Hegel’s Preface

In Nature, Ends, Normativity I raised the question of what happens to Aristotelian teleology when we look at it through a Kantian critical lens, then made a preliminary gesture toward its resolution by invoking Hegel’s challenge and admonition to us in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit to make ourselves at home in otherness. Just how making ourselves at home in otherness helps with the question about Aristotle and Kant may not be at all clear yet. For now it’s just a thought to keep in mind.

First I want to try to explore Hegel’s larger point in the Preface that I risked reducing to the phrase “make ourselves at home in otherness”, and let that lead where it may. This post won’t get to the point where the phrase is introduced. It’s even possible that I’m remembering it from a paraphrase in H. S. Harris’ outstanding commentary. I’ll walk through the Preface over the course of several posts, using Terry Pinkard’s translation published in 2018.

Hegel’s Preface is an extremely dense text that seems to very deliberately follow a non-linear order. It does have a development, but it doesn’t just proceed from beginning to middle to end. Rather, it seems to repeatedly circle around several key insights, adding a little more each time. Famously, he begins by rejecting the very idea that philosophical truth is the kind of thing that could be “introduced” or made easily digestible by a conventional preface.

He goes on to repeatedly criticize two chief ways in which philosophy is made digestible and shallow — one that treats truth as something merely formal, and one that claims to leap into absolute knowledge by means of intellectual intuition. Especially in some of the later parts, Hegel gives a number of valuable hints at what he thinks serious philosophy ought to look like.

“[C]onventional opinion holds that the opposition between the true and the false is itself fixed and set…. It does not comprehend the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive development of truth as much as it sees only contradiction in that diversity…. However, at the same time their fluid nature makes them into moments of an organic unity in which they are not only not in conflict with each other, but rather, one is equally as necessary as the other” (p. 4).

Hegel is not at all advocating some trite relativism or erasure of distinctions here. He is objecting to the artificially “fixed and set” way in which what he calls formalism sees the truth of propositions taken in isolation. More positively, he seems to be suggesting that we view the great philosophers as participants in a common, mutually enriching dialogue rather than as competitors.

“[T]he subject matter [of philosophy] is not exhausted in its aims; rather, it is exhaustively treated when it is worked out. Nor is the result which is reached the actual whole itself; rather, the whole is the result together with the way the result comes to be…. [T]he unadorned result is just the corpse that has left the tendency behind…. The easiest thing of all is to pass judgment on what is substantial and meaningful. It is much more difficult to get a real grip on it, and what is the most difficult of all is both to grasp what unites each of them and to give a full exposition of what that is” (p. 5).

Here Hegel makes a very Aristotelian point about the essential role of actualization. What he is directly applying it to is philosophical accounts of things. We should be interested not just in philosophy’s ostensible conclusions, but in how they were arrived at. (But an analogous point could be made about the actual working out of Aristotelian teleology in the world. What is relevant to this is not just pure ends by themselves, but the whole process by which ends are actualized by means of concrete tendencies.)

“In positing that the true shape of truth lies in its scientific rigor — or, what is the same thing, in asserting that truth has the element of its existence solely in concepts — I do know that this seems to contradict an idea (along with all that follows from it), whose pretentiousness is matched only by its pervasiveness in the convictions of the present age. It thus does not seem completely gratuitous to offer an explanation of this contradiction even though at this stage such an explanation can amount to little more than the same kind of dogmatic assurance which it opposes” (p. 6).

By “scientific” he basically means rational. Hegel here aligns himself with Kant’s emphasis on the conceptual and discursive character of rationality, and with Kant’s closely related rejection of claims to immediate knowledge by intellectual intuition. He is particularly alluding to claims of intellectual intuition in the philosophy of nature by followers of Schelling, as well as to the religiosity of immediate feeling promoted by followers of the German literary figure F. H. Jacobi, from whom Kierkegaard borrowed the image of the leap of faith.

The “true shape of truth” Hegel contrasts these with lies in conceptual elaboration — interpretation and explanation, not just asserted conclusions. The measure of truth is the insight and understanding it gives us. He also notes a difficulty that I often feel in attempting to summarize the results of a substantial development: summaries always run the risk of shallowness and dogmatism.

Hegel continues ironically that for his contemporary opponents, “The absolute is not supposed to be conceptually grasped but rather to be felt and intuited” (ibid).

“There was a time when people had a heaven adorned with a comprehensive wealth of thoughts and images. The meaning of all existence lay in the thread of light by which it was bound to heaven and instead of lingering in this present, people’s view followed that thread upwards towards the divine essence; their view directed itself, if one may put it this way, to an other-worldly present. It was only under duress that spirit’s eyes had to be turned back to what is earthly and kept fixed there, and a long time was needed to introduce clarity into the dullness and confusion lying in the meaning of things in this world, a kind of clarity which only heavenly things used to have; a long time was needed both to draw attention to the present as such, an attention that was called experience, and to make it interesting and to make it matter. — Now it seems that there is the need for the opposite, that our sense of things is so deeply rooted in the earthly that an equal power is required to elevate it above all that. Spirit has shown itself to be so impoverished that it seems to yearn for its refreshment only in the meager feeling of divinity, very much like the wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple drink of water. That it now takes so little to satisfy spirit’s needs is the full measure of the magnitude of its loss” (pp. 7-8).

Hegel was critical of traditional Augustinian other-worldliness, but saved his special disdain for followers of Schelling and Jacobi.

“The force of spirit is only as great as its expression, and its depth goes only as deep as it trusts itself to disperse itself and to lose itself in its explication of itself. — At the same time, if this substantial knowing, itself so totally devoid of the concept, pretends to have immersed the very ownness of the self in the essence and to philosophize in all holiness and truth, then what it is really doing is just concealing from itself the fact that instead of devoting itself to God, it has, by spurning all moderation and determinateness, instead simply given itself free rein within itself to the contingency of that content and then, within that content, given free rein to its own arbitrariness” (ibid).

It is not enough just to have a concept like the absolute Idea.

“However, just as little of a building is finished when the foundation is laid, so too reaching the concept of the whole is equally as little the whole itself. When we wish to see an oak tree with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn. In the same way, science, the crowning glory of a spiritual world, is not completed in its initial stages. The beginning of a new spirit is the outcome of a widespread revolution in the diversity of forms of cultural formation; it is both the prize at the end of a winding path as it is the prize won through much struggle and effort” (p. 9).

He implicitly recalls Aristotle’s argument that the oak tree is logically prior to the acorn, and cautions against assuming perfection in beginnings.

“Only what is completely determinate is at the same time exoteric, comprehensible, and capable of being learned and possessed by everybody. The intelligible form of science is the path offered to everyone and equally available to all” (p. 10).

When the Idea is kept vague, it becomes the province of claims of esoteric knowledge and special genius. Here he links the idea of rational “science” to a democratic tendency. But we should also beware of premature claims.

“At its debut, where science has been wrought neither to completeness of detail nor to perfection of form, it is open to reproach” (ibid).

He goes on at length about the formalism of the Schellingians’ insistence that all is one. The rhetoric is strong, but he is standing up for the importance of difference and distinction, which I completely support.

To condense a good deal, “when what is demanded is for the shapes to originate their richness and determine their differences from out of themselves, this other view instead consists in only a monochrome formalism which only arrives at the differences in its material because the material itself has already been prepared for it and is something well known…. [N]owadays we see the universal Idea in this form of non-actuality get all value attributed to it, and we see that what counts as the speculative way of considering things turns out to be the dissolution of the distinct and determinate, or, instead turns out to be simply the casting of what is distinct and determinate into the abyss of the void…. To oppose this one bit of knowledge, namely, that in the absolute everything is the same, to the knowing which makes distinctions… that is, to pass off its absolute as the night in which all cows are black — is an utterly vacuous naivete in cognition” (pp. 11-12). (See also Substance and Subject.)

Debate on Prehistory

This is a bit of a tangent from the usual topics here, but recently I’ve been dwelling on the distinctions between knowledge, well-founded belief, and not-so-well-founded belief, and I’m taking that as the point of departure. It should be no insult to science (and I certainly mean none) to suggest that empirical science aims only at what I’ve been calling well-founded belief, though received views are commonly taken for simple knowledge. The difference is that well-founded beliefs can still potentially be invalidated by new arguments or information, whereas real knowledge ought to be unconditionally valid.

I’ve been fascinated with prehistory since childhood, and in recent decades especially with the emergence of rich human cultures. Much has changed in this field during my lifetime, as relatively well-founded beliefs were replaced by better-founded ones. For example, it is now generally accepted that modern birds are surviving members of the theropod group of the dinosaur family that included raptors and T. rex, and that the extinction of the (other) dinosaurs was caused by a massive asteroid impact in the Gulf of Mexico ca. 65 million years ago.

Similarly, it is now widely accepted that biologically modern humans emerged in Africa two to three hundred thousand years ago, rather than in Europe only 40,000 years ago. Humans crossed the open sea from Southeast Asia to Australia over 50,000 years ago. If the previously known cave paintings from the late-glacial Magdalenian culture in southwest Europe were not already amazing enough testaments to the human spirit, the Chauvet cave (subject of the wonderful documentary film Cave of Forgotten Dreams by Werner Herzog) was discovered in 1994 to have equally magnificent paintings that turned out to be twice as old (from around 36,000 BP). Gobekli Tepe in Turkey has multi-ton megaliths dating from 9500 BCE, a little before the earliest evidence of agriculture in that region.

Agriculture is now believed to have independently originated in at least 11 different parts of the Old and New Worlds. Wikipedia now mentions small-scale cultivation of edible grasses by the Sea of Galilee from 21,000 BCE. Sickles apparently used for intensive harvesting of wild grains have been found in the Nile valley from at least 18,000 BCE. The Middle Eastern Natufian culture (ca. 15,000-11,500 BP) was previously thought to have had the world’s oldest agriculture, and still boasts the earliest evidence of baked bread (14,400 BP). Some Natufian portable art bears a striking stylistic resemblance to similar artifacts from Magdalenian Europe at roughly the same time. Numerous archaeologists and anthropologists have suggested that agriculture may have had a very long prehistory, beginning with deliberate efforts to promote the growth of particular wild plants that humans valued.

Currently, there is a big ongoing controversy over the cause of dramatic climate changes that occurred around 12,850 BP, at the beginning of the 1200-year period known as the Younger Dryas. The most recent ice age had begun to recede by around 20,000 BP, and the world had been getting gradually warmer. But then, suddenly, in perhaps only a single year’s time, temperatures fell by an astonishing 9 to 14 degrees centigrade. Then, in somewhere between a few years and a few decades, temperatures apparently rose again by 5 to 10 degrees centigrade. Several massive glacial lakes seem to have suddenly been emptied into the ocean, cooling it down, and there is evidence of gargantuan flooding. On a larger time scale of several thousand years including the Younger Dryas, worldwide sea levels are generally accepted to have risen around 400 feet. Many submerged archaeological sites have already been found, but this could be the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

Due to human-induced climate change, we are currently facing a sea level rise of around 50 feet from melting of the remaining ice caps, which is expected to be catastrophic. Four hundred feet dwarfs that. Today the great majority of the world’s population lives in or near coastal areas, and this may well have been true during the ice age too. Around the time of the Younger Dryas, there is evidence of intensive fishing by cultures like the Jomon of Japan — who also produced pottery older than any known from the Middle East — and the Magdalenians in Europe (not to mention many fresh-water fishing villages spread across what is now the Sahara desert).

By this time, humans would have been biologically modern for over 200,000 years, and had been at least occasionally producing magnificent art for at least 20,000 years. Stone and bone tools with amazing elegance and sophistication had been in use equally long. All hunter-gatherer cultures known to modern anthropology have complex culture, language, and spiritual beliefs. But somehow, we still have the prejudice that hunter-gatherers and “cave people” must have been extremely primitive.

The controversy I mentioned concerns evidence that like the dinosaur extinction, the Younger Dryas was caused by a cataclysm from space. Since 2007 the “Younger Dryas impact theory” has been hotly debated, but it now appears to be gaining ground. I have no particular stake in what really caused the Younger Dryas; I’m really more interested in its effects on humans. But the controversy potentially provides an interesting case study in how highly intelligent, educated people can effectively confuse apparently well-founded belief with “knowledge” that would supposedly be beyond doubt.

It also happens to be the case that Plato in the Critias gives a date for the sinking of the mythical Atlantis at around the time of the Younger Dryas. I don’t assume there is any accuracy in the details of the story — the island with the circular city and so forth — but I think archaeology already provides the basis for an extremely well-founded belief that late-glacial stone age cultures had already reached very high levels of sophistication, and that much more evidence may be hidden at as yet undiscovered underwater sites. This doesn’t mean people back then were flying around in spaceships or anything, or had magical powers, or even that they produced metal. Our standards for what represents “advanced” culture are highly distorted by our own obsessions with technology and money.

Incidentally, Plato in the Laws also casually suggests that animal and plant species come into being and pass away, as well as something like the succession of human material culture from stone to soft metals to iron. The Critias story is attributed to the Athenian lawgiver Solon, who supposedly heard it from an Egyptian priest during his travels there, but no source is given for the apparently accurate speculations about prehistory in the Laws.

All the modern fringe speculation around the Atlantis myth — and around “historical” readings of mythology in general — has given this stuff a bad name. We ought to suspend belief in things for which the evidence is shaky. But a suspension of belief need not — and should not — necessarily imply active disbelief. Our active disbeliefs ought to be well-founded up to the same standard as our active beliefs, and ought not to fall to the level of prejudice.

Socratic Wisdom

“I went to one who had the reputation of wisdom, and observed him — his name I need not mention; he was a politician whom I selected for examination — and the result was as follows: When I began to talk with him, I could not help thinking that he was not really wise, although he was thought wise by many, and wiser still by himself; and I went and tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise; and the consequence was that he hated me, and his enmity was shared by several who were present and heard me. So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know. In this latter particular, then, I seem to have slightly the advantage of him. Then I went to another, who had still higher philosophical pretensions, and my conclusion was exactly the same. I made another enemy of him, and of many others besides him” (Plato, Apology, Jowett trans.).

The greatest wisdom a human can have is to recognize what we don’t really know. This can be a touchy point, because people who think they just know things they imagine to be true usually don’t like to be told otherwise. But in most areas, the best we can aim for is well-founded belief, which is to say belief that is capable of responding resiliently and in good faith to open-ended Socratic questioning or dialogue, and thus is responsive to the space of reasons. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

Beauty and Discursivity

Plotinus was a huge inspiration for me in my youth. Revisiting a piece of his Enneads just now, I am again struck by the majesty of his thought and writing. These days I have a much more positive view of discursive reasoning, but I first wanted to let him speak for himself.

I still agree that there is far more to knowledge and understanding than an accumulation of propositions. But as a teenager, I definitely considered step-by-step reasoning to be something inferior to the kind of holistic intellectual intuition Plotinus emphasizes when he talks about Intellect. The latter I considered to be the true source of insight — “silent mind before talking mind”.

Nowadays, I think that kind of unitary vision is achievable only as the crowning result of much patient work. I no longer take it to be the original source that discursive reasoning imitates in an inferior way. Intellect or Reason does form a relational whole, and the whole is more important than the parts. But today I would emphasize that the relational whole is an articulated whole, and it is the articulation — the making of connections — that is the real essence.

From many connections, we get larger unities. Larger unities are still the goal, but the work of making connections is what makes such fused views possible. The contemplation of well-formed wholes by the silent mind of an embodied human depends on prior work that must include open discursive questioning and reasoning, if the result is to be genuine.

Aristotle made a vitally important distinction between what is first in itself and what is first for us. To directly aim for the highest truth in itself while being dismissive of what is “first for us” is to disregard our nature as rational animals. Put another way, to directly aim for the highest truth is simply to miss it. This is the kind of illegitimate shortcut that Plotinus himself criticized the gnostics for.

We rational animals need the “long detour” of dialectic to properly grasp any kind of real truth. Otherwise, our visionary experiences will just be fever dreams of the sort that incite fanatics. The goal is not just immediacy but mediated immediacy, as Hegel would say. I think Plotinus at least partially recognized this.

To no longer regard things in the manner of “a spectator outside gazing on an outside spectacle” is to overcome naive dichotomies of subject and object. To really do this, we have to clear our minds of prejudice, not just do meditative exercises to silence internal dialogue. Clearing our minds of prejudice is what requires the long detour.

Everyday Belief

In ordinary life we are guided by well-founded beliefs about many things of which, strictly speaking, we do not have knowledge. Our beliefs are still well-founded in the sense that if asked, we can give reasons for them, and plausibly respond to questions about those reasons. We ought to continue to hold those beliefs, unless and until we are confronted with better reasons for a different conclusion.

Brandom would remind us that we have an implicit ethical obligation to keep our beliefs in good repair. We have a responsibility for the consequences of applying our beliefs. We have a responsibility not to hypocritically pretend to hold incompatible beliefs. In general, we have a responsibility to take our explicit and implicit commitments seriously. This entails a willingness to participate in dialogue, to explain our reasons and answer questions about them.

Constitution of Shared Meaning

The 20th century phenomenological tradition stemming from the work of Edmund Husserl emphasized that all meanings are constituted. With a very broad brush, one might say that Husserl redeveloped many Kant-like insights on a different basis, and with far greater detail in some areas. But like Kant, Husserl focused mainly on how each individual develops understanding for herself. Phenomenologists certainly discussed what they called “intersubjectivity”, but it always seemed to me like an afterthought. Husserl’s own development was quite complex, but it seems to me that the further he went in his later investigations of the constitution of meaning, the more he moved away from his early concern to emphasize that meaning is not something subjective.

It is the original “phenomenology” — that of Hegel — that seems to me to do a much better job of explaining simultaneously how meanings are constituted by us and yet how they are not subjective. Hegel does this by starting from the point of view of the development of shared meaning, and ultimately conceiving the constitution of meaning as a part of a great process extended across time and space. The process is grounded in concrete mutual recognition that nonetheless potentially extends to all rational beings. Individuals play an essential role in this as the anchoring points for its actualization, but do so as participants in free and open dialogue with others, rather than as the “owners” of meanings considered as private. Hegel used the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit manifesting between the members of a community as a philosophical metaphor for this.

History of Ethics: Plato

Traditional communities, even the most “primitive” known to modern anthropology, have well-defined, generally accepted ways of distinguishing good and bad actions. Hegel called this “ethical substance”.

What I call “ethics” involves a second level, in which the criteria for good and bad are subject to discussion. Here we are not simply laying down the law, but inquiring into the principles that ought to govern distinctions between good and bad. The oldest documented example of this kind of inquiry in our planetary family of cultures is the writings of Plato. How much of the literary character of Socrates in Plato is attributable to the historic Socrates is debated by scholars, but need not concern us here. It is in Plato that we find an actual record of Socratic inquiry. Other so-called “minor Socratic” schools also claimed to be inspired by Socrates, but left no record of critical give and take comparable to what we find in the dialogues of Plato.

Plato clearly recognized the weakness of argument from authority, and put the reasoned examination of principles before the mere fact of anyone’s say-so. He further pointed out that assertions about God’s will and its applicability to real-world cases need to be evaluated as human assertions, on the same footing as others. In discussions about truth, there are no specially privileged assertions or asserters. He set a strong ideal of sincerely seeking knowledge rather than assuming we have it, and by example promoted the modest attitude that humans should avoid making strong claims that human knowledge cannot validate. Many of his most important ideas are only presented as what I call “suggestions”.

Provocatively, Plato suggested that all beings desire the good, and that the Good is the most ultimate formative principle of all things. This reduces evil to ignorance of the true Good. The tendentious claim here is that evil is a kind of lack or defect, and that no one who aims at what is really evil properly understands what they are doing. This gives fundamental ethical significance to knowledge and the quest for better understanding. Treating evil as due to some lack of understanding also suggests a way of forgiving the evil-doer.

For Plato, wisdom and goodness are correlative. Wisdom especially includes the recognition of what we do not know. It is superior to any law. The most wise are the best qualified to govern, but do not want the job and must be coaxed into doing it.

Plato was unconcerned with questions like who decides who is wise, preferring to focus instead on how such judgments should be made. For the latter, he suggested the same kind of free and open dialogue and examination of reasons as for any other questions about truth.

“Moral”, “Judgment”

Hegel regarded a forgiving stance as transcending what he called the Moral World-View. Other writers have made distinctions between “ethics” and “morality”. I used to distinguish “morality”, as reducing ethics to simple compliance with externally given norms, from “ethics”, as concerned with inquiry into what really is right. But as a result of engagement with the literature on Kant, I have adopted a more Kantian usage that makes “morality” too a subject of inquiry in the best Socratic sense. I now use the word “moral” in the broad sense of what used to be called “moral philosophy”.

However sophisticated the underlying judgment may be, any unforgivingly judgmental attitude is prone to find fault with the world and with others. The Moral World-View in Hegel is several steps removed from the traditional attitude that norms are simply given. Its presentation is implicitly a critique of Kantian and Fichtean ethics. Here the judgment is rational. We are seriously thinking for ourselves about what is right. We are sincerely seeking to develop a point of view that is globally consistent and fair, and that takes everything relevant into account. But however nuanced a point of view we develop, it is still ultimately only a single point of view.

Hegel’s approach to ethics is singularly attuned to avoiding self-righteousness in all its forms. Hegelian forgiveness involves the recognition that no single point of view — no matter what subtleties it encompasses — is ever by itself finally adequate in the determination of what is right. For Hegel the ultimate arbiter of what is right is the universal community consisting of all rational beings everywhere, past, present, and future. Because it includes the future, the last word is never said.

This is far removed from the banality that all points of view are equally valid. Rather, everyone gets or should get an equal chance to participate in the dialogue, to be heard and to have their voice considered. But for each of us, the validity of our point of view is subject to evaluation by others, as Brandom has emphasized. We don’t get to individually self-certify. Nor is the validity of a point of view decidable by majority vote. Validation is not a matter of tallying up the conclusions of individuals, or of achieving consensus in a present community. It involves assessment of how the conclusions were reached. Previously accepted conclusions are always implicitly subject to re-examination.

On an individual level too, I like to stress the open-endedness of Aristotelian (and Kantian) practical judgment. The need to act requires that deliberation be cut short at some point. We aim to act with relatively robust confidence that we are doing the right thing, but the best practical confidence is not knowledge. Aristotle takes care to remind us that ethics is not a science. There are many things in life that we do not know, but in which we have justified practical confidence. Ethical judgment is like that.

Brandom and Pippin on Hegelian Ethics

Robert Brandom and Robert Pippin are two major “deflationary” readers of Hegel these days. Counter to the old bad stereotype of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician who turned his back on Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics, they both see Hegel as further developing the most essential aspects of Kant’s innovations. Both aim to carry forward Wilfrid Sellars’ Kant-inspired critique of the “myth of the given”. They both see human intentions in terms of shareable meanings rather than private mental contents.

Brandom sees Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition not only as leading to a radically new, expanded notion of responsibility, but also as providing a basis for a novel general account of the objectivity of knowledge. Pippin meanwhile has developed an innovative, strongly Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s practical philosophy. I like putting the two of these together.

Brandom radicalizes the Kantian theme of the primacy of practical reason, effectively putting ethical inquiry before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic. He replaces metaphysics with a new kind of meta-ethics. Unlike many who have used the term “meta-ethics”, he does not seek some naturalistic or empirical foundation for ethics; rather, he sees “normativity all the way down”. Normative considerations are involved in the interpretation of anything at all. Judgments of fact depend on value judgments, and value judgments implicitly depend on the possibility of dialogue under conditions of mutual respect. It is principally through being subject to open-ended rational dialogue that judgments are verified.

Brandom’s expanded notion of responsibility is aimed at promoting greater and wider forgiveness, while simultaneously eliminating common excuses for misdeeds. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already promoted the idea that people should not be blamed or punished for unintended consequences of their actions (or for things they were coerced into doing). Brandom attributes to Hegel the novel view that everyone shares responsibility for all unintended consequences.

Pippin makes the profoundly Aristotelian point that what we actually did is the best guide to what our intentions really were. He argues that for Hegel, our own interpretation of our intentions has no privileged status in comparison to the interpretations of others. He would undercut excuses of the sort “I did x, but I really wanted y“. Rather, he would say that what we really wanted — not in the abstract, but under all the conditions that actually applied — was just what we did.

The actuality referenced here is a matter neither of simple fact nor of empirical consensus or majority opinion, but is itself a matter of normative evaluation under conditions of rational dialogue and respect for all.

Act and Action

Still pursuing roots of the modern “subject” in medieval Latin scholasticism by way of Alain de Libera’s Arch√©ologie du sujet, I’ve reached the point where de Libera reviews Bernard Lonergan’s detailed account of act, action, and related terms in Aquinas. The most noteworthy conclusion is that Aquinas distinguishes “act” from “action” in opposite ways in different texts, when he combines it with his other distinction between cases of immanent and transient action. This confusion appears not to have originated with Aquinas himself, but rather with the Latin translations of Greek texts that he used.

In any event, the way these distinctions are deployed by Aquinas is to say the least highly fluid, which is to say that any attempt to interpret them univocally would result in contradictions. (Burrell, who considers the analogy of being a later development attributable to Cajetan, nonetheless suggests that there is an analogy of action in Aquinas.)

De Libera constructs a table of Latin terms (vol. 3 part 1, p. 325) used by Aquinas for the Greek energeia (literally “in-actness”, for which I’ve been using the conventional translation of “actuality”) in the agent and in an external product, respectively. Energeia may be actus in the agent and actio in the product, or vice versa. It may be operatio in the agent and either actio or factio in the product. It may be actio in the agent and factio in the product.

“What it is necessary to understand in this context is that for Aristotle it is one and the same principle that accounts for act, whether in the agent or the product. That principle is form” (ibid, my translation, emphasis added). According to de Libera, for Aquinas too form is the principle of both the act that remains in the agent, and that which passes to the product. (Burrell reads Aquinas in a relational way that avoids de Libera’s suggestion of something passing between agent and product. The idea of something passing between agent and product suggests Suarez’s later explanation of efficient causation by “influence”.)

De Libera takes note (pp. 327-332) of the Latin translation of the influential definition of praxis (ethical action or practice) in the treatise On the Nature of Man by the 4th century CE Syrian bishop Nemesius of Emesa used by Aquinas. In Greek, Nemesius says “praxis is energeia logik√©“. The Latin translation by Burgundio of Pisa says “gestio is actus rationalis“. But the same translator rendered the same Greek sentence in The Orthodox Faith by the 7th century monk John of Damascus as “actio is operatio rationalis“.

This might seem like a complete muddle. But if we take act as form as the guiding thread as de Libera suggests, it may be possible to get something coherent out of it. On the other hand, some adjustment would still be required if we also accepted the identification of act with action and of action with an efficient cause. If act is supposed to be understood as form and end and action as the efficient cause or means by which an end is accomplished, then act cannot be identified with action.

It is one thing to recognize the limits of attempting to apply univocity and formalism in logic to the real world, and quite another to affirm a contradiction. But this is a quite delicate area, and sometimes there are arguments whether there is truly a contradiction or merely an implicit distinction between cases. The answer to this depends on interpretation, and every interpretation is subject to dialogue.

De Libera says that Burgundio’s translation of John of Damascus “introduces nothing less than the ‘modern’ vocabulary of action” (p. 327). Thus it seems that Aquinas ends up with an unstable combination of Aristotelian and “modern” meanings for act and action, but the instability was already present in the sources he used.