still more of making anything, what remains except contemplation? So the being-at-work of a god, surpassing in blessedness, would be contemplative, and so among human activities, the one the most akin to this would be the most happy” (pp. 194-195).

Here he says that the being-at-work of a god is contemplation, and cites this as an additional reason why contemplation is the happiest human activity.

“For the gods, the whole of life is blessed, and for human beings it is so to the extent that there is in it some likeness to such a way of being-at-work…. But there will also be a need of external prosperity for one who is a human being, since nature is not self-sufficient for contemplating, but there is also a need for the body to be healthy and for food and other attentions to be present. But one certainly ought not to suppose that someone who is going to be happy will need many things or grand ones…; for self-sufficiency does not consist in excess any more than action does, and it is possible for one who is not a ruler of land and sea to perform beautiful actions. For one would be capable of acting in accord with virtue from moderate means (and it is possible to see this plainly, since private people seem to perform decent actions not less than powerful people but even more), and it is sufficient if that much is present, since the life of someone who is at-work in accord with virtue will be happy” (p. 195).

The happiness of a human life also has material prerequisites, but they are relatively modest. He suggests that the rich and powerful may be less virtuous and therefore less happy than others.

“And Anaxagoras, too, seems to have believed that the happy person is neither rich nor powerful, when he said it would be nothing to wonder at if such a person would appear strange to most people, since they judge by externals, perceiving these alone. So the opinions of the wise seem to be in harmony with our arguments” (ibid).

A person living a life that would ultimately be judged to be happy in the Aristotelian sense will have priorities that will appear strange to people who have no serious involvement with contemplation.

“Now such things have some trustworthiness, but the truth in matters of action is discerned from deeds and from life…. So we ought to examine the things that have been said by applying them to deeds and to life, and if they are in harmony with the deeds one ought to accept them, while if they are out of tune one ought to consider them just words” (pp. 195-196).

Having just cited the authority of a reputedly wise man for additional persuasion, he again points out that deeds observable by others are more trustworthy than anyone’s mere words, including those of an authority we respect.

“But the person who is at-work with intellect and takes care of this and is disposed in the best way toward it seems also to be most dear to the gods. For if some care for human beings comes from the gods, as is believed, then it would be most reasonable for them to delight in what is best and most akin to them (and this would be the intellect), and to do good in return to those who love and honor this most, since such people care for the things that are dear to them, and also act rightly and beautifully” (p. 196).

Here he argues that intellect and contemplation are what is most dear to the gods — even more dear, that is, than virtuous actions. This need not imply that particular virtuous actions are not dear to them also, only that the intellect, contemplation, and wisdom that among other things guide virtuous action are even more so.

“Now if what has to do with happiness as well as with the virtues, and also with friendship and pleasure, has been sufficiently discussed in outline, ought one to assume that our chosen task has its end? Or, as has been said, is the end in matters of action not contemplating and knowing each of them but rather doing them? Then it is not sufficient to know about virtue, but one must try to have it and use it” (ch. 9, p. 196).

Once again, he balances the emphasis on contemplation with an emphasis on complete ethical doing. This kind of careful concern for a balanced, multi-dimensional view of things is why I keep coming back to Aristotle.

“[A]s things are, discourses appear to have the power to encourage and stimulate open-natured young people, … but they are unable to encourage most people toward what is beautiful and good…. For it is not possible, or not easy, to change by words things that have been bound up in people’s characters since long ago…. [I]t is necessary for the soul of the listener to have been worked on beforehand by means of habits, with a view to enjoying and hating in a beautiful way, like ground that is going to nourish the seed” (pp. 196-197).

Here he repeats a point made in an earlier book about the extreme ethical importance of people’s emotional dispositions, and consequently of the way children are raised. Insofar as people have acquired a disposition for disordered emotions, it can be nearly impossible to have dialogue with them at the times when it matters most.

I don’t think it is ever acceptable to hate people as people. But someone who loves the good may legitimately hate actions and circumstances that are truly bad, just because they are bad. And those who stubbornly refuse to recognize others deserve to be harshly dealt with.

“For someone who lives by feeling could not hear the words that would turn him away, nor could he even understand them; when someone is in that condition, how is it possible to change his mind? And in general, feeling seems to yield not to reasoned speech but to force. So it is necessary for a character to be present in advance that is in some way appropriate for virtue, loving what is beautiful and scorning what is shameful” (ibid).

I prefer to use the English word “feeling” in a more positive way, and would substitute “disordered emotion” for it in the above. (See also Virtue Not a Potential.)

More On the First Cause

Referring to Odysseus’ speech that inspires, unifies, and invigorates the Greeks in Homer’s Iliad, from which Aristotle quotes in the final sentence of book Lambda, translator Joe Sachs says in a footnote, “Similarly, the divine intellect described by Aristotle does not create things or the world, but confers upon them their worldhood and thinghood” (Metaphysics, p. 252n). It is that which the what-it-is of every other thing presupposes. For Aristotle, the thought thinking itself identified with the first cause is the condition of their intelligibility, and the condition of the possibility of there being any intelligibility at all. Otherwise, everything would be in “chaos and night”.

For Aristotle, there could be no such thing as a beginning of time, nor could there be anything “before” time, since before and after presuppose time. The first cause and the stars persist forever, but to my knowledge he never clearly refers to anything being strictly eternal or outside of time altogether, as is true of God for Augustine.

Platonic forms might be outside of time, but Aristotle does not recognize forms of the Platonic sort. However, he says that the hylomorphic kind of form he does recognize is not itself subject to becoming or change. What becomes or changes is the composite of form and matter.

The first cause is also said to be exempt from becoming and change. We have recently seen, though, that Aristotle has a very specific concept of becoming and change. Any kind of new state — whether of body, soul, intellect, or knowledge — does not count for him as a becoming or a change.

The intuition behind this seems to be that becoming and change apply to processes that are continuous, whereas a new state may be considered to be something discrete. With composite things, he says that a new state may also be accompanied by a change or becoming in something else that is related to it.

The first cause, though, would be unaffected by anything else, so this would probably prevent its having a new state. Also, as a pure entelechy, it should always be in a state of completion or fulfillment, which would probably also rule out its having any new state. So while not technically eternal in the Augustinian sense of outside of time altogether, according to Aristotle it persists forever inside of time, without becoming or change, and it seems not to have any new states either.

The “firstness” of the first cause, then, does not refer to any kind of firstness in time. It is first in the sense that everything else has a dependency on it, while it has no dependency on anything else.

A puzzle related to the first cause is that it seems it is supposed to be both a pure that-for-the-sake-of-which, and a non-perceptible independent particular thing that persists forever. In general, we would not expect any particular thing to be a pure that-for-the-sake-of-which. But perhaps the thought thinking itself that he says characterizes the first cause is in fact a bridging term that could meet the conditions for both.

Thought thinking itself seems as if it may be the same as pure contemplation (theoria). In the Nicomachean Ethics, he says that contemplation seems more divine than human, and seems to feel a need to justify his claim that it applies to humans at all, but he associates it with what he considers to be the highest possible human virtue. As the highest possible virtue, it would qualify as an unconditional that-for-the-sake-of-which. If it is not just the idea of thought thinking itself but an actual thought thinking itself, then it is also a particular thing.

He also identifies it with the good and the beautiful, but this does not mean the Platonic idea of the Good as a logical universal that is supposed to have a univocal meaning. What gives it universal import is not logical universality, but its unique concrete relation to all other things. The concrete particular thing that is pure thought thinking itself is superlatively good and beautiful, just because it is a pure entelechy. A pure entelechy for Aristotle is itself the highest conceivable perfection, and is thus easily equated with the good and the beautiful in an unqualified sense.