Hegel’s Preface

In Nature, Ends, Normativity I raised the question of what happens to Aristotelian teleology when we look at it through a Kantian critical lens, then made a preliminary gesture toward its resolution by invoking Hegel’s challenge and admonition to us in the Preface to the Phenomenology of Spirit to make ourselves at home in otherness. Just how making ourselves at home in otherness helps with the question about Aristotle and Kant may not be at all clear yet. For now it’s just a thought to keep in mind.

First I want to try to explore Hegel’s larger point in the Preface that I risked reducing to the phrase “make ourselves at home in otherness”, and let that lead where it may. This post won’t get to the point where the phrase is introduced. It’s even possible that I’m remembering it from a paraphrase in H. S. Harris’ outstanding commentary. I’ll walk through the Preface over the course of several posts, using Terry Pinkard’s translation published in 2018.

Hegel’s Preface is an extremely dense text that seems to very deliberately follow a non-linear order. It does have a development, but it doesn’t just proceed from beginning to middle to end. Rather, it seems to repeatedly circle around several key insights, adding a little more each time. Famously, he begins by rejecting the very idea that philosophical truth is the kind of thing that could be “introduced” or made easily digestible by a conventional preface.

He goes on to repeatedly criticize two chief ways in which philosophy is made digestible and shallow — one that treats truth as something merely formal, and one that claims to leap into absolute knowledge by means of intellectual intuition. Especially in some of the later parts, Hegel gives a number of valuable hints at what he thinks serious philosophy ought to look like.

“[C]onventional opinion holds that the opposition between the true and the false is itself fixed and set…. It does not comprehend the diversity of philosophical systems as the progressive development of truth as much as it sees only contradiction in that diversity…. However, at the same time their fluid nature makes them into moments of an organic unity in which they are not only not in conflict with each other, but rather, one is equally as necessary as the other” (p. 4).

Hegel is not at all advocating some trite relativism or erasure of distinctions here. He is objecting to the artificially “fixed and set” way in which what he calls formalism sees the truth of propositions taken in isolation. More positively, he seems to be suggesting that we view the great philosophers as participants in a common, mutually enriching dialogue rather than as competitors.

“[T]he subject matter [of philosophy] is not exhausted in its aims; rather, it is exhaustively treated when it is worked out. Nor is the result which is reached the actual whole itself; rather, the whole is the result together with the way the result comes to be…. [T]he unadorned result is just the corpse that has left the tendency behind…. The easiest thing of all is to pass judgment on what is substantial and meaningful. It is much more difficult to get a real grip on it, and what is the most difficult of all is both to grasp what unites each of them and to give a full exposition of what that is” (p. 5).

Here Hegel makes a very Aristotelian point about the essential role of actualization. What he is directly applying it to is philosophical accounts of things. We should be interested not just in philosophy’s ostensible conclusions, but in how they were arrived at. (But an analogous point could be made about the actual working out of Aristotelian teleology in the world. What is relevant to this is not just pure ends by themselves, but the whole process by which ends are actualized by means of concrete tendencies.)

“In positing that the true shape of truth lies in its scientific rigor — or, what is the same thing, in asserting that truth has the element of its existence solely in concepts — I do know that this seems to contradict an idea (along with all that follows from it), whose pretentiousness is matched only by its pervasiveness in the convictions of the present age. It thus does not seem completely gratuitous to offer an explanation of this contradiction even though at this stage such an explanation can amount to little more than the same kind of dogmatic assurance which it opposes” (p. 6).

By “scientific” he basically means rational. Hegel here aligns himself with Kant’s emphasis on the conceptual and discursive character of rationality, and with Kant’s closely related rejection of claims to immediate knowledge by intellectual intuition. He is particularly alluding to claims of intellectual intuition in the philosophy of nature by followers of Schelling, as well as to the religiosity of immediate feeling promoted by followers of the German literary figure F. H. Jacobi, from whom Kierkegaard borrowed the image of the leap of faith.

The “true shape of truth” Hegel contrasts these with lies in conceptual elaboration — interpretation and explanation, not just asserted conclusions. The measure of truth is the insight and understanding it gives us. He also notes a difficulty that I often feel in attempting to summarize the results of a substantial development: summaries always run the risk of shallowness and dogmatism.

Hegel continues ironically that for his contemporary opponents, “The absolute is not supposed to be conceptually grasped but rather to be felt and intuited” (ibid).

“There was a time when people had a heaven adorned with a comprehensive wealth of thoughts and images. The meaning of all existence lay in the thread of light by which it was bound to heaven and instead of lingering in this present, people’s view followed that thread upwards towards the divine essence; their view directed itself, if one may put it this way, to an other-worldly present. It was only under duress that spirit’s eyes had to be turned back to what is earthly and kept fixed there, and a long time was needed to introduce clarity into the dullness and confusion lying in the meaning of things in this world, a kind of clarity which only heavenly things used to have; a long time was needed both to draw attention to the present as such, an attention that was called experience, and to make it interesting and to make it matter. — Now it seems that there is the need for the opposite, that our sense of things is so deeply rooted in the earthly that an equal power is required to elevate it above all that. Spirit has shown itself to be so impoverished that it seems to yearn for its refreshment only in the meager feeling of divinity, very much like the wanderer in the desert who longs for a simple drink of water. That it now takes so little to satisfy spirit’s needs is the full measure of the magnitude of its loss” (pp. 7-8).

Hegel was critical of traditional Augustinian other-worldliness, but saved his special disdain for followers of Schelling and Jacobi.

“The force of spirit is only as great as its expression, and its depth goes only as deep as it trusts itself to disperse itself and to lose itself in its explication of itself. — At the same time, if this substantial knowing, itself so totally devoid of the concept, pretends to have immersed the very ownness of the self in the essence and to philosophize in all holiness and truth, then what it is really doing is just concealing from itself the fact that instead of devoting itself to God, it has, by spurning all moderation and determinateness, instead simply given itself free rein within itself to the contingency of that content and then, within that content, given free rein to its own arbitrariness” (ibid).

It is not enough just to have a concept like the absolute Idea.

“However, just as little of a building is finished when the foundation is laid, so too reaching the concept of the whole is equally as little the whole itself. When we wish to see an oak tree with its powerful trunk, its spreading branches, and its mass of foliage, we are not satisfied if instead we are shown an acorn. In the same way, science, the crowning glory of a spiritual world, is not completed in its initial stages. The beginning of a new spirit is the outcome of a widespread revolution in the diversity of forms of cultural formation; it is both the prize at the end of a winding path as it is the prize won through much struggle and effort” (p. 9).

He implicitly recalls Aristotle’s argument that the oak tree is logically prior to the acorn, and cautions against assuming perfection in beginnings.

“Only what is completely determinate is at the same time exoteric, comprehensible, and capable of being learned and possessed by everybody. The intelligible form of science is the path offered to everyone and equally available to all” (p. 10).

When the Idea is kept vague, it becomes the province of claims of esoteric knowledge and special genius. Here he links the idea of rational “science” to a democratic tendency. But we should also beware of premature claims.

“At its debut, where science has been wrought neither to completeness of detail nor to perfection of form, it is open to reproach” (ibid).

He goes on at length about the formalism of the Schellingians’ insistence that all is one. The rhetoric is strong, but he is standing up for the importance of difference and distinction, which I completely support.

To condense a good deal, “when what is demanded is for the shapes to originate their richness and determine their differences from out of themselves, this other view instead consists in only a monochrome formalism which only arrives at the differences in its material because the material itself has already been prepared for it and is something well known…. [N]owadays we see the universal Idea in this form of non-actuality get all value attributed to it, and we see that what counts as the speculative way of considering things turns out to be the dissolution of the distinct and determinate, or, instead turns out to be simply the casting of what is distinct and determinate into the abyss of the void…. To oppose this one bit of knowledge, namely, that in the absolute everything is the same, to the knowing which makes distinctions… that is, to pass off its absolute as the night in which all cows are black — is an utterly vacuous naivete in cognition” (pp. 11-12). (See also Substance and Subject.)

Aristotle’s Critique of Dichotomy

Chapter 3 of the extraordinarily rich book 1 of Aristotle’s Parts of Animals contains a strong critique of the notion of classification by dichotomy, with implications reaching far beyond its original context. The idea that he criticizes is Platonic division into As and not-As, which is intended to result in a binary tree structure (i.e., a tree-shape in which all the branches are binary).

Platonic division was perhaps inspired by the two-sided character of Platonic dialectic, which was concerned with impartially examining the implications of both sides of some disputable question, particularly in the form of arguments for and against some thesis or other. Aristotle’s own dialectic has a more general form that is not bound to arguments for and against, but rather is simply concerned with an impartial examination of the consequences of hypotheses.

But in any case, classification in a world is a different problem from that of impartially examining a single hypothesis.

Ignoring Aristotle’s lesson, and strongly influenced by the more general impoverished notion of logical judgment as grammatical predication, early modern writers on natural history attempted to follow an a priori theory of univocal classification. But for Aristotle, there is no a priori theory of classification. Instead, the starting point is what Kant would call the implicitly schematized manifold of a concrete world.

Aristotle points out that if classification were reducible to the assignment of predicates, then to consistently classify a world or any given collection, there would have to be some one order in which we divide things by one predicate, then another, and so on. By examples he illustrates the fact that by this method, it is impossible to arrive at the division of animal species that we recognize in nature.

He also makes the more general argument that half of the classifying terms in any classification by sequential predication will be negatives, and that negative terms cannot be properly subdivided.

“Again, privative [negative] terms inevitably form one branch of dichotomous division, as we see in the proposed dichotomies. But privative terms in their character of privatives admit of no subdivision. For there can be no specific forms of a negation, of Featherless for instance or of Footless, as there are of Feathered and of Footed. Yet a generic differentia must be subdivisible; for otherwise what is there that makes it generic rather than specific? There are to be found generic, that is to say specifically subdivisible, differentiae; Feathered for instance and Footed. For feathers are divisible into Barbed and Unbarbed, and feet into Manycleft, and Twocleft, like those of animals with bifid hoofs, and Uncleft or Undivided, like those of animals with solid hoofs. Now even with the differentiae capable of this specific subdivision it is difficult enough so to make the classification that each animal shall be comprehended in some one subdivision and not in more than one (e.g. winged and wingless; for some are both — e.g. ants, glowworms, and some others); but far more difficult, impossible, is it to do this, if we start with a dichotomy into two contradictories. For each differentia must be presented by some species. There must be some species, therefore, under the privative heading. Now specifically distinct animals cannot present in their substance a common undifferentiated element, but any apparently common element must really be differentiated. (Bird and Man for instance are both Two-footed, but their two-footedness is diverse and differentiated. And if they are sanguineous they must have some difference in their blood, if blood is part of their substance.) From this it follows that one differentia will belong to two species; and if that is so, it is plain that a privative cannot be a differentia.” (Complete Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 1000).

Aristotle’s positive conclusion is as as follows:

“We must attempt to recognize the natural groups, following the indications afforded by the instincts of mankind, which led them for instance to form the class of Birds and the class of Fishes, each of which groups combines a multitude of differentiae, and is not defined by a single one as in dichotomy. The method of dichotomy is either impossible (for it would put a single group under different divisions or contrary groups under the same division), or it only furnishes a single differentia for each species…. As we said then, we must define at the outset by a multiplicity of differentiae. If we do so, privative terms will be available, which are unavailable to the dichotomist” (pp. 1001-1002, emphasis added).

This is consistent with Plato’s more general advice that classifiers, like butchers, should “cut at the joints”, i.e., look for natural distinctions rather than imposing artificial ones. Dipping back again to the negative argument, Aristotle adds:

“Now if man was nothing more than a Cleft-footed animal, this single differentia would duly represent his essence. But seeing that this is not the case, more differentiae than this one will necessarily be required to define him; and these cannot come under one division; for each single branch of a dichotomy end in a single differentia, and cannot possibly include several differentiae belonging to one and the same animal.”

“It is impossible then to reach any of the ultimate animal forms by dichotomous division” (p. 1002; see also Classification; Hermeneutic Biology?.)

Imagination: Aristotle, Kant

In the glossary to his translation of Aristotle’s On the Soul, Joe Sachs nicely summarizes the various roles of phantasia or “imagination” in Aristotle:

“A power of the soul that perceives appearances when perceptible things are absent and thinks without distinguishing universals (429a 4-8, 434a 5-11). The imagination is identified in On Memory and Recollection as the primary perceptive power of the soul (449b 31 – 450a 15). Thus, many activities discovered in On the Soul may be collected and attributed to the imagination, such as perceiving common and incidental objects of the senses, being aware that we are perceiving, discriminating among the objects of the different senses (425a 14 – b 25), distinguishing flesh or water (429b 10-18), and perceiving time (433b 7). Also, implicit within the power of imagination to behold images (phantasmata), there must be imagination in a second sense, eikasia, by which we can see an image as an image (eikon) or likeness (On Memory and Recollection 450b 12-27)” (pp. 194-195; citations in original).

In the above, I would particularly highlight “thinking without distinguishing universals” and “being aware that we are perceiving”. Imagination — and not intellect, for instance — seems to me to be the primary source suggested in Aristotle for what we, following Locke, call “consciousness”. Also noteworthy is language suggestive of what Kant would later call synthesis.

The vital implication here is that the closest analogue of “consciousness” in Aristotle comes into being not as a transparent medium of representation, but rather as a shifting collection of concrete forms in imagination. Further, the forms we experience are not just passively received, but actively organized and discriminated at a pre-conscious level. Thus when Aristotle says — as he also does — that, e.g., the eye is essentially passive in receiving forms as differentiations in received light — this latter is intended at a purely physical level, and is far from providing a full account of, e.g., visual perception by a human.

Prior to Descartes’ confabulation of scholastic “cogitation” and “intellection”, concrete human psychic activity or “cogitation” was generally recognized as having its roots in imagination. Intellection was understood to have a more specialized role, focused on the constitution of universals. However, attempts to reconcile Aristotle with Plotinus and Proclus in the Arabic tradition, and then with Augustine and pseudo-Dionysius in the Latin tradition, provided a background that was ultimately very supportive toward Aquinas’ strong claim that intellect must after all be understood as the leading part of the individual human soul, morally responsible for all its concrete thoughts and actions. This made it far more plausible for Descartes to take the further step — which Locke followed — of simply identifying cogitation and intellection. The self-transparency of the cogito in Descartes and of consciousness in Locke, respectively — along with their identification with intellection — served to marginalize the role of forms in imagination in their conceptions of “mind”.

A very important feature of Kant’s work that is relatively little appreciated is that he restored a central role for “imagination” in philosophical psychology and anthropology. For Kant, humans can have neither direct knowledge of empirical facts or objects, nor any knowledge of transcendent realities. All intellection and knowledge are discursive, as I think Aristotle would have agreed. We have immediate though “blind” intuition of a sensible manifold, but intellectual intuition is an oxymoron, because intellection is inherently discursive. And in between the synthesis of initial sensory apprehension in intuition and the synthesis of recognition in the concept (Kant’s equivalent for intellection) comes a crucial synthesis of reproduction in imagination. Though his terminology is quite different, Kant not only recovers but even expands upon the role that imagination played in Aristotle.

In Kant and the Capacity to Judge, Beatrice Longuenesse carefully develops what Kant says about imagination in the Critique of Pure Reason. This is a major dimension of her book, so I can only give a flavor of it here.

“The imagination ‘in which’ there is reproduction is not the imagination as a faculty or power (Einbildungskraft), but the representation produced by this faculty (Einbildung)” (p. 35). Though Kant uses the terminology of representation, this effectively refers to the same forms in imagination that Aristotle emphasized.

“[Kant] shows that these acts of combination can contribute to the cognition of a phaenomenon, an object distinct from the ‘indeterminate object of empirical intuition’ (Erscheinung [or mere appearance]), only if they all belong to one and the same act of synthesis of the spatiotemporal manifold. The form of this act is determined a priori by the nature of our mind, and its outcome is threefold: the manifold of intuition represented ‘as’ manifold, the representation of imagination (Einbildung) emerging from empirical associations, and finally the universal representation or concept, under which particular representations are subsumed. This act is that very act of synthesis which Kant, in section 10, attributes to the imagination, in the A Deduction [of the categories] more precisely to transcendental imagination, and which in the B Deduction he calls synthesis speciosa, figurative synthesis” (pp. 35-36).

As usual in Kant, “transcendental” means not metaphysical, but simply constitutive in a way that is not reducible to empirical events. Longuenesse points out that imagination in Kant is not merely reproductive, but also productive. In any case, for Kant not only the logical “matter” but also the elaborated form of our fully constituted experience owes a great deal to imagination, and a recognition of this — as opposed to the assumption of a putative transparency of consciousness — is fundamental to the “Critical” attitude Kant aimed to promote. Here I am using “form” in a sense more Aristotelian than Kantian. (See also Capacity to Judge; Figurative Synthesis; Imagination, Emotion, Opinion; Animal Imagination; Imagination; Four Layers of Being Human.)

The Human in Siger of Brabant

Those whom modern scholars called Averroists were supposed to be unoriginal, dogmatic followers of Averroes. This turns out to be as inaccurate as the supposition that the Latin scholastics as a whole were unoriginal, dogmatic followers of Aristotle.

At issue here is what it is to be human, and in particular how the difficult Aristotelian concept of “intellect” relates to human beings. There were not just two but a wide variety of nuanced and well-argued positions on this.

Among the so-called Averroists, Siger of Brabant (1240-1280) is the best known name, but no full book has yet been devoted to his work. According to Alain de Libera, in his later works Siger developed original responses to Thomas Aquinas’ famous critique of Averroes.

Siger argued against Aquinas that the act of thought is not purely immanent but simultaneously immanent and transitive. That is to say, for Siger it is immanent in the human, but transitive in the separate intellect. While affirming a “separate” intellect, Siger emphasized against Aquinas that the total act of thinking is attributable to the whole human, and not just to the human’s intellective soul. Intellect is an “intrinsic operation” in the human that in a way does, and in a way does not, make it the “substantial form” and perfection of a material body. According to Siger, Aquinas’ claim that the intellective soul unequivocally is the substantial form of the body cannot be reconciled with Aquinas’ other claim that intellect as a power of the intellective soul is entirely independent of the body. Siger adopts Albert and Thomas’ term “intellective soul”, but for Siger only the animal and vegetative soul are united with the body in being. Intellective soul is naturally united with the body in operation but not in being, whereas Aquinas says they are united in being.

According to de Libera, Siger in his Questions on the Book of Causes argues that the form of the human is not simple, but is rather a composite comprising an intellect that “comes from outside” (in Aristotle’s phrase), and a vegetative and sensitive substance that is “educed from the power of matter” (de Libera, Archéologie du sujet vol. 3 part 1, p. 411, my translation). Intellect is said by Siger to be a “form subsistent in itself”. It is not a “substantial form” in the proper sense, which would imply that it was inherent in the human body. It is not in the body “as in a subject”. However, intellect has need of the human body (specifically, the phantasms of the imagination) as an object, and intellect is in turn attributable to the human as a whole, though it is not reducible to the biological organism. Intellect for Siger is neither the inherent form of the human nor a separate, external mover of the human, but a separate form with an operation that is intrinsic to the whole human, in which it participates by composition.

De Libera remarks in passing that the act of thought owes more to intelligible objects than to “intellect”. I would suggest that it is through language and culture and ethical practice that Aristotelian intellect “comes to us from outside”. We talking, encultured animals then acquire a spiritual essence that comes to be intrinsic to us, through our ethical practice, in which acquired intellect and animal imagination cooperate.

According to de Libera, for Siger “The ‘intelligent whole’ is composed of many psychic parts, which are not of the same nature, or of the same origin, or of the same ontological status” (p. 362).

Siger objects that Aquinas’ notion of intellect as united with the body in being “makes the act of thought a perfection of matter” (ibid). This makes the body intellect’s “subject of inherence”. But at the same time, applying Thomas’ own axiom that nothing is accomplished by a power separated from itself, Siger reproaches Thomas for being unable to account for “the integrality of the known” (p. 378), and specifically the knowledge of material things.

For Aquinas, establishing that there is an operation proper to the soul is essential to the possibility of the soul’s existence independent of the body, and thus to his philosophical argument for personal immortality. But Siger argues that in making intellect an operation proper (i.e., uniquely attributable) to the soul, Aquinas implicitly negates its attributability to the whole human. Intellection for Siger is “an operation common to the human composite as an integral whole” (p. 377). In other words, I think with my whole being, not just my “mind”.

De Libera concludes that Siger does preserve the possibility of personal immortality, which was a principal concern of Averroes’ critics. However, he finds that the texts do not support the claims of some recent scholars that Siger in his later works abandoned “Averroism” in favor of Thomism.

The phrase “form subsistent in itself”, according to de Libera, does not have the same meaning for Siger that it does for Thomas. Albert the Great had analyzed three logical possibilities for an “intermediate” kind of form that is neither fully separate nor inseparable from matter. According to de Libera, Siger’s work is consistent with this. Siger aimed at a mean between a Platonist excess of separation between form and matter, and what he perceived as a Thomist excess of union with respect to so-called substantial forms. De Libera does find, however, that Siger, like other authors, is too anxious to simplify the issues at stake, and that he goes too far in identifying the position of Aquinas with that of Alexander of Aphrodisias, who was regarded as having a “materialist” view of the human soul. He also says Siger goes too far in reducing Aquinas’ notion of form to the simple analogy of a stamp in wax.

De Libera meanwhile also raises doubts about Aquinas’ insistence on the absence of any intermediary between the intellective soul and the body. He notes that in a very different context, the Franciscan Augustinian Peter Olivi argued that the intellective soul is united with the body via the intermediary of the sensitive soul. Olivi’s position was rejected by the Council of Vienna in 1312.

De Libera accepts the notion of “substantial form” as genuinely Aristotelian, but appears to endorse the argument of Bernardo Carlos Bazán that Aquinas’ notion of intellective soul gives it a privileged ontological status that makes it more than a substantial form. According to Bazán, Aquinas’ anthropology from the very start goes beyond the Aristotelian hylomorphism that Thomas generally endorses. The form of a human in Aquinas — unlike anything in Aristotle — is such that it could not be the result of any natural generative process, but could only be created by God. Siger comes across as closer to Aristotle.

De Libera notes that in the wake of the English theologian Thomas Wylton (1288-1322), later so-called Averroists “invested massively” in a distinction between an inherent form and an assisting form, and regarded human intellect as an “assisting form”. (See also “This Human Understands”; “This Human”, Again; Averroes as Read by de Libera.)


Is it reasonable to call a philosopher who makes significant use of “essence” or similar terms an essentialist? I would say no. If you look at the Wikipedia article on essentialism for example, it appears to be a term of superficial classification that is used in a hostile or pejorative way. The definition given there is certainly nothing I would identify with.

I find essence to be a very useful concept. This Latin-derived term doesn’t exactly capture any single word used by Plato or Aristotle. Essence is what I call a way of being rather than a thing or property. It corresponds to the more abstract meanings of “form” and “substance”, and to what Aristotle called the “what it is” and “what it was to have been” of a thing. For both Plato and Aristotle it is an object of inquiry rather than something taken for granted. Aristotle’s notions of potentiality and actualization apply to it concepts of alternatives, development, and unanticipated change.

Aquinas’ introduction of a separate explicit concept of existence is a good example of how meanings change with context. For Aquinas, God in the act of creation gives being to possible essences. This implies that the essences are completely preformed, as Leibniz argued explicitly. Leibniz’s pre-established harmony has been viewed as deterministic, though Leibniz argued that it was not. In any case, Aquinas and Leibniz treat essences as discrete possibilities, whereas I read Aristotle as focusing on what is actualized or subject to a process of actualization. Essence as a discrete possibility is still arguably more sophisticated than what gets called “essentialism”, but it is much closer. (See also Platonic Truth; Form Revisited; Form as Value; Form, Substance.)

Form vs Action

Lately I’ve been assembling materials for a contrast between two different “root metaphors” that have been used in making sense of life, the world, and things — one a notion of form associated especially with Aristotle, and the other a Latin scholastic and modern notion of action. This is also related to the historical transformation of the notion of efficient cause and of causality in general.

The first thing to note is that these are families of metaphors rather than uniform applications of the “same” two concepts. Literal shapes, linguistic meanings, and patterns of activity are all called “forms”, but do not reflect the same concept. The “action” of creation from nothing and that of mechanical impulse are two entirely different concepts.

The unifying themes, I think, are that “action” is supposed to be something more or less simple, immediate, and instantaneous, supporting what is supposed to be a kind of bottom-up, foundational explanation of things, whereas “form” always involves some “intensional” complexity and mediation; may involve extension in time and space that further ramifies that intensional complexity and mediation; and supports a kind of “middle-out” explanation that begins with reflection on middle-sized elements of actual experience, rather than a posited foundation of ultimate simple constituents.

(For some additional complications regarding the above simple picture of action, see A Thomistic Grammar of Action.)

Form Revisited

My original skeletal note on form dates back to the first months of my writing here. This is intended to be the beginning of a better treatment.

When I speak of form, I have in mind first of all the various uses of the term in Aristotle, but secondly a family of ways of looking at the world largely in terms of what we call form, as one might broadly say that both Plato and Aristotle did. Then there is a very different but also interesting family of uses in Kant. There are also important 20th century notions of “structure”.

Form in its Platonic and Aristotelian senses is closely related to what we might call essence, provided we recognize that essence is not something obvious or pre-given. At the most superficial level it may refer to a kind of shape, but it may involve much more.

Plato was classically understood to assert the existence of self-subsistent intelligible “forms” that do not depend on any mind or body. I prefer to emphasize that he put a notion of form first in the order of explanation — ahead of any notion of something standing under something else, ahead of notions of force or action, ahead of particular instances of things. Related to this, he put the contents of thought before the thinker, and used the figure of Socrates to argue that a thing is not good because God wills it to be so, but rather that God wills a thing because it is good.

Aristotle identified form with the “what it is” of a thing. He put form and things like it first in the order of explanation, but explicitly argued that form is not self-subsistent. At the same time, he made the notion of form much more lively. While Plato had already suggested that form has an active character and that the soul is a kind of form, most of his examples of form were static, like the form of a triangle or the form of a chair. Aristotle on the other hand was very interested in the forms of the apparent motions of the stars; the marvelous variety of the forms of animals, considering not only their anatomy but patterns of activity and ways of life; and the diverse forms of human communities, their ways of life and institutionalized concepts of good. Form figures prominently in the development of the notion of ousia (“what it was to have been” a thing) into potentiality, actualization, and prior actuality in Aristotle’s Metaphysics. Aristotelian form is interdependent with logical “matter” in such a way that I think the distinction is only relative. It is also inseparable from a consideration of ends. (See also Form as Value; Form, Substance.)

At first glance, Kant’s notion of form seems like the “mere form” of formalism, contrasted with something substantive called “content”. A certain notion of formalism is so strongly identified with Kant that in some contexts it has become a name for whatever was Kant’s position. I think some of Hegel’s criticisms of Kantian formalism are legitimate, and some overstated. In any case, the categorical imperative and its consequences of respect for others and the value of seeking to universalize ethical precepts — perhaps the first really original constellation of ethical ideas since Aristotle — are deeply tied to Kant’s so-called ethical formalism. Kant seeks a formalist path to the highest good, and argues that only a formalist path can truly reach it. The fact that it is a path to the highest good has deep implications for the meaning of this kind of “formalism”, and sets it apart from what is referred to as formalism in mathematics, logic, or law. This could also be related to Kant’s idea that ethical reason comes before tool-like reason in the order of explanation.

The 20th century notion of “structure” — to hazard a simplifying generalization — is about understanding each thing in terms of its relations to other things — principally how things are distinguished from one another, and how one thing entails another. Structure is form interpreted in a relational way that transcends fixed objects and properties. Objects and properties can be defined by relations of distinction and entailment.

Averroes as Read by de Libera

Alain de Libera has played a major role in reviving interest in Averroes. In 1999 he published a French translation of the crucial book III of the famous (or infamous) Long Commentary on Aristotle on the Soul, which was the first rendering of this work into a modern language. He devotes an 80-page chapter of Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1 to reconstructing the more controversial parts of this long-misunderstood text. I’ve previously discussed the reading of Deborah Black in “This Human Understands”, and that of Stephen Ogden in “This Human”, Again.

The modern notion of a subject-agent, de Libera says, originated partly in opposition to Augustine and partly in opposition to Averroes. Though he was responsible for first introducing a notion of “subject” into Aristotelian discourse about the soul, Averroes did not introduce the “modern subject”. According to de Libera, the notion of the human as subject-agent of thought was developed first in opposition to Averroes, then in opposition to the Averroists, then by later Averroists responding to criticism.

“[F]or an Aristotelian as for a Plotinian, the intelligibles in act are not mental states, accidents or accidental forms of a mind posed as substrate and having before it things, themselves bearing qualities, but the intelligibles themselves as intellects in act” (p. 166; my translation throughout). I’ll try to shed some further light on this below.

De Libera cites Aristotle’s own statement that intellect and the intellected are one. He says Averroes’ Latin readers were misled by Michael Scot’s translation of intellectus (intellect as a faculty) for what should have been intellectum (the intelligible). The thesis of the unity of intellect commonly attributed to Averroes is really at its root a thesis of the unity of the intelligible, he says. Averroes primarily has in mind Plato’s problem of how teaching and learning — and shared apprehension and objectivity — are possible.

“The first concern of Averroes is to escape from Platonism” (p. 182). This means we still like forms, but we do not posit free-floating Forms. Aristotle’s alternative is a theory of “abstraction”. Intellect is said to “abstract” intelligibles as universals from the concrete particular contents of what is called imagination. De Libera says that Aristotle used both inductive and “geometric” notions of abstraction, but notes that the commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias particularly emphasized the “geometric” version, which is said to involve conceiving as separate from matter the forms that are nonetheless not separate from matter.

“The noetic problem inherited from Alexander by Averroes is above all that of the production of the intelligible in act: the intentio intellecta” (p. 184). “Intellect is not mind. Nor is it consciousness” (p. 185). The intentio intellecta is not the intentionality arising from the act of a transcendental Ego that Husserl spoke of.

“What is this problem? Not that which Thomas posed to the Averroists, and through them to Averroes: to account for the fact of experience that I think, but rather: to account for the fact that we think, or better, the fact that we think or are capable of thinking the same thing.”

“At issue here is neither the I, nor the human, nor the individual human, but indeed the I and the you” (p. 186). De Libera suggests the analogy of Fregean thought that “is independent of our activity of thought” (p. 187), and says that like Frege, Averroes “opposes thought, intellectio, to representation, cogitatio” (ibid).

The Greek commentator Themistius had suggested underwriting the unity of the intelligible by a unity of “intellect”.

“[T]he theory of the unity of the material intellect has the function of resolving, from a strict Aristotelian point of view, the Platonic question of the possibility of teaching and apprenticeship” (p. 189).

Averroes wants to say that the intelligible is both one and multiple. We can apprehend the very same thing, and yet do so separately. In the forms in our incarnate imaginations it is multiple, but in the immaterial “material intellect” it is one.

Averroes referred to both the imagined, represented, or “cogitated” forms in the soul and to the so-called material intellect with a word that was translated to Latin as subjectum or “subject”. His account of how the two “subjects” interact has become known in secondary literature as the “theory of the two subjects”. Though it was being applied to human imagination and thought, the notion of subject here was understood by his Latin readers as just the abstract one of something standing under something else.

De Libera says it is impossible to understand the theory of two subjects without paying attention to what Averroes says about two related movers. In a famous development in the Metaphysics, Aristotle himself progressively sublimated the “standing under” concept, ultimately replacing it with considerations of potentiality and actualization. De Libera says that in Averroes’ reflections on intellect, “subject” really means mover rather than substrate.

An Aristotelian mover is actually very different from the modern concept of an agent. De Libera quotes Aristotle to the effect that “movement, action, and passion reside in that which is moved” (p. 198).

Averroes, following Aristotle, develops an analogy between sense and intellect. De Libera analyzes Aristotle’s account of the case of sense in four points: 1) that which is potentially sensible exists independent of sense; 2) it only plays the role of mover in the sensitive faculty; 3) the sensible in act (or the sensed) and the sensing or the sense in act are numerically the same act, but differ in essence or quiddity; 4) the identity of the act of the sensible and the act of the sensing in the sensing serves as Aristotle’s explanation for how we sense that we are sensing, or how we have internal sense. In this “synergetic” account, sensation is not a pure passive reception, but rather at the same time is an actualization of a potentiality that we have, and indeed an actualization of us.

De Libera notes that the analogy Aristotle and Averroes both make between sense and intellect in this regard is already enough to invalidate all the readings of Averroes that make the human entirely passive in relation to thought. Intellect for Averroes is not a simple “Giver of Forms” like the transcendent intellect in Avicenna. According to de Libera, in sensation only the potentiality of the sensing functions as a subject of inherence or attribution. That which is potentially sensible does not sense. Similarly, in intellect the intentio intellecta has only one subject of inherence or attribution, which is the potentiality for intellection in the so-called material intellect. That which is potentially intelligible does not think. Nor are intelligibles “emanated” directly to the soul, any more than sensations are received in a purely passive way.

“The receiving intellect is not a sponge. It moves itself. Or better, it is moved. Its movement is a motion by final cause” (p. 212). The two movers in this case are the forms in imagination and the abstracting “active” intellect.

The human is not the subject of thought, but nonetheless she thinks, and thinks at will. Such is the thesis of Averroes” (p. 215). We think when we want. For Averroes, the agent and receptor of the intelligible in act are both eternal, separate substances, but the activities of these separate substances nevertheless take place in us, and are attributed to us. This should correct the misleading impression that for Averroes what the moderns call “the subject” is divided into a part that is mental but not thinking, and a part that is thinking but not mental. It is even further removed from the argument of Aquinas that Averroes makes the human into something like a wall, and into something passively thought by something else rather than something thinking.

Thought in the human is a habitus, or Aristotelian hexis. This is a “second actuality” or “second perfection”, a product of processes of actualization. Averroes makes significant use of the notion of the “acquired intellect” that may come to be immanent in the human, which was explicitly elaborated by al-Farabi using Aristotelian notions of potentiality and actualization. In this context de Libera speaks of production and re-production, actualization and re-actualization. It is by virtue of having this “acquired intellect” that the human has the ability to think when she wants.

The one who has thoughts thinks” (p. 219). “Active” and “material” intellects are two faculties or moments of one thing or process. We act by means of them, and according to de Libera this means that for Averroes, they constitute our form insofar as we are thinking. Averroes holds that Aristotle’s use of “soul” is equivocal with respect to whether or not it includes intellect; that only the animal and vegetable parts of the soul count as form and first perfection of the body; but that intellect nonetheless is our form when we are thinking.

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; Suárez 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).