Activity, Embodiment, Essence

I think any finite activity requires some sort of embodiment, and consequently that anything like the practically engaged spirits Berkeley talks about must also have some embodiment. On the other hand, the various strands of activity from which our eventual essence is precipitated over time — commitments, thoughts, feelings — are not strictly tied to single individuals, but are capable of being shared or spread between individuals.

Most notably, this often happens with parents and their children, but it also applies whenever someone significantly influences the commitments, thoughts, and feelings of someone else. I feel very strongly that I partially embody the essence and characters of both my late parents — who they were as human beings — and I see the same in my two sisters. Aristotle suggests that this concrete transference of embodied essence from parents to children is a kind of immortality that goes beyond the eternal virtual persistence of our essence itself.

Our commitments, thoughts, and feelings are not mere accidents, but rather comprise the activity that constitutes our essence. I put commitments first, because they are the least ephemeral. In mentioning commitments I mean above all the real, effective, enduring commitments embodied in what we do and how we act.

Time and Eternity

One of Kant’s innovations was a new analysis of the constitution of temporal experience. His famous theses about the role of synthesis in experience provide new insight into the paradoxes of temporal being or “becoming”, and its relation or non-relation to something outside of time. These had been raised by pre-Socratics like Heraclitus and Zeno of Elea, and more satisfactorily treated by Plato and Aristotle.

Heraclitus famously said that everything flows, you can’t step into the same river twice, and things change into their opposites. Zeno went in the opposite direction, conceiving space and time in terms of instants and points, neither of which have any magnitude. He then pointed out that motion at a durationless instant is a logical contradiction. On this basis, Zeno claimed to prove various things that violate common sense, such as that an arrow can’t fly, and that the speedy Achilles could never catch up with a turtle that had a head start. From this he concluded that motion, space, and time were mere illusions.

Plato seems to have at first focused on a sharp distinction between true “being” as eternal on the one hand, and becoming in time as mere appearance on the other. This distinction allowed him to have it both ways. But in dialogues that are thought to have been written later such as Theaetetus and The Sophist, he came to suggest that being and time are not simply two disjunct categories.

Aristotle made time and space more intelligible by developing notions of duration and extension. For Aristotle, duration and extension come first, while durationless instants, magnitudeless points, and pure flux are all abstractions. I see him as an early advocate of the primacy of process. For Aristotle, the key to making this viable is to be able to explain how becoming as we experience it is really not just a pure flux, but rather is full of islands of relative stability that allow us — contrary to Heraclitus — to reidentify objects as having an underlying basis of sameness that persists through various kinds of change. It turns out that the edges of the islands are not rigidly distinct, but he developed the notion conventionally translated as “substance” to explain our experience of the relatively persistent form of their middles.

It is here that Kant’s contribution is significant. Aristotle develops a plausible account of the persistence of form through change, but he discusses it mainly from the point of view of how things are, even though he separately suggests that experience is also shaped by processes of interpretation by us. Kant took up that suggestion, and developed it in considerable detail. Kant consistently emphasizes our role in constituting the stability of form of things we experience in time, though he also insists on an “empirical realism” that justifies most of what we get from so-called common sense. This implies that for Kant as well, there implicitly must be some basis in the way things are, for the stable constructs we come up with. Much of Hegel’s Phenomenology was devoted to a further development of these Kantian insights.

The neoplatonists and Augustine insisted that things in time have a source and destination in eternity. Classic neoplatonism attempted to treat this relation as a sort of quasi-logical unfolding of the divine essence, while Augustine identified it with the act of creation. The relation of temporal being to eternity remained a notorious point of difficulty in neoplatonism, while Augustine called it a mystery.

Hegel thought that Augustine ended up locating all reality in the Eternal, and that this resulted in a devaluation of actual life and experience. Aquinas already used ideas from Aristotle to allow for a more positive evaluation of temporal being. Some spiritual traditions go further and suggest that we humans have a sort of co-creator role in the world we experience. But it was Kant who mainly developed the basis for a non-supernatural explanation consonant with the spirit of this. The main point is that the world is not initially given in the form of pre-existing objects. We separate out objects from the sensible continuum, but at the same time this is not an arbitrary operation. We can’t just materialize a unicorn by thinking of one, but we do play a major active role in the construction of universals like “horse”, and in the recognition of persistent individuals.

Essences of things, once constituted, seem to “subsist” in some virtual way outside of time. The traditional view was that essences are straightforwardly built into the nature of things, or else simply dictated by God. Either way, this means that for us, they would be pre-given. I don’t think Aristotle really regards them this way, but only in the special case of biological organisms does he investigate their genealogy. Kant on the other hand effectively develops a generalized genealogy of essences, showing how they can be understood as temporally constituted.

Another of Kant’s big innovations is in explaining how we play a significant role in our own constitution. I think it is a grievous error to regard such processes of self-constitution as beginning with a blank slate, or as magically independent of real-world constraints, but there is a very important way in which we end up defining who we are — not by an explicit decision, but indirectly through the sum total of our commitments, actions, and responses to things.

That ethical “who we are”, while originating in time, is itself an essence with virtual subsistence. As with all essences, considered in its virtual subsistence, it is eternal. Aristotle would say that our essence stops evolving when our temporal being comes to an end. At that point, who we were is finally stabilized, as the total act of a life.

Receptive Power?

The later neoplatonists developed a subtle and somewhat paradoxical notion of passive or receptive power. I call it paradoxical because “passive power” almost seems like an oxymoron. In modern terms, it is hard to see how something purely passive could meaningfully contribute to an effect, or even be called a “power”. But in a neoplatonic context, active and passive powers function as correlative terms that collaborate — albeit asymmetrically — to produce effects. When a “patient” is properly prepared, an appropriate “agent” power is supposed to spontaneously come to dwell within it.

All the change is on the side of the patient, whereas what is called “agency” in neoplatonism belongs on the side of the eternal and unchanging. Exactly how a patient in time comes to be properly prepared to be receptive to an eternal agent when it was not before is admittedly rather obscure.

In his late polemics against Pelagius, Augustine treated the agency of grace as residing entirely on the side of the eternal, even going to the extreme of denying that grace in any way depends on the merit or innocence of the recipient. His point seems to have been that grace does not depend on any kind of self-will, no matter how virtuous or innocent it may be — that it is always only received as a gift.

However obscure the neoplatonic notion of the preparation of patients may seem, in the context of a problematic like that of late Augustine, the attribution of effective reality to passive powers suggests a way out of the impasse we are left with if we consider only grace and self-will. Merit or innocence could be considered as configurations of such “passive powers”.

Demonstration in Spinoza

Kant and Hegel both objected to Spinoza’s unusual presentation of his Ethics in something resembling the style of Euclid’s geometry. I think of philosophy mainly as interpretation rather than simple declaration, so I am broadly sympathetic to this point. On the other hand, I think Pierre Macherey is profoundly right when he emphasizes the non-foundationalist character of Spinoza’s thought.

The unique meaning Spinoza gives to “Substance” (not to be confused with its Aristotelian, Scholastic, Cartesian, or general early modern senses) is that of a complex relational whole that encompasses everything, rather than a separate starting point for deduction of the details of the world. Because of this, the apparent linearity of his development is just that — a mere appearance.

Hegel does not seem to recognize that Spinoza’s Substance resembles the relational whole of Force that Hegel himself developed in the Phenomenology. This is inseparable from an implicit notion of process in which relations of force are exhibited.

Macherey says Spinoza sees the world in terms of an infinite process, i.e., one without beginning or end or teleological structure (Hegel or Spinoza, p. 75).

(I would argue that neither Aristotle nor Hegel actually endows the world with teleological structure, though they each give ends a significance that Spinoza would deny. For Aristotle, it is particular beings in themselves that have ends. For Hegel, teleological development is a retrospectively meaningful interpretation, not an explanatory theory that could yield truth in advance. But for Spinoza, ends are either merely subjective, or involve an external providence that he explicitly rejects.)

It seems to me that the “point of view of eternity” that Spinoza associates with truth is actually intended to be appropriate to this infinite process. Spinoza points out that eternity does not properly mean a persistence in time that lasts forever, but rather a manner of subsistence that is entirely outside of — or independent of — the linear progression and falling away that characterizes time.

(Kant’s famous assertion of the “ideality of space and time”, which means that space and time are only necessary features of our empirical experience, is not inconsistent with Spinoza’s commendation of the point of view of eternity. Though it has other features Spinoza would be unlikely to accept, Kant’s “transcendental” as distinct from the empirical is thus to be viewed from a perspective not unlike Spinoza’s “point of view of eternity”.)

Spinoza wants to maintain that the order of causes and the order of reasons are the same. Whereas Aristotle deconstructs “cause” into a rich variety of kinds of “reasons why” (none of which resembles the early modern model of an impulse between billiard balls), Spinoza narrows the scope of “cause” to “efficient causes” in a sense that seems close to that of Suárez with inflections from Galilean physics, and suggests that true reasons are causes in this narrower sense. It seems to me that Spinoza’s “order of causes” resembles the infinite field of purely relational “force” that Hegel discusses in the Force and Understanding chapter.

Spinoza wants us to focus on efficient causes of things, but to do so mainly from the “point of view of eternity”. This takes us away from the event-oriented perspective of linear time, toward a consideration of general patterns of the interrelation of different kinds of means by which things end up as they concretely tend to do. In speaking of means rather than forces, I am tacitly substituting what I think is a properly Aristotelian notion of “efficient” cause for the meaning it historically seems to have had for Spinoza.

In pursuit of this, he takes up a stance toward demonstration that is actually like the one I see in Aristotle, in that it is more about improvement of our understanding through its practical exercise in inference than about proof of some truth assumed to be already understood (see also Demonstrative “Science”?). As Macherey puts it, for Spinoza “knowledge is not simply the unfolding of some established truth but the effective genesis of an understanding that nowhere precedes its realization” (p. 50). (Unlike Macherey, though, I think this is true for Aristotle and Hegel as well.)

Demonstration in both Aristotle’s and Spinoza’s sense is intended to improve our normative understanding of concepts by “showing” their inferential uses and points of application. It is only through their inferential use in the demonstrations that Spinoza’s nominal definitions and axioms acquire a meaning Spinoza would call “adequate”.

Time and Eternity in Hegel

H. S. Harris in Hegel’s Ladder I points out that Hegel took an unprecedented view of the relation between time and eternity in the Phenomenology. He argues that Hegel’s later advertisement of his logic as characterizing “the mind of God before creation” is extremely misleading with respect to Hegel’s actual views. According to Harris, detailed examination of texts suggests Hegel retained the novel view of time and eternity expressed in the Phenomenology.

Harris notes that from around 1801, Hegel came to agree with Reinhold and Bardili that logic should be “objective” in the sense of being neutral with respect to subject-object distinctions, even though he sharply rejected their formalism.  Logic for Hegel should not be subjective in the sense of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre or Schelling’s work before his break with Fichte.

“Hegel was able to make history subordinate in his speculative Logic precisely because he allowed it to be predominant in the lengthy formation of subjective consciousness for truly logical ‘objectivity’, which is the theme of the Phenomenology….  ‘The experience of consciousness’ is necessarily a psychological experience of the singular subject, since only singular subjects are ‘conscious’, but the ‘phenomenology of Spirit’ is the biography of God, the metaphysical substance who becomes ‘as much subject as substance’ when He is comprehended as ‘Spirit’.  The ‘experience of consciousness’ must happen in a single lifetime; the ‘phenomenology of Spirit’ cannot happen so.”

“We might remark that neither can become ‘Science’ except through the recollection in a singular consciousness of a historical process that is necessarily not confined (or confinable) within a single lifetime.  This is a way of saying that God cannot be ‘spirit’ without man being ‘spirit’ likewise — which is, of course, quite correct…. [N]ot the comprehension of ‘self’ but the comprehension of the whole social history of selfhood [is the topic of the Phenomenology]” (p. 11). 

Harris says the Phenomenology was Hegel’s “decisive divergence” (p. 13) from the whole tradition of intellectual intuition and cognitive immediacy.

“The implication is that ‘the eternal essence of God’ is not ‘outside of time’ in the way that God’s thought and action have traditionally been supposed to be.”

“We cannot mediate the problem of how logic is in time, unless we shift our attention from the ‘real philosophy’ that comes after logic (in every sense) to the ‘real philosophy’ that goes before ‘logic’, as a comprehension of the time in which it was shown finally that logic itself is as much in time as out of it and that it must come to be self-consciously ‘in’ time in order to be properly ‘out’ of it….  [F]rom Heraclitus and Parmenides to Kant and Fichte, no one has managed to formulate a consistent theory of human experience as a rational whole on any intuitive basis.  Instead of simply taking it for granted that eternity comprehends time, just as ‘possibility’ comprehends ‘actuality’, we must start from the other end and ask how time comprehends eternity.”

“There is no intuitive answer to this question” (p. 14).  The project of the Phenomenology “involves a total inversion of the intuitive assumption of all the ‘philosophers of experience’ before Hegel….  But the history of religion is more important to the argument than is the history of philosophy, in any case, because it is in religion that the natural assumption is inverted for the natural consciousness itself.  It is Hegel’s predominant concern with the actual experience of the natural (i.e., nonspeculative) consciousness that makes it hard for us to see and understand what happens to Descartes, and to the ‘philosophers of experience’ proper, in Hegel’s argument” (pp. 15-16).

Harris speaks of an “explicitly Fichtean self…. But his self makes no Fichtean assumptions, and has no absolute ‘intuitions’.  It merely observes; and what it learns, in the end, is precisely what the standpoint of philosophical ‘observation’ is and means. This observing consciousness leaves Fichte behind decisively when it leaves moral judgment to the valets and aligns itself with the Weltgeist [world Spirit] in its evaluation of all the experience it recollects.”

“This all-accepting and all-forgiving alignment with the Weltgeist is the logical standpoint, the eternal standpoint concretely established in time and now, at last, comprehensively understood” (p. 17).  What is shown is “Spirit’s eternity in time” (p. 18), but “The ‘hero’ is the finite consciousness — Jacob wrestling with the angel” (ibid).

Harris is here using the word “consciousness” in an equivocal way to refer to something that is far beyond what Hegel described as the standpoint of Consciousness.  It is already Spirit.  The standpoint of Consciousness is inseparable from assumptions of immediacy and of what philosophers from Locke to Schelling have called “intuition”, as some sort of immediate grasping.  Emphasizing some underlying continuity where something underwent a transformation is a common way of speaking, but I would rather identify the continuity with “us” rather than an abstracted property like consciousness.

Harris properly distinguishes between “natural consciousness” and “the philosophers of experience” who purport to speak on its behalf.  Hegel sharply rejects the philosophers of experience as propounding a bad notion of experience focused on immediacy, but he wants to entice common sense to become philosophical. 

The Fichtean self is already a difficult topic.  Fichte, in his better known early writings at least, propounded a very extreme “subject-centered” point of view, but he was a brilliant writer and serious philosopher who cannot be simply reduced to that.  His “self” is certainly not an empirical matter of fact, and seems constitutionally incompatible with petty egocentrism or self-seeking (certainly a far cry from the acute vulgarization of Max Stirner in The Ego and His Own), even though it seems like he had some bad ideas about German cultural superiority.  I think the Fichtean self not so much “has” intuitions as Harris suggests, but rather is itself an “absolute intuition” (the only one) for Fichte.  But Fichte also in his later writings formulated a notion of ethical mutual recognition.

Harris alludes to Hegel at a certain early point turning back from Schelling’s mystical intuitionism toward Fichtes’s practical philosophy.  Although I think this is historically accurate, if taken out of context or connected with stereotypes of Fichte, it could lead to serious misunderstanding. 

Harris himself does not make this mistake.  He clearly indicates that Hegel cannot be reduced to Fichtean subjectivism, as the young Marx and some others have done or precipitously claimed others had done. He goes on to discuss the fundamental role of “otherness” in Hegel’s thought, particularly in regard to constitution of self.  This is as far from an “absolute intuition” of self as could be.  But Fichte’s practical-ethical orientation and sharp mind tower above not only the woolly-minded forgotten Schellingian epigones who so irritated Hegel, but also the superficial dazzle of Schelling himself.  I would also note that to ground the social in concrete relations rather than abstract collectivity is in no way to reduce the social to actions of individuals.

Fichte was accused of atheism and drummed out of Jena for identifying God with the moral order. Now I can’t find the passage, but I think Harris somewhere says Hegel put God as the moral order historically in between God as law and God as love.

The explicit idea that the eternal is constituted in time that Harris highlights is, I think, original to Hegel. Others had denied the eternal, but I don’t recall anyone arguing that a genuine eternal originates in time. Harris relates this novel aspect of Hegel’s thought to his inversion of the Kantian priority of possibility over actuality. Aristotle of course also maintained that actuality comes first, but never explicitly suggested a temporal origin of the eternal.

I think a temporal constitution of the eternal — especially when connected with logic, as Harris suggests it was for Hegel — actually makes a lot of sense. After a temporal process of experience and learning that may involve reversals and twists and turns, it is possible to construct a static logical theory (not logical in Hegel’s sense, but in the formal sense) of all the lessons learned, but not before. What Hegel calls logic is a lot closer to the twists and turns of experience. Formal logic obviously has no temporal element, but the “logic” of experience and learning does. Formal logic comes “after” Hegelian logic. Hegelian logic can be read as an account of the constitution of formal logic, through the constitution of meaning.

Plato on the Soul

I read Plato’s various suggestions about the kind of thing that soul is as mainly practical, in the Kantian sense of being involved with ethics. As I read him, he does not intend to offer a consistent theory of the nature of soul.

There is strong textual basis for at least two rather different notions of “soul”, each of which I think Plato uses heuristically in a different kind of context. Soul might be a kind of essence that stands outside of time, or it might be a principle of life and cause of motion in time. Rather than trying to reconcile these at an ontological level as Plotinus and others did, I think it is more faithful to Plato to apply an Aristotelian semantic approach, and note that “soul” in Plato is said in more than one way. Plato is actually much more concerned with a more detailed level that is more directly involved with ethical considerations.