Peter Abelard

Peter Abelard is widely regarded as the greatest philosopher and theologian of 12th century Europe. He flourished right before the great influx of translations to Latin from Arabic and Hebrew.

For Abelard, common names refer collectively and directly to many individual things, and there are no separate universal things apart from individual things. But in addition to reference, words have signification, or practical informational content.

The signification of sentences, moreover, cannot be reduced to the signification of the nouns and verbs that make them up. Sentences convey irreducible judgments (dicta) about how things are. Abelard has been said to hold an adverbial view of thought.

He opposed two simplified views of understanding commonly attributed to Aristotle in the tradition: that the mind literally takes on the same form that it apprehends, and that images in the mind resemble the things it apprehends.

Abelard endured persecution for opposing the proto-fundamentalist view of Bernard of Clairvaux that sentences about the faith have a “plain meaning” that is beyond question. He also openly acknowledged that Church authorities contradicted one another on numerous points. At the same time, he is said to have rejected views he attributed to his teacher Roscelin that human reason can explain everything; that we should not accept anything that cannot be explained by reason; and that authority has no rational force.

Abelard reportedly held that the agent’s intention alone determines the moral worth of an action, and that obedience to God’s will consists in applying the Golden Rule (“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”). Only God has the right to morally judge others. Ethics is not a matter of acting in conformity to law. Nonetheless, human law may legitimately disregard good intentions in punishing actions that had genuinely bad consequences, as a lesson to others.

In Genèse du dieu souverain, Gwenaëlle Aubry says Abelard devoted considerable energy to combatting the notion of a “tyrant God”, citing Daniel’s confrontation with the neo-Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadnezzar. Here he seems to me to anticipate Leibniz in connecting theological voluntarism with tyranny. According to Aubry, Abelard argued that “God, if He is at once rational and good, can only choose the good. Further, a God who did not will and do all the good that He could would be not good but jealous. Therefore, God wills and does all the good that he can, and cannot do anything other than what He does do” (p. 123, my translation). “The essential point that separates Abelard from Augustine… is in effect the following…. it is not sufficient to say that divine action is governed by reason and by the good, rather it is also necessary to affirm that human reason can reason about that reason and that good” (ibid). Here again, on this account Abelard seems to anticipate Leibniz.

According to Aubry, Abelard quotes Augustine saying God is omnipotent “because He can do what He wills….[God] is all-powerful, not because He can do all, but because He can do all that he wills” (p. 124, brackets in original). From this Abelard argues that “It is necessary to say not that God could have done something but did not will to do it, but rather that what he does not will, he can in no way do. The scope of power is indeed not more extended than that of divine will…. [I]n God, power and will are united in such a way that where will is lacking, power is also lacking” (p. 125).

“In [Abelard’s] Theologia Christiana, omnipotence is defined as that for which the will suffices by itself to do all that needs to be done. Omnipotence is thus characterized not by an excess over its effects but by an adequation to them. Not that which is capable of more things than it does is omnipotent, but that which has the power sufficient to what it wills to do” (p. 126).

According to Aubry, Abelard insists on the immutability of divine power and action. Augustine too emphasized the eternity of God, which also implies immutability. But in general he treats the human mind as an image of God, whereas Aubry says Abelard warns against thinking about God’s power in terms of human power. In the works I am familiar with, Augustine treats human will as a power of choice. Is divine will a power of choice too for Augustine, or is it the definite will Aubry suggests Abelard implies it is? I don’t currently know the answer.

Is there any way that power of choice could even have meaning for a genuinely eternal being? It has always seemed to me that choice implies temporal conditions that are incompatible with eternity.

Aubry says that referring to Plato’s Timaeus (a fragment of which was the only text of Plato available in Latin at the time), Abelard distances divine power from the creation from nothing with which it is strongly associated in Augustine, in order to associate it essentially with reason. According to Aubry, Abelard says this is not only the best of all possible worlds, but the only possible world, whereas Augustine says this world could be changed by divine will. Aubry relates this to the excess of divine power over divine will in Augustine.

She makes the Platonic-sounding point that Abelard in Theologia Christiana says not that God is by himself the good, but rather that the good is that which one calls God…. In this way, theology is subsumed by ethics rather than ethics by theology” (p. 130). Aubry also says Abelard transposes the principle of non-contradiction, the principle of excluded middle, and the principle of sufficient reason from the realm of ontology to that of axiology or values.

In both Theologia Christiana and Theologia Scholarium, Abelard raises the question, “Could God do more or better than He does, or again not do what he does?” (p. 133). He answers no, because to say yes would degrade the goodness of God.

Ricoeurian Ethics

In the final chapters of Oneself as Another, Ricoeur develops a meta-level discourse about ethics, and concludes with a few “ontological” suggestions. Universalizing Kantian morality and the obligation it entails are said to provide a valuable extension to Aristotelian ethics, but ultimately to require supplementation by a return to Aristotelian practical judgment. This seems just about exactly right.

On the Kantian side, norms are said to concretize Aristotelian aims. The most important and general Kantian norm, according to Ricoeur, is reciprocity. He argues for the importance of the golden rule, citing Rabbi Hillel and the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. The distinction between “power over” and “power to” is discussed. The notion of persons as ends in themselves is emphasized. Procedural justice is seen to complement Aristotelian distributive justice. John Rawls’ summary of justice as fairness is endorsed. Although it is ultimately necessary to return to the openness of practical judgment, the passage through universalizing morality is equally necessary, as a safeguard against arbitrariness. Universality and contextuality go hand in hand, much as I have been arguing.

Writing at a time when French anti-Hegelianism was still quite influential and before the rise of new interest in Hegel, Ricoeur did not think Hegelian Geist — which he mistakenly saw as turning the state into an “agency capable of thinking itself by itself” (p. 255) — fit well with the notion of self Ricoeur wanted to advance. He did not want to follow what he saw as Hegel’s path in returning to an ethics of Sittlichkeit or mores embedded in concrete culture, but saw great potential value in a Sittlichkeit separated from the “ontology of Geist” (ibid) and the “thesis of the objective mind” (p. 256), especially if Sittlichkeit were “bent” in the direction of the openness of Aristotelian practical judgment. (A reading of Geist free of such ontology has more recently been argued by Brandom and others to be a better reading of Hegel himself.) “Our final word in this ‘little ethics’… will be to suggest that the practical wisdom we are seeking aims at reconciling Aristotle’s phronesis, by way of Kant’s Moralität, with Hegel’s Sittlichkeit” (p. 290).

On other matters such as the broad thrust of Hegel’s critique of atomistic individualism in the Philosophy of Right and the general value of dialectic, Ricoeur defended Hegel. The Hegelian concept of Right, he says, “surpasses the concept of justice on every side” (p. 253). The “problematic of realization, of the actualization of freedom, is ours as well in this study” (ibid). Reflection, he says, needs the mediation of analysis.

He says that institutionalized conflict is an essential feature of democracy. We should be accepting of conflict, but draw the line at violence. The idea of Rawls that argumentation is “the critical agency operating at the heart of convictions” (p. 288; emphasis in original), raising convictions to the level of considered convictions and resulting in a “reflective equilibrium”, is cited with approval. Ricoeur speaks of a “reflective equilibrium between the ethics of argumentation and considered convictions” (p. 289).

Respect for persons should take priority over respect for the law. The importance of keeping promises extends beyond its role with respect to personal identity to the space of reciprocity and the golden rule. Gabriel Marcel is quoted as saying all commitment is a response to an other. A notion of imputability is introduced as an ascription of action “under the condition of ethical and moral predicates” (p. 292). To this is added a notion of responsibility. Finally, he endorses Hegel’s concept of mutual recognition.

Unlike Brandom, Ricoeur construed the philosophy of language as analytically separate from ethics. He thus saw a need to go beyond its boundaries, and characterized that as an “ontological” moment. This seems to have two main ingredients.

First, the key to understanding the notion of self he wants to advance lies in Aristotelian potentiality and actuality. He also wants to understand actuality and self in connection with Heideggerian being-in-the-world. “[S]elf and being-in-the-world are basic correlates” (p. 313). Actuality should not be thought in terms of presence. Self should not be confused with “man”, and is not a foundation. Spinoza’s conatus or the general effort of beings to persevere finds its highest expression in Aristotelian energeia or actuality, and thus overflows its deterministic origins. The distinction between actuality and potentiality is associated with that between selfhood and sameness. (See also The Importance of Potentiality.)

Second, a discussion of Husserl’s distinction between the body (viewed externally) and “flesh” in which we live leads eventually to the conclusion that a dialectic of the Same and the Other cannot be constructed “in a unilateral manner” (p. 331). A final discussion of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Lévinas leads to an “ultimate equivocalness with respect to the Other in the phenomenon of conscience” (p. 353). We need an alternative to “constitution in and through the ego” (p. 334), and he thinks an adaptation of Husserl’s notion of flesh provides this. Unfortunately, he speaks in passing of an “originary, immediate givenness of the flesh to itself” (p. 333). I think the notion of flesh is supposed to suggest something that softens the kind of rigid boundaries between self and other that we associate with an ego, and that is all good. But the other big issue with constitution of meaning through the ego is precisely that the ego was supposed to be a locus of originary, immediate givenness. It seems to me that one of the great values of a hermeneutic perspective is that it does not need to assume anything like that.

With the exception of this brief reference and his apparent attribution in passing of a reflexive “self” to Aristotle, the degree of convergence with what I have been developing here is impressive indeed.

(I think the kind of reflexivity Ricoeur had in mind in the latter case was only intended to be related to action, so his intent was to capture the fact that we can and do act on ourselves. This, I think, is a true and important observation. My quibble there is with attributing a notion of self as a simple unity to Aristotle.)