I think “entelechy” — or what Kant called internal teleology — is probably the most important guiding concept of Aristotle’s Metaphysics (rather than the “Being” championed by many). There is a great deal to unpack from this single word. Here is a start.

The primary examples of entelechy are living beings. Aristotle also suggests that pure thought (nous) is an entelechy. I think the same could be said of ethos, or ethical culture.

Sachs’ invaluable glossary explains the Greek entelecheia as “A fusion of the idea of completeness with that of continuity or persistence. Aristotle invents the word by combining enteles (complete, full-grown) with echein (= hexis, to be a certain way by the continuing effort of holding on in that condition), while at the same time punning on endelecheia (persistence) by inserting telos (completion [what I have been calling “end”]). This is a three-ring circus of a word, at the heart of everything in Aristotle’s thinking, including the definition of motion. Its power to carry meaning depends on the working together of all the things Aristotle has packed into it. Some commentators explain it as meaning being-at-an-end, which misses the point entirely” (p. li).

He points out the etymological connection of echein (literally, “to have”) with hexis, or “Any condition that a thing has by its own effort of holding on in a certain way. Examples are knowledge and all virtues or excellences, including those of the body such as health” (p. xlix).

I previously suggested a very literal rendering of entelechy as something like “in [it] end having”, with the implication that it more directly means being subject to internal teleology. As Sachs says, this is very different from just being at an end. The latter would imply a completely static condition not subject to further development.

Entelechy is Aristotle’s more sophisticated, “higher order” notion of an active preservation of stability within change, which in the argument of the Metaphysics accompanies the eventual replacement of the initial definition of ousia (“substance”, which Sachs renders as “thinghood”) from the Categories as a kind of substrate or logical “subject” in which properties inhere. What he replaced that notion of substrate with was a series of more refined notions of ousia as form, “what it was to have been” a thing, and what I am still calling potentiality and actuality.

Whether we speak of active preservation of stability within change or simply of persistence (implicitly in contrast with its absence), time is involved. Reference to change makes that indisputable. Persistence is a bit more of a gray area, since in popular terms lasting forever is associated with eternity, but strictly speaking, “eternal” means outside of time (which is why the scholastics invented the different word “sempiternal” for things said to persist forever in time).

Sachs’ translation for what I will continue to simply anglicize as “entelechy” is “being-at-work-staying-itself”. This is closely related to energeia (“actuality”), which Sachs renders as being-at-work. I think it is important that there is nothing literally corresponding to “being” in the Greek for either of these, and want to avoid importing connotations of Avicennist, Thomist, Scotist, or Heideggerian views of the special status of being into Aristotle.

I also think “staying itself” tends to suggest a purely static notion of the identity of a “self” that is foreign to Aristotle. Sachs might respond that “at-work-staying” negates the connotation that “itself” is static, but I don’t think this necessarily follows. It might take significant effort to remain exactly the same, but this is not what Aristotle is getting at. To be substantially the same is not to be exactly the same.

Entelechy is intimately connected with actuality (energeia) and potentiality (dynamis). As Sachs points out, “actuality” in common contemporary usage has connotations of being a simple matter of fact that are at odds with the teleological, value-oriented significance of energeia in Aristotle.

“The primary sense of the word [entelecheia] belongs to activities that are not motions; examples of these are seeing, knowing, and happiness, each understood as an ongoing state that is complete at every instant, but the human being that can experience them is similarly a being-at-work, constituted by metabolism. Since the end and completion of any genuine being is its being-at-work, the meaning of the word [energeia] converges [with that of entelecheia]” (p. li).

If we take “being” purely as a transitive verb (as it is indeed properly meant here), my objection above to connotations of its use as a noun could be overcome. But in English, “being” remains ambiguous, and it is not there in the Greek.

Further, though it has the good connotation of something being in process, “at work” also introduces all the ambiguities of agency and efficient causation, in which overly strong modern notions tend to get inappropriately substituted for Aristotle’s carefully refined “weak” concepts. Aristotle very deliberately develops weak concepts for these because — unlike most of the scholastics and the moderns — he thinks of all agency and causing of motion as subordinate to value-oriented entelechy and teleology.

Sachs’ glossary explains dynamis (“potentiality”, which he calls “potency”) as “The innate tendency of anything to be at work in ways characteristic of the kind of thing it is…. A potency in its proper sense will always emerge into activity, when the proper conditions are present and nothing prevents it” (p. lvii).

He notes that it has a secondary sense of mere logical possibility, but says Aristotle never uses it that way.

I fully agree that potentiality in Aristotle never means mere logical possibility. Kant’s notion of “real” as distinct from logical possibility comes closer, but it still lacks any teleological dimension. I think Paul Ricoeur’s “capability” comes closer than Sachs’ “potency”, because it it seems more suggestive of a relation to an end.

However, I am very sympathetic to Gwenaëlle Aubry’s argument that Aristotelian dynamis should not be understood in terms of any kind of Platonic or scholastic power. “Power” once again suggests all the ambiguities of efficient causality. I think such a reading is incompatible with the primacy of final causality over efficient causality in Aristotle. (Historically, of course, the divergence of scholastic “power” from Aristotelian dynamis was accompanied by assertions of a very non-Aristotelian primacy of efficient causality.) To my ear, “potency” has the same effect. (See also Potentiality and Ends.)

Sachs had said that entelechy is also at the heart of Aristotle’s definition of motion. (Motion with respect to place is only one kind of motion for Aristotle; he also speaks of changes with respect to substance, quality, and quantity as “motions”. He also says there are activities that are not motions.)

Properly speaking, motion (kinesis) for Aristotle is only “in” the thing that is moved. That is how it becomes reasonable to speak of unmoved movers. A moved mover is indeed moved, but not insofar as it is itself a mover, only in some other way. He says there is no “motion” in being-at-work or actuality as such, but there is activity.

In book III chapter 1 of the Physics, Aristotle says that “the fulfillment [energeia] of what is potentially, as such, is motion — e.g. the fulfillment of what is alterable, as alterable, is alteration; … of what can come to be and pass away, coming to be and passing away; of what can be carried along, locomotion” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. I, p. 343).

Sachs expresses this by saying that as long as “potency is at-work-staying-itself as a potency, there is motion” (p. lv). Otherwise said, motion is the entelechy and “actuality” of a potentiality as potentiality. As I’ve noted before, Aristotle doesn’t just divide things into actual and potential, as if they were mutually exclusive, but at times uses these notions in a layered way.

A mover (kinoun) is “Whatever causes motion in something else. The phrase ‘efficient cause’ is nowhere in Aristotle’s writings, and is highly misleading; it implies that the cause of every motion is a push or a pull…. That there should be incidental, intermediate links by which motions are passed along when things bump explains nothing. That motion should originate in something motionless is only puzzling if one assumes that what is motionless must be inert; the motionless sources of motion to which Aristotle refers are fully at-work, and in their activity there is no motion because their being-at-work is complete at every instant” (pp. lv-lvi).

It is worth noting that Aristotle has a relatively relaxed notion of completeness or perfection. We tend to define perfection in a kind of unconditional terms that are alien to him. For Aristotle in general, complete actualization or perfection is always “after a kind”, and it is supposed to be achievable. But also, it is only unmoved movers (and not organic beings) whose being-at-work is being said to be complete at every instant.

When he says “the phrase ‘efficient cause’ is nowhere in Aristotle’s writings”, he means that “efficient” is another Latin-derived term that diverges from the Greek. Aristotle in book II chapter 3 of the Physics speaks of “the primary source of the change or rest” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. I, p. 332), but again we have to be careful to avoid importing assumptions about what this means.

As I’ve pointed out several times before, the primary source of the change in building a house according to Aristotle is the art of building, not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer’s blow, and everything in this whole series is a means to an end. The end of building a house, which guides the form of the whole series, is something like protection from the elements. Neither the end nor the source of motion is itself an entelechy. But the house-building example is a case of external teleology. Correspondingly, it requires an external source of motion.

Internal teleology and the entelechy that implements it are more subtle; entelechy is an in itself “unmoving” and “unchanging” activity. The things subject to motion and change in the proper sense are only indirectly moved by it (by means of some source of motion).

We might say that Kantian transcendental subjectivity and Hegelian spirit are also entelechies.

Recently I suggested that what makes Hegel’s “subjective logic” to be “subjective” is its focus on the activity of interpretation and judgment, which in fact always aims to be “objective” in the sense of reaching toward deeper truth, and has nothing at all to do with what we call “merely subjective”. This is a sense of “subjective” appropriate to what Kant calls transcendental as opposed to empirical subjectivity. This higher kind of subjectivity, characteristic of what Hegel calls “self-consciousness” and of the activity of Kantian reflective judgment, would be very well characterized as an entelechy.

I strongly suspect that what Hegel metaphorically calls “logical motion” would be expressed by Aristotle in terms of the end-governed “unmoving activity” of entelechy.

The True and the Good

For Plato and Aristotle, considerations of truth are not separable from questions of value. Hegel pushes this further, to the point where only as good can anything really be true. He effectively argues for the identity of the true and the good. Apparent surface truths that are ugly have to be rejected as not really true. This means not that we should try to pretend they are illusory or unimportant, but that we should do something about them. It is up to us to make the world more true and right. This is how we participate in the “world’s purpose”. (See also Emancipatory Logic?; The Logic’s Ending.)

Logic and Metaphysics

In Emancipatory Logic? I began a walk-through of Robert Pippin’s important Hegel’s Realm of Shadows. This post borrows its title from his second chapter, though it only addresses the first part of it.

According to Pippin, Hegel’s Science of Logic is intended to exhibit the “spontaneous” or “self-generating” actualization of intelligibility. This takes places through the higher-order universals that Kant following Aristotle called “categories”.

Hegel’s “logic” provides his alternative to Kant’s notoriously long and difficult argument for the possibility of a priori knowledge that is not merely analytic, and to Kant’s derivation of the categories. As an exercise in what Aristotle called first philosophy, it is not supposed to depend on anything else.

By his own lights Hegel is extremely concerned with concreteness. He is therefore very conscious that his “logic as first philosophy” only addresses possible actualizations of intelligibility, and doesn’t derive anything real. We might think that the actualization of intelligibility would be a realm of light, but here the concern is with the emergence of light, hence his curious metaphor that “logic” is a realm of shadows.

“Hegel follows Kant’s innovation in his response to the empiricist challenge…. The basic question is, How could there possibly be objectively valid concepts, true of all objects, but not derived from experience? Where could they come from? In Hegel’s terms, this amounts to the question, How do concepts that are the products of thought alone ‘give themselves’ content, where by content we mean something extraconceptual?” (pp. 39-40).

Pippin says that Hegel will want “to determine objects in their thinkability, where that means their suitability not for a finite, subjective power, but for thought as such, that is, objects in their intelligibility, in their being at all intelligibly what they are. Their being what they are is their concept, or their ‘being their concept’, for Hegel. The concepts did not come from anywhere, any more than the thinking power comes from anywhere” (p. 40). Hegel aims for a “logic of the knowable as such” (p. 41).

“[Kant’s] critique concerns the modern tradition stemming from Descartes, embodied in Arnauld’s and Nicole’s Port Royal Logic in 1662, as well as the Leibnizian/Wolffian metaphysical tradition. The former held that clarity about the relations between ideas could lead the mind closer to the bearers of philosophical truth, clear and distinct ideas, known passively by the ‘light of reason’. For the latter, the laws of thought simply are the ‘laws of truth’ (to use Frege’s phrase), or a general logic is just thereby a logic of objects, because all philosophical truth is what Kant would call ‘analytic’, arrived at by logical analysis alone” (pp. 41-42).

Pippin emphasizes that Kant and Hegel both reject the early modern (originally Thomistic) idea of passive illumination by a “natural light” of reason. In the original Thomistic context, the idea of a natural light of reason played what I think was a very positive role as a counter-weight to sectarian tendencies in religion, but in the early modern context it led to a new kind of dogmatism.

“With general logic as it was understood in the Port Royal and the Wolffian traditions, [Hegel] agrees that logical reasoning, understood in that way, does not provide knowledge of objects. He especially agrees with Kant that reason and understanding are activities, not passively ‘illuminated’. As ‘that great foe of immediacy’, in Sellars’ phrase, he does not mention or rely on such receptive or noetic intuition. As such a great foe, Hegel is opposed to any notion of self-standing, atomic conceptual content. As he wants so famously to show in a dialectical logic, determinateness is a function of determination, always an identification ‘through an other’, his formulation for discursivity” (p. 42).

For Hegel, there is no determinateness without a prior activity of determination. That activity is a discursive articulation of otherness in its concreteness by means of language.

Hegel’s Science of Logic is divided into what he calls an “objective” logic, consisting in a “logic of being” and a “logic of essence”, and a “subjective” logic, consisting entirely in a “logic of the concept”.

“The logic of being seems clearly to correspond to the Kantian categories of quality and quantity, what Kant called the mathematical and constitutive categories, and the logic of essence certainly seems to correspond to the categories of relation and modality, or the dynamic and regulative categories. The logic of the Concept makes use of the same syllogistic central to Kant’s conception of the role of such an inferential structure in the activity of reason” (p. 43).

Incidentally, I find it intriguing and highly plausible that Hegelian essence would express relation and modality. As much of an improvement as this is over the early modern notion of essence as a putatively self-contained content, it still does not yet address the fluidity of what would have been essence in development over time.

Pippin notes that in an 1812 letter, Hegel also said the objective logic roughly corresponds to the “ontology” he saw articulated in Aristotle’s logical works. I would add that Hegel’s “logic of the concept” moves beyond the “objective” logic in somewhat the same way that the discussion of “substance” in Aristotle’s Metaphysics moves beyond that in the Categories.

Pippin says “there is no question that Hegel both wholeheartedly agreed with Kant’s critique of substantive metaphysics, and realized that that critique applied only to modern metaphysics and left several possibilities open” (p. 44). He quotes Hegel saying “What Kant generally has in mind here is the state of metaphysics of his time…; he neither paid attention to, nor examined, the genuinely speculative ideas of older philosophers on the concept of spirit” (ibid).

He begins to clarify what Hegel more specifically means by logic.

“[F]or both Kant and Hegel, the unit of significance for any logic is not the proposition or any static formal structure but acts of reasoning and assertion” (ibid).

“Hegel’s logic does not primarily concern relations among, operations upon, propositions, and is instead oriented from a logic of terms. So we don’t see a syntax specified by axioms, a proof theory, and a semantics” (ibid).

In mainstream 20th century logic, the older term logic was regarded as a mere historical relic. But since the late 20th century, type theory has provided a formulation of term logic in higher-order mathematics that subsumes not only first-order but also higher-order predicate logic, so even in strictly mathematical terms, term logic is once again highly relevant.

“But as becomes clearer in the logic of the Concept, conceptual content is not provided by analysis of atomistically conceived concepts. Concepts are understood, as they were in Kant, as ‘predicates of possible judgments’, and the roles they play in possible judgments in various contexts, involving other concepts, and the roles they can and cannot play in such judgments (including the inferential relations among the judgments) are necessary to specify such concepts. This is why Hegel metaphorically speaks of concepts as alive, in movement, and why the logic’s ‘motion’ is the key to the specification of any concept…. Concepts are rules for judgmental unification, and judgmental unifications are always apperceptive” (p. 45).

“So the structure of concepts in use is the structure of the apperceptive ‘I’ (ibid; see also Ideas Are Not Inert).

“The concept of the Concept, the apperceptive understanding of the implications of this apperceptive structure, is what Hegel calls ‘the Absolute'” (ibid).

He compares Hegel’s view of concepts to that of the contemporary philosopher John McDowell in Mind and World.

“[I]n McDowell’s view we can certainly distinguish thinking from what is thought (the world is not a thought-thing; thinking is a discursive activity; the world is not a discursive activity) and still insist that the world ‘is made up of the sort of things one can think. (That discursive activity is, in its unity, the unity of anything that can be known would be expressed on the ‘object side’ by claiming that a determinate object is articulable as a single unity.) Or, for example, the profound-sounding (even Heideggerian) claim that there is no ontological gap between thought and world just comes down to the fact that ‘one can think, for instance, that spring has begun, and that very same thing, that spring has begun, can be the case’. What I think when I know (think truly) that something is the case is simply what is the case. It is thus a truism of sorts that, with the issue posed in a Kantian way, ‘the forms of thought are the forms of things…. The distinction between ‘conditions on the possibility of knowledge of things’ and ‘conditions on the possibility of things themselves’, which some use to characterize Kantian idealism, should be rejected ‘on the ground that the relevant conditions are inseparably both conditions on the thought and conditions on objects, not primarily either the one or the other'” (p. 47).

Frege said a fact is a true thought. The early Wittgenstein identified the world with what is the case. Aristotle said there is no difference between thought in the strong sense (nous or “intellect”) and that of which it thinks. Pippin quotes Hegel’s implicit invocation of Aristotle on this point:

“The older metaphysics had in this respect a higher concept of thinking than now passes for accepted opinion. For it presupposed as its principle that only what is known of things and in things by thought is really true [wahrhaft Wahre] in them, that is, what is known in them not in their immediacy but as first elevated to the form of thinking, as things of thought. This metaphysics held that thinking and the determination of thinking are not something alien to the subject matters, but rather are their essence, or that the things and the thinking of them agree in and for themselves (also our language expresses a kinship between them); that thinking in its immanent determinations, and the true nature of things, are one and the same content” (p. 48; see also Form and Things).

Pippin points out that Hegel does not simply identify facts with propositions. Rather, in the spirit of Kant’s unities of apperception, he is concerned with “thought’s agreeing with itself” (p. 51). “The force of a judgment is judgment’s own force; it is not a natural force or the result of the accumulation of empirical data” (p. 52). In a footnote Pippin adds that “‘I did it because I thought I ought to’ could be appealed to to make the same point” (ibid).

“A wolf is not simply, in itself, what it is to be a wolf but to some degree or other a better or worse exemplification of such a concept ‘for itself’. The object is not just ‘as it is’; it is ‘for’ (here, in the sense of ‘for the sake of’) its concept and hereby itself…. This is all in keeping with Hegel’s general tendency to gloss his use of for-itself with Aristotle’s notion of an actualized potential” (pp. 54-55).

“To say that an object is ‘for its form’ is just to say that there is an intelligible dynamic in its development. (As in Aristotle, the particular kind of unity by which any thing or process or activity is what it distinctively is is the unity by virtue of which it is intelligible.)…. This intelligible dynamic is its concept and is not something that exists separate from or supervening on some physical attributes and efficient causation. It just is the intelligible way a development develops; there is nothing ‘over and above’ the development” (p. 55).

Pippin quotes Hegel’s Encyclopedia logic where Hegel specifically recalls Aristotle’s criticism of Plato for neglecting the actuality of forms.

“Self” and “other” are inseparably related in the Logic, as they are in the discussion of self-consciousness in the Phenomenology. In the Logic, “‘for itself’ and ‘for an other’ will be reciprocally dependent notions” (p. 56).

For Hegel, a being “is what it is and not anything else (it is ‘in itself’), but only by virtue of the properties that can intelligibly distinguish it from its contraries (can determine what it is ‘for itself’)…. Accordingly, everything… turns on the sweeping claim that ‘truth [the truth of being, the determination of what things truly are] is self-consciousness [the forms of self-conscious judgment]…. This does not claim it exists only as conceived, or that the conceiving on which its determinacy depends should be understood as subjective mental episodes” (pp. 56-57).

“Thought can determine its objects, but not by appeal to the light of reason, not ‘immediately’…. Much more will have to be said about this, but it will be very important to Hegel that to consider things in their intelligibility is also and at the same time to consider them in terms of the only beings for whom beings can be intelligible, rational beings” (p. 57).

Pippin says that Hegel rejects Kant’s “distinction between things considered in their possible intelligibility and things considered simply as they are in themselves” (p. 58). He again notes that Hegel is neither simply identifying things with thoughts nor identifying thought’s self-determination with anything like the Absolute’s knowledge of itself.

“[T]he initial, simple point at issue now is that anything’s being at all would be mere indeterminate and indistinguishable being were it not conceptually determinate, articulable — in the simplest sense, an instance of a concept” (p. 59).

“And this raises Hegel’s main question in the Logic: how to account for conceptual content…. The answer to that question will depend on two very difficult elements in Hegel’s project: … that the form of the concept is the form of the self, and that, accordingly, truth is self-consciousness; and the claim that the way to understand this content is to understand these concepts as ‘self-negating’, but in a way that promises a positive result” (ibid).

Form and Things

I use the word “thing” in a very general sense for anything at all — real, ideal, or imaginary; abstract or concrete; including properties, actions, processes, and adverbial characteristics.

Kant controversially wanted to assume that things of all sorts have definite ways that they objectively are “in themselves”, i.e., completely independent of our experience and knowledge of them. But for him, there is inevitably a gap between our knowledge and reality. Every attempt to ignore or overleap that gap he called dogmatism. This was his way of practicing what I have called epistemic modesty, or the ethical virtue of avoiding unfounded knowledge claims. When we don’t know, we go ahead and act based on the best beliefs we have, while in principle remaining open to the possibility that our belief may require revision.

Hegel and others have worried that there is something wrong with Kant’s way of expressing the situation — with this gap between knowledge and reality that is inevitable and even virtuous for Kant. Some of Kant’s remarks make it sound as if reality as it really is and our experience could be two entirely nonoverlapping realms. If this were true, Kant’s position could be seen as leading to skepticism, or the conclusion that genuine knowledge of reality is impossible.

Kant himself would have resisted this conclusion with all his might. He does believe we have genuine knowledge; he just wants us to be very careful about what we claim to know. For Kant, genuine knowledge does not require access to things in themselves; rather, it keeps within the bounds of possible experience. It minimally designates an objectivity toward experience, consisting in the absence of dogmatism and an unceasing effort toward unity of apperception.

Hegel agrees with Kant in opposing dogmatism and emphasizing the effort toward unity of apperception. His strongest opposition to Kant’s talk of things in themselves assumes that “in themselves” means “in isolation”, as it would under the Wolffian view (rejected by both Kant and Hegel) that all knowledge is analytical. Hegel emphasizes that unities of apperception are not just individual but also shared. At the same time, he revives the Aristotelian idea that thoughts should be distinguished as forms or meanings shareable in principle with any rational being, and that as such, they are whatever they are independent of subjective presentation. This makes it quite reasonable for Aristotle and Hegel to claim that the form or meaning that is properly being thought is the very same as the form or meaning that is being thought about.

An analogous identity certainly does not apply to experience or consciousness. To assert that would be dogmatism in Kant’s sense. The thought that Aristotle and Hegel identify with form or meaning is not a kind of consciousness. The most fundamental characteristic of consciousness for Hegel is the separation of subject and object, whereas in thought proper there is no such separation, only a succession of forms. In Hegel, the gap between consciousness and its objects takes the place of the gap between knowledge and reality in Kant, and similarly commends to us a practice of epistemic modesty in life.

Another dimension of epistemic modesty in Aristotle and Hegel has to do with the non-univocal character of form in Aristotle, and with Hegel’s repeated warnings about the “falsity” of all fixed representations. Form is said in several ways in Aristotle, e.g., sensible form, mathematical form, linguistic meaning, and the life or soul of a living being. Of these the first two are univocal, but the last two are not.

From the point of view of form, we take a deflationary view of “things”. Things — like the thing in itself in Kant — are in a strict sense indexes delimiting our ignorance rather than univocal “objects” of knowledge.

The fact that our ignorance is delimited means it is not total. We do have knowledge, but insofar as either proper knowledge or Hegelian spirit has “objects”, those objects lack univocal identity.

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).

(Remaining parts of this walk-through of the Preface are, in order, Substance and Subject; At Home in Otherness; Otherness; and Foreshadowing the Concept.)

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.)