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.)

Dialectic Bootstraps Itself

Here is a subtle but vital point. I’ve just reiterated that dialectic assumes no prior truth. Dialectic approaches coherence in an iterative and incremental way, sometimes backing up and trying a new path. As a philosopher in what I take to be the genuine spirit of Plato and Aristotle, I think seriously taking up such a work is the very best we mortals can honestly do to achieve high levels of practical confidence about the things that matter most in life. No, it does not have the precision or definitiveness of mathematics, but mathematics is like Aristotelian demonstration in that all it tells us with certainty is that certain conclusions follow from certain premises, so the conclusions are only as applicable to life as the premises and their assumed mapping to the real world.

The vital point is that dialectic — the development of richer meaning — can make real progress, without ever assuming a foundation. No, we’ll never say the last word, but we can iteratively and incrementally build cumulative results. With iterative and incremental development of coherent articulations of what we care about and an openness to acknowledging error, we can progressively improve interpretive confidence.

I think this is what is behind Hegel’s somewhat mystifying talk about spirit producing itself. (See also Interpretation; Dialogue; Ethical Reason; Practical Reason; The Autonomy of Reason; Openness of Reason; Reason, Feeling.)

Inferentialism vs Mentalism

Brandom’s “inferentialism” or emphasis on material inference effectively makes what I call ethical reason the most important thing in the constitution of subjectivity — not psychology, and not some putative immediate mental presence, or universal transparent representational medium, or supposedly perfect reflexivity.

This is not to deny that there is such a thing as immediacy; it is rather to specify that immediacy is not foundational, and has nothing to do with certainty. Immediacy has a very different role to play, in showing us the world’s “stubborn recalcitrance to mastery and agency” and providing occasions for learning. (See also Mind Without Mentalism; Psyche, Subjectivity.)