Four Layers of Being Human

This is my own expansion of Aristotle’s classic “rational/talking animal” definition. In common with other animals, we have an organically grounded “imagination” that is a basis for consciousness and emotion. Then we have an acquired emotional disposition or character that corresponds to what Plato called the “middle part” of the soul. This is influenced by all the other layers. Third, our assimilation of language and culture and our more deliberately adopted values and commitments together constitute our ethos, as a kind of deeper essence of who we are. Finally, our vehicle for growth and change is our participation with others in the space of reasons.

Ethics and Effectiveness

I’m sampling a French anthology edited by Gilbert Romeyer Dherbey and Gwenaëlle Aubry, Excellence in Life: On the Nicomachean Ethics and the Eudemian Ethics of Aristotle (2002; my translation throughout). Dherbey’s essay “Ethics and Effectivity in Aristotle” aims to show that Aristotle anticipates Hegel in successfully overcoming the apparent opposition between pure principles and the real world. This makes a nice complement to Robert Pippin’s discernment of strongly Aristotelian notions of actuality and actualization in Hegel’s ethics.

Dherbey begins by noting that some people situate pure ethics outside of all real-world effectiveness, while viewing real-world effectiveness as inevitably involving moral compromise, shortfall, deviation, and corruption. He associates this with “romanticism, from Schiller to Sartre” (p. 1). I think of the “beautiful soul” criticized by Hegel. Aristotle avoids this unfortunate result by emphasizing what Dherbey calls the “weight” of ethics, or “the inscription of the moral act in an exteriority that prolongs it” (ibid). Brandom makes the related point that we do not own or control the full scope of our deeds.

“The one who does nothing cannot act well”, Dherbey quotes from Aristotle’s Politics. Moral excellence is not constituted by intentions alone. Dherbey says that for Aristotle, “the validity of the intention is judged by the act that realizes it, or doesn’t realize it” (p.4, emphasis in original). Pippin develops a similar point in more detail in his remarks on actuality in Hegel.

For Aristotle it is not enough just to have the good will that Peter Abelard took to be the basis of virtue. According to Dherbey, Kant’s affirmation that nothing can be called good, if not a good will, makes intention the very source of the goodness of a good act. I am impressed by Nancy Sherman’s argument that Kant came closer to Aristotle than is commonly thought. But in any case, while Aristotle is far from disregarding the importance of what we might call the agent’s subjectivity, for him the goodness of an act depends on more than this.

Dherbey notes a major cleavage between Aristotle and the Stoics on another related point. For Aristotle, “not acting ‘lightly’ signifies that ‘intentional’ action, in order to be virtuous, must take support from a stable foundation, from a support that is none other than ethos or character…. It is indeed character, more than punctual intention in the modern sense of the term, that governs ethical choice” (p. 5; see also What We Really Want). It was the Stoics who bequeathed to later writers a strong notion of punctual decisions. I find the narrowing of ethics to a focus on punctual acts of decision to have consequences that are quite pernicious.

In closing, Dherbey quotes Hegel’s remark in his History of Philosophy lectures that for Aristotle, “The good in general is not defined as an abstract idea, but in such a way that the moment of realization finds itself essentially in it” (p. 12).

I would add that this is deeply related to Aristotle’s argument against Plato that potentiality at least in part depends on actuality, rather than being a power that simply produces the actual (or being a template that fully anticipates the actual, as Leibniz seems to have held).

Good will does not vindicate an action, but it does provide an additional reason to be forgiving in our evaluation of actions that turn out badly.

Potential Intellect?

I like to imagine Aristotelian and Kantian judgment flowing together. Moreover, I like to think that for both of them, thought is first and foremost an open-ended, discursive process of interpretation, and ultimately value judgment.

Applying Spinoza’s notion of conatus to Kant, Longuenesse well captures the idea that the Kantian unity of apperception as an achieved state is only a constantly renewed aim. The difference between what she calls the “mere capacity to judge” in Kant and what Aristotle means by thought that “is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks” basically comes down to the difference between a Kantian capacity and an Aristotelian being-in-potentiality. These notions are clearly related both conceptually and historically, but I have recently dwelt quite a bit on various historical transformations of what I take to be the Aristotelian notion of potentiality.

The latter would consist in something like multiform, branching spaces of alternate conditionals, with gradients of difference and consequence, affecting the actualization of ends and constituting a metaphorical topography of relative densities of possibility in our actual world. A Kantian capacity — even one that defines us — is still in some sense a capability we discretely “have”, whereas an Aristotelian potentiality pertains to our being, but also at the same time to that of the world we inhabit.

Aristotelian “thought” — commonly translated “intellect” — has been quite variously interpreted, and often fused with notions of neoplatonic or Augustinian provenance. Aristotle’s own texts dealing with it are quite minimalist. The relatively most extensive one is in On the Soul. I would complement it with what he says about practical judgment and ethos in the Ethics, and about the pursuit of wisdom in book Alpha of the Metaphysics. I take it to refer not to a mind-entity, or an intuitive knowledge, or an engine of predetermined reasoning, but rather to a discursive potentiality, an engagement in thought and valuation and earnest search, and the ethical “spirit” that is the undying essence of a human being.


If what we are in the most comprehensive sense is the aimed-at realization of an ethos within the context of an organic life, then even though who we distinctively are is mainly a matter of ethos, the aimed-at ethical “self” will not be just a currently actualized ethos or unity of apperception, but a fully rounded practical being involved in all sorts of doings, which will also continue to be a work in progress as long as we live. Such a “self” will not have a strict logical identity, but rather something like what Ricoeur called narrative identity. (See also The Ambiguity of “Self”; Two Kinds of Character; Personhood; Self, Infinity; Narrated Time; Hegel’s Ethical Innovation; Hegel on Willing.)

Self, Subject

Once again, I’d like to dwell on the subtlety of the relation between empirical “me” and transcendental “I”. As usual, for philosophical purposes I want to advise that we hold off on identifying the two in the way that we commonly do when immersed in living our lives.

A contentful self exists on the empirical side. There are biographical and psychological facts about it. Each such “me” is unique. I take the primary referent of this “self” to be our developed emotional constitution, or Aristotelian hexis. When immersed in living our lives, we often say “I” in common-sense reference to this contentful, factual self, but this is very different from a transcendental “I”. Each person who says “I” for “me” in this common-sense way says it differently, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to a different “me”.

A transcendental “I” is a contentless symbolic index for a constellation of values and commitments, i.e., what we care about and what we believe, our Aristotelian ethos. Here, what is of interest is not the content of a contentful, factual self (“us”), but rather the content of what we care about and what we believe. Transcendental “I” refers to the identity of an ethos or unity of apperception. Thus anyone who in some context cares about the same things and believes the same things says “I” transcendentally in exactly the same way in that context, because in each of these cases, “I” refers to the same ethos.

(I’m using the common vocabulary of reference and identity here to keep things simple, but the usual caveats apply. Reference and identity are actually derivative notions, not primitive ones, but there is no philosophical harm in using them in a simple way anyway, provided we avoid tacitly assuming they are primitive.)

What identifies us as individuals is the empirical “me”, but what plays the role of an ethical subject or subject of knowledge is the paradoxically intimate but anonymous transcendental “I”. (See also Transcendental?; Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; and many articles under Subjectivity in the menu.)

Historically, tight theoretical identification of ethical subjects and subjects of knowledge with empirical individuals is associated with the rationalization of practices of blaming and punishment, especially when translated into a theological context.

Rational or Ecstatic?

Reason takes us outside of ourselves, which is the literal meaning of “ecstatic”. Obviously I have in mind here more than just logical operations. It is going outside of our narrower selves into the field of values and entering into the inclusive universal community of mutual recognition that makes us fully human. The universal community only has a virtual existence, so it is up to us to help make it real through our actions and way of life. We can do this in part by treating others in our lives as part of that community, and in part through our own internal dialogue. The less inner noise and turbulence we have, the easier this will be.

The indwelling in us of ethos or Hegelian Spirit is an infinite journey. The journey itself is the goal.

Aristotelian Subjectivity

If we want to find an analogue in Aristotle for the notion of (transcendental) subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel, the best place to look is in the concept of ethos, rather than in something like soul or intellect, which for Aristotle have more specialized roles. Then, going in the other direction, this Aristotelian point of view centered on ethos helps to clarify and consolidate many of the points Brandom has wanted to make about the mainly normative or ethical import of subjectivity in Kant and Hegel.

Philosophical interest in subjectivity applies especially to the transcendental kind. Traditionally, this has been situated between what was called metaphysics and something like the “rational psychology” classically criticized by Kant. With inspiration from Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I’ve been proposing that the constitution of transcendental subjectivity is instead ethical at root. This seems much more helpful than the traditional version for addressing the human condition and questions of who and what we are. The values we actually live by are far more important for this than claims about the existence of some abstract entity like a personal Subject. Meanwhile, personal identity is better left outside the transcendental sphere, and located instead in our concrete emotional constitution. (See also Ethos, Hexis; Two Kinds of Character; Substance Also Subject.)


Our ethical development, or what Aristotle would call our ethos — our piece of Hegelian Spirit, as it were — builds on our emotional development. A relatively harmonious emotional constitution will be naturally open to the influence of ethical development grounded in mutual recognition.

It seems to me that this is already enough for a fully rich account of a human being. If we have ethos, then things like will, ego, intellectual soul, and mind-as-container seem superfluous.

Ethos, Hexis

For Aristotle, character and ethical culture (named respectively by the two related Greek words éthos and ethos) — including what Brandom would call our constellation of commitments and what Hegel would call our self-consciousness — build on hexis. The latter is most commonly translated as habit. Earlier, I called it emotional constitution. It is an acquired, active disposition to respond or act in certain ways that seems to be centered in the emotions. A good hexis is characterized by what we might call emotional intelligence.

Actions, reactions, and choices — as well as many things that just happen to us — cumulatively contribute to the formation of a more long-term emotional constitution that then becomes directly responsible for the tone of our responses to things, and that we can only change with major, prolonged effort, if at all. This, I believe, is the main basis of common-sense personal identity.

People respond to situations based on a combination of emotional disposition (hexis), their constellation of commitments and self-consciousness (ethos), and deliberation and choice. It does not generally make sense to blame someone for acting in accordance with their acquired disposition, but at a broader level, people are partly responsible for the formation of their disposition. People are responsible for their choices, unless they are coerced or misinformed. People are in principle responsible for their commitments; bad commitments usually involve more than simple misinformation. But misinformation, lack of good opportunity for learning, and emotional disposition should certainly be taken into account in charitable interpretation of commitments, too. (See also Willing, Unwilling; Second Nature.)

According to Aristotle, a disposition favoring reasonable emotional responses is a prerequisite to higher ethical development, and this needs to be learned from childhood. (See also Feeling.)