Being and Essence

The early short work of Thomas Aquinas Being and Essence argued very influentially that the essence or “whatness” of a thing can be understood independent of its existence, and therefore its existence must be something separate from its essence. Aquinas’ fellow student of Albert the Great, Dietrich of Freiberg (1250-1310), held on the contrary that there is no real distinction between being and essence, and that they are only distinct by their modes of signification, or ways in which they are said of things.

Aquinas points out that although essence is also called form, properly speaking the essence of non-simple beings or “composite substances” not only should not be identified with matter, but also should not be identified with form. The essence of a composite substance must include both the form and the matter. However, according to Aquinas, the composite of form and matter still has to separately be given being or existence by the Creator.

In contrast to common neo-Augustinian views that were more sharply dualistic than Augustine himself, Aquinas advanced a distinctive variant of hylomorphism, or the interdependence of form and matter. “Through the form, surely, which is the act of the matter, the matter is made a being in act and a certain kind of thing” (chapter 2).

This is a novel formulation using Aristotelian vocabulary in a somewhat Aristotelian style, and it has a kind of intrinsic appeal. The hylomorphic and implicitly anti-dualist sentiment is admirable. The suggestion that “form is the act of the matter” is appealing in its simplicity, but I don’t find Aristotle using act to explain the relation of form and matter.

Aristotle leaves the relation of form and matter happily underdetermined. He is more interested in ranges of variation of concrete things than in propositions with all abstract terms, however intriguing. That through the act of the matter, the matter is made a being in act is an intelligible and interesting claim, but I don’t think Aristotle would have said that either.

The notion of “act” in Aquinas is moreover not the same as it is in Aristotle. As Gwenaëlle Aubry notes, pure act in Aristotle is a final cause only, and explicitly not an efficient cause, whereas pure act in Aquinas is action, which is precisely and primarily an efficient cause. Aristotle’s first cause is the good that attracts beings; Aquinas’ God creates beings from nothing.

Aquinas goes on to give a novel account of being, famously arguing that in God — but only in God — essence and existence are indistinguishable. God for Aquinas — “I am who am” — is pure Being. His essence is pure existence. He has no other essence, and alone of all beings essentially exists. All other beings get their being or existence from God, and therefore their essence is really distinct from their existence.

Aquinas’ teaching of God as pure Being has to be understood as deliberately counterposed to the neoplatonic One beyond being. It is also incompatible with Plato’s Good that is more ancient and powerful than being.

Dietrich of Freiberg made the Aristotelian point that being is said in different ways for different kinds of things. He argued against Aquinas that the essence of a thing refers to everything about it, just as its being does. A human and a human being, he says, are exactly the same thing. Essence as such already involves being, and there is no being that is not the being of some essence. There is a nice little French edition L’Être et l’essence (1996), edited by Alain de Libera and Cyrille Michon, that has Latin and French texts of both Aquinas’ and Dietrich’s works by this title, with commentary.

Dietrich’s own theology was a highly original Aristotelianizing Christian neoplatonism. He tended to identify God with the neoplatonic One. He was known for his interest in natural science, and developed a detailed, accurate account of the optics of rainbows. According to de Libera and Michon, he spoke of a kind of natural providence. Inspired by Arabic Aristotelianism, he developed an elaborate cosmological-ethical theory of creative intellect. He argued that the human intellect does not just passively receive images of things, but has an active, creative component.

Dietrich was in Paris in the 1270s. Without a doubt he later became a leading light of the German Albertism that de Libera and others have associated both with the so-called “radical Aristotelianism” condemned in 1277 and with the rise of German mysticism. His slightly younger contemporary Meister Eckhart is known to have been influenced by his work.

Subjectivity in Plotinus

Plotin: Traité 53 (2004) is Gwenaëlle Aubry’s contribution to the French series Les écrits de Plotin. It is a translation of and commentary on the treatise Porphyry placed at the very beginning of the Enneads when he edited his teacher’s works. In this essay Plotinus broaches the question who “We” are.

Aubry translates the title of Plotinus’ essay as “What Is the Animal? What Is the Man?”. (The classic English translation by Stephen MacKenna called it “The Animate and the Man”.) But she says “The real question of treatise 53 is not that of man, but rather of the subject…. [T]here appears something like a subject in the modern sense of the term, that is to say a reflexive consciousness, capable of asking itself about its operations and its identity” (p. 17, my translation throughout).

Plotinus develops his unique view of soul (psyche) as in effect a sort of unmoved mover. “We”, it will turn out, are for him neither the pure soul nor a union of soul and body. Aubry says here that for Plotinus the subject is not a substance and has no identity. It is rather a “pure power of identification” (p. 18).

It was precisely the classical identification of subject with substance that led Augustine — who was deeply impressed by Plotinus — to insist that the mind is not a “subject”.

“Finally, the theme of the immaculacy of the separated soul is another way of underlining the responsibility of the “We”: it is on us, ultimately, that the ethical decision depends, understood as a choice of identification with that which exceeds us or with that which hinders us, with what founds us or with what weakens us — with the divine or with the animal in us” (p. 18).

“The itinerary of treatise 53 is nothing other, finally, than the passage from the me to the self. What the treatise proposes to its readers, what it proposes to ‘us’, is not to discover our identity — for identity we do not have. It is not to define our essence — for the essence is not ‘us’, but the self — it is to identify ourselves with another object than that with which we spontaneously confuse ourselves” (ibid).

For Plotinus, a mere conversion to interiority is not sufficient to disclose the self, Aubry says. That just gives us a sensible, empirical “me”, a subject of passions. “The whole effort of the treatise… is to redirect consciousness away from that immediate and fascinating object, to orient it toward the impassible and separated soul in which essential identity resides. Thus, the work of definition imposed by the Delphic precept [know thyself] is inseparable from an ethical work: the self cannot be determined except at the price of a renunciation of its first object of identification” (p. 20, brackets added).

She quotes Plotinus asking, “that which investigates, which examines and poses these questions, what could it be?” (p. 23).

“At this point, the treatise takes up a new orientation, engages itself on a radically unexplored path: for the subject in the classical sense of the term — substance, the subject of attribution — is substituted in effect, by the detour of a phrase, a modern subject, possessed of consciousness and reflexivity. The Plotinian project here distinguishes itself radically as much from that of the De Anima [of Aristotle] as from that of the First Alcibiades [of Plato]. It is no longer only to examine the various faculties to distinguish among them which are common to the soul and the body, and which are proper to the soul alone. It is no longer only to decide whether man is the soul, the body, or the mixture of soul and body. It’s about, writes Plotinus, asking oneself about the very thing that does the investigation: the philosophizing subject takes itself as the object of investigation. The conversion is no longer only to interiority, but to consciousness: and that consciousness takes the form of an immediate reflexivity” (ibid, brackets added).

Plotinus seems to have been the first to claim this sort of immediate reflexivity of consciousness. As Aubry goes on to note, for both Plato and Aristotle, reflexivity only comes through the mediation of another. “The other is not only another self, but it is through the other, insofar as the other is at the same time like me and other than me, that I have access to myself…. The access to interiority requires a detour, either by way of exteriority, or by otherness” (p. 25).

Hegel and Paul Ricoeur, I would note, have each in their own way again taken up Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on mediation and the need for a detour. But even though Plotinus claims an immediate reflexivity, he does not claim that it is or has an identity.

For Plotinus, according to Aubry, “the we is neither the incarnate, empirical me, nor the separated essential self; it is the passage from the one to the other” (p. 27). In the related essay “A Me Without Identity? The Plotinian We” in Le moi et l’interiorite (2008), she writes, “Returning into itself, thus, [the ‘We’] does not know itself as a unity, nor in its identity with itself, but as a mixture of two terms, where neither is, properly speaking, ‘itself'” (p. 108).

Taking “Things” as True

The second standpoint examined by Hegel in the Phenomenology is Perception, or in the literal etymological sense of the German word for it, “true-taking”. This etymology has an intriguing but probably accidental resonance with the notion of taking things as thus-and-such that Brandom emphasizes in Kant. In Perception, emphasis is more on the things than on the taking.

Harris in his commentary associates Perception with the philosophy of healthy common sense. Even the peasant woman of the previous chapter “must follow the ‘leading’ of language at least one step beyond the naming of [things]. She identifies her cows not just by their names, but by their color-patterns; and she knows her apple trees from her plum trees or her neighbor’s peach, etc. Hers is a world not just of singular [things], but of perceptible types; but for her, the process of classification with its universal names is an instrumental shorthand for dealing with the ‘real things’ that can be identified and pointed to. She does not want to take the leading of language seriously, but only to get back to her life, and to get on with it” (Hegel’s Ladder I, p. 238).

Perception at least begins to take up the nuances of how things interrelate that are ignored by sense certainty. “Sense-Certainty is rich only in positive things to be certain of…. Only perception can say what is, because it names universal things that are perceived through the changing sequence and variety of their properties”(p. 239). “Perception is the being grasped together of the moments that unfold in perceiving as process…. The perceiving we are concerned with is a process in which the universal self takes itself to be a rational being, and the truth of its object to be a universal truth” (p. 238). By “universal self” he means an individual self taken as an instance of a rational self, not anything like a world soul.

Harris continues, “Our situation as philosophical observers is different in its ‘object’ from the perceiving consciousness. Our object has been logically determined for us, whereas the object of the perceiving consciousness simply ‘falls out of the world of Sense-Certainty’ for it… It knows that the object is a universal essence; but it does not know that ‘universality’ is an activity of the perceiving mind” (pp. 238-239).

We know that the ‘thing’ is a result of this process…. Our perceiving is the process, of which the object is the result. Perception… is an interpretation of sense-certainty in which the knowing consciousness is no longer concerned about the truth of the copula ‘is’, but about what is…. Sense-Certainty was already implicitly perception in its examples” (p. 239).

He quotes Hegel saying “Being is a universal in virtue of having mediation or the negative in it” (p. 240). As Harris says a bit later, “There is no nameable property of anything that is not part of a range of alternative properties. Some variations of properties are consistent with the thing continuing to count as the ‘same thing’ — and some are not” (ibid).

“[T]he singular property of ‘being salt’ is known to us as immediate sensation only when we taste it (and that is when the salt itself is necessarily dissolved back into the flux of sense-immediacy). Thus, in the white cube that is the ‘thing’ I perceive, the character of being salt is a not-this; it is not immediately sensed, but it is stably preserved for the sensation whenever I want to sense it…. It is a potentiality for sensation…. As this potentiality, this ‘otherness’ than what it is (the cubical whiteness etc.), it is a universal” (pp. 240-241).

(I am delighted to see Harris stressing the importance of potentiality in this crucial transition out of immediacy in Hegel. I don’t recall Hegel using the word “potentiality” much, but thought he ought to have.)

“What is ‘truly taken’ is an essence that is the negative ‘property’ which determines and holds together all the positive ones. But it is also truly taken as the positive property of filling a certain space. All of the properties cohere together in the space that the thing occupies…. ‘Thinghood’ as directly given for perceiving is the persisting spatial togetherness of many independent qualities…. The ‘thing’ is not just a loose collection of properties inhering somehow in the same identifiable region of space at the given time. It is a thing because of what it excludes; and its exclusiveness is what particularizes each of its properties” (p. 241).

“I know that I do not passively perceive what is true, in the way that I seem to apprehend the fact that ‘this is Lisa, and this is Ursel’ passively. My reflective capacities are involved. Perceiving is an activity of consciousness” (p. 245). “But it ought to be consistent” (p. 246).

“The attempt to claim that the manifold of sensation is simply subjective ignores its interpersonal objectivity. Every identifiable property is an objective essence…. Not just the oneness of the thing is objectively real, but its ‘difference’ from everything else” (p. 247).

“The essence of being a thing is to be ‘for another'” (p. 249). “Everything is specified by its difference from others” (p. 250). “The determinacy which is the ‘essential’ or ‘absolute’ character of a thing on its own account is essentially a relation to others (which negates the thing’s independence)” (p. 251).

Here we begin to see the limits of Perception. “The standpoint of Perception presupposes an absolute community of ‘things’. But the definition of ‘thinghood’ that the perceptual consciousness set up for itself contains no necessary reference from one thing to another for its being. The independent being of the thing is what makes it the ‘object’ that can be ‘truly taken’…. We have now seen that in any consistent formulation of the perceptual standpoint, this is logically impossible. It is the independence that is a sham” (p. 252).

“What is ‘essential’ and what is not ‘essential’ is a function of our supposedly external observation” (p. 253).

“Hegel… aims to show us that the naive empiricism which wants to conceive of perception causally (as analogous to mirror-reflection) cannot succeed.”

“We have already seen how we could not stand still at the concept of the ‘one thing’ with ‘many properties’. We had to admit that the multiplicity was founded in the ‘thing’, and not simply generated by the perceiving mind; and on the other hand, the ‘unity’ was an actively negative exclusion, which could not be simply contributed by the mind as it sorted the perceived ‘properties’ into things” (p. 254).

The standpoint of perception treats logic and philosophy as mere “game[s] with verbal counters” (p. 256). Its mistake is “to assume that ‘cognition’ is an activity that supervenes on an object that is already there; but actually it is the construction of ‘the object’ in a process of interpretation” (p. 257).

Form as Value

Plato’s most famous discussions of form involved things like the form of virtue, of justice, or of the Good. These are questions that perplex the wise and the sincere inquirer. They therefore could not be the objects of any simple dogma.

In Aristotle there is a deep connection between form and ends. For both Aristotle and Plato, “essence” is never merely factual but always has what analytic philosophers call a normative dimension. It is not the kind of thing that could be simply given (see Form, Substance).

Brandom says that for Kant and Hegel, concepts always have a normative dimension, and intentionality is to be explained in terms of normativity rather than vice versa.

The necessity in formal logic and mathematics also has a normative character, but it is different from the previous examples in that it is univocal and definitely knowable. Things that are “formal” in this modern sense are quite different from form for Plato or Aristotle, which is closer to what Brandom would call conceptual content (see Mutation of Meaning). Well-founded certainty is only possible in domains that are purely formal in the modern sense.

Anything involving the “real world” involves interpretation, which is never finished. In life we work, act, and love on the basis of partial interpretations of the forms of things.

Form, Substance

Faced with questions like what the world is “made of”, modern people have generally assumed that it must be some kind of “stuff”. The usual presumed answer is some sort of matter-stuff, or less commonly some sort of mind-stuff.

Plato and Aristotle already suggested a radical alternative to this way of thinking that takes the accent away from “stuff” altogether. Aristotle especially developed a rich account of how we think about these kinds of things, by looking at how we express these kinds of questions, and what we are implicitly trying to get at when we ask them.

The most obvious simple answer attributed to Plato and Aristotle is form. In Aristotle’s case, one should also mention what has been traditionally called substance.

Etymologically, eidos — the Greek word we translate as “form” — seems to begin from a notion of visual appearance, with an emphasis on shape. It acquired a more abstract sense related to geometrical figure. Plato attributed great significance to the practice of geometry as an especially clear and perspicuous kind of reasoning, but he also recognized a broader kind of reasoning associated with a dialectic of question and answer, which comes into play especially where questions of value are concerned. From a point of view of ethical practice and human life generally, questions about what something really is and why this rather than that are more important than what things are made of (see What and Why). Already with Plato, “form” came to be inseparable from meaning.

Aristotle’s classic discussion of substance (ousia) in the Metaphysics starts from the idea of a substrate in which properties inhere. This most superficial level later inspired the Greek grammarians to articulate the notion of a grammatical subject of predicates. In what I think is the single greatest example of ancient dialectic, Aristotle gradually steps back from the simple notion of a substrate. Substance becomes “what it was finally to have been” a thing, at the end of the day so to speak. But then this is further interrogated to disclose the level of actuality, or what is effectively operative in a process. But it turns out that actuality is not complete in itself. What is effectively operative does not form a self-contained whole that explains everything. A fuller understanding must take into account potentiality, which leads to a transition away from simple actuality to a larger perspective of processes and degrees of actualization, in which nothing is simply given just as it is. Aristotle was especially concerned with the forms of living things, which have this character.

The more interesting senses of form for Plato and Aristotle do not refer to something that could be simply given. In line with this but in a more speculative mode, Plotinus suggested that every form somehow in a way “contains” all other forms. The poetic truth in this is that the articulation of one form depends on the articulation of other forms, and while everything in some sense coheres, we have no unconditional starting point. We always begin in the middle somewhere, in a context that has yet to be fully elaborated. The work of elaboration is itself the answer. (See also Interpretation.)

Guilt

Ricoeur says the notion of sin is first of all the violation of a personal bond that involves “not essence but presence”. This is “from beginning to end… a religious dimension and not a moral one” (p. 52). His gloss of guilt as a consciousness of sin (p. 81) suggests that guilt is also not a moral concept and not related to essence. I think of guilt as a legal concept rather than an ethical one; Ricoeur’s train of thought suggests it is also ultimately religious. It seems to me what goes beyond positive law should be love and forgiveness, but Ricoeur briefly shows an overly diplomatic deference to what I would call the unholy idea of a supra-essential and supra-ethical command.

I’m also a bit nervous about a privileging of presence over essence, and about the work that presence is supposed to be doing.

Essence has often been denigrated, and some very shallow notions of it have been propounded. But insofar as we use that word to translate Plato and Aristotle, I treat their works as the gold standard for what it ought to mean. Problems arise when in opposition to Plato and Aristotle, so-called essences are assumed to be simply known, and thus taken for granted. Husserl had a different, thinner, perhaps even overly precise, almost mathematical notion of essence, adapted to a different context, aiming to be as abstract as possible, whereas I think even Plato and especially Aristotle aimed much more at the concrete.

Ricoeur speaks of a “realism of sin” (pp. 81ff) in the sense that sin is not fully captured by the consciousness of even the repentant sinner. This seems sound, but I’d still rather talk about justice and love than sin and guilt.

“There is no question of denying that the personal imputation of fault marks an advance over the scandalous collective responsibility that permits someone other than the guilty person to be punished. But it must be understood that the price of this advance is the loss of the unity of the human species…. The pseudo-concept of original sin is only the rationalization at the third degree, through the Adamic myth, of that enigmatic bond which is acknowledged rather than understood in the ‘we’ of the confession of sins” (p. 84). Now we seem to have divine blessing of a social bond among all of us talking animals rather than a supra-intelligible command, and I am happy again.

Fault should not be reduced to guilt (p. 100). We are “responsible and captive” (p. 101; emphasis in original). “[M]an had the consciousness of responsibility before having the consciousness of being cause, agent, author” (p. 102). This may begin to anticipate the need for something like the expanded notion of responsibility that Brandom has developed in his work on Hegel. Ricoeur says the recognition of individual responsibility and of degrees of guilt were decisive steps forward.

He stresses a paradoxical character of the “servile will” that is both free and in bondage. I don’t see any paradox in this. The reality just is that we have meaningful freedom, but it is far from total. Aristotle already pointed the way, and Ricoeur himself explained it very well in Freedom and Nature and Fallible Man.

Efficient Cause, Again

Yesterday, I changed my thinking about Aristotle’s “efficient cause”, making a somewhat surprising connection to the modern notion of “structural causality”. Then I had to update my account of generalized unmoved movers to add a case for an unmoved efficient cause.

Aristotle’s whole framework of “causes” (answers to “why” questions) is often misunderstood, and it is especially bad with the so-called efficient cause. A quick web search on the latter turns up mostly accounts that are just wrong. (A wonderful exception is the outstanding article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

At Physics 195b22-25, referring back to an earlier example of a man building a house that was initially said (metonymically, it turns out) to be an efficient cause, Aristotle wrote (Complete Works, Barnes edition) “In investigating the cause of each thing it is always necessary to seek what is most precise (as also in other things): thus a man builds because he is a builder, and a builder builds in virtue of his art of building. This last cause then is prior; and so generally.” So it is the art of building — not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer’s blow — that primarily “builds” the house (i.e., governs the details of the process its construction), and is properly (not just metonymically) called its efficient cause. Once again, for Aristotle it is something at the level of adverbial detail — not the coarse level of agents or action — that is most important.

Having said the other day that Foucaultian discursive regularities are a kind of efficient cause like the art of building, it occurred to me they are also a good example of structural causality, and then that one might say the same about, e.g., the art of building.

Previously, I had been thinking about the efficient cause as functioning like a sort of catalyst. This relatively modest role had led me to privately think of the efficient cause as an “accidental” cause (i.e., one not really contributing to the essence of the thing).

This was at the opposite extreme from the tendency of late scholastics like the great Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) to make efficient causes paradigmatic for causes in general, conceived in a proto-modern sense of being responsible for the fact of a thing’s being or existence rather than for the manner of its being, and as involving an “influence” from an agent rather than reasons. (In this context, ends or “final causes” were also reduced to mental intentions of a natural or supernatural agent, as al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) had done earlier, quite contrary to Aristotle’s own non-mental account. It was this mentalist reinterpretation that was the real target of Spinoza’s eloquent polemic against against teleology.) There is a nice article by Stephan Schmid on these issues in Suárez.

Anyway, an efficient cause as a point of application of structural causality clearly has a much bigger role to play in determining the detailed nature of a thing than the purely external one of a mere catalyst. (I am using the word “nature” here in a sense broader than Aristotle’s, similar to essence but particular to things that come to be, whereas Aristotle further limited it to nonartificial things, which he thought all contained at least a rudimentary internal principle of motion not shared by artificial things.) On my new account, the efficient cause also exemplifies the interweaving of Aristotelian essence with accident or contingency, due to the role of the semantic materiality as well as form of the means of realization of a nature that is its efficient cause.

This is also more conformant to the idea that all Aristotelian causes are supposed to contribute to explaining the natures of things. Ironically, my previous “catalyst” view made the efficient cause a kind of exception that looked more like the sort of cause of existence I have generally been arguing is un-Aristotelian. As a point of application of structural causality, an efficient cause now fits the general pattern of explaining natures, rather than the mere factual existence of things with natures more or less taken for granted.

Platonic Truth

Plato was much more concerned with what might be called truths of essence than with truths of fact. Truths of essence involve interpretation of meaning, and always have an implicit normative dimension. They are inseparably involved with questions of what is good or right. As Aristotle might say, they tell us what and why something is rather than merely “that” something is.

There is no general way to test whether we have completely grasped an essence, and not just what Hegel would call a one-sided view of it. As Brandom might say, all grasping of essences is defeasible. Plato makes his leading characters say many things that apply this in particular cases. Essences are the object of interpretation, not certain knowledge. (See also Dialogue; The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle; Plato and Aristotle Were Inferentialists; Brandom on Truth; Foundations?)