“Western Metaphysics”?

“Metaphysics” has historically had numerous senses, mostly rather far from the way I read the original Aristotelian context. Neoplatonic commentators and later giants like Avicenna, Aquinas, and Scotus already radically reconfigured its meaning, long before the changes associated with early modernity. Authors like Heidegger and Derrida have famously made sweeping indictments of the whole of “Western metaphysics”, based on overly homogeneous and continuist interpretations of the history of philosophy. More broadly, Plato and Aristotle are far too often blamed for views they never held. Even the medieval Latin tradition was far more diverse and interesting than common stereotypes would allow.

Aquinas and Scotus on Power

Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain (Genesis of the Sovereign God) concludes with chapters on Aquinas and Scotus. She finds that Aquinas systematically substitutes power and action for Aristotle’s less familiar and more subtle ends-oriented concepts of potentiality and act. Aquinas then distinguishes between active power and receptive or passive power, neither of which has much to do with Aristotelian potentiality.

For Aristotle, Aubry says, potentiality is an indwelling tendency of a being to be attracted toward an end. Pure act is the realization of an end (and, I would add, not itself a movement but an unmoved mover that is an attractor). For Aquinas, the receptive power of beings is the power to receive being from God. Pure act is equated with God’s creation from nothing. Aquinas strongly associates being with power; the power of God, pure Being, pure Existence, is for him an active and efficient cause, not an unmoved attractor. On my reading of Aristotle, it is only the less-than-pure acts of moved movers that are active and efficient causes; the “first” cause is an end that attracts beings.

Duns Scotus, according to Aubry, seems to have originated the modern notion of purely logical possibility. For Scotus, anything at all that is noncontradictory is possible, whereas Aristotle considered possibility more pragmatically, in relation to real-world conditions.

Scotus held that the order of the world is radically contingent, able to be reshaped by God’s will. According to Aubry, he explicitly speaks of God’s arbitrary choice, and attributes a power of arbitrary choice to the human will as well. For Aristotle, the source of contingency in the world is the potentialities of things. For Scotus, it is the absolute power of God.

Whereas Bonaventure, Aquinas, and the 14th century pope John XXII treated the “absolute” power of God as only logically distinct from the “ordained” power associated with the order of the world as we know it, and as not actually separately exercised, Scotus insisted that the absolute power of God is actually exercised. He identified the absolute power of God with a kind of pure fact, and insisted that God from eternity could choose to change the order of the world. (I’m inclined to think Abelard was right, and choice is incompatible with eternity.)

God’s choice for Scotus has no reason beyond itself. Scotus explicitly rejects the passage from Plato quoted by Abelard that everything that is has a cause or reason. Aubry says that for Scotus, the good is only good because God wills it so. This is the exact opposite of the argument of Plato, Abelard, and Leibniz that goodness comes first.

Scotus strongly emphasizes the infinity of God in contrast to the finitude of creatures; infinity for Scotus is God’s most important attribute. Moreover, God’s infinite power acts immediately in the world. This reminds me of the extreme positions on omnipotence articulated by Philo and al-Ghazali. According to Aubry, Scotus also says that a worldly prince enjoys a similar absolute power.

In passing, Aubry notes that Descartes — also a voluntarist — held that God creates eternal truths. This seems to be a somewhat Scotist position. (See also Aubry on Aristotle; Leibniz on Justice vs Power; Power of the One?; Disambiguating “Power”; Not Power and Action; Nature and Justice in Augustine; Peter Abelard; 1277; Being and Essence; Being and Representation.)

Being and Representation

In L’Être et représentation (1999), Olivier Boulnois documents the emergence of “metaphysics” in its distinctively non-Aristotelian modern sense among various 13th century authors, including Roger Bacon, Henry of Ghent, and Siger of Brabant, leading to its decisive formulation by the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus in the 14th century. Avicenna had already claimed that metaphysics is about “being in general”, whereas Aristotle himself had emphasized that “being is said in many ways”, which implies that there is no “being in general”.

Boulnois suggests that the 13th century authors just mentioned paved the way for Scotus’ innovations by already treating being as a concept. We are so used to that, that it is hard for us to grasp what Aristotle means in suggesting that “being in general” is not a proper concept at all.

Scotus argued against Aristotle that there is a unifying, logically minimal criterion of being, and it is representability. To be representable is to be “not nothing”. Unicorns and other imaginary creatures are representable, whereas Aristotle would not have called them beings. Scotus’ concept of representation seems to be purely logical; to have a representation of something is not necessarily to have understanding of it. For Scotus, God and creatures are equally representable, even though creatures, as finite, can be properly understood by the human mind and God, as infinite, cannot. Whereas Aristotle never speaks of an infinite being — only of a perfect one — Scotus’ generic concept of being is very explicitly indifferent to distinctions between finite and infinite.

It is one thing to acknowledge representation as a logical concept among others, and quite another to give it the kind of special first place status that Scotus does in his ontology, and that Locke does in his epistemology.

Boulnois says it is with Scotus that metaphysics became linked to what Kant later called ontotheology. While separating metaphysics as the account of being from theology as the separate account of God, Scotus also made God indifferently one of the objects of metaphysics, along with all the other beings. The combination of these changes actually brought metaphysics closer to revealed theology, and helped it to be perceived as the safe handmaiden of the later Latin tradition, rather than as independent philosophical theology that some found threatening.

If one speaks of a subject of representation, it could be — in a sense of “subject” closer to that of Aristotle — that in which something stands for something, or it could be — in a modern sense — the one who represents. “In the context of representation, the soul is not the content of its thought, but rather has a representation, distinct from itself” (Boulnois, op. cit., p. 152, my translation).

It seems that for both Scotus and Locke, the mind has representations. The soul in Aristotle is thoughts and feelings and capabilities, not something standing behind them. (See also Repraesentatio; Ontology; Being, Existence.)

Heidegger

Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) was a tremendously original, highly influential, and troublesome philosopher. What makes his work troublesome is not only conceptual difficulty and a deliberate practice of translating the familiar into the unfamiliar, but also his never clearly repudiated attempt to influence the Nazi movement in Germany. He seems to have been a cultural and linguistic chauvinist who rejected pseudo-biological racism, but nonetheless put hopes in an “inner truth and greatness” of National Socialism as an alternative to American and Soviet materialism. This identification puts a dark cloud over the interpretation of his writing, which was, however, generally very far removed from politics. The question is, how much it is possible to detach his work from a stance that seems worse than one of mere bad judgment.

A serious and innovative reader of Aristotle who also developed thought-provoking readings of Plato, Kant, Hegel, and Nietzsche, Heidegger combined a sympathetic but critical take on Husserl’s phenomenology with an interest in the hermeneutics of Wilhem Dilthey. Widely read as an “existentialist”, he sharply repudiated Sartre’s appropriation of his work. In his later works, he approached philosophy as a kind of poetic meditation.

His most famous thesis was that Western thought largely lost its way from Plato onward, neglecting the question of the meaning of Being in favor of preoccupation with things. While he made good points about the preconceptions involved in our ordinary encounters with things, I think he too sharply rejected “ontic” engagement with empirical, factual concerns in favor of a purified ontology. He also promoted a valorization of what I would call the pre-philosophical thought of the pre-Socratics Heraclitus and Parmenides. I think Plato and especially Aristotle represented a gigantic leap forward from this.

Some of Heidegger’s very early work was on the medieval theologian Duns Scotus, who seems to have originated the standard notion of ontology later promoted by Wolff and others. In sharp contrast to the tradition stemming from Scotus, Heidegger argued that Being is not the most generic concept, and wanted to emphasize a “Being of beings” in contrast to their factual, empirical presentation. He did not follow the path of Aquinas in identifying pure Being with God, either, and Aquinas probably would have rejected his talk of the Being of beings.

I think his most important contribution was an emphasis on what he called “being-in-the-world” as a way of overcoming the dichotomy of subject and object. His associated critique of Cartesian subjectivity has been highly influential. In later works, he also recommended putting difference before identity, and relations before things. Although the way he expounded these notions was quite original, I prefer to emphasize their roots in Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel. (See also Being, Existence; Being, Consciousness; Beings; Phenomenological Reduction?; Memory, History, Forgetfulness — Conclusion.)

Johnston’s Pippin

Adrian Johnston’s A New German Idealism just arrived, and I’m taking a quick look. It is mainly concerned with Slavoj Žižek’s work. But for now, I’m just concerned with chapter 2 — where Johnston launches a broadside against “deflationary” readings of Hegel, particularly the one he attributes to Robert Pippin — and the preface.

Johnston can be forgiven for not addressing Pippin’s 2018 work on the Logic, but I do not understand why he ignores my favorite book by Pippin, Hegel’s Practical Philosophy (2008).

There, Pippin dwells extensively on Hegel’s Aristotelian side. Much of interest could be said on what it means to be Aristotelian in a post-Kantian context. Many received views will be challenged by such an examination. (For a beginning, see Aristotle and Kant.) As I have said, I read Hegel as both Kantian and Aristotelian (as well as original).

In any case, Johnston seems to think Pippin in Hegel’s Idealism (1989) was intent on reducing Hegel to Kant. That book was indeed concerned to show a strong Kantian element in Hegel. But I did not think of it as reductive. If anything, I read Pippin’s book as a salutary response to those who want to reduce Hegel to a pre-Kantian, and to read Hegel as rolling back from Kant rather than moving forward from Kant. Because he assumes a bad old subjectivist reading of Kant, Johnston seems to think Pippin’s reading of Hegel necessarily rules out the possibility of seeing a realist side to Hegel.

The whole challenge of Hegel is to understand how it it is possible in his terms to be both Critical and realist, without engaging in logical nonsense. (But see Realism, Idealism.) This sort of thing typically requires significant semantic labor, but the achievement of such semantic elaboration is the whole point. Here I worry where Johnston intends to go with his defense of “undialectical” distinctions in the preface. It is one thing to recognize that Hegel does not intend to just do away with Understanding and its distinctions, and quite another to treat those distinctions as final. (See also Univocity.)

Johnston’s lengthy discussion of the positive value of Understanding in the preface does not address how it relates to dialectical transitions. He mainly wants to defend Žižek’s tactic of presenting forced binary choices at particular moments. In particular cases and circumstances this conceivably can be good pedagogy, but it is the details that matter, and Johnston offers no advice on how we are to distinguish a pedagogically good forced choice from a bad one.

(I suspect Žižek’s tactic may be related to his friend Badiou’s defense of the Maoist “One divides into Two” line, which always seemed like blustering nonsense to me. There have been some very rational strands within Marxism; I do not comprehend why someone as intelligent as Badiou would prefer to apologize for the coarsest and most anti-intellectual, but to a lesser extent Althusser did as well. See also Democracy and Social Justice.)

(Worlds away from this, Brandom has a wonderfully clear account of the nonfinality of Understanding’s particular conclusions, illustrated precisely by its very important positive role in the recognition and resolution of error, in which the operations of the Understanding on its own terms give rise to dialectical transitions at the level of Reason, understood in terms of the revision of commitments and possibly of concepts.)

Johnston also seems to assume there is something necessarily reductive about a non-ontological (or not primarily ontological) reading of Hegel. Again, I don’t see why.

I think Aristotle’s metaphysics was basically a semantic investigation, just like his physics. It is the historic forcing of this inquiry back from the wide universe of meaning onto narrow registers of being and existence that I see as reductive.

Based on the work of Olivier Boulnois on the role of the medieval theologian Duns Scotus in the reinterpretation of metaphysics as ontology, I have come to think that in general, modern emphasis on ontology tends to reflect what I take to be historically a medieval Scotist mystification of things Aristotle approached in clearer terms we should recognize today as mainly semantic. (For what it’s worth, the homonymous use of “ontology” in computer science is also mainly semantic.)

Metaphysics or “first philosophy” or “wisdom” was supposed to help us with higher-order understanding, not to be a place where strange existence claims are made.

Repraesentatio

Representation was not invented by Descartes, as Brandom tends to suggest. Concepts of representation had wide currency in the middle ages. The word used was literally repraesentatio. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a nice summary, which traces its philosophical use to the Latin translations of Avicenna.

John Duns Scotus (1266 -1308) wanted to rewrite Aristotle by insisting that there is a single meaning for “being” that underlies all the different meanings Aristotle had distinguished. The underlying minimal definition of being he proposed was precisely representability. Olivier Boulnois documents how Scotus believed he had invented a unified ontology that Aristotle thought was impossible, and did so on the basis of a doctrine of being as pure representability. Scotus thus appears as an arch-representationalist. Whatever else one may say about it, his notion of representation is clearly not the same as resemblance. Every medieval university had a Scotist on the faculty.

If memory serves, Aquinas had a doctrine of the possibility of perfect representation. Since it is perfect, this cannot be reducible to mere resemblance. Perfect representation is effectively equivalent to a kind of immediacy.

Some contemporary scholars also translate Greek Stoic phantasma as “representation”, based on the functional role it plays in the Stoic system. The Stoic theory in question dealt with sense perception, and was part physiological and part epistemological. It purported to provide a foundation for immediate certain knowledge of represented objects from their mental representations in perception. This sounds like representation before inference, and also like another variant of putatively perfect representation, which therefore would again not be reducible to resemblance, and would again be effectively equivalent to immediacy.