Aubry on Aristotle

Gwenaëlle Aubry’s brilliant Dieu sans la puissance (2006) recovers a distinctly Aristotelian theology. Aristotelian potentiality is to be distinguished from Platonic power, even though Aristotle used the same Greek word (dunamis) for it. For Aristotle, god is moreover pure energeia or act (what I have translated as “at-workness”) with no admixture of potentiality.

Aubry says, “As such, [Aristotle’s god] is distinguished from the Platonic Idea of the Good, exceeding being in power, as much as from the Christian God in whom power and being merge to exceed the Good. Because he is act, the god of Aristotle is not the essential Good (the Idea of the Good), but the essentially good substance. And because he is without power, he does not act as an efficient cause. But he is not, however, powerless: his efficacy is non-efficient. If he acts, it is as end…. Aristotle thus thinks the causality proper to the good as being not power, but potentiality as tendency toward the end” (p. 201, my translation, emphasis added).

(Side note — this seems to assume that an efficient cause does involve the kind of power at issue here, but I question that common assumption as well. I like the argument based on Aristotle’s Physics that it is the art of building — not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer blow — that is most properly the efficient cause of the building of a house. Only in an indirect sense that is not Aubry’s here can the art of building be called a power. But this does not detract from her argument.)

In a 2015 lecture “Genesis of the Violent God” at Cornell, anticipating her second volume Genèse du dieu souverain (2018), she develops in fine historical detail various theological positions on omnipotence that eclipsed Aristotle’s view, explicitly subordinating goodness to absolute power. She traces the way divine omnipotence has served as an explicit model for political doctrines of sovereignty, from the absolute monarchist Jean Bodin through Hobbes to the Nazi legal theorist Carl Schmitt. Noting that various writers who have grappled with the moral significance of Auschwitz ended up suggesting a “weak” God, she instead urges us to take more seriously Aristotle’s view of a god of pure act.

This work is a development out of her 1998 doctoral thesis. She has worked extensively on Plotinus. She has co-edited volumes of essays on Aristotle’s ethics and on ancient concepts of self, as well as editing a volume on Proclus’ Elements of Theology. Aubry is actually better known as a novelist, and has won several literary awards.

Time and Eternity in Hegel

H. S. Harris in Hegel’s Ladder I points out that Hegel took an unprecedented view of the relation between time and eternity in the Phenomenology. He argues that Hegel’s later advertisement of his logic as characterizing “the mind of God before creation” is extremely misleading with respect to Hegel’s actual views. According to Harris, detailed examination of texts suggests Hegel retained the novel view of time and eternity expressed in the Phenomenology.

Harris notes that from around 1801, Hegel came to agree with Reinhold and Bardili that logic should be “objective” in the sense of being neutral with respect to subject-object distinctions, even though he sharply rejected their formalism.  Logic for Hegel should not be subjective in the sense of Fichte’s Wissenschaftslehre or Schelling’s work before his break with Fichte.

“Hegel was able to make history subordinate in his speculative Logic precisely because he allowed it to be predominant in the lengthy formation of subjective consciousness for truly logical ‘objectivity’, which is the theme of the Phenomenology….  ‘The experience of consciousness’ is necessarily a psychological experience of the singular subject, since only singular subjects are ‘conscious’, but the ‘phenomenology of Spirit’ is the biography of God, the metaphysical substance who becomes ‘as much subject as substance’ when He is comprehended as ‘Spirit’.  The ‘experience of consciousness’ must happen in a single lifetime; the ‘phenomenology of Spirit’ cannot happen so.”

“We might remark that neither can become ‘Science’ except through the recollection in a singular consciousness of a historical process that is necessarily not confined (or confinable) within a single lifetime.  This is a way of saying that God cannot be ‘spirit’ without man being ‘spirit’ likewise — which is, of course, quite correct…. [N]ot the comprehension of ‘self’ but the comprehension of the whole social history of selfhood [is the topic of the Phenomenology]” (p. 11). 

Harris says the Phenomenology was Hegel’s “decisive divergence” (p. 13) from the whole tradition of intellectual intuition and cognitive immediacy.

“The implication is that ‘the eternal essence of God’ is not ‘outside of time’ in the way that God’s thought and action have traditionally been supposed to be.”

“We cannot mediate the problem of how logic is in time, unless we shift our attention from the ‘real philosophy’ that comes after logic (in every sense) to the ‘real philosophy’ that goes before ‘logic’, as a comprehension of the time in which it was shown finally that logic itself is as much in time as out of it and that it must come to be self-consciously ‘in’ time in order to be properly ‘out’ of it….  [F]rom Heraclitus and Parmenides to Kant and Fichte, no one has managed to formulate a consistent theory of human experience as a rational whole on any intuitive basis.  Instead of simply taking it for granted that eternity comprehends time, just as ‘possibility’ comprehends ‘actuality’, we must start from the other end and ask how time comprehends eternity.”

“There is no intuitive answer to this question” (p. 14).  The project of the Phenomenology “involves a total inversion of the intuitive assumption of all the ‘philosophers of experience’ before Hegel….  But the history of religion is more important to the argument than is the history of philosophy, in any case, because it is in religion that the natural assumption is inverted for the natural consciousness itself.  It is Hegel’s predominant concern with the actual experience of the natural (i.e., nonspeculative) consciousness that makes it hard for us to see and understand what happens to Descartes, and to the ‘philosophers of experience’ proper, in Hegel’s argument” (pp. 15-16).

Harris speaks of an “explicitly Fichtean self…. But his self makes no Fichtean assumptions, and has no absolute ‘intuitions’.  It merely observes; and what it learns, in the end, is precisely what the standpoint of philosophical ‘observation’ is and means. This observing consciousness leaves Fichte behind decisively when it leaves moral judgment to the valets and aligns itself with the Weltgeist [world Spirit] in its evaluation of all the experience it recollects.”

“This all-accepting and all-forgiving alignment with the Weltgeist is the logical standpoint, the eternal standpoint concretely established in time and now, at last, comprehensively understood” (p. 17).  What is shown is “Spirit’s eternity in time” (p. 18), but “The ‘hero’ is the finite consciousness — Jacob wrestling with the angel” (ibid).

Harris is here using the word “consciousness” in an equivocal way to refer to something that is far beyond what Hegel described as the standpoint of Consciousness.  It is already Spirit.  The standpoint of Consciousness is inseparable from assumptions of immediacy and of what philosophers from Locke to Schelling have called “intuition”, as some sort of immediate grasping.  Emphasizing some underlying continuity where something underwent a transformation is a common way of speaking, but I would rather identify the continuity with “us” rather than an abstracted property like consciousness.

Harris properly distinguishes between “natural consciousness” and “the philosophers of experience” who purport to speak on its behalf.  Hegel sharply rejects the philosophers of experience as propounding a bad notion of experience focused on immediacy, but he wants to entice common sense to become philosophical. 

The Fichtean self is already a difficult topic.  Fichte, in his better known early writings at least, propounded a very extreme “subject-centered” point of view, but he was a brilliant writer and serious philosopher who cannot be simply reduced to that.  His “self” is certainly not an empirical matter of fact, and seems constitutionally incompatible with petty egocentrism or self-seeking (certainly a far cry from the acute vulgarization of Max Stirner in The Ego and His Own), even though it seems like he had some bad ideas about German cultural superiority.  I think the Fichtean self not so much “has” intuitions as Harris suggests, but rather is itself an “absolute intuition” (the only one) for Fichte.  But Fichte also in his later writings formulated a notion of ethical mutual recognition.

Harris alludes to Hegel at a certain early point turning back from Schelling’s mystical intuitionism toward Fichtes’s practical philosophy.  Although I think this is historically accurate, if taken out of context or connected with stereotypes of Fichte, it could lead to serious misunderstanding. 

Harris himself does not make this mistake.  He clearly indicates that Hegel cannot be reduced to Fichtean subjectivism, as the young Marx and some others have done or precipitously claimed others had done. He goes on to discuss the fundamental role of “otherness” in Hegel’s thought, particularly in regard to constitution of self.  This is as far from an “absolute intuition” of self as could be.  But Fichte’s practical-ethical orientation and sharp mind tower above not only the woolly-minded forgotten Schellingian epigones who so irritated Hegel, but also the superficial dazzle of Schelling himself.  I would also note that to ground the social in concrete relations rather than abstract collectivity is in no way to reduce the social to actions of individuals.

Fichte was accused of atheism and drummed out of Jena for identifying God with the moral order. Now I can’t find the passage, but I think Harris somewhere says Hegel put God as the moral order historically in between God as law and God as love.

The explicit idea that the eternal is constituted in time that Harris highlights is, I think, original to Hegel. Others had denied the eternal, but I don’t recall anyone arguing that a genuine eternal originates in time. Harris relates this novel aspect of Hegel’s thought to his inversion of the Kantian priority of possibility over actuality. Aristotle of course also maintained that actuality comes first, but never explicitly suggested a temporal origin of the eternal.

I think a temporal constitution of the eternal — especially when connected with logic, as Harris suggests it was for Hegel — actually makes a lot of sense. After a temporal process of experience and learning that may involve reversals and twists and turns, it is possible to construct a static logical theory (not logical in Hegel’s sense, but in the formal sense) of all the lessons learned, but not before. What Hegel calls logic is a lot closer to the twists and turns of experience. Formal logic obviously has no temporal element, but the “logic” of experience and learning does. Formal logic comes “after” Hegelian logic. Hegelian logic can be read as an account of the constitution of formal logic, through the constitution of meaning.

Between Transcendentalism and Pragmatism

Josiah Royce (1855-1916) was known as the leading American exponent of absolute idealism. He was recognized for contributions to philosophy of religion, psychology, and logic, as well as metaphysics. I thought of him because apparently, at least in his earlier works, he really did identify the Absolute with an all-embracing, divine consciousness that was supposed to include and underwrite all of reality, quite opposite to the way I read Hegel’s Phenomenology as an extended critique of the point of view of consciousness.

Also quite unlike the “deflationary” approach taken here, he straightforwardly identified his Absolute with God and with Being. Royce’s was a definitely personal God, also existing in time rather than eternally. Early in his career, he developed a novel argument for the existence of God based on the existence of error. According to Royce, the very existence of error presupposes the existence not only of truth against which the error can be recognized, but of a Knower who knows the truth.

Royce had strongly communitarian ethical views, sharply criticizing both the “heroic individualism” of the American Transcendentalists, with whom he shared an interest in German Idealist philosophy, and the individualist views of his close friend, the pragmatist William James. Among other things, Royce thought James in his famous Varieties of Religious Experience focused too much on intensely private experiences of extraordinary individuals, to the detriment of attention to the community aspect of religion. In his theology, Royce strongly associated God with an ideal of a Universal Community.

In his late work, he was increasingly influenced by the great founder of pragmatism, Charles Pierce. He became fascinated with Pierce’s notions of signs, semiotics, and interpretation. While this was not quite the full-fledged anti-foundationalist notion of interpretation developed here, I think it at least points in a similar direction. At this point, Royce developed a new notion of God as “the Interpreter Spirit” providing a metaphysical ground in time for all acts of interpretation, without the interpreters necessarily being aware of this. He extended his notion of the Universal Community, now explicitly calling it a “Community of Interpretation”. I think the latter is a fascinating partial anticipation of Brandom’s much more detailed work on mutual recognition, which also draws on the pragmatist Kantianism of Wilfrid Sellars.

(From Brandom’s point of view, Royce’s communitarianism would still be a one-sided overreaction to individualist trends. It seems to me that Brandom and Ricoeur converge on a very attractive alternative to this old seesaw, putting concrete relations with others and intersubjectivity before either individuality or community.)

Martin Luther King, Jr., acknowledged Royce as the source of King’s own more elaborated notion of the ideal of the Beloved Community, a vision of tolerance and mutual acceptance. I have not evaluated claims of a recent book that in spite of this, Royce also in effect promoted a cultural version of the racist “white man’s burden”.

Royce attempted to derive all of ethics from a single principle of loyalty, understood as loyalty to a cause. He claimed that loyalty to vicious or predatory causes fails to meet a criterion of “loyalty to loyalty” intrinsic to his principle of loyalty. Thus the argument seems to be that loyalty has the kind of universality that Kant claimed for the categorical imperative. However, I don’t think the argument succeeds nearly as well as Kant’s. Kantian respect for people gives a crucial human face to Kant’s formalism in ethics. Even if loyalty to loyalty is concerned to avoid undermining the loyalty of others to the cause, as Royce argued, that seems to me to be a much narrower kind of concern for others. Also, loyalty is by nature particular, whereas Kant’s various formulations of the categorical imperative are actual tests for universality.