Searching for a Middle Term

“But nothing, I think, prevents one from in a sense understanding and in a sense being ignorant of what one is learning” (Aristotle, Posterior Analytics; Complete Works revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 115). The kind of understanding spoken of here involves awareness “both that the explanation because of which the object is is its explanation, and that it is not possible for this to be otherwise” (ibid). To speak of the “explanation because of which” something is suggests that the concern is with states of affairs being some way, and the “not… otherwise” language further confirms this.

Following this is the famous criterion that demonstrative understanding depends on “things that are true and primitive and immediate and more familiar than and prior to and explanatory of the conclusion…. [T]here will be deduction even without these conditions, but there will not be demonstration, for it will not produce understanding” (ibid). The “more familiar than” part has sometimes been mistranslated as “better known than”, confusing what Aristotle carefully distinguishes as gnosis (personal acquaintance) and episteme (knowledge in a strong sense). I think this phrase is the key to the whole larger clause, giving it a pragmatic rather than foundationalist meaning. (Foundationalist claims only emerged later, with the Stoics and Descartes.) The pedagogical aim of demonstration is to use things that are more familiar to us — which for practical purposes we take to be true and primitive and immediate and prior and explanatory — to showcase reasons for things that are slightly less obvious.

Independent of these criteria for demonstration, the whole point of the syllogistic form is that the conclusion very “obviously” and necessarily follows, by a simple operation of composition on the premises (A => B and B => C, so A=> C). Once we have accepted both premises of a syllogism, the conclusion is already implicit, and that in an especially clear way. We will not reach any novel or unexpected conclusions by syllogism. It is a kind of canonical minimal inferential step, intended not to be profound but to be as simple and clear as possible.

(Contemporary category theory grounds all of mathematics on the notion of composable abstract dependencies, expressing complex dependencies as compositions of simpler ones. Its power depends on the fact that under a few carefully specified conditions expressing the properties of good composition, the composition of higher-order functions with internal conditional logic — and other even more general constructions — works in exactly the same way as composition of simple predications like “A is B“.)

Since a syllogism is designed to be a minimal inferential step, there is never a question of “searching” for the right conclusion. Rather, Aristotle speaks of searching for a “middle term” before an appropriate pair of premises is identified for syllogistic use. A middle term like B in the example above is the key ingredient in a syllogism, appearing both in the syntactically dependent position in one premise, and in the syntactically depended-upon position in the other premise, thus allowing the two to be composed together. This is a very simple example of mediation. Existence of a middle term B is what makes composition of the premises possible, and is therefore what makes pairings of premises appropriate for syllogistic use.

In many contexts, searching for a middle term can be understood as inventing an appropriate intermediate abstraction from available materials. If an existing abstraction is too broad to fit the case, we can add specifications until it does, and then optionally give the result a new name. All Aristotelian terms essentially are implied specifications; the names are just for convenience. Aristotle sometimes uses pure specifications as “nameless terms”.

Named abstractions function as shorthand for the potential inferences that they embody, enabling simple common-sense reasoning in ordinary language. We can become more clear about our thinking by using dialectic to unpack the implications of the abstractions embodied in our use of words.

Dialectic Bootstraps Itself

Here is a subtle but vital point. I’ve just reiterated that dialectic assumes no prior truth. Dialectic approaches coherence in an iterative and incremental way, sometimes backing up and trying a new path. As a philosopher in what I take to be the genuine spirit of Plato and Aristotle, I think seriously taking up such a work is the very best we mortals can honestly do to achieve high levels of practical confidence about the things that matter most in life. No, it does not have the precision or definitiveness of mathematics, but mathematics is like Aristotelian demonstration in that all it tells us with certainty is that certain conclusions follow from certain premises, so the conclusions are only as applicable to life as the premises and their assumed mapping to the real world.

The vital point is that dialectic — the development of richer meaning — can make real progress, without ever assuming a foundation. No, we’ll never say the last word, but we can iteratively and incrementally build cumulative results. With iterative and incremental development of coherent articulations of what we care about and an openness to acknowledging error, we can progressively improve interpretive confidence.

I think this is what is behind Hegel’s somewhat mystifying talk about spirit producing itself. (See also Interpretation; Dialogue; Ethical Reason; Practical Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Openness of Reason; Reason, Feeling.)

Demonstrative “Science”?

The “historiographical” notes on the history of philosophy I offer here from time to time are a sort of compromise. For much of my life, I’ve been very concerned with the fine grain of such history, and with casting a broad net encompassing many historical figures. Here, I made a strategic decision to focus instead on a mere handful of philosophers I consider most important.

Discussion of actualization in Hegel led to actualization in Aristotle, which led me to indulge my fascination with the Aristotelian commentary tradition. To the extent that it is possible to generalize about the historic readings discussed in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin commentaries, my own view of Aristotle is quite different on a number of key points, having more in common with some modern readings. Nonetheless, I am enormously impressed by the levels of sophistication shown by very many writers in this tradition.

I just mentioned al-Farabi again. As previously noted, al-Farabi (10th century CE) played a great historic role in the formulation of Arabic (and consequently, Hebrew and Latin) views of Aristotle. The Syrian Christians who did the majority of the translating of Aristotle to Arabic from Syriac had access to most of Aristotle’s works, but publicly only taught from the logical treatises. It was al-Farabi who initiated public teaching of the full range of Aristotelian philosophy in the Islamic world. He flourished during the so-called Islamic golden age, a time of tremendous interest in ancient learning not only by aristocrats but by many literate skilled crafts people. The political climate of the Islamic world at the time was much more embracing of secular learning than it came to be between the 13th and 19th centuries CE.

One unfortunate aspect of al-Farabi’s reading was a very strong privileging of a notion of demonstrative “science” over Aristotle’s own predominant use of dialectic in philosophical development. This was based on a reading of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics as propounding a model of “science” as a deductive enterprise expected to result in certain knowledge, which is still dominant today, but which I (following a number of modern interpreters) think involves a misreading of the basic aims of Aristotelian demonstration.

The idea that Aristotle was fundamentally concerned to develop “sciences” yielding certain knowledge gave a more dogmatic cast to his whole work, which has been a contributing factor in common negative stereotypes of Aristotle. Many modern commentators who still accept this reading of Posterior Analytics have been puzzled by the huge gap between this and Aristotle’s actual practice throughout his works, which in fact is mainly dialectical. I think a careful reading of the Topics (on dialectic) and Posterior Analytics (on demonstration) with consultation of the Greek text on the originals of some key phrases yields a view that is far more consistent with Aristotle’s actual practice.

Demonstration is a pedagogical way of showing very clear reasons for certain kinds of conclusions. It works by assuming some premises are true, whereas dialectic makes no such assumption. Thus the only certainty that results from demonstration is that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is also true.

Dialectic, as I have said, is cumulative, exploratory discursive reasoning about meanings in the absence of initial certainty. This is how Aristotle mainly approaches things. Dialectic implicitly relies on the same logical form of syllogistic argument explicitly used in demonstration, but Aristotle distinguishes dialectic and demonstration by whether premises are treated as hypotheses to be explored, or as assumed truths.

It is also important to note that in the Latin scholastic tradition, the dogmatic trend resulting from wide acceptance of claims about demonstrative science was significantly mitigated by a strong counter-trend of evenhandedly analyzing arguments pro and con, which effectively revived a form of dialectic. (See also Foundations?; Fortunes of Aristotle; Scholastic Dialectic.)

Aristotelian Actualization

Having just concluded a series broadly on the actualization of freedom in Hegel, I’d like to say a few words on the Aristotelian roots of the important concept of actualization. A discussion of actualization is arguably the centerpiece of Aristotle’s diverse lecture notes related to first philosophy placed by the editor “after the physics”, which came to be traditionally called Metaphysics. From that discussion, actualization is clearly a process, and comes in degrees.

Aristotle also made the pregnant remark that while what he called soul is the “first actuality” or “activity” of the body (associated with its life), intelligence or reason (associated especially with language and ethics) is a kind of second actuality of a human being.

For all Aristotle’s praise of the soul, unlike Plato he did not treat it as an independent substance. It is only the hylomorphic unity of soul and body that gets this key designation. As I read him, things like soul and intellect are complex adverbial and ultimately normative characterizations expressing how we function and act in relation to ends. They are made into nouns only as a matter of convenience.

Aristotle distinguished stages of actualization. In a famous example, an unschooled youth has the potential to learn geometry. Someone who has already acquired an understanding of geometry has the potential to use it. This is an intermediate degree of actualization. In someone who is actively using such an understanding in work on a proof, there is said to be a higher degree of actualization.

This already suggests a kind of process of development that is not reducible to the model of simple organic growth (in which Aristotle was also quite interested). Rather, he approaches such developments in terms of his notion of dialectical inquiry or cumulative exploratory reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty, which in my view is the essential kernel from which Hegel’s very extensive original (and sometimes confusing) development of “dialectic” proceeded.

Commentators on Aristotle like Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century CE) and al-Farabi (10th century CE) further refined this notion of degrees of actualization, especially with regard to intelligence or reason. In the Latin tradition, this was taken up especially by the school of Albert the Great. These writers tended to hypostatize intellect as something transcendent or even divine to which the human soul could nonetheless become progressively “joined”, approximating something like the seamless hylomorphic unity of soul and body. But it is possible to put such claims of strong transcendence in brackets, while focusing on the detailed dialectical development of notions of progressive mixture, layers, and stages. These medieval notions of layered actualization seem to lead in a very different and more interesting direction than the tedious cliché of the “Great Chain of Being”.

Be that as it may, the essential point is that in Aristotle himself, actualization is discussed dialectically rather than in terms of organic growth. (See also Actuality; Second Nature; Parts of the Soul; Intelligence from Outside; Fortunes of Aristotle.)

Lévinas on the Other

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-95) was an important religiously oriented philosopher within the existential-phenomenological tradition. He translated Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to French. His most famous work Totality and Infinity (French edition 1961) — dedicated to Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl — argues at top level that philosophy has often been dominated by a drive for a vision of totality, and that we should abandon this in favor of the “infinity” of our experience of the Other, which for Lévinas leads from an ethical concern to a sort of eschatology. He puts ethics before ontology, which I like, but still takes a more metaphysical approach than Marcel, for instance.

I appreciate his stress on concern for others, but have trouble applying the notion of infinity in this context. I’m more comfortable talking about the essential incompleteness of our experience as finite beings. Lévinas is right that reaching for totality is overreaching, but I think Plato and Aristotle — and also Kant, and even especially Hegel (so different from the common stereotype) — already clearly recognized this. In my view, ordinary open-ended interpretation already implicitly poses a potentially infinite (i.e., indefinitely extensible, and therefore always incomplete) task that we cut short in order to act, but we never in experience encounter an actual or completed infinite. Ethical encounter with others highlights the incompleteness (i.e., non-totality, in Lévinas’ terms) of our understanding.

This incompleteness — and the thickness and “overflowing” character of meant realities or informal “being” that is its complement — already seems to me sufficient to support an ethical, hospitable relation to the other. I want to say that an overflowing beyond objectifying schemas is characteristic not just of absolute transcendence and infinity, but of ordinary being and ordinary meaning. Routinely in everyday life, there is meaningful intelligibility and there is overflow, in the very same context. Even in the most ordinary moments, with sufficient openness we can find poetic reverie and ethical awe that takes us outside of ourselves.

Lévinas speaks of the “absolutely other” as “truth” in the sense of a religious transcendence, to which ethics is the “royal road” (p. 29). Transcendence, Lévinas says, should not be confused with ecstasy or magical communion. He has in mind a more sober kind of religion. He cites Marcel and Martin Buber on the irreducibility of the relationship to the Other to objective knowledge, and associates the driving of practice by theory with a failure to recognize this primacy of the other. With Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I think we should recognize that theoretical reason actually depends on a practical reason that renounces Mastery; that theoretical reason is more of a tool, whereas practical reason is more of an agency; and that practical reason begins with recognition of the other.

I like when he speaks of a “generosity nourished by the Desired” (p. 34). He goes on to talk about a metaphysical Desire for the absolutely Other, “non-adequate to the idea” (ibid). Less metaphysically, I see forms overflowing their boundaries without thereby ceasing to be forms, and locate meaning in a foundationless but relatively stable difference in a relation of reciprocal co-grounding with moral commitment and practical judgment.

He talks about the reduction of the Other to the Same, and seems to think most philosophy does that. I have a more optimistic or charitable view that I think is also more historiographically valid. Aristotle and Hegel especially (contrary to common stereotypes) are very careful to avoid claiming overly strong Identity, so it is really not fair to say they reduce the Other to the Same.

Directly contrary to my view, he says that “The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification” (p. 69; emphasis in original). Disappointingly, he seems to prefer an authoritative teacher whom he calls an absolute Stranger. “The absolutely foreign alone can instruct us” (p. 73). It’s starting to sound like Kierkegaard here. I feel that hyperbolic expressions like this begin to denigrate ordinary life, and ultimately lead to a sort of absolute inflation. Lévinas’ Other is supposed to be a source of gentleness rather than arbitrariness, but to me what is gentle — much as it may exceed any objectification — cannot be absolutely foreign. I prefer to emphasize goodness rather than power, and I want to say that goodness speaks to us, so it cannot be absolutely foreign. (See also Immanence, Transcendence.)

Ricoeurian Ethics

In the final chapters of Oneself as Another, Ricoeur develops a meta-level discourse about ethics, and concludes with a few “ontological” suggestions. Universalizing Kantian morality and the obligation it entails are said to provide a valuable extension to Aristotelian ethics, but ultimately to require supplementation by a return to Aristotelian practical judgment. This seems just about exactly right.

On the Kantian side, norms are said to concretize Aristotelian aims. The most important and general Kantian norm, according to Ricoeur, is reciprocity. He argues for the importance of the golden rule, citing Rabbi Hillel and the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The distinction between “power over” and “power to” is discussed. The notion of persons as ends in themselves is emphasized. Procedural justice is seen to complement Aristotelian distributive justice. John Rawls’ summary of justice as fairness is endorsed. Although it is ultimately necessary to return to the openness of practical judgment, the passage through universalizing morality is equally necessary, as a safeguard against arbitrariness. Universality and contextuality go hand in hand, much as I have been arguing.

Writing at a time when French anti-Hegelianism was still quite influential and before the rise of new interest in Hegel, Ricoeur did not think Hegelian Geist — which he mistakenly saw as turning the state into an “agency capable of thinking itself by itself” (p. 255) — fit well with the notion of self Ricoeur wanted to advance. He did not want to follow what he saw as Hegel’s path in returning to an ethics of Sittlichkeit or mores embedded in concrete culture, but saw great potential value in a Sittlichkeit separated from the “ontology of Geist” (ibid) and the “thesis of the objective mind” (p. 256), especially if Sittlichkeit were “bent” in the direction of the openness of Aristotelian practical judgment. (A reading of Geist free of such ontology has more recently been argued by Brandom and others to be a better reading of Hegel himself.) “Our final word in this ‘little ethics’… will be to suggest that the practical wisdom we are seeking aims at reconciling Aristotle’s phronesis, by way of Kant’s Moralität, with Hegel’s Sittlichkeit” (p. 290).

On other matters such as the broad thrust of Hegel’s critique of atomistic individualism in the Philosophy of Right and the general value of dialectic, Ricoeur defended Hegel. The Hegelian concept of Right, he says, “surpasses the concept of justice on every side” (p. 253). The “problematic of realization, of the actualization of freedom, is ours as well in this study” (ibid). Reflection, he says, needs the mediation of analysis.

He says that institutionalized conflict is an essential feature of democracy. We should be accepting of conflict, but draw the line at violence. The idea of Rawls that argumentation is “the critical agency operating at the heart of convictions” (p. 288; emphasis in original), raising convictions to the level of considered convictions and resulting in a “reflective equilibrium”, is cited with approval. Ricoeur speaks of a “reflective equilibrium between the ethics of argumentation and considered convictions” (p. 289).

Respect for persons should take priority over respect for the law. The importance of keeping promises extends beyond its role with respect to personal identity to the space of reciprocity and the golden rule. Gabriel Marcel is quoted as saying all commitment is a response to an other. A notion of imputability is introduced as an ascription of action “under the condition of ethical and moral predicates” (p. 292). To this is added a notion of responsibility. Finally, he endorses Hegel’s concept of mutual recognition.

Unlike Brandom, Ricoeur construed the philosophy of language as analytically separate from ethics. He thus saw a need to go beyond its boundaries, and characterized that as an “ontological” moment. This seems to have two main ingredients.

First, the key to understanding the notion of self he wants to advance lies in Aristotelian potentiality and actuality. He also wants to understand actuality and self in connection with Heideggerian being-in-the-world. “[S]elf and being-in-the-world are basic correlates” (p. 313). Actuality should not be thought in terms of presence. Self should not be confused with “man”, and is not a foundation. Spinoza’s conatus or the general effort of beings to persevere finds its highest expression in Aristotelian energeia or actuality, and thus overflows its deterministic origins. The distinction between actuality and potentiality is associated with that between selfhood and sameness. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Second, a discussion of Husserl’s distinction between the body (viewed externally) and “flesh” in which we live leads eventually to the conclusion that a dialectic of the Same and the Other cannot be constructed “in a unilateral manner” (p. 331). A final discussion of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Lévinas leads to an “ultimate equivocalness with respect to the Other in the phenomenon of conscience” (p. 353). We need an alternative to “constitution in and through the ego” (p. 334), and he thinks an adaptation of Husserl’s notion of flesh provides this. Unfortunately, he speaks in passing of an “originary, immediate givenness of the flesh to itself” (p. 333). I think the notion of flesh is supposed to suggest something that softens the kind of rigid boundaries between self and other that we associate with an ego, and that is all good. But the other big issue with constitution of meaning through the ego is precisely that the ego was supposed to be a locus of originary, immediate givenness. It seems to me that one of the great values of a hermeneutic perspective is that it does not need to assume anything like that.

With the exception of this brief reference and his apparent attribution in passing of a reflexive “self” to Aristotle, the degree of convergence with what I have been developing here is impressive indeed.

(I think the kind of reflexivity Ricoeur had in mind in the latter case was only intended to be related to action, so his intent was to capture the fact that we can and do act on ourselves. This, I think, is a true and important observation. My quibble there is with attributing a notion of self as a simple unity to Aristotle.)

Oneself as Another

Paul Ricoeur’s major ethical work Oneself as Another (1992; French ed. 1990) is a real treasure trove. At top level, it is devoted to distinguishing between separate notions of personal identity and ethical/epistemic transcendental subjectivity, then developing the dialectical relation between them, along with the central importance of relations with others. That could equally well characterize a major aspect of the work I have been pursuing here.

In the introduction, he speaks first of a “primacy of reflective meditation over the immediate positing of the subject, as this is expressed in the first person singular” (p. 1). I think this perspective is shared by Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom. Second, he points out the equivocal nature of identity, distinguishing between Latin ipse (self) and idem (same). Selfhood in Ricoeur’s sense — identity in the sense of ipse — “implies no assertion concerning some unchanging core of the personality” (p. 2). Third, he draws attention to a dialectic of self and other. “[T]he selfhood of oneself implies otherness to such an intimate degree that one cannot be thought of without the other” (p. 3). As a result, “autonomy of the self will appear… to be tightly bound up with solicitude for one’s neighbor and with justice for each individual” (p. 18; emphasis in original).

Such a detour by way of analysis “challenges the hypothesis of reflective simplicity without thereby giving in to the vertigo of the disintegration of the self” (p. 19). A “faith that knows itself to be without guarantee” (p. 25) is supported by a “trust greater than any suspicion” (p. 23). This perspective is thus distinguished both from the foundationalist ambitions of “philosophies of the subject” like those of Descartes, Fichte, and Husserl, and from Nietzschean skepticism. Ricoeur also anticipates Alain de Libera’s connection of his work to Michel Foucault’s late “hermeneutics of the subject”, citing the “magnificent title” of Foucault’s book Care of the Self.


Ethical reason can potentially comprehend anything and it can influence things going forward, but it does not make everything or govern events. (See also Fragility of the Good.) Understanding comes late. Reason becomes free or autonomous only by a long, slow process. (See also Iterative Questioning.) Even so-called absolute knowledge — only “absolute” because it is free of the actually self-disruptive presumptions of the false freedom of Mastery — is just this freedom of reason.

There is after all a kind of negative freedom of reason at work here, but it is forever incomplete, and also has nothing to do with any negative freedom of a power, which is a fiction. We negatively free ourselves of unthinking assumptions while positively increasing our ability to make fine distinctions, our sensitivity to subtlety and nuance. This gives us new positive freedom in doing, with our still-finite power. (See also Ethical Reason, Interpretation.)

Potentiality, Actuality

Potentiality and actuality are Aristotle’s indispensable modal tools, providing resources for a variety of sophisticated analyses. Notable applications include a nonreductive, “dialectical” interweaving of is and ought that allows conditional “oughts” to be constructed subsuming applicable details of a contextual “is”. This allows something like structural causality to coexist with something like Kantian freedom.

Modern discourse on the relation of “is” and “ought” has generally oscillated between a reductive ethical naturalism that explains “ought” exclusively in terms of “is” on the one hand, and an unexplainable dualism of “is” and “ought” on the other.

With his explicit distinction between modes of potentiality and actuality, Aristotle had a better way. He also talked about the typical modern modalities of abstract possibility and necessity, but concrete potentiality and actuality are the crown jewels of Aristotle’s modal discourse. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Linguistic Turn

It’s almost comical to me that modern philosophy had to undergo a linguistic “turn”. Modern philosophy began with a somewhat infantile rejection of discursive reasoning in favor of mathematics, intuition, and common sense. (Perhaps related to this history, I note with some chagrin that the first-listed meaning for “discursive” in several dictionaries is a pejorative one. I mean “pertaining to discourse”.) Even Leibniz and Spinoza had little interest in dialectic and meaning.

To me, meaning is the sea that we inhabit, the air that we breathe. Meaning permeates everything for us meaning-oriented creatures, including our experience of physical nature and matter. Meaning always requires interpretation. Aristotle and Kant were right that discursive reasoning is the true vocation of a philosopher. (See also What and Why; Dialogue.)