Potentiality and Ends

Perfection for Aristotle is an attractor and not a driver. To be an unmoved mover and to be an efficient cause in the “driving” way this was commonly interpreted in the later tradition are mutually exclusive. Pure act does not act in the normal sense of the word. I am reminded of Lao Tzu, that other great minimalist teacher of unmoved moving.

Plotinus and the later neoplatonic schools reworked the notion of unmoved moving, from Aristotle’s modest notion of the attraction of potentialities to the good, to a principle of overflowing, superabundant positive power that spontaneously generates beings and effects, as a necessary consequence of its very superabundance. Aristotle’s “first cause” affects everything, but only through the collaboration of secondary causes. Though developing nuanced accounts of the grand cycle of procession from the One and ultimate return, the neoplatonists tended to reduce secondary causes to mere effects of the One.

Authors like Aquinas engaged in a tricky balancing act, wanting to assert the supremacy of God while simultaneously recognizing the ethical and epistemological value of Aristotle’s emphasis on the reality of secondary causes. But according to Gwenaëlle Aubry, the theological voluntarism of Duns Scotus and others annulled what I take to be that good Aristotelian concern of Aquinas, completely subordinating nature, truth, and the good to the arbitrary will of God.

This whole historical discussion is greatly complicated by the very different ways in which the same key terms have been interpreted. For example, it makes a great difference whether we consider the art of building or the hammer’s blow to be a better model of the efficient cause. The art of building could be a sort of derived unmoved mover, but the hammer’s blow is a moved mover.

Previously, I have emphasized an interpretation of potentiality in terms of Brandom’s talk about robust counterfactual conditions on the one hand, and a loosely structuralist notion of structure on the other. I read Hegel as recognizing the essential role of this kind of potentiality in any formation of a determinate view of things.

This may sound remote from Aubry’s emphasis on potentiality as a tendency to be attracted by an end, but there is actually a deep connection. Hegel emphasizes the role of potentiality in determination, whereas Aubry emphasizes the role of potentiality as contingency. But Brandom’s counterfactual conditions (an interpretation of Hegelian potentiality) just are contingencies; they are not univocally determined to occur. From the ground up, a kind of pluralism of multiple concrete possibilities is built into the determination of determination.

As Leibniz said, all necessity is of a hypothetical, if-then form. As Kant and Hegel also reminded us, judgments of determination always involve interpretation, and ultimately have a normative form. Brandom makes a similar Kantian point that causality in the modern sense is a product of judgments and inference. These are far from arbitrary; they are subject to a kind of objectivity grounded in counterfactual robustness and mutual recognition. But that objectivity is itself ultimately a normative concept. As Abelard said, the good comes first. (See also Form as Value; Aristotelian Causes.)

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.)

Spinoza on Teleology

“All the prejudices I here undertake to expose depend on this one: that men commonly suppose that all natural things act, as men do, on account of an end; indeed, they maintain as certain that God himself directs all things to some certain end” (Spinoza, Collected Works vol. I, Curley trans., p. 439).

“[I]t follows, first, that men think themselves free, because they are conscious of their volitions and their appetite, and do not think, even in their dreams, of the causes by which they are disposed to wanting and willing, because they are ignorant of [those causes]. It follows, secondly, that men always act on account of an end, viz. on account of their advantage, which they want. Hence they seek to know only the final causes of what has been done, and when they have heard them, they are satisfied, because they have no reason to doubt further” (p. 440).

“Hence, they consider all natural things as means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means that they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and had made all things for their use” (pp. 440-441).

The famous appendix to book 1 of Spinoza’s Ethics, from which the above is excerpted, is a sort of psychological exposé of the superstition-like attitude behind the kind of “external” teleology that sees everything in terms of ends, but treats all ends as resulting from the conscious aims or will of a supernatural being or beings, more or less on the model of what theologians have called “particular providence”.

But though he explicitly refers only to this kind of conscious providence that implies ongoing supernatural intervention in the ordinary workings of the world, he nonetheless in an unqualified way dismisses all explanation in terms of ends. At the same time, the notion of determination or causality that he does acknowledge as genuine is too narrow and rigid (too univocal).

Most of the historic criticisms of Spinoza have been extremely unfair; this includes remarks by Leibniz, Kant, Fichte, and Hegel. Spinoza rightly pointed out that we tend to overrate the role of conscious intentions in human affairs and the workings of the world. But Leibniz rightly pointed out that Spinoza’s exclusive emphasis on unconditional divine power or omnipotence (as contrasted with goodness) — which reduces everything to efficient causes — has undesirable consequences.

Allison on Kant on Freedom

Eminent Kant scholar Henry Allison writes in the introduction to his Kant’s Theory of Freedom (1990), “Kant’s theory of freedom is the most difficult aspect of his philosophy to interpret, let alone defend. To begin with,… we are confronted with the bewildering number of ways in which Kant characterizes freedom and the variety of distinctions he draws between various kinds or senses of freedom” (p. 1).

Kant advocates “not only a strict determinism at the empirical level but also a psychological determinism” (p. 31) at the level of desires and beliefs. Nonetheless he also famously argues for the pure spontaneity of reason at a transcendental level, and wants to link this to a distinctive “causality of reason” entirely separate from empirical causality. As I’ve said before, I think Kant often presents both the determinist part of this and the indeterminist part in terms that are too strong.

Kant intensifies this difficulty by apparently arguing that the very same human reason that is transcendentally utterly free also has an empirical character that is completely determined. According to Allison, Kant distinguishes between empirical and intelligible “character” (considered as general ways of being, not implying personality) in two different ways. Empirical character is sometimes presented as merely the phenomenal effect of intelligible character, but at other times as the sensible schema of intelligible character. The latter version is interpreted by Allison as implying that “empirical character involves not simply a disposition to behave in certain predictable ways in given situations but a disposition to act on the basis of certain maxims, to pursue certain ends, and to select certain means for the realization of those ends…. Clearly, the causality of reason, even at the empirical level, is inherently purposive. Consequently, explanations of its activity must be teleological rather than mechanistic in nature” (p. 33).

Allison argues that for Kant, not only moral but also prudential judgments exhibit a teleological causality of reason. An end understood in a context generates a moral or prudential “ought”. Allison says that acting on the basis of an ought is for Kant (at least in the first Critique) the defining characteristic of free agency.

“A helpful way of explicating what Kant means by the spontaneity of the understanding in its judgmental activity (epistemic spontaneity) is to consider judgment as the activity of ‘taking as’ or, more precisely, of taking something as a such and such” (p. 37). “[E]ven desire-based or… ‘heteronomous’ action involves the self-determination of the subject and, therefore, a ‘moment’ of spontaneity” (p. 39). “[T]he sensible inclination, which from the point of view of the action’s (and the agent’s) empirical character is viewed straightforwardly as cause, is, from the standpoint of this model, seen as of itself insufficient to determine the will. Moreover, this insufficiency is not of the sort that can be made up for by introducing further empirically accessible causal factors. The missing ingredient is the spontaneity of the agent, the act of taking as or self-determination. Since this can be conceived but not experienced, it is once again something merely intelligible” (ibid).

The association of spontaneity with “taking as” (which is Kant’s independent reinvention of Aristotelian practical judgment) rather than some kind of arbitrariness is a breath of fresh air. (See also Freedom Through Deliberation?)

For Aristotle, there could be no contradiction between determination by ends and a complementary determination by “efficient causes” or means. But for Kant, ends are noumenal or intelligible, while means are phenomenal or empirical.

But in his previous work Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Allison argued that Kant wanted to distinguish between phenomenal and noumenal interpretations rather than to assert the literal existence of ontologically separate phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The noumenal or the intelligible is not otherworldly, but a different way of interpreting the same world we experience.

Reality of Ends

Are Aristotelian non-mental ends really compatible with Brandomian normativity in an account of the same things? I want to say yes.

Aristotelian ends have frequently been read as somehow pre-existing. Later commentators in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin traditions certainly most often took such a view, but in so doing they were more faithful to the values of neoplatonic or traditional monotheistic theology than to the Aristotelian text.

Aristotle pioneered the idea that ends come first in the general order of interpretation relevant to life. I see this as ancestral to Brandom’s idea that normativity comes first in the same context, even though Brandom himself does not really engage with pre-modern philosophy. Brandom’s main source for this is his reading of Kant and especially Hegel, but Hegel is also the modern author who began the restoration of Aristotle to his proper place in the history of philosophy.

To come first in the order of interpretation and explanation is not necessarily to pre-exist. Consideration of the order of explanation is after all only relevant to processes of explanation. Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom are all very process-oriented.

Brandom, drawing on Kant and Hegel, offers a broadly pragmatist account of the objectivity of values and reality, in terms of a counterfactual robustness of practical judgments ultimately grounded in mutual recognition and an ongoing commitment to the repair of errors. Such an account of a process of truth-and-error provides for everything involved in the normative sense of what we call objectivity, while making pre-existing truths superfluous.

In a much simpler but still very nuanced way, Aristotle often informally refers to existing realities. He usually starts with an optimistic and charitable approach to the deliverances of common sense in everyday life, only refining and superseding them as the need arises, but epistemic modesty prevents him from turning these into strong theoretical claims. Dialectic — i.e., exploratory discursive reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty — rather than demonstration from presumed truths is the main theoretical tool actually employed throughout Aristotle’s works.

On a more theoretical level, Aristotle provocatively suggests that something need not have actual existence in its own right in order to deeply affect the shape of reality (see The Importance of Potentiality). I take Aristotelian ends to be things of this sort.

Phenomenological Reduction?

This is a follow-up to my earlier article on Husserlian and existential phenomenology in light of the past year’s reading of Paul Ricoeur. In The Conflict of Interpretations (French ed. 1969), Ricoeur discusses the impact of his own view of hermeneutics as a “long detour” essential to understanding.

Ricoeur wrote that “It is in spite of itself that [Husserlian] phenomenology discovers, in place of an idealist subject locked within its system of meanings, a living being which from all time has, as the horizon of all its intentions, a world, the world. In this way, we find delimited a field of meanings anterior to the constitution of a mathematized nature, such as we have represented it since Galileo, a field of meanings anterior to objectivity for a knowing subject. Before objectivity, there is the horizon of the world; before the subject of the theory of knowledge, there is operative life” (p. 9). “Of course, Husserl would not have accepted the idea of meaning as irreducibly nonunivocal” (p. 15).

“In truth, we do not know beforehand, but only afterward, although our desire to understand ourselves has alone guided this appropriation. Why is this so? Why is the self that guides the interpretation able to recover itself only as a result of the interpretation? …the celebrated Cartesian cogito, which grasps itself directly in the experience of doubt, is a truth as vain as it is invincible…. Reflection is blind intuition if it is not mediated by what Dilthey called the expressions in which life objectifies itself. Or, to use the language of Jean Nabert, reflection is nothing other than the appropriation of our act of existing by means of a critique applied to the works and the acts which are the signs of this act of existing…. [R]eflection must be doubly indirect: first, because existence is evinced only in the documents of life, but also because consciousness is first of all false consciousness, and it is always necessary to rise by a corrective critique from misunderstanding to understanding” (pp. 17-18). This is a nice expression of what I take to be one of the greatest lessons of Aristotle and Hegel (see First Principles Come Last; Aristotelian Actualization; What We Really Want.)

For Ricoeur, Husserlian phenomenological reduction ceases to be a “fantastic operation” identified with a “direct passage”, “at once and in one step”. Rather, “we will take the long detour of signs” (p. 257).

Husserl’s “reductions” reduced away reference to putatively existing objects in favor of a sole focus on what would be the Fregean sense in meaning. Ricoeur wants to reintroduce reference, and in this way to distinguish a semantics that includes consideration of reference from a semiology addressing pure sense articulated by pure difference. Reference for Ricoeur is not a primitive unexplained explainer, but something that needs to be explained, and a big part of the explanation goes through accounts of sense. Ricoeur also wants to connect reference back to the earlier mentioned “self that guides the interpretation”, which again functions as an end rather than being posited as actual from the outset.

Similarly to his critique of phenomenological reduction “at once and in one step”, he criticizes Heidegger’s “short route” that in one step simply replaces a neo-Kantian or Husserlian “epistemology of interpretation” with an “ontology of understanding”. Ricoeur is a lot more deferential to Heidegger than I would be at this point, but for Ricoeur such an ontology is again only a guiding aim, and not a claimed achievement like it was for Heidegger. I think this makes Ricoeur’s “ontological” interest reconcilable with my own “anti-ontological” turn of recent years, because my objections have to do with claimed achievements. I broadly associate Ricoeur’s modest ontology-as-aim with my own acceptance of a kind of inquiry about beings that avoids strong ontological claims. Even Heidegger emphasized Being as a question.

Ricoeur of course rejects foundationalist epistemology (see also Kant and Foundationalism), but sees both an epistemology of interpretation and an ontology of understanding as aims guiding the long detour. He effectively contrasts the long path of investigation of meaning with the short path of appeals to consciousness (see also Meaning, Consciousness).

I actually like the idea he attributes to Husserl of reducing being to meaning or the sense(s) of being. If meaning is fundamentally nonunivocal as Ricoeur says rather than univocal as Husserl wanted, this would not be idealist in a bad sense.

Brandom’s simpler suggestion that reference is something real but that it should be ultimately explained in terms of sense seems to me a further improvement over Ricoeur’s apparent notion of reference as a kind of supplement to sense that nonetheless also needs to be explained in terms of sense, but without being reduced to it. I see the inherently overflowing, non-self-contained nature of real as compared to idealized being/meaning as making a supplement superfluous. (See also Reference, Representation; Meant Realities.)

Concept of Law

When Kant distinguishes free beings as acting in accordance with concepts of law rather than merely in accordance with law, he makes a vital point that deserves to be expanded upon. Even inanimate objects exhibit rule-governed behavior, and mere obedience is at best a low degree of virtue. To act in accordance with concepts of laws is to act in a principled and thoughtful way, exercising judgment on how best to realize the high-level ends behind a body of law, charitably interpreted in a spirit of universal fairness. It is to take our place as co-legislators in the universal community of rational beings.

Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

First Principles?

The works of Aristotle as they have come down to us include what seem to be nearly opposite statements about the knowledge of first principles. Book 1 of the Topics, Aristotle’s treatise on dialectic, says that dialectic, which assumes no pre-existing truth and does not yield certain conclusions, turns out to be the best way to the investigate first principles.

However, striking a much more Platonic note, book 1 of the Metaphysics says that knowledge of first principles or “wisdom” is the most difficult of all, but is also the most exact kind of the knowledge in the strong sense that is often translated as “science”. This is said to include knowledge of goods or ends, along with other sorts of causes. But then again, book 1 of the Nicomachean Ethics insists that ethics and the practical judgment associated with it are necessarily inexact. This latter difference seems to have to do the status of first principles as universals, in contrast to the concern of ethics with particular actions.

While book 1 of the Metaphysics is a beautiful text with many valuable insights, the idea that knowledge of first principles could be what is most exact seems incongruous to me. It seems to assume an unequivocal priority of universals over particulars, whereas I think the overall balance of Aristotle’s work shows a much more even-handed view. The ethics, the dialectic, the biological works all take a more nuanced approach. My favorite part of the diverse collection that is the Metaphysics is the very dialectical part in the middle about substance, potentiality, and actuality. (See also Interpretation; What and Why; First Principles Come Last.)

Hermeneutic Biology?

Aristotle’s biological works are quite fascinating and lively. They contain abundant experiential reports, including some hearsay, intermixed with thoughtful reflection. Ultimately it is the reflective aspect that gives them their enduring value.

Sometimes, the content is surprising. For instance, book 1 of Parts of Animals is the place where he thoroughly criticizes the notion of classification by dichotomy. With concrete illustrations from the animal kingdom, he shows that commonly recognized kinds cannot be arrived at by successive dichotomous distinctions. Aristotelian distinction is n-ary rather than binary, pluralist rather than dualist.

Elsewhere (Metaphysics 982b) he famously said that philosophy begins in wonder. At Parts of Animals 645a, he added, “We therefore must not recoil with childish aversion from the examination of the humbler animals. Every realm of nature is marvelous: and as Heraclitus, when strangers who came to visit him found him warming himself at the furnace in the kitchen and hesitated to go in, is reported to have bidden them not to be afraid to enter, as even in that kitchen divinities were present, so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful. Absence of haphazard and conduciveness of everything to an end are to be found in natures’s works in the highest degree, and the end for which those works are put together and produced is a form of the beautiful” (Complete Works, revised Oxford edition vol. 1, p. 1004; see also Natural Ends; Sentience).