Mechanical Metaphors

Perhaps the greatest contribution of the Italian physicist, astronomer, and engineer Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) — regarded by many as the single most important originator of modern, mathematically oriented natural science — was a unified explanation of both astronomical and earthly phenomena by the same set of mathematical principles for analysis of the behavior of physical bodies and matter. This was a generalized mechanics of solid bodies.

The tremendous power of this new way of understanding the physical behavior of bodies is undeniable. At least until the computer age, it has been the main basis of modern engineering and technology.

A historical side effect of this immensely successful development has been the promotion of solid-body mechanics as a kind of privileged metaphor for causality in general. I’ve several times discussed the transformation of Aristotle’s notion of efficient cause (most fundamentally, the means to actualization of an end) into the very different notion of “driving” cause or “motor” by medieval and early modern authors (see Efficient Cause, Again; Su├írez on Agents and Action; Effective vs “Driving”; Not Power and Action). In combination with a very un-Aristotelian tendency to reduce other causes to efficient causes, this created a ripe condition for the spread of a view of causality in general in terms of metaphors based on solid-body mechanics. We are now so used to this that it takes effort to imagine any other view.

But the solid-body interaction metaphor ultimately leads to an impoverished, overly narrow view of causality in general. (For an alternative, see Aristotelian Causes.) Even within mechanics proper, solid bodies are no longer the paradigmatic, privileged case. At scales that are too small or too large, analogies to the behavior of medium-sized solid bodies break down. In broader contexts, wave phenomena are as important as the analysis of solid bodies. The great Roman poet-physicist Lucretius already had the insight that in the general case, atoms in aggregate behave more like liquids than like solids.

Irreducible to any purely mechanical paradigm, disciplines like earth sciences, ecology, medicine, economics, and computer science provide many examples of more complex and subtle interactions and structures that suggest a new need for something more like an Aristotelian view of causality, as having more to do with forms of things than with force.

Aristotle on the Soul

“Since we consider knowledge to be something beautiful and honored, and one sort more so than another either on account of its precision or because it is about better and more wondrous things, on both accounts we should with good reason rank the inquiry about the soul among the primary studies. And it seems that acquaintance with it contributes greatly toward all truth and especially the truth about nature, since the soul is in some way the governing source of living things” (On the Soul I.1, Sachs trans., p. 47).

“But altogether in every way the soul is one of the most difficult things to get any assurance about” (ibid).

“But first, perhaps, it is necessary to decide in which general class it is, and what it is — I mean whether it is an independent thing and a this, or a quality or quantity or some other one of the distinct ways of attributing being to anything, and further whether it whether it belongs among things having being in potency or is rather some sort of being-at-work-staying-itself; for this makes no small difference. And one must also examine whether it is divisible or without parts, and whether all soul is of the same kind, or, if it is not of the same kind, whether souls differ as forms of one general class, or in their general classes. For those who now speak and inquire about the soul seem to consider only the human soul, but one must be on the lookout so that it does not escape notice whether there is one articulation of soul, just as of living thing, or a different one for each, as for horse, dog, human being, and god, while a living thing in general is either nothing at all or a later concern — as would similarly be in question if any other common name were applied.”

“Again, if there are not many souls but parts of one soul, one must consider whether one ought to inquire first about the soul as a whole or about the parts. But it is difficult even to distinguish, among these, which sorts are by nature different from one another, and whether one ought first to inquire about the parts or about the work they do: the thinking or the intellect, the sensing or the sense, and so on in the other cases. But if the work the parts do comes first, one might next be at a loss whether one ought to inquire about the objects of these, such as the thing sensed before the sense, and the thing thought before the intellect. But not only does it seem that knowing what something is would be useful for studying the causes of the things that follow from its thinghood (just as in mathematics, it is useful to know what straight and curved are and what a line and a plane are, for learning how many right angles the angles of a triangle are equal to), but it seems too, on the contrary, that those properties that follow contribute in great part to knowing what the thing is, for it is when we are able to give an account of what is evident about the properties, either all or most of them, that we will be able to speak most aptly about the thinghood of the thing. For in every demonstration the starting point is what something is, so it is clear that those definitions that do not lead to knowing the properties, nor even making them easy to guess at, are formulated in a merely logical way and are all empty.”

“And there is also an impasse about the attributes of the soul, whether all of them belong in common to it and to the thing that has the soul, or any of them belong to the soul alone. It is necessary to take this up, though it is not easy, but it does seem that with most of its attributes, the soul neither does anything nor has anything done to it without the body, as with being angry, being confident, desiring, and every sort of sensing, though thinking seems most of all to belong to the soul by itself; but if this is also some sort of imagination, it would not be possible for even this to be without the body. Now if any of the kinds of work the soul does or any of the things that happen to it happen to it alone, it would be possible for the soul to be separated; but if nothing belongs to it alone, it could not be separate, but in the same way that many things are properties of the straight line as straight, such as touching a sphere at a point, still no separated straight line will touch a bronze sphere in that way, since it is inseparable, if it is always with some sort of body.”

“But all the attributes of the soul seem also to be with a body — spiritedness, gentleness, fear, pity, boldness, and also joy, as well as loving and hating — for together with these the body undergoes something. This is revealed when strong and obvious experiences do not lead to the soul’s being provoked or frightened, while sometimes it is moved by small and obscure ones, when the body is in an excited state and bears itself in the way it does when it is angry. And this makes it still more clear: for when nothing frightening is happening there arise among the feelings of the soul those of one who is frightened. But if this is so, it is evident that the attributes of the soul have materiality in the very statements of them, so that their definitions would be of this sort: being angry is a certain motion of such-and-such a body or part or faculty, moved by this for the sake of that. So already on this account the study concerning the soul belongs to the one who studies nature, either all soul or at least this sort of soul.”

“But the one who studies nature and the logician would define each attribute of the soul differently, for instance what anger is. The one would say it is a craving for revenge, or some such thing, while the other would say it is a boiling of the blood and a heat around the heart. Of these, the one gives an account of the material, the other of the form and meaning. For the one is the articulation of the thing, but this has to be in a certain sort of material if it is to be at all. In the same way, while the meaning of a house is of this sort, a shelter that protects from damage by wind, rain, and the sun’s heat, another person will say that it is stones, bricks, and lumber, and yet another will say that the form is in these latter things for the sake of those former ones.”

“Which of these is the one who studies nature? Is it the one concerned with the material who ignores the meaning or the one concerned with the meaning alone? Or is it rather the one who is concerned with what arises out of both? Or is there not just one sort of person concerned with the attributes of material that are not separate nor even treated as separate, but the one who studies nature is concerned with all the work done by and things done to a certain kind of body or material” (pp. 48-51).

“But since people define the soul most of all by two distinct things, by motion with respect to place and by thinking, understanding, and perceiving, while thinking and understanding seem as though they are some sort of perceiving (for in both of these ways the soul discriminates and recognizes something about being), and the ancients even say that understanding and perceiving are the same — as Empedocles has said ‘wisdom grows for humans as a result of what is present around them’, and elsewhere ‘from this a changed understanding is constantly becoming present to them’, and Homer’s ‘such is the mind’ means the same thing as these, for they all assume that thinking is something bodily like perceiving, and that perceiving and understanding are of like by like, as we described in the chapters at the beginning (and yet they ought to have spoken at the same time about making mistakes as well, for this is more native to living things and the soul goes on for more time in this condition, and thus it would necessarily follow either, as some say, that everything that appears is true, or that a mistake is contact with what is unlike, since that is opposite to recognizing like by like, though it seems that the same mistake, or the same knowledge, concerns opposite things) — nevertheless it is clear that perceiving and understanding are not the same thing, since all animals share in the former, but few in the latter.”

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right” (III.3, pp. 132-133).

“About the part of the soul by which the soul knows and understands, whether it is a separate part, or not separate the way a magnitude is but in its meaning, one must consider what distinguishing characteristic it has, and how thinking ever comes about…. [I]ntellect has no nature at all other than this, that it is a potency. Therefore the aspect of the soul that is called intellect (and I mean by intellect that by which the soul thinks things through and conceives that something is the case) is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks. This is why it is not reasonable that it be mixed with the body…. And it is well said that the soul is a place of forms, except that this is not the whole soul but the thinking soul, and it is not the forms in its being-at-work-staying-itself, but in potency.”

“The absence of attributes is not alike in the perceptive and thinking potencies; this is clear in its application to the sense organs and to perception. For the sense is unable to perceive anything from an excessive perceptible thing, neither any sound from loud sounds, nor to see or smell anything from strong colors and odors, but when the intellect thinks something exceedingly intelligible it is not less able to think the lesser things but even more able, since the perceptive potency is not present without a body, but the potency to think is separate from the body. And when the intellect has come to be each intelligible thing, as the knower is said to do when he is a knower in the active sense (and this happens when he is able to put his knowing to work on its own), the intellect is even then in a sense those objects in potency, but not in the same way it was before it learned and discovered them, and it is then able to think itself” (III.4, pp. 138-140).

“And it is itself intelligible in the same way its intelligible objects are, for in the case of things without material what thinks and what is thought are the same thing, for contemplative knowing and what is known in that way are the same thing (and one must consider the reason why this sort of thinking is not always happening); but among things having material, each of them is potentially something intelligible, so that there is no intellect present in them (since intellect is a potency to be such things without their material), but there is present in them something intelligible” (p. 142).

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time. This does not mean that at one time it thinks but at another time it does not think, but when separated it is just exactly what it is, and this alone is deathless and everlasting (though we have no memory, because this sort of intellect is not acted upon, while the sort that is acted upon is destructible), and without this nothing thinks” (III.5, pp. 142-143).

Effective vs “Driving”

Modern thinking about causality remains haunted by the figure of “driving” causes on the model of billiard ball impacts, even though the use of sophisticated statistical methods in contemporary science already suggests the obsolescence of that model. I have characterized ordinary Aristotelian actuality as what is effectively operative in a process. This more general “pragmatist” notion of determination pays much more attention, e.g., to the role of the forms of things in shaping processes, but it also subsumes everything that was discussed on the narrower “driving cause” model.

Within the later tradition, the grounds for the early modern reduction of causality to an impact-modeled “driving” sense were laid by scholastic redefinition of Aristotelian efficient causality in terms of activity, and its simultaneous elevation above final and formal causes. I think that for Aristotle, the defining characteristic of an efficient cause is that it is a means by which an end is actualized.

The complete means by which an end is actualized undoubtedly involve activity, but in the example of building a house, for Aristotle it is the art of building that is the pre-eminent efficient cause of the actualized house — the pre-eminent means by which the building of the house is accomplished, even though there are many other contributing means and other causes. But the art of building is not itself an activity. This tells us that activity is not the defining characteristic of an efficient cause. It also brings the notion of efficient cause closer to those of final and formal cause. Taking into account the close relationship of Aristotelian form and matter, it turns out that all four of Aristotle’s causes are integrally related to one another.

I think that for Aristotle, activity is more a practical notion associated with broadly ethical doing, than a basis for theoretical explanation of events and properties. In Aristotle, activity is something inquired about. It does not play the role of an unexplained explainer. (See also Agency; Efficient Cause; Efficient Cause, Again.)

Aristotelian Subjectivity Revisited

My previous article on this was a bit narrow, focused only on an Aristotelian analogue for the sort of “transcendental” subjectivity developed by Kant and Hegel. Of course, the whole field of “subjectivity” is much broader than that, and properly transcendental subjectivity has little to do with the empirical subjectivity that we have in mind when we call something “subjective”. Here I’d like to begin to round out the picture. (In the background, I’m also imagining what Aristotle might say in response to Hegel’s Phenomenology.)

It is in fact something of a truism that none of the Greeks had a modern concept of the human “subject”. The closest (still distant) analogue is what gets conventionally translated by the etymologically related term “substance” in Aristotle. The elementary notion of substance as a literally existing logical/syntactic substrate for properties –“something underlying something else” — from the Categories was influentially referred to by Heidegger as “subjectity” (intended to stand in constrast to “subjectivity“).

The explanatory role of a literal notion of substrate is raised again in the Metaphysics. Aristotle says the most obvious candidate for a substrate of things is matter. But then he goes on to deconstruct and ultimately discard the whole notion that the most important kind of explanation of things involves reference to a literal substrate. Form — identified with essence or definition, and “what it was to have been” a thing — is then developed as providing more fundamental explanation than any substrate; then form itself is given a deeper explanation in terms of actuality and potentiality.

But neither the elementary account of “something underlying” in the Categories nor the sophisticated discussion in the Metaphysics makes any reference at all to the sentience and agency that are equally fundamental to modern notions of a human “subject”.

Separate from all of this, Aristotle identifies humans as those animals that have language and the ability to reason, which he considers as depending on language. I have argued that the main resource for an implicit notion of transcendental subjectivity in Aristotle is actually his ethical writings. The treatise on the “soul” (psyche) deals with bodily growth, nutrition, movement, and reproduction; with sense perception and imagination; and also with thought, which he refers to as coming to the soul “from outside”. Related treatises address memory and dreams. Human emotions, on the other hand, he deals with not in the “psychological” treatises but rather in the Rhetoric. The context in which Aristotle treats emotion is thus social and communicative rather than inward-looking. He also treats a kind of emotional maturity as a prerequisite for ethical development. He has a refined and well-differentiated notion of situated agency and ethical responsibility, but lacks the obsession with identity shown by many later authors.

I want to suggest that the “whatness” of subjectivity-forms — whether empirical or transcendental — is far more interesting and practically relevant than the supposed abstract “existence” of subject or substrate entities. This is true regardless of whether we are dealing with empirical or transcendental subjectivity. In Heideggerian terms, I want to decouple subjectivity from presumptions of subjectity.

As regards the Aristotelian soul, in Naissance du Sujet (volume 1 of Archeologie du Sujet), Alain de Libera lists four recent analytic interpretations: 1) the psyche is identical to the body; 2) the psyche is an attribute of the body; 3) the body “constitutes” the psyche; 4) the psyche is an immaterial substance. Actually, none of these seems to me to adequately capture Aristotle’s hylomorphism, or notion of the complementarity of “form” and “matter” (neither of which individually means quite what it might seem to, either — see above links). I am also sympathetic to the reading that Aristotelian matter is a relative concept, so that something could be the material for something else that is in turn material for another thing. Something similar, I think, could be said of form.

The relation of soul to body is clearly presented as an instance of the relation of form to matter, though it seems that the relation of form to matter may be different in different cases. In any case I do not think the form/matter relation is intended as an instance of the substance/accident relation. (The notion of “substantial form” was an original development of the Latin medieval tradition, not found in Aristotle, and the bits I understand of the medieval debate on unity or multiplicity of substantial forms further complicate the picture. The key to this whole territory is to understand that there are very many highly distinct and sophisticated positions in the tradition on issues of this sort.)

A further complication involves the relation between “soul” and the “intellect” that “comes from without”, which has a long and fascinating history in the commentary tradition, extending from Alexander of Aphrodisias through the Arabic tradition to the Latin tradition of Albert the Great.

The great Arabic commentator Averroes was apparently the first to ask what is the “subject”, in the substrate sense, of human thought. He came up with the novel suggestion that individual human thought has two such “subjects”: one belonging to the soul that is involved with the body and perception, and one that is an immaterial source of concepts, belongs to the whole human community, gains content over time, and would cease to exist if there were no more humans.

Another intriguing complication in the historical Western tradition is the clear stance taken by Augustine that human mind, soul, or spirit should definitely not be taken as a subject in the substrate sense, e.g., for knowledge or love.

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.)

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.)

Bounty of Nature

Nature as we experience it is more characterized by superabundance and diversity of form than by univocal necessity. Even nonorganic phenomena like the weather involve material tendencies toward a kind of dynamic equilibrium. These tendencies — which are even more pronounced with living things — involve an “ability” to spontaneously recover when disturbed, a kind of resilience and adaptability to new circumstances.

The neoplatonists developed a whole metaphysic of “eternal generation” by a kind of overflow. For them, beyond every intelligible essence was something “supra-essential” that could be characterized only indirectly, through its overflowing superabundance. Essence ended up as a kind of after-image of the eternally overflowing primary superabundance of the Good or the One. Transformed in various ways, this notion greatly influenced historical developments in theology, supporting notions of the generosity, providence, and grace of a more personal God.

In a more modest and down-to-earth way, Aristotle had also dwelt on our experience of superabundance, applying it in his biology and in the more general notion of potentiality. In between, the Stoics developed a contrasting emphasis on a univocal direct divine omnipotence with respect to events. In the tradition, all three of these approaches came to be hybridized in all sorts of ways. While I think the approach of Aristotle himself was the best of all, I have a lot more sympathy with theologies of superabundance of form than with theologies of power-over and dominion. (See also Fragility of the Good.)

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.)