Plotinus on Contemplation

“Supposing we played a little before entering upon our serious concern and maintained that all things are striving after Contemplation, looking to Vision as their one end — and this, not merely beings endowed with reason but even the unreasoning animals, the Principle that rules in growing things, and the Earth that produces these — and that all achieve their purpose in the measure possible to their kind, each attaining Vision and possessing itself of the End in its own way and degree, some things in entire reality, other in mimicry and image — we would scarcely find anyone to endure so strange a thesis. But in a discussion entirely among ourselves there is no risk in a light handling of our own ideas (Plotinus, Enneads III.8, ch. 1, MacKenna tr., p. 239).

Thus begins Plotinus’ great essay that we know by the title “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”. The remainder of the text suggests that he is in fact fairly serious in what he suggests, but this disclaimer shows that he recognizes its unusual character. He does at a later point say in effect, “and now for the serious part”. In the “playful” part, he is deliberately stretching the meaning of contemplation, challenging us to apply it in many more cases than we would expect. In the “serious” part, he narrows the meaning to cases that come close to instantiating the identity Aristotle speaks of between thought and what it thinks.

Scholars believe this essay was part of Plotinus’ single largest work, which his student and editor Porphyry divided into four separate pieces, including “On the Intellectual Beauty” and “Against the Gnostics”. I wanted to compare what he says about contemplation with what Aristotle says. I find that even when I don’t agree with Plotinus, his work often has a kind of poetic appeal.

Aristotle speaks of contemplation as the characteristic activity of the gods, and as the ultimate end of human life. Plotinus here suggests that all nature aims at contemplation. Aristotle never says that, but it is in a way implicit between the lines. If the first cause is characterized by pure contemplation, and is the ultimate end behind all particular ends for which things do what they do, then in that sense all things aim at contemplation.

The characterization of contemplation as “Vision” is not one I would want to endorse in an Aristotelian context, at least without major qualification. The way Plotinus speaks of it, this Vision seems like a case of what Kant would call intellectual intuition — a kind of immediate grasping of some deep content.

I agree with Kant and Hegel that humans can “immediately” grasp deep content in holistic fashion only after and because we have previously done the work needed to understand it, which typically involves what Aristotle calls “thinking things through”, and what I have called interpretation and (after Paul Ricoeur) the long detour. I want to read Aristotle in a way that is compatible with this.

As it stands, Plotinus’ notion of Vision seems designed to exclude mediation, consonant with his emphasis on the simplicity of the One as the source of all things. For Plotinus, Vision is an immediate holistic “seeing” of deep truth.

I think Aristotelian contemplation is holistic too, but that any holistic Vision or immediate intuition achievable by humans and acceptable to Aristotle must have a cumulative, retrospective, reflective character that depends on previous insight and work, like apperception does in Kant and Hegel. I would suggest that Aristotelian contemplation could be elaborated as apperceptive entelechy.

“Well — in the play of this very moment am I engaged in the act of Contemplation? Yes; I and all that enter this play are in Contemplation: our play aims at Vision; and there is every reason to believe that child or man, in sport or earnest, is playing or working only towards Vision, that every act is an effort towards Vision; the compulsory act, which tends rather to bring the Vision down to outward things, and the act thought of as voluntary, less concerned with the outer, originate alike in the effort towards Vision” (ibid).

Here we begin to see in detail the vast extension of contemplation Plotinus is “playfully” suggesting. All things either are contemplation or aim at contemplation. In effect, he is treating Vision as a name for the Good at which all things aim.

“[L]et us speak, first, of the earth and of the trees and vegetation in general, asking ourselves what is the nature of the Contemplation in them, how we relate to any Contemplative activity the labor and productiveness of the earth, how Nature, held to be devoid of reason and even of conscious representation, can either harbour Contemplation or produce by means of the Contemplation which it does not possess” (ibid).

For Aristotle, the earth has a nature or internal source of motion, and plants as living things have an elementary kind of soul corresponding to their abilities for growth and nutrition. But even motion is a primitive kind of entelechy, of which contemplation is the highest form. Aristotle may not see contemplation everywhere, but he does see entelechy everywhere.

Incidentally, the English word “consciousness” was first coined by Locke’s friend, the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, to express ideas he found in Plotinus.

“To begin with, since in all [Nature’s] production it is stationary and intact, a Reason-Principle [logos] self-indwelling, it is in its own nature a Contemplative act. All doing must be guided by an Idea, and will therefore be distinct from that Idea: the Reason-Principle then, as accompanying and guiding the work, will be distinct from the work; not being action but Reason-Principle it is, necessarily, Contemplation” (ch. 3, p. 240).

Plotinus generally seems to use logos in a sense that is derived from Stoicism, rather than any Platonic or Aristotelian source. Logos is a — arguably the — fundamental explanatory principle in Stoicism. It has relations with Platonic and Aristotelian concepts, but is a distinct notion or family of notions in its own right. For the Stoics, everything has an indwelling logos or rational principle that internally governs it, and the logos has a divine origin.

“And does this Reason-Principle, Nature, spring from a contemplation? Wholly and solely” (ibid).

He doesn’t explain this, but instead proceeds to qualify it.

“The Contemplation springing from the reasoning faculty — that, I mean, of planning its own content — [Nature] does not possess” (p. 241).

Nature neither reasons explicitly, nor plans how to achieve its aims.

“Because to plan for a thing is to lack it: Nature does not lack; it creates because it possesses. Its creative act is simply its possession of its own characteristic Essence; now its Essence, since it is a Reason-Principle, is to be at once an act of contemplation and an object of contemplation” (ibid).

The idea of starting from fullness rather than lack is appealing. Aristotle’s way of doing this is to emphasize entelechies everywhere. Every entelechy is in a way complete in itself.

Aristotle complements this by saying that the living things that have natures are more immediately moved by desire. Plato, however, strongly identifies desire with a kind of lack. Plotinus therefore seems to want to downplay the role of desire, and identifies nature with the fullness of a creative act. If this is not the creativity of the translator, we have here a reference to creation, as distinct from making. Creation is also not part of Platonic or Aristotelian vocabulary.

Plotinus is said to have read works by Numenius, a Neo-Pythagorean who was impressed by the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. I don’t have my Loeb edition handy to check the Greek. (Incidentally, Armstrong’s complete translation of Plotinus in the Loeb edition is more accurate and less flowery than the more common MacKenna I am using here. Kevin Corrigan’s translation in his Reading Plotinus is also better, but I don’t have that handy either.)

The “act” part seems to be a reference to actuality or being-at-work. This is also an important concept for Plotinus, though in contrast to Aristotle he ultimately subordinates it to potentiality.

“Thus the act of production is seen to be in Nature an act of contemplation, for creation is the outcome of a contemplation which never becomes anything else, which never does anything else, but creates by simply being a contemplation” (ibid).

Aristotle makes the more specific claim that the what-it-is of things is the outcome of thought thinking itself that contemplates. He would not collapse this together as Plotinus does, into a claim that nature’s act of production is an act of contemplation.

“[W]hat we know as Nature is a Soul, offspring of a yet earlier Soul of more powerful life; that it possesses, therefore, in its repose, a vision within itself; that it has no tendency upward nor even downward but is at peace, steadfast, in its own Essence;” (ch. 4, p. 241).

Aristotle calls nature an internal source of motion, but not a soul (psyche). On the other hand, the things he regards as having a nature (plants and animals) he also regards as having a soul. But the notions of soul in Aristotle and Plotinus are also vastly different. While Aristotle is careful to stay close to what can be observed by anyone, Plotinus makes the soul a much grander thing with much stronger properties.

“Of course, while it may be convenient to speak of ‘understanding’ or ‘perception’ in the Nature-Principle, this is not in the full sense…; we are applying to sleep a word borrowed from the wake” (pp. 241-242).

Here he acknowledges he is stretching things.

“In the same way, human beings, when weak on the side of contemplation, find in action their trace of vision and of reason: their spiritual feebleness unfits them for contemplation; they are left with a void, because they cannot adequately seize the vision; yet they long for it; they are hurried into action as their way to the vision which they cannot attain by intellection. They act from the desire of seeing their action, and of making it visible and sensible to others when the result shall prove fairly well equal to the plan. Everywhere, doing and making will be found to be either an attenuation or a complement of vision” (p. 242).

Long ago, I was profoundly impressed by this argument that all action aims at contemplation, which he returns to further on. Looking at it now, it strikes me that this thesis may be implicitly counterposed to Aristotle’s idea of the priority of actuality, which, as we will see, Plotinus does not agree with. Aristotle also would never be so one-sidedly dismissive of doing and making, even though he agrees that contemplation is “even more” to be valued.

“The primal phase of the Soul — inhabitant of the Supreme… — remains unchangeably There; but in virtue of that first participation, … a secondary phase also participates in the Supreme, and this secondary goes forth ceaselessly as Life streaming from Life; for energy runs through the universe and there is no extremity at which it dwindles out” (ch. 5, p. 242).

“Energy” here is actuality or being-at-work, now explicitly associated with something secondary.

“All goes softly since nothing here demands the parade of thought or act upon external things: it is a Soul in vision and, by this vision, creating its own subsequent — this Principle (of Nature), itself also contemplative but in the feebler degree… a Vision creates the Vision ” (p. 243).

The implicit complaint against the “parade of thought” has to do with Plotinus’ strong bias for intuitive immediacy over what Aristotle would call “thinking things through”. I think Plotinus is perhaps the best proponent of this view that I disagree with — certainly better than the followers of Schelling and Jacobi who attacked Hegel.

“[T]his explains how the Soul’s creation is everywhere: where can this thing fail to be, which is one identical thing in every soul? Vision is not cabined within the bournes of magnitude.”

In Plotinus’ modified Platonic view, Soul is not just the form of a living body, but plays a huge role in the formation and governance of the world. There is a soul of the world or soul of the all; nature is a kind of soul; and there is a transcendent Soul that is Nature’s prior. Every individual soul has a direct connection to the transcendent Soul.

“This, of course, does not mean that the Soul is present at the same strength in each and every place and thing — any more than it is at the same strength in each of its phases.”

“The Charioteer (the Leading Principle of the Soul, in the Phaedrus myth) gives the two horses (its two dissonant faculties) what he has seen and they, taking that gift, showed that they were hungry for that vision; there was something lacking to them: if in their desire they acted, their action aimed at what they craved for — and that was vision, and an object of vision” (ibid).

Here he refers to imagery from Plato’s Phaedrus, while re-centering the myth around his own notion of Vision. He again dwells on the superiority of contemplation to action.

“Action, thus, is set towards contemplation and an object of contemplation, so that even those whose life is in doing have seeing as their object” (ch. 6, p. 243).

“[T]hey desired a certain thing to come about, not in order to be unaware of it but to know it, to see it present before the mind…. We act for the sake of some good; this means not for something to remain outside of ourselves, not in order that we may possess nothing but that we may hold the good of the action. And hold it, where? Where but in the mind?” (ibid).

“This vision achieved, the acting instinct pauses; the mind is satisfied and seeks nothing further” (p. 244).

Aristotle would agree that a maximally complete entelechy like contemplation is in a way better than any incomplete entelechy, such as would be associated with action. Even so, his emphasis on the priority of actuality leads to a much more positive valuation of acting, doing, and making. Also, for Aristotle contemplation is a being-at-work. And I at least also think of it as a particular kind of acting and doing, even though it is different from external acting and doing.

“[N]ow we come to the serious treatment of the subject — In proportion to the truth with which the knowing faculty knows, it comes to identification with the object of its knowledge” (ibid).

What he says here about knowledge resembles the Aristotelian identity of thought and the thing thought, broadened to include a kind of proportional applicability. On the other hand, Aristotle seems to view knowledge as a discrete relation, which if taken strictly would seem to rule out any kind of proportional applicability or approximation.

“Hence the Idea must not be left to lie outside but must be made one identical thing with the Soul of the novice so that he finds it really his own. The Soul, once domiciled within that Idea and brought to likeness to it, becomes productive, active; what it always held by its primary nature it now grasps with knowledge and applies in deed, so becoming, as it were, a new thing and, informed as it now is by the purely intellectual, it sees (in its outgoing act) as a stranger looking upon a strange world” (ibid).

Though the strong implications of Soul and the initiatory rhetoric are distinctive to Plotinus, what is really essential here is that “the Idea must not be left to lie outside”. Aristotle and Hegel would both wholeheartedly endorse this part.

“The Sage, then, has gone through a process of reasoning when he expounds his act to others; but in relation to himself he is Vision” (ibid).

Plotinus has a much more individualist point of view than Aristotle. For him we are ultimately each “alone with the Alone”. A direct personal relation to the One makes all human social relations seem insignificant by comparison. For Aristotle, participation in social relations is essential to being human, and this is a good thing, not just a distraction from personal spiritual development.

“All the forms of Authentic Existence spring from vision and are a vision. Everything that springs from these Authentic Existences in their vision is an object of vision — manifest to sensation or to true knowledge or to surface-awareness. All act aims at this knowing; all impulse is toward knowledge” (ch. 7, p. 245).

Now in the “serious” part, he repeats what was initially supposed to be the “playful” claim that all things either are contemplation or are oriented toward it.

“[T]he creating powers operate not for the sake of creation and action but in order to produce an object of vision. This same vision is the ultimate purpose of all the acts of the mind and, even further downward, of all sensation, since sensation also is an effort towards knowledge; lower still, Nature, producing similarly its subsequent principle, brings into being the vision and Idea that we know in it. It is certain, also, that as the Firsts exist in vision all other things must be straining towards the same condition; the starting point is, universally, the goal” (ibid).

Aristotle would never speak of “creating powers”. While he certainly recognizes distinctions between immediate, intermediate, and ultimate ends, he would also never deny that what a thing essentially does is its end.

“[T]he procreative act is the expression of a contemplation, a travail towards the creation of many forms, many objects of contemplation, so that the universe may be filled full of Reason-Principles and that contemplation may be, as nearly as possible, endless…. So Love, too, is vision with the pursuit of Ideal-Form” (ibid).

Again this has a kind of poetic charm, but taking it literally relies on a collapsing of distinctions.

“In the advancing stages of Contemplation rising from that in Nature, to that in the Soul and thence again to that in the Intellectual-Principle itself, the object contemplated becomes progressively a more and more intimate possession of the Contemplating Beings, more and more one with them” (ch. 8, p. 245).

Here he returns to what we know from Aristotle as the strict identity of pure thought and what it thinks. As before, he wants to first greatly generalize and then to relativize it.

“[I]n the Intellectual-Principle itself, there is complete identity of Knower and Known, and this not by way of domiciliation, as in the case of even the highest soul, but by Essence, by the fact that, there, no distinction exists between Being and Knowing” (ibid).

Aristotle would agree.

“The Supreme must be an entity in which the two are one; it will, therefore, be a Seeing that lives, not an object of vision like things existing in something other than themselves” (pp. 245-246).

The Supreme in Plotinus is a name for the One. Aristotle’s first cause is identified with thought thinking itself, more or less equivalent to the Intellectual-Principle here. Plotinus is clearly not satisfied with Aristotle’s first cause, and posits the One above it. Aristotle in the Metaphysics argues at length why we should not follow the Pythagoreans and Plato in regarding the One as a source or cause.

“Every life is some form of thought…. But while men may recognize grades in life they reject grades in thought; to them there are thoughts (full and perfect) and anything else is no thought” (p. 246).

This is an important point. The thoughts that we embodied beings have in ordinary life are far from “full and perfect”, but we tend to act as though they were full and perfect.

“The essential is to observe that, here again, all reasoning shows that whatever exists is a bye-work [sic] of visioning” (ibid).

Once again, for Plotinus the immediate whole of the One is the complete source of everything. By contrast, Aristotle complements his account of the dependency of all things on the first cause by insisting that everything also depends on particular causes.

“The Highest began as a unity but did not remain as it began; all unknown to itself, it became manifold; it grew, as it were, pregnant: desiring universal possession, it flung itself outward, though it were better had it never known the desire by which a Secondary came into being…. The Whence is better; the Whither is less good: the Whence is not the same as the Whence-followed-by-a-Whither; the Whence alone is greater than with the Whither added to it” (ibid).

Overall, Plotinus seems to be conflicted about the goodness of manifestation and actualization. There are many texts like “On the Intellectual Beauty” that seem to present these in a positive light, and he sharply criticizes the Gnostics for their negative views of life in the world. But here he repeats in three different wordings that the One shut up within itself is better than the One complemented by a world.

For Aristotle, manifestation and actualization as such are unequivocally good, even if some true facts are not good. For Aristotle — in diametrical contrast to Plotinus here — the highest good should be called not a Whence but a Whither, the ultimate end of all things, that-for-the-sake-of-which. The first cause is a pure end.

“If, then, neither the Intellectual-Principle nor the Intelligible Object can be the First Existent, what is? Our answer can only be: The source of both…. Yet: our knowledge of everything else comes by way of our intelligence; our power is that of knowing the intelligible by means of the intelligence: but this Entity transcends all of the intellectual nature; by what direct intuition, then, can it be brought within our grasp?” (ch. 9, p. 247).

Here and below, Plotinus seems to refer to the One as a Being. In other texts, he says that the One is beyond being, and associates being with intellect. Even here, he associates all knowledge with intellect (the One would be beyond knowledge).

“To this question the answer is that we can know it only in the degree of human faculty: we indicate it by virtue of what in ourselves is like it. For in us, also, there is something of that Being; nay, nothing, ripe for that participation, can be void of it. Wherever you be, you have only to range over against this omnipresent Being that in you which is capable of drawing from It, and you have your share in it” (pp. 247-248).

Now he uses “knowledge” in a much looser way than above. The idea that what is highest is not entirely inaccessible to us is appealing.

“The Intellectual-Principle in us must mount to its origins: essentially a thing facing two ways, it must deliver itself over to those powers within it which tend upward; if it seeks the vision of that Being, it must become something more than Intellect.”

Elsewhere, Plotinus seems to suggest that if each thing “turns upward” toward what is above it and away from what is below, that which is below it will spontaneously carry on in the best possible way — i.e., better than if we were more actively looking down into it and intervening in it. Very different presentation notwithstanding, this always reminded me of the Tao Te Ching‘s idea of getting things done in the best possible way by “non-action”.

“For the Intellectual-Principle is the earliest form of Life: it is the Activity presiding over the outflowing of the universal Order — the outflow, that is, of the first moment, not that of the continuous process” (p. 248).

He identifies neither intellect nor the the One with the whole of things.

“[I]t must of necessity derive from some other Being, from one that does not emanate but is the Principle of Emanation, of Life, of Intellect, and of the Universe…. [T]his can be no thing among things but must be prior to all things” (ibid).

The One is not a “thing” at all. For Aristotle, the first cause is a particular thing that is prior in nature to all other things. To be a being in the proper sense is to be a particular independent thing.

“And what will such a Principle essentially be? The potentiality of the Universe: the potentiality whose non-existence would mean the non-existence of all the Universe and even of the Intellectual-Principle which is the primal Life and all Life” (ch. 10, p. 248).

Here he makes the potentiality of the One prior to any actuality. Aristotle would strenuously object to this.

“Imagine a spring that has no source outside itself; it gives itself to all the rivers, yet is never exhausted by what they take, but remains always integrally what it was…. Or: think of the Life coursing throughout some mighty tree… it is the giver of the entire and manifold life of the tree, but remains unmoved in itself” (p. 249).

This image of something that constantly gives and never needs anything is powerful. Plotinus radicalizes and generalizes Aristotle’s notion of unmoved moving, making it a complete cause of things, which Aristotle never claimed it was.

“Thus we are always brought back to The One. Every particular thing has a One of its own to which it may be traced; the All has its One, its Prior but not yet the Absolute One; through this we reach that Absolute One, where all such references come to an end. Now when we reach a One — the stationary Principle — in the tree, in the animal, in Soul, in the All — we have in every case the most powerful, precious element: when we come to the One in Authentically Existent Beings — their Principle and source and potentiality — shall we lose confidence and suspect it of being — nothing?” (ibid).

I probably should go back to the Metaphysics, and pull out Aristotle’s discussions of oneness and the Pythagorean-Platonic claims that the One is something separate. I think he pretty conclusively shows that claims for a separate One are incoherent.

“Certainly, this Absolute is none of the things of which it is the source — its nature is that nothing can be affirmed of it — not existence, not essence, not life — since it is That which transcends all these. But possess yourself of it by the very elimination of Being and you hold a marvel. Thrusting forward to This, attaining, and resting in its content, seek to grasp it more and more — understanding it by that intuitive thrust alone, but knowing its greatness by the Beings that follow upon it and exist by its power” (ibid).

This seems like his more standard position that the One is not a Being. It also at least suggests the very useful approach of understanding a cause or a higher thing by examining what follows from it. But the extent to which Plotinus puts this into practice is limited.

“The Intellectual-Principle is a Seeing, and a Seeing which itself sees; therefore it is a potentiality which has become effective…. All actual seeing implies duality; before the seeing takes place there is the pure unity (of the power of seeing)” (ch. 11, p. 249).

The assertion that all seeing — and implicitly, all knowing — implies duality suggests a denial of Aristotle’s thesis that pure thought is simply identical with what it thinks. But again there is a mismatch that could also allow for doubt. Where Aristotle speaks of thinking, Plotinus speaks of seeing, and of knowing in some broad sense. For Aristotle, thinking and knowing are primarily discursive; for Plotinus, they are primarily intuitive.

“Now as our sight requires the world of sense for its satisfaction and realization, so the vision in the Intellectual-Principle demands, for its completion, The Good” (pp. 249-250).

Here he implicitly rejects Aristotle’s identification of thought thinking itself with the good. In modern terms, we are back to the model of the duality of consciousness of an object that is not Aristotle’s, and that Hegel strove mightily to overcome in favor of a more Aristotelian solution.

“It cannot be, itself, The Good, since then it would not need to see or to perform any other Act; for The Good is the center of all else, and it is by means of The Good that every thing has Act, while The Good is in need of nothing and therefore possesses nothing beyond itself” (p. 250).

For Plotinus, intellect sees and acts, while the One or The Good is above all that. For Aristotle, pure intellect is a pure entelechy that is also the the ultimate good for all things. Whether or not we say that it sees and acts depends on the meaning we attribute to seeing and acting.

“Once you have uttered ‘The Good’, add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency. Do not even say that it has Intellection; you would be dividing it; it would become a duality, Intellect and The Good” (ibid).

“[W]e form a conception of its true character from its image playing upon the Intellectual-Principle (ibid).

“[A]ll the striving is on the side of the Intellect, which is the eternal striver and eternally the attainer (ibid).

For Aristotle, intellect is an entelechy, which I think would be exempt from “striving”. It is composite things that do the striving.

“The Source of all this cannot be an Intellect…. [T]here is That before them which neither needs nor possesses anything, since, needing or possessing anything else, it would not be what it is — The Good” (ibid).

Once again, Aristotle does not claim that his first cause is the “Source of all this”. Rather, it is the destination of all this.

The Goal of Human Life

Book X of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is concerned with the ultimate goal of human life. Things said here about the key undefined terms of “intellect” and “contemplation” provide important background for what is said about them in book Lambda of the Metaphysics.

He begins with a discussion of pleasure. “For some people say that pleasure is the good, while others at the opposite extreme say it is completely base, some of them perhaps being convinced that it is that way, but others believing that it is better for our life to make pleasure appear to be something base, even if it is not, on the grounds that most people are heavily inclined toward it and are enslaved to their pleasures” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 181).

First, he suggests that it is not pleasure in its own right that is base, but a kind of enslavement to its pursuit.

Still referring to those who say pleasure is base, he continues, “But it may well be that this is not a good thing to say. For words that concern things in the realm of feelings and actions are less believable than deeds are…. For if someone who condemns pleasure is seen sometimes going after it, he seems to incline toward it because all of it is good, since making distinctions is not something that most people do. So true statements seem to be the most useful ones, not only for knowing but also for life; for since they are in tune with one’s deeds they are believed, and they encourage those who understand them to live by them” (ibid).

Saying that words are less believable than deeds expresses in very simple language the same point for which I have repeatedly cited Robert Pippin’s account of the ethical consequences of the Aristotelian priority of actuality in Hegel.

In passing, Aristotle observes that most humans over-generalize, whereas the philosopher is careful to make distinctions.

“Now Eudoxus believed that pleasure is the good, because one sees that all beings, both rational and irrational, aim at it, while in all things what is choiceworthy is good and what is most choiceworthy is best; so the fact that all things are carried to the same goal reveals that this is the best thing for them all (for each thing discovers what is good for itself, just as it discovers its food), and what is good for all things, and at which all things aim, is the good. His arguments were convincing on account of the virtue of his character, more than on their own account, since he seemed to be an exceptionally temperate man, so that he seemed to be saying these things not as a lover of pleasure but because that is the way things are in truth” (ch. 2, p. 181).

Here Aristotle again concretely applies the priority of actuality or being-at-work. In disputed ethical matters, the character of the speaker as observable by others in her deeds often has even greater importance than the quality of the speaker’s arguments.

“But what is most choiceworthy is what we choose neither on account of anything else nor for the sake of anything else; and such, by general agreement, is pleasure, since no one asks for what purpose one feels pleasure, because pleasure is chosen for itself. And when pleasure is added to any good thing whatever, such as acting justly or being temperate, it makes it more choiceworthy, but it is by itself that the good is augmented.”

It is always a key distinction for Aristotle whether something is chosen for its own sake or for the sake of something else.

“But surely the latter argument, at any rate, seems to show that pleasure is among the things that are good, but no more so than any other, since every one of them is more choiceworthy along with another good thing than when it is alone. Indeed, Plato argues in rebuttal by that sort of argument that pleasure is not the good, since a pleasant life is more choiceworthy along with intelligence than apart from it, but if the mixture is better, then pleasure is not the good, for the good does not become more choiceworthy when something is added to it. And it is clear that nothing else that becomes more choiceworthy along with any of the things that are good in themselves would be the good either” (pp. 181-182).

With the help of Plato, he leads us through a dialectical reversal of the apparent endorsement of Eudoxus’ position above. This last argument about pleasure holds true for any particular good, and therefore does not suffice to establish that pleasure is the good in an unqualified sense. We need to distinguish between any particular end that may be sought and the good in its own right, which he also calls beautiful.

He continues, “But what is of that sort, that we have any share in? For that is the sort of thing being sought. On the other hand, those who argue in opposition that what all things aim at is not good are not saying anything; for those things that seem so to all people, we declare to be so, and someone who destroys that trust will not very likely say anything that is more to be trusted” (p. 182).

Those who argue that what all things aim at is not the good are “not saying anything”. Here he seems to make two separate points. First, by calling this “not saying anything”, he implies that a denial that all things aim at the good ought to be considered as leading to debilitating incoherence. Such a denial does not just contradict the contrary view shared by Eudoxus and Plato, that the good (whatever else it may be) is that at which all things aim. What supports the view of Eudoxus and Plato is the possibility of mutual articulation and clarification between the what-it-is of the good and the what-it-is of the aims of things. The contrary view rejects that correlation, and offers nothing in its place to support articulation and clarification. In that way, it undermines intelligibility and discourse. This is not a proof that all things aim at the good, only a rationally persuasive argument.

Second, he claims that people in general — or what we might call common sense — in fact presuppose the correlation between the good and aims posited by Eudoxus and Plato. Again, this is only a rationally persuasive argument, not a proof.

He continues, “For if it were only things without intelligence that desire pleasant things, there would be something in what they say, but if beings with judgment desire them as well, how could they be saying anything? And perhaps even in the lower animals there is something naturally good that is stronger than they themselves are, that aims at their proper good” (ibid).

Here he tacitly equates intelligence with good judgment. Most things in life cannot be adequately dealt with using only logical reasoning from what can be known in a strict sense. In animals that do not have the ability to deliberate and make judgments of what ought to be done, he suggests that their nature as their indwelling source of motion takes the place of judgment.

“Nor is it the case that, if pleasure is not classed among the qualities, it is for that reason not among good things either; for the ways of being-at-work that belong to virtue are not qualities, and neither is happiness” (ch. 3, p. 182).

Pleasure, virtue, and happiness are not simple qualities. As was said more generally about states of things in the Physics, they involve complex relations.

“To those who bring up pleasures that are matters of reproach, one might say that these are not pleasant (for just because they are pleasurable to people who are in a bad condition, one ought not to suppose that they would also be pleasant to anyone except these…), … or else pleasures differ in kind, for the ones that come from beautiful things are different from the ones that come from shameful things, for it is not possible to feel the pleasure that comes from something just without being a just person, or the pleasure that comes from something musical without being a musical person, and similarly in the other cases. And the fact that a friend is different from a flatterer seems to make it clear that pleasure is either not good or varies in kind” (p. 184).

He concludes, “It seems to be clear, then, that pleasure is not the good and that not every pleasure is choiceworthy, and that there are some pleasures that are choiceworthy in themselves, differing in kind or in the things they come from” (ibid).

Pleasure is not the good, but pleasures associated with that he calls “beautiful” things, which are those that are good in their own right, are nonetheless choiceworthy in their own right.

“Now the activity of seeing seems to be complete over any time whatever, for there is nothing it lacks which would complete its form by coming about at a later time; pleasure too is like something of this sort. For it is something whole, and there is no time at which one could take a pleasure, the form of which would become complete after it went on for a longer time. Hence pleasure is not a motion…. But all the motions that are in parts of time are incomplete, and are different in form from the whole and from one another. For setting stones together is different from making grooves in a column, and these motions differ from the making of a temple; the making of the temple is something complete (for it is lacking in nothing in relation to what was intended), but the making of the foundation or of a decorative tablet is incomplete, since each of these is the making of a part. They are different in form, then, and it is not possible to find a motion complete in its form in any time whatever except in the whole” (ch. 4, pp. 184-185).

“But the form of a pleasure is complete in any time whatever…. [I]t is not possible to be in motion except in a stretch of time, but it is possible to feel pleasure, for what is in the now is something whole” (p. 185).

Pleasure, like seeing, is its own entelechy (something complete in itself), and not a motion. In the Physics, he treats the continuity of any given motion as itself a kind of imperfect entelechy, but here he emphasizes the contrast between motion and any more perfect entelechy.

“Now since every one of the senses is at work in relation to something perceptible, and is completely at work when it is in its best condition and directed toward the most beautiful of the things perceptible by that sense (for it seems that its complete being-at-work is of this sort most of all, and let it make no difference to speak of the sense itself, or of the organ in which it is present, as being-at-work), for each sense, that way of being-at-work is best that belongs to what is in its best condition, directed toward the best of what is perceptible by it. This would be most complete and most pleasant” (p. 186).

It is common to hear claims that perception for Aristotle is unequivocally passive. It does have a passive aspect that he emphasizes in On the Soul. But here he emphasizes that all perception is a being-at-work or actuality, and thus also an entelechy, by way of his identification of actuality with entelechy.

“[F]or there is a pleasure that goes with each of the senses, and similarly with thinking and contemplation, and its most complete activity is most pleasant, and it is most complete when it belongs to a power that is in good condition directed toward that which is of most serious worth among the things apprehended by it, and the pleasure brings the activity to completion” (ibid).

The greatest pleasure accompanies the most complete entelechy. This also applies to the first cause, which he conceives as an entelechy that is complete in an unqualified sense.

“When the thing perceiving and the thing perceived are at their best, there will always be pleasure when what acts and what is acted upon are present to one another. But the pleasure brings the activity to completion not as an active condition present within it all along, but as something that comes over it, like the bloom of well-being in people who are at the peak of their powers” (ibid).

Pleasure follows from the fulfillment of nature. But it is something that supervenes on that fulfillment.

“So as long as the intelligible or perceptible thing, and the power that discerns or contemplates it, are such as they ought to be, there will be pleasure in their being-at-work, for while the thing acted upon and the thing acting remain as they are and have the same relation to one another, the same thing comes about…. [But] it is impossible for anything belonging to human beings to be at-work continuously” (p. 187).

Being-at-work and entelechy inherently generate pleasure.

“But one might assume that all beings reach out for pleasure because they all desire to live. Life is a certain kind of being-at-work…. The pleasure brings the activities to completion and hence brings living to completion, which is what they all strive for…. For without being-at-work, no pleasure comes about, and pleasure brings every way of being-at-work to completion” (ibid).

All life is being-at-work and entelechy. There is no genuine pleasure apart from these.

“[W]ays of being-at-work that are different in kind are brought to completion by means that differ in kind…. [E]ach of the pleasures is bound up with the activity it completes, since the appropriate pleasure contributes to the growth of the activity. For those who are at-work with pleasure discern each sort of thing better and are more precise about it” (pp. 187-188).

To be at-work and to feel pleasure in it makes us better at whatever we are doing.

“Now since ways of being-at-work differ in decency and baseness, and since some are to be chosen, others are to be avoided, and still others are neutral, their pleasures also differ similarly, since a special pleasure goes with each activity. The special pleasure in an activity of serious worth is decent, and the special pleasure in a base activity is corrupt” (p. 188).

Here he distinguishes what I above called “genuine” pleasure from spurious apparent pleasure associated with a corrupt nature.

“Decency” (epieikeia) means ethical sensitivity. More specifically, for Aristotle it is an attitude that tempers the strict application of rules or laws with kindness and charitable interpretation. Leibniz also emphasized this in his philosophy of jurisprudence. Ethics answers to a higher calling than mere rules or law. This doesn’t mean that all rules and law should be thrown out. It does mean that within reason, kindness and charity and attention to particulars should take precedence over the rigid application of rules.

“But in all such matters, it seems that a thing is what it shows itself to be to a person of serious moral stature. And if this is beautifully said, as it seems to be, then the measure of each thing is virtue, or a good person, insofar as he is good, and what appear to be pleasures to this person would be pleasures, and the things he enjoys will be pleasant. And if some things that are hard for this person to endure appear pleasant to someone, that is nothing to be wondered at, since many kinds of corruption and damage happen to human beings” (p. 189).

In the Metaphysics, Aristotle interprets Protagoras’ “Man is the measure of all things” as a subjectivism that undermines any possibility of discourse. Here is Aristotle’s positive alternative: the virtue of a good person is the measure of all things. Intelligibility depends on normativity.

“[B]ut among the pleasures that seem to be decent, which sort or which one ought one to say is that of a human being? Or is this clear from the ways of being-at-work, since the pleasures follow upon these? So if there is one or more than one activity belonging to the man who is fulfilled and blessed, the pleasures that bring them to completion should be spoken of, in the governing sense, as the pleasures of a human being, while the rest are pleasures in a secondary and greatly diminished sense, corresponding to their activities” (pp. 189-190).

The highest pleasure of a human being will turn out to come from the entelechy of contemplative intellect.

“Now that the things having to do with the virtues, with friendships, and with pleasures have been discussed, what remains is to go through in outline what has to do with happiness, since we set this down as the end at which human beings aim. And the account of it would be shorter for those who take up again what has been said before” (ch. 6, p. 190).

The virtues and friendship are discussed in earlier books of the Ethics. Now he turns from pleasure to eudaimonia or “happiness”, which for Aristotle is a condition to be judged objectively, and not a subjective feeling.

“[O]ne ought… to place happiness in some form of being-at-work…. [O]ne ought to place happiness among those that are chosen for their own sake and not among those that are for the sake of something else, since happiness stands in need of nothing but is self-sufficient. And those activities are chosen for their own sake from which nothing is sought beyond the being-at-work; and actions in accord with virtue seem to be of this sort, since performing actions that are beautiful and serious is something chosen for its own sake” (ch. 6, p. 190).

Happiness comes from a substantial engagement in activities chosen for their own sake. No human gets to do this exclusively, but we do have the ability to choose some things only for their own sake.

“Even children believe that the things valued by themselves are the best things. So it is reasonable that, just as different things appear worthwhile to children and to men, so too do different things appear worthwhile to people of a low sort and to decent people…. [T]o each person, the way of being-at-work that results from his own active condition is the most choiceworthy, and to a person of serious worth that is the activity that results from virtue” (pp. 190-191).

At a certain level, we cannot avoid dealing with apparent goods. The way he approaches these is to focus on what seems good to fundamentally kind, reasonable people who take ethics seriously.

“But to be earnest and to labor for the sake of play seems foolish and too childish. But to play in order to be serious… seems to be right, since play seems like relaxation, and since people are incapable of laboring continuously, they need relaxation. So relaxation is not the end, since it comes about for the sake of being-at-work. And the happy life seems to be in accord with virtue, and this involves seriousness and does not consist in play” (p. 191).

He argues against the shallow association of happiness with play. Seriousness means not a dour attitude, but caring about what is reasonable and ethical.

“But if happiness is being-at-work in accord with virtue, it is reasonable that it would be in accord with the most powerful virtue, and this would belong to the best part. Now whether this is intellect or some other part that seems by nature to rule and lead and have a conception about things that are beautiful and divine, and to be either divine itself or the most divine of the things that are in us, the being-at-work of this part in accord with its own proper virtue would be complete happiness. That this way of being-at-work is contemplative has been said. And this would seem to be in agreement with the things said before and with the truth. For this way of being-at-work is the most powerful (since the intellect is the most powerful of the things in us, and the things with which the intellect is concerned are the most powerful of the things that can be known); it is also the most continuous, for we are more able to contemplate continuously than to act in any way whatever” (ch. 7, pp. 191-192).

This helps fill out what is said about the nature of the first cause in book Lambda of the Metaphysics. I think it tends to support the identification of contemplation with thought thinking itself.

“And we believe that pleasure must be mixed in with happiness, and by general agreement the most pleasant of the ways of being-at-work in accord with virtue is that which goes along with wisdom; at any rate, philosophy seems to have pleasures that are wonderful in their purity and stability…. And what is referred to as self-sufficiency would be present most of all in the contemplative life, for… the wise person is able to contemplate even when he is by himself, and more so to the extent that he is more wise. He will contemplate better, no doubt, when he has people to work with, but he is still the most self-sufficient person” (p. 192).

The highest pleasure is being-at-work in accordance with wisdom. Contemplation is more complete in itself (more of an entelechy) than anything else.

“And contemplation seems to be the only activity that is loved for its own sake, for nothing comes to be from it beyond the contemplating, while from things involving action we gain something for ourselves, to a greater or lesser extent, beyond the action” (ibid).

Contemplating is distinguished from the kind of acting that is the official concern of practical judgment (phronesis), as well as from any kind of making. For Aristotle, it is a more pure example of being-at-work than acting or making.

“So if, among actions in accord with the virtues, those that pertain to politics and war are pre-eminent in beauty and magnitude, but they are unleisured and aim at some end and are chosen not for their own sake, while the being-at-work of the intellect seems to excel in seriousness, and to be contemplative and aim at no end beyond itself, and to have its own pleasure (which increases its activity), so that what is as self-sufficient, leisured, and unwearied as possible for a human being, and all the other things that are attributed to a blessed person, show themselves as the things that result from this way of being-at-work, then this would be the complete happiness of a human being, if it takes in a complete span of life, for none of the things that belong to happiness is incomplete” (pp. 192-193).

For Aristotle, happiness or its absence is a characteristic of a whole life viewed in its completion.

“But such a life would be greater than what accords with a human being, for it is not insofar as one is a human being that he will live in this way, but insofar as something divine is present in him, and to the extent that this surpasses the compound being, to that extent also the being-at-work of it surpasses that which results from the rest of virtue” (p. 193).

Intellect “surpasses the compound being”. Once again, this suggests that for Aristotle, intellect is more than just a part of the soul that is a constituent of that compound.

“So if intellect is something divine as compared with a human being, the life that is in accord with intellect is divine as compared with a human life. But one should not follow those who advise us to think human thoughts, since we are human, and mortal thoughts, since we are mortal, but as far as possible one ought to be immortal and to do all things with a view toward living in accord with the most powerful thing in oneself, for even if it is small in bulk, it rises much more above everything else in power and worth. And each person would even seem to be this part, if it is the governing and better part” (ibid).

For Aristotle, intellect is immortal, although memory depends on the body. He is suggesting that we identify as much as we can with the immortal thing that both is within us and surpasses us. (See also Properly Human, More Than Human?.)

“[W]hat is appropriate by nature to each being is best and most pleasant for each, and so, for a human being, this is the life in accord with the intellect, if that most of all is a human being. Therefore this life is also the happiest” (ibid).

The same thing — intellect — that was said to be greater than what accords with an empirical human being, is now said to be “most of all” a human being in a non-empirical, normative sense.

“The life in accord with the rest of virtue is happy in a secondary way, since the activities that result from it are human ones…. Some of them even seem to derive from the body, and in many respects virtue of character is bound up together with our feelings. And practical judgment is linked together with virtue of character, and it with practical judgment, if the sources of practical judgment are dependent on virtues of character, while the right thing belonging to virtues of character is dependent upon practical judgment” (ch. 8, p. 193).

Here we have the source of claims that Aristotle regards practical judgment (phronesis) as distinctly inferior to contemplative intellect. This ought to be considered carefully.

It is true that practical judgement is inseparable from how we deal with our emotions, whereas he wants to say that intellect is not. But being inseparable from how we deal with our emotions need not at all imply being compulsively driven by the raw emotions we are dealing with. In passing, we feel all sorts of things that we do not act upon, because we judge that it would not really be appropriate to do so. We can have various degrees of detachment from things that we feel, even though we still feel them.

I want to say that there is a kind of contemplative, reflective, deliberative, interpretive judgment that is like practical judgment in that it is primarily concerned with particulars, but different in that its primary outcome is interpretation rather than action. I think that practical judgment about the right action could not function without relying on many interpretive judgments about relevant details, and indeed that such interpretive judgment is what does all the deliberative work in practical judgment, independent of whether that work results in action or not.

“But the happiness that belongs to the intellect is separate…. And it would seem to have little need of external props, or less than virtue of character has…. For the generous person will need money for performing generous acts…, and a courageous person will need strength, … and a temperate person will need opportunity” (p. 194).

He points out that the outcome of actions depends on circumstances. Contemplation has some minimal conditions too, but once those are met, its outcome does not depend on circumstances. But it is only the actions that have these additional dependencies on circumstance, not interpretive judgments as such.

“It is also a matter of dispute whether the choice or the actions are more determining of virtue, since it is present in both; it is clear that the completeness of it would consist in both together” (ibid).

Both intentions and outcomes are important for any normative appraisal of actions. Good intentions may warrant forgiveness for bad outcomes. But at the same time, deeds count more than words in the assessment of what someone’s intentions and values really were.

“[B]ut for the actions many things are needed, and more of them to the extent that the actions are of greater magnitude and more beautiful. But for someone who contemplates there is no need of such things for his being-at-work; rather, one might say that they get in the way of his contemplating. But insofar as he is a human being and lives in company with a number of people, he chooses to do the things that have to do with virtue, and thus will have need of such things in order to live a human life” (ibid).

A contemplative human being will almost always also be involved in non-contemplative actions and social interactions. For Aristotle, involvement in social relations is an essential aspect of what it is to be human.

“That complete happiness is a contemplative activity would also be made clear by the following consideration: we assume that the gods are most of all blessed and happy, but what sort of actions will it be right to attribute to them?… And for someone who goes through them all, it would be obvious that the things involved in actions are small and unworthy of the gods. But surely everyone supposes that they are alive at any rate, and are therefore at work…. But when someone who is living is deprived of acting, and still more of making anything, what remains except contemplation? So the being-at-work of a god, surpassing in blessedness, would be contemplative, and so among human activities, the one the most akin to this would be the most happy” (pp. 194-195).

Here he says that the being-at-work of a god is contemplation, and cites this as an additional reason why contemplation is the happiest human activity.

“For the gods, the whole of life is blessed, and for human beings it is so to the extent that there is in it some likeness to such a way of being-at-work…. But there will also be a need of external prosperity for one who is a human being, since nature is not self-sufficient for contemplating, but there is also a need for the body to be healthy and for food and other attentions to be present. But one certainly ought not to suppose that someone who is going to be happy will need many things or grand ones…; for self-sufficiency does not consist in excess any more than action does, and it is possible for one who is not a ruler of land and sea to perform beautiful actions. For one would be capable of acting in accord with virtue from moderate means (and it is possible to see this plainly, since private people seem to perform decent actions not less than powerful people but even more), and it is sufficient if that much is present, since the life of someone who is at-work in accord with virtue will be happy” (p. 195).

The happiness of a human life also has material prerequisites, but they are relatively modest. He suggests that the rich and powerful may be less virtuous and therefore less happy than others.

“And Anaxagoras, too, seems to have believed that the happy person is neither rich nor powerful, when he said it would be nothing to wonder at if such a person would appear strange to most people, since they judge by externals, perceiving these alone. So the opinions of the wise seem to be in harmony with our arguments” (ibid).

A person living a life that would ultimately be judged to be happy in the Aristotelian sense will have priorities that will appear strange to people who have no serious involvement with contemplation.

“Now such things have some trustworthiness, but the truth in matters of action is discerned from deeds and from life…. So we ought to examine the things that have been said by applying them to deeds and to life, and if they are in harmony with the deeds one ought to accept them, while if they are out of tune one ought to consider them just words” (pp. 195-196).

Having just cited the authority of a reputedly wise man for additional persuasion, he again points out that deeds observable by others are more trustworthy than anyone’s mere words, including those of an authority we respect.

“But the person who is at-work with intellect and takes care of this and is disposed in the best way toward it seems also to be most dear to the gods. For if some care for human beings comes from the gods, as is believed, then it would be most reasonable for them to delight in what is best and most akin to them (and this would be the intellect), and to do good in return to those who love and honor this most, since such people care for the things that are dear to them, and also act rightly and beautifully” (p. 196).

Here he argues that intellect and contemplation are what is most dear to the gods — even more dear, that is, than virtuous actions. This need not imply that particular virtuous actions are not dear to them also, only that the intellect, contemplation, and wisdom that among other things guide virtuous action are even more so.

“Now if what has to do with happiness as well as with the virtues, and also with friendship and pleasure, has been sufficiently discussed in outline, ought one to assume that our chosen task has its end? Or, as has been said, is the end in matters of action not contemplating and knowing each of them but rather doing them? Then it is not sufficient to know about virtue, but one must try to have it and use it” (ch. 9, p. 196).

Once again, he balances the emphasis on contemplation with an emphasis on complete ethical doing. This kind of careful concern for a balanced, multi-dimensional view of things is why I keep coming back to Aristotle.

“[A]s things are, discourses appear to have the power to encourage and stimulate open-natured young people, … but they are unable to encourage most people toward what is beautiful and good…. For it is not possible, or not easy, to change by words things that have been bound up in people’s characters since long ago…. [I]t is necessary for the soul of the listener to have been worked on beforehand by means of habits, with a view to enjoying and hating in a beautiful way, like ground that is going to nourish the seed” (pp. 196-197).

Here he repeats a point made in an earlier book about the extreme ethical importance of people’s emotional dispositions, and consequently of the way children are raised. Insofar as people have acquired a disposition for disordered emotions, it can be nearly impossible to have dialogue with them at the times when it matters most.

I don’t think it is ever acceptable to hate people as people. But someone who loves the good may legitimately hate actions and circumstances that are truly bad, just because they are bad. And those who stubbornly refuse to recognize others deserve to be harshly dealt with.

“For someone who lives by feeling could not hear the words that would turn him away, nor could he even understand them; when someone is in that condition, how is it possible to change his mind? And in general, feeling seems to yield not to reasoned speech but to force. So it is necessary for a character to be present in advance that is in some way appropriate for virtue, loving what is beautiful and scorning what is shameful” (ibid).

I prefer to use the English word “feeling” in a more positive way, and would substitute “disordered emotion” for it in the above. (See also Virtue Not a Potential.)

Pure Entelechy

Book Lambda (XII) of the Metaphysics sketches Aristotle’s brilliant and beautiful solution to the problems that have been under investigation in this work. The text of book Lambda itself, however, seems more like a series of fragments than the kind of tight, continuous development that characterizes the so-called “central books” Zeta (VII), Eta (VIII), and Theta (IX), or the books of Aristotle’s Physics.

He now clearly affirms that there is a first cause of all things — not only of their being what they are, but also of their motion. As a result, book Lambda presents a mix of philosophical theology and Aristotelian physics.

Aristotle has a very distinctive notion of what the first cause is. I would call this pure entelechy. I’m not aware that he literally uses that phrase, but he definitely says that the first cause is pure energeia (actuality, being-at-work, or fulfillment), and he very strongly identifies energeia with entelecheia (a new Greek word coined by Aristotle, meaning literally “in [it] end having”, or “being-at-work-staying-itself” in Sachs’ translation), for which I am using the English “entelechy”.

Entelechy is the theme that unifies Aristotle’s account of motion with the inquiry about why things are what they are. Motion is a kind of incomplete entelechy. The first cause, both of motion and of things being what they are — which he identifies with the good, that-for-the-sake-of-which, thought thinking itself, and what I would call a kind of pure delight — is a complete and pure entelechy. The concept of entelechy thus binds Aristotle’s physics together with his theology.

Apart from considerations related to the first cause, Aristotle normally distinguishes that-for-the-sake-of-which from the potentiality that is an internal source of motion in things. But he also says that every motion is for the sake of that toward which the potentiality inclines. And the first cause of all motion affects things purely as that-for-the-sake-of-which.

The kind of motion that best exemplifies entelechy is circular motion. Circularity is also a kind of figurative image or metaphor for entelechy. Continuous motion in a circle is in a sense always complete in the sense of unchangingly accomplishing its goal, and yet it is always ongoing. But not even the first motion is itself unconditionally complete as an entelechy, since it is still moving. Only the first cause is that.

For Aristotle, there is one thing that is directly moved by the first cause, and that is the sphere of the fixed stars, which also demarcates the most comprehensive whole of things that occupy space. Other motions are indirect consequences of this, which follow only in a conditional way.

The first cause is not just pure entelechy in the generic sense of a logical universal. It is a particular independent thing that turns out to be the unique exemplar of its kind.

In virtue of its unique relation to all other things, it plays the role of what Hegel would later call a concrete universal. Further, the unique character of that relation of “firstness” makes it an unconditioned concrete universal. This is the kind of unconditioned thing that Kant says reason is always reaching for, but that cannot be strictly known. It is also the kind of unconditioned thing that Hegel treats as the ultimate ground of intelligibility and value.

He begins by recalling that the path of the inquiry has approached “all things” by focusing on those sources and causes that make concrete independent things be what they are. Independent things turn out to be those that have some entelechy of their own, which exhibits greater self-determination than the minimal kind that applies to all motions. These include plants, animals, and the stars.

“Our study concerns thinghood, for it is the sources and causes of independent things that are being sought” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 231).

“[E]verything changes from something that has being in potency to something that has being at-work” (ch. 2, p. 232).

All change for Aristotle is from something being potentially something to its being that same something in actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment. This is narrower than common English usage. In Physics book VII he says that “states, whether of the body or of the soul, are not alterations” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 412).

“Now if something has being in potency, still this is not a potency to be any random thing, but a different thing comes to be from a different potency” (ibid).

Although one thing may have many potentialities, each of which may or may not be realized, each of these is a specific potentiality to be actual or at-work or fulfilled in some definite way.

“The kinds of thinghood are three, since the material is a this by coming forth into appearance (for whatever has being by way of contact, and not by having grown together, is material and underlies something else), while the nature of a thing is a this and an active condition into which it comes; and then the third kind is the particular thing that consists of these, such as Socrates or Callias” (ch. 3, p. 233).

He reminds us that when we speak of particular things, to avoid confusion we need to attend to whether we mean their matter, their form, or the composite consisting of both.

“Now things that cause motion are causes as being previously present, but things that are causes in the sense of rational patterns are simultaneous with what they produce” (p. 234).

Causes that are not of motion as such, but rather simply of being in a certain way, like form and that-for-the-sake-of-which, are not like more direct causes of motion in their mode of operation with respect to time. Their operation as causes does not involve a distinct externality related to a before and after, but rather unfolds immanently in their effects.

“Now there is a sense in which the causes and sources of different things are different, but there is a sense in which, if one speaks universally by way of analogy, they are the same for all things…. [B]ut the elements are different in different things, and the first cause that sets them in motion is also different in different things…. [B]ut still, over and above these, is the cause which, as the first of all things, sets all things in motion” (ch. 4, p. 234-236).

For Aristotle, everything has both a particular cause or causes, and a dependency on the first cause of all. The first cause of all operates through particular causes. This is the first time he has unambiguously implied that there is a first cause of all things. (In the middle above, when he speaks of “the first cause that sets them in motion”, this is not the first cause of all, but the first more specific cause of the motion in question.)

“Now since some things are separate while others are not separate, the former are independent things. And it is on account of this that all things have the same causes, because without independent things, attributes and motions are not possible. So then these causes will be, presumably, soul and body, or intellect, desire, and body. And in yet another way the sources of things are the same by analogy, namely being-at-work and potency, though these are both different and present in different ways in different things” (ch. 5, p. 236).

Once again, he recalls both the strategy of deriving the saying of being in the other categories from the saying of what independent things are, and the analogy by which the meanings of actuality and potentiality were illustrated. Again he emphasizes actuality and potentiality as sources of all things.

In passing, he seems to suggest thinking about human being in more specific terms of intellect and desire, rather than an undifferentiated soul. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he specifies that choice is grounded in a fusion of intellect and desire.

“Further, it is necessary to see that some things are possible to state universally, but others not. Now the primary sources of all things are a this that is first at work and something else which is in potency. So these are not the universal causes, since the source of particular things is particular; for a human being is the source of a human being universally, but no one is this universal, but rather Peleus is the source of Achilles and your father of you, and this particular B is the source of this particular BA, but B in general is the source of BA simply. And then, if the causes and elements of independent things are the sources of all things (but different ones of different ones), then as was said, of things not in the same class (colors and sounds, or independent things and quantity) they are different except by analogy; of things that are in the same kind they are also different, but not in kind, but because they are different for particular things, your material and form and mover from mine, though they are the same in their universal statement” (p. 237).

Again he emphasizes that particulars have particular causes. The kind of universality and operation that will be attributed to the first cause of all will be of a sort that respects this. He also again emphasizes that the primary sources of all things are particular actualities and potentialities.

“So as for seeking out what are the sources or elements of independent things and of relations and the of-what-sorts of things, and whether they are the same or different, it is clear that, since they are meant in more than one way, they do belong to everything, but when they have been distinguished they are not the same but different, except in one sense. And the causes of all things are the same in this sense — by analogy — because they are material, form, deprivation, and a mover, and the causes of independent things are the causes of all things in this sense — because when they are taken away everything is taken away; and further, the primary thing that is completely at work is the cause of all things. But the causes are different in this sense — they are as many as the primary contraries, described neither generically nor ambiguously, and as there are kinds of material as well. So what the sources are of perceptible things, and how many there are, and in what way they are the same and in what way different, have been said” (pp. 237-238).

At long last, we come to the argument that there really is a first cause of all things. Again he emphasizes that everything also has particular sources and causes.

“Now since there are three kinds of thinghood, two of them natural and one motionless, about the latter one must explain that it is necessary for there to be some everlasting motionless independent thing” (ch. 6, p. 238).

“For independent things are primary among beings, and if they were all destructible, everything would be destructible; but it is impossible for motion either to come into being or to be destroyed (since it always is), and impossible too for time” (ibid).

For Aristotle there is no first motion, or first moment in time. Instead, there must be an everlasting cause of motion.

“For if there were no time, there could be no before and after; and motion is continuous in just the way that time is; since time is either the same as or some attribute of motion” (ibid).

He points out that to speak of anything “before” there was any time is incoherent, since before and after presuppose time.

“But there is no continuous motion other than in place, and among these, other than in a circle” (ibid).

Only motion in a circle could continue forever. Space is vast, but Aristotle does not believe in infinite distances, so for him there could not be motion continuing forever in a straight line.

He seems to imply that the most fundamental motion of all — that of the fixed stars — provides a uniform measure for time. In modern terms, this is the earth’s rotation on its axis, as observed from a point on the earth. In the absence of evidence refuting what we see to be the case, he assumes that the stars forever rotate around the earth, and that the apparent motion of what is apparently the outermost sphere of the fixed stars is therefore a primary motion that spatially surrounds all things. If we take earth as the point of reference for whatever relativistic motions we see in the sky, this fits all the observational facts.

“But surely if there is something capable of moving and producing things, but not at work in any way, there will not be motion; for what has a potency admits of not being at work” (ibid).

Here he returns to the Physics sense of potentiality and actuality, and to the priority of the actual. Every potentiality is a source of motion that requires something external that is already an actuality of the same sort, in order for the potentiality to be actualized. The child requires a parent, the artifact a Platonic model.

“Therefore, there is no benefit even if we adopt everlasting independent things, as do those who bring in the forms, unless there is in them some source capable of producing change; moreover, even this is not enough, not even if there is another independent thing besides the forms, since if it is not going to be at work, there will not be motion” (ibid).

A pure form or logical universal that is not “actual” cannot explain motion. Once again, motion as the actualization of a potential depends on a pre-existing actuality.

“What’s more, it is not enough even if it will be at work, if the thinghood of it is potency, for there would not be everlasting motion, since what has being in potency admits of not being” (ibid).

Further, any first cause of motion must be everlasting, continuous, and unchanging in its action. That is to say, it must itself be purely actual, with no admixture of potentiality. It would not be sufficient to explain everlasting, continuous motion if the first cause just happened to be actual for some period of time.

“Therefore it is necessary that there be a source of such a kind that the thinghood of it is being-at-work. On top of that, it is necessary that these independent things be without material, for they must be everlasting, if indeed anything else is everlasting. Therefore they are being-at-work” (ibid).

As he just suggested, any first cause of all must therefore be a pure actuality with no potentiality. What Aristotle calls matter is kind of potentiality, so the first cause must have no matter either.

“For how will things have been set in motion, if there were not some responsible thing at work? For material itself, at any rate, will not set itself in motion” (p. 239).

“And this is why some people, such as Leucippus and Plato, bring in an everlasting activity, for they say there is always motion. But why there is this motion, and what it is, they do not say, nor the cause of its being in a certain way or some other way. For nothing moves at random, but always something must be present to it, just as now something moves in a certain way by nature, but in some other way by force or by action of intelligence or something else” (ibid).

It is not enough to simply posit motion. This does not explain anything.

“And then, what sort of motion is primary? For this makes so much difference one can hardly conceive it. But surely it is not possible for Plato to say what he sometimes thinks the source of motion is, which sets itself in motion; for the soul is derivative, and on the same level as the heavens, as he says” (ibid).

The thought here seems to be that if there is a first cause of motion, there must be a primary sort of motion that it primarily causes. For Aristotle, this is the movement of the fixed stars.

“Anaxagoras testifies that being-at-work takes precedence (since intellect is a being-at-work), as does Empedocles with love and strife, and so do those who say there is always motion, such as Leucippus; therefore there was not chaos or night for an infinite time, but the same things have always been so, either in a cycle or in some other way, if being-at-work takes precedence over potency. So if the same thing is always so in a cycle, it is necessary for something to persist always at work in the same way” (pp. 239-240).

If all things did not come from something that is an actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment, then they could only come from what the poets called “chaos and night”. But if all things came from chaos and night, there would be no hope of understanding anything. Aristotle suggests that several of his predecessors ought to have recognized the priority of actuality, as an implicit presupposition of what they did say.

“But since it is possible for it to be this way, and if it is not this way things will come from night and from ‘all things together’ and from not-being, these questions could be resolved; and there is a certain ceaseless motion that is always moving, and it is in a circle (and this is evident not only to reason but in fact), so that the first heaven will be everlasting” (ch. 7, p. 240).

He does not claim to positively know that actuality is necessarily prior to potentiality. He claims that the account is plausible, and that any alternative must lead back to sheer chaos, which would make it impossible for anything to be truly intelligible at all.

“Accordingly, there is also something that moves it. And since what is in motion and causes motion is intermediate, there is also something that causes motion without being in motion, which is everlasting, an independent thing, and a being-at-work” (ibid).

Behind each independent celestial motion, there must be some actual everlasting independent thing. Behind these, there must be something that is completely unmoved, and that is a pure actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment.

“But what is desired and what is thought cause motion in that way: not being in motion, they cause motion” (ibid).

For Aristotle, desire and thought are unmoved movers.

“But the primary instances of these are the same things, for what is yearned for is what seems beautiful, while what is wished for primarily is what is beautiful; but we desire something because of the way it seems, rather than its seeming so because we desire it, for the act of thinking is the beginning” (pp. 240-241).

Desire and thought both aim at what is good or beautiful. The way things seem — and consequently, the act of thinking or judging — drives wishing and willing, not vice versa. Further below, he will again emphasize the active rather than merely receptive role of thought.

“But the power of thinking is set in motion by the action of the thing thought, and what is thought in its own right belongs to an array of affirmative objects of which thinghood is primary, and of this the primary kind is that which is simple and at work” (p. 241).

Thinking itself is driven by the actuality of what it thinks. This does not negate his emphasis on thinking as act.

“But what is one and what is simple are not the same, for oneness indicates a measure, but what is simple is itself a certain way” (ibid).

The simplicity he attributes to the first cause is a stronger criterion than being one.

“But surely the beautiful and what is chosen in virtue of itself are also in that same array, and what is primary is always best, or analogous to it” (ibid).

First things are good and beautiful, and the first thing of all can be identified with the good and the beautiful.

“And that-for-the-sake-of-which is possible among motionless things, as the [following] distinction makes evident; for that-for-the-sake-of-which is either for something or belonging to something, of which the former is and the latter is not present among motionless things” (ibid).

Here he explicitly says that that-for-the-sake-of-which has a broader scope than any source of motion. Alone among the four kinds of causes, it provides ultimate reasons why things are what they are. Form may be identified with what things are, but that-for-the-sake of which is the cause of form and the reason why it is what it is.

“And it causes motion in the manner of something loved, and by means of what is moved moves other things” (ibid).

The highest kind of cause, that-for-the-sake-of-which, involves no force or compulsion or unconditional necessity. Other things are moved because they love it or are attracted by it, but they could not be so moved if they did not have their own sources of motion. They are not moved by some active power emanating from the first cause.

“But since there is something that causes motion while being itself motionless, this does not admit of being otherwise than it is in any respect at all” (ibid).

“For among changes, the primary one is change of place, and of this the primary kind is a circle, but this is what this mover causes” (ibid).

“Therefore [the first cause] is something that has being necessarily…. On such a source, therefore, the cosmos and nature depend” (pp. 241-242).

“And the course of its life is of such a kind as the best we have for a short time. This is so because it is always the same way (which for us is impossible), and because its being-at-work is also pleasure (which is what makes being awake, perceiving, and thinking the most pleasant things, while hopes and memories are pleasant on account of these)” (p. 242).

If we speak in terms of pleasure here, it would be of the highest possible sort. I think “pure delight” captures the meaning more clearly.

“And the thinking that is just thinking by itself is a thinking of what is best just as itself, and especially so with what is so most of all” (ibid).”

“But by partaking in what it thinks, the intellect thinks itself, for it becomes what it thinks by touching and contemplating it, so that the intellect and what it thinks are the same thing” (ibid).

And this, I say, is pure delight.

“For what is receptive of the intelligible and of thinghood is the intellect, and it is at work when it has them; therefore it is the being-at-work rather than the receptivity the intellect has that seems godlike, and its contemplation is pleasantest and best” (ibid, emphasis added).

He is saying that it is by virtue of the more perfect entelechy of intellect, which goes beyond the limited entelechy associated with motion — rather than intellect’s incidental touching or contemplation of something else — that intellect seems godlike. Here again he emphasizes the primarily active rather than receptive character of thought.

“So if the divine being is in this good condition that we are sometimes in, that is to be wondered at; and if it is in it to a greater degree than we are, that is to be wondered at still more. And that is the way it is” (ibid).

For Aristotle, the divine is not incommensurable with the human. Albeit in a very partial manner, we also partake of it, and the more so the more that we are moved by our highest values.

“But life belongs to it too, for the being-at-work of intellect is life, and that being is being-at-work, and its being-at-work is in itself the best life and is everlasting. And we say it is a god who everlastingly lives the best life, so that life and continuous and everlasting duration belong to a god; for this being is god” (ibid).

“That, then, there is an independent thing that is everlasting, motionless, and separate from perceptible things, is clear from what has been said. And it has also been demonstrated that this independent thing can have no magnitude, but is without parts and indivisible (for it causes motion for an infinite time, while no finite thing has an infinite power, and since every magnitude must be either finite or infinite, it cannot have magnitude, either finite, for the reason given, or infinite, because there is no infinite magnitude at all). But surely it has also been demonstrated that it cannot be affected or altered” (p. 243).

Sachs says in a note that the reference to a demonstration that the first cause is not involved with magnitude effectively incorporates the entire argument of the Physics by reference. Book VIII of the Physics has a far more thorough argument that there must be a first unmoved mover corresponding to the primary observable motion of the circling of the fixed stars, but that account does not address the what-it-is of things.

“But since… we see in addition to the motion of the whole heaven, other everlasting motions which belong to the planets…, it is necessary that each of these motions also be caused by something that is itself motionless and an everlasting independent thing. For the nature of the stars is for each to be an everlasting independent thing, while the mover is everlasting and takes precedence over the thing moved, and what takes precedence over an independent thing must be an independent thing” (ch. 8, p. 244).

The terrestrial independent things are mainly plants and animals. These have the richest entelechies among terrestrial perceptible things.

Aristotle also acknowledges each star participating in the motion of the heaven as an entelechy of its own. At least in a way, it is superior to ours, in that to all appearances it lasts forever.

The stars he calls planets are those that stand out by having observable independent motions of their own, different from the primary motion that they share with all the stars that are called “fixed” by contrast.

“[B]ut the number of motions is already something one must examine from that kind of mathematical knowledge that is the nearest kin to philosophy, namely from astronomy. For this kind makes its study about perceptible, everlasting thinghood, while the others, such as those concerned with numbers and with geometry, are not about thinghood at all” (ibid).

“[A]s for how many [independent motions] there happen to be, we now state what some of the mathematicians say, for the sake of a conception of it, … and as for what remains, it is necessary to inquire into some things ourselves, while listening to what other inquirers say about others. If something should seem to those who busy themselves with these matters to be contrary to what has just now been said, it is necessary to welcome both accounts, but trust the more precise one” (pp. 244-245).

“[F]or let the number that is necessary be left for more relentless people to say” (p. 246).

Apparently he made an arithmetic error counting the motions (“either 55 or 47”, where the 47 should have been 48, according the details I have not reproduced), then made a joke of it. I don’t believe Aristotle is very attached to specific enumerations of any sort. It is the principles upon which distinctions are based that matter.

“There has been handed down from people of ancient and earliest times a heritage, in the form of myth, to those of later times, that these original beings are gods, and that the divine embraces the whole of nature. The rest of it was presently introduced in mythical guise for the persuasion of the masses and into laws for use and benefit” (p. 247).

The divine embraces the whole of nature. We still name the planets by the Roman names for the Greek gods that were associated with them in antiquity.

Next he seems to respond to, or perhaps anticipate, doubts about what he said earlier about intellect.

“Now concerning the intellect there are certain impasses, for it seems to be the most divine of things that are manifest to us, but the way it is if it is to be of that sort contains some things that are hard to digest. For if it thinks nothing, what would be solemn about that? Rather, it would be just like someone sleeping. But if it does think, but something else has power over it, then, since it is not thinking but potency that is the thinghood of it, it could not be the best independent thing, for it is on account of its act of thinking that its place of honor belongs to it. And still, whether the thinghood of it is a power of thinking or an activity of thinking, what does it think?” (ch. 9, p. 247).

“For [what intellect thinks] is either itself or something else, and if it is something else, either always the same one or different ones. And then does it make any difference, or none, whether its thinking is of what is beautiful or of some random thing? Isn’t it even absurd for its thinking to be about some things? Surely it is obvious that it thinks the most divine and honorable things, and does not change, since its change would be for the worse, and such a thing would already be a motion” (p. 248).

Intellect will prefer the beautiful and the good over any random thing. Physics book VII much better explains why certain things that we are used to calling “changes” are not considered changes in his way of speaking.

“First, then, if it is not an activity of thinking but a potency, … it is clear that something else would be more honorable than the intellect, namely what it thinks…. Therefore what it thinks is itself, if it is the most excellent thing, and its thinking is a thinking of thinking” (ibid).

For a third time, he insists that intellect is primarily active, rather than receptive. Its main concern seems to be with whatever is most good and beautiful and honorable. It is a thinking of thinking — true higher-order thinking, rather than a first-order “thinking” of something external.

“But [the human soul’s] knowledge and perception and opinion and step-by-step thinking seem always to be about something else, and about themselves only as something secondary” (ibid).

The above seems to be in implicit contrast with the active thinking about which he was speaking just before. In this way, intellect in its own right is unlike the human soul.

“What’s more, if the thinking and the being thought are different, then in virtue of which of them does what is good belong to it? For to be an act of thinking and to be something thought are not the same” (ibid).

They are the same and yet not the same. Of course, this is in different respects. This is the model for many similar formulations in Hegel.

“Or is it rather that in some cases the knowledge is the thing it is concerned with, so that in the case of the kinds of knowing that make something, the thinghood without material and what it is for something to be, or in the case of the contemplative kinds of knowing, the articulation, is both the thing the knowledge is concerned with and the activity of thinking it? So since what is thought and what is thinking are not different with as many things as have no material, they will be the same, and the act of thinking will be one with what is thought” (ibid).

Here he suggests that we may after all be able to see instances of this identity by reflecting on our experiences of productive and contemplative knowing. Insofar as we actually know anything, we partially escape the inherent limitations of the human soul.

“But there is still an impasse left as to whether what is thought is composite, for then thinking would be changing among the parts of the whole. Or is it the case that everything that has no material is indivisible?” (pp. 248-249).

Implicitly, he seems to favor the latter alternative. Then twice more he speaks of intellect’s predilection for what is good and best.

“So the condition the human intellect, or that of any composite being, is in at some period of time (for it does not have hold of what is good at this or that time, but in some whole stretch of time it has hold of what is best, since that is something other than itself), is the condition the thinking that thinks itself is in over the whole of time” (p. 249).

Again, for Aristotle we have a little bit of the divine within us insofar as we have intellect, so there is no radical incommensurability between the divine and the human.

“One must also consider in which of two ways the nature of the whole contains what is good and best, whether as something separate, itself by itself, or as the order of the whole of things. Or is it present in both ways…?” (ch.10, p. 249).

Book Lambda’s final chapter ends with a quote from a speech by Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad. The whole chapter is oriented toward this literary image. At this point in the Iliad, the Greeks had been in complete disarray, a confused mass, but Odysseus’ words restore their morale and disciplined unity. (Notably, Odysseus was not the high king or commander-in-chief, though he was a leader. It was what he said that mattered.) Aristotle wants us to see this as a metaphorical answer to the question just posed. What is good and best must indeed be present in both ways — both as from the first cause, and as distributed and embodied throughout the whole — but he wants to emphasize that the “for the sake of which” of the first cause plays a real leading role, even though it does not govern by force.

“But beings do not present the aspect of being badly governed” (pp. 251-252).

As we have seen, this does not mean that all the facts of the world are as they ought to be. It does mean that life and the world are essentially good.

Aristotle on Perception

Real and meaningful analytic distinctions in experience such as activity and passivity need not be grounded in ontological dualities.

It is common to hear Aristotle summarized as asserting a monolithic passivity in processes of perception. This is a considerable simplification. What is true is that in the absence of something perceptible that does not depend on us for its being, Aristotle would say we have a case not of perception but of something else. This does not mean there are not many active dimensions to typical sense perception as well.

One of Aristotle’s deepest principles involves a recognition of profoundly mixed conditions as being more typical of real life than monolithic or homogeneous ones. Plato treats “mixture” as a first-class topic at the heart of what Aristotle would call first philosophy, and not as a mere derivative from “pure” concepts.

Later authors have often tended to downplay Plato and Aristotle’s emphasis on mixed cases in experience as normal, and instead to privilege pure “black and white” distinctions. I think we should if anything privilege the mixed cases, and demand evidence when confronted with claims that any real-world cases involve “pure” black-and-white distinctions.

Aristotle’s account of perception in book 2 of On the Soul relies mainly on descriptions expressed in terms of actuality, potentiality, and actualization. While it is true that actuality has a character that is mostly active and potentiality has a character that is mostly not active, it is once again an oversimplification to simply equate actuality with activity and potentiality with passivity.

Aristotle’s description of perception is deliberately abstract, which reduces the need to speculatively fill in missing details. Perhaps the most salient overall aspect of this account is that it involves a multi-leveled layering of actuality and potentiality and of active and passive aspects that may be only analytically distinct. He focuses very generally on the various requirements of the kinds of form involved, and works hard to avoid causal explanations not clearly grounded in evidence.

It is very characteristic that Aristotle treats perception and whatever is perceptible in a single context. For instance, his discussion of light occurs here. He has no theory of the transmission of light, which was only experimentally demonstrated in early modern times. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, he sees light as instantaneously diffused through a medium, and reasons that the medium must therefore play a necessary role in perception. For him, light is “the being-at-work of the transparent as transparent” (On the Soul book 2 ch. 7, Sachs trans., p. 101). “By transparent I mean what is visible but not visible in its own right, to put it simply, but on account of the color of something else…. Light is a sort of color of the transparent, whenever it is at-work-staying-transparent by the action of fire or something of that kind…. What, then, the transparent is, has been said, and what light is, that it is not fire or any body at all, nor anything that flows out of any body…, but the co-presence of fire or any such thing in the transparent” (ibid). “Rather, the color sets a transparent thing, such as air, in motion, and by this, if it is continuous, the sense organ is moved” (p. 103).

It is important to recognize that this is a thoughtful interpretation of ordinary experience, with minimal assumptions. We would say, e.g., that light is transmitted at the speed of light rather than instantaneously diffused, but this can only be justified by complex empirical evidence. We associate colors with particular wavelengths of light, and we think of light as consisting of material waves (or alternatively, particles of a particular kind) that cannot be directly observed, but all this depends on complex evidence and test equipment. By contrast, Aristotle aims mainly to do justice to our ordinary experience of seeing things — a dog, a rose, a landscape, and so on. He seems to think of the air in the presence of light as metaphorically “charged” with sensible forms, such that there is a continuous translation of visible configurations of color through the air along each perspectival line of sight.

He somewhat paradoxically speaks of a “transmission” of “forms without the matter” in perception, and of the soul-as-active-form-of-the-body “receiving” them. The soul, as an entelecheia (in Sachs’ translation “being-at-work-staying-itself”, or more literally “in [itself] end having”) of an organic body, is active at root. Perception is then at top level supposed to be the being-at-work of a receptivity of the primarily active soul. Since the “transmission” of color through the air is said to be without matter, it must be more like a translation of color between the medium and the eye.

Some contemporary writers have claimed that Aristotle’s account of perception is of historic interest only, sheerly on the ground that it focuses on potentiality and actuality rather than physical causes. But as usual, Aristotle is far more interested in interpreting experience in meaningful ways, with as few assumptions as possible.

I think it is better to have a very abstract description that remains descriptive of experience, rather than imaginatively positing physical or physiological explanations. That is to say, it is better to be only abstractly descriptive but faithful to ordinary experience like Aristotle, than it is to have a more physically grounded explanation like the Stoics, at the cost of depending on additional assumptions of fact that turned out to be wrong in light of more detailed empirical investigations.

The Stoic theory — following the general Stoic precept that everything that has being must be some kind of body — seems to involve a kind of subtly material forms of objects invisibly but literally flying through the air as distinct wholes, ancestral to the medieval “sensible species”. This is a logically consistent physical and physiological account, which however makes numerous speculative leaps of the sort Aristotle aimed to minimize.

The mathematicians Euclid and Ptolemy geometrically analysed properties of light rays, but believed light rays were actively emitted by the eye, rather than received by it.

The “father of modern optics” and early contributor to scientific method, Iraqi polymath Ibn al-Haytham (ca. 965-1040 CE), known to Latin readers as Alhazen, was the first to explain that vision occurs when light reflected from objects passes to the eye, and to assert that the brain plays a major (active) role in the process of identifying objects. His work was taken up by Roger Bacon, Robert Grosseteste, Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, Huygens, Descartes, and Kepler, among others.

The reception of light in and of itself is passive, but ordinary seeing has a large cognitive and interpretive dimension, whether considered at the level of events in the brain or at the level of an interpretation of meaningful content. Reception of light rays is passive, but even the most minimal identification of objects cannot be entirely passive.

The visible forms of patches of color that are diffused through the transparent medium in Aristotle — just like the reflected light in the modern account — are indeed passively received, but that no more makes the entire process of vision necessarily passive in Aristotle than it does in the modern account.

“But about all sense perception in general, it is necessary to grasp that the sense is receptive of the forms of perceptible things without the material, as wax is receptive of the design of a ring without the iron or gold…; and similarly the sense of each thing is acted upon by the thing that has color or flavor or sound, but not in virtue of that by which each of those things is the kind of thing it is, but in virtue of that by which it has a certain attribute, and according to a ratio” (book 2 ch. 12, p. 118).

Joe Sachs comments in a note that “Some of the difficulty can be avoided if one keeps in mind that, by form, Aristotle does not mean shape or appearance. In the Platonic dialogues, it is always emphasized that the eidos is not the mere look of a thing…. That to which one must look, according to Aristotle, is the being-at-work of the thing. It is, then, no part of the analogy Aristotle intends with the wax impression, that the eyeball, say, becomes shaped and colored like an olive when it looks at one. What it takes on must be some sort of active condition” (p. 118n, emphasis added).

This last point about the active condition, I think, is the import of Aristotle’s phrase in the above quote, “not in virtue of that by which each of those things is the kind of thing it is, but in virtue of that by which it has a certain attribute, and according to a ratio”. We do not directly perceive the kinds of things we perceive, but rather “that by which [things have] a certain attribute, and according to a ratio”. I take this to be a suggestion of what should or should not count as a “perception”.

There is a puzzle here about how “that by which” a thing has an attribute would count as perceptible. I would argue that if this kind of abstraction does count as perceptible in some way, that would be another indication that perception is not entirely passive. Aristotelian “perception” would then be quite rich, including many things I have been calling products of the Kantian synthesis of imagination. But it would still stop short of, say, directly apprehending a complex gestalt or whole “image” as an immediately intelligible unit.

Worries about “passivity”, it seems to me, ought to be directed mainly at the kind of claims of direct apprehension of complex images as meaningful wholes that Aristotle explicitly rules out in this passage.

“But ‘being acted upon’ is not unambiguous either…. For the one who has knowledge comes to be contemplating, and this is either not a process of being altered (since it is a passing over into being oneself, namely into being-at-work-staying-oneself), or is a different class of alteration” (p. 98).

“Being-at-work perceiving is described in the same way as contemplating, but differs in that the things that produce the being-at-work of perceiving are external, the visible and audible things, and similarly with the rest of the senses. The reason is that active perception is of particulars, while knowledge is of universals, which are in some way in the soul itself. Hence thinking is up to oneself, whenever one wishes, but perceiving is not up to oneself, since it is necessary that the thing perceived be present. And similarly too, even the kinds of knowing that deal with perceptible things are not up to oneself, and for the same reason, that the perceptible things are among particular, external things” (book 2 ch. 5, pp. 98-99, emphasis added).

I note first of all the explicit reference to “active perception”. Second, it makes perfect sense that “the kinds of knowing that deal with perceptible things are not up to oneself” — that in some way sensible things are what they are, independent of us, in a way that abstractions and universals are not. Aristotle even seems to think there is an at least abstractly identifiable level at which the particular senses cannot be deceived.

“[T]he means by which we live and perceive is meant two ways, as is the means by which we know (by which is meant in one sense knowledge but in another the soul, since by means of each of these we say we know something)” (book 2 ch. 2, p. 87).

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right, … for sense perception when directed at its proper objects is always truthful, and is present in all animals, but it is possible to think things through falsely, and this is present in no animal in which there is not also speech” (book 3 ch. 3, pp. 133-134).

Here he explicitly bounds the analogy between perception and thought. We have already seen that perception for Aristotle is not entirely passive, so thinking, as something that is more up to us, must be less passive than that.

“And it is certainly not the reasoning part, or intellect in the way that word is used, that causes motion, for the contemplative intellect does not contemplate anything that has to do with action…. And even when the intellect enjoins and the reasoning part declares that something is to be fled or pursued one does not necessarily move, but acts instead in accordance with desire, as does one without self-restraint…. But neither is it desire that governs this sort of motion, since self-restrained people, even when they desire and yearn for something, do not necessarily do those things for which they have the desire, but follow the intellect” (book 3 ch. 9, pp. 152-153).

Later he specifies that the motion mentioned here is motion with respect to place, i.e., bodily movement, not anything directly associated with perception or thought. Comparatively speaking, the earlier “motion” of air in the presence of light was said in a different, more figurative way. We should not assume that the way activity and passivity apply in the one context is the same as in the other.

He continues, “But it is obvious that these two things [together do] cause motion, desire and/or intellect, since many people follow their imaginings contrary to what they know, and in other animals there is no intellectual or reasoning activity, except imagination. Therefore both of these are such as to cause motion with respect to place, intellect and desire, but this is intellect that reasons for the sake of something and is concerned with action, which differs from the contemplative intellect by its end…. So it is reasonable that there seem to be two things causing the motion, desire and practical thinking, since the thing desired causes motion, and on account of this, thinking causes motion, because it is the desired thing that starts it. So it is one thing that causes motion, the potency of desire” (book 3 ch. 10, pp. 153-154, emphasis added).

What Aristotle initially mentions as “obvious” is refined and corrected later in the chapter. This sort of thing is very common in Aristotle. In book 2 chapter 2, he says that “what is clear and more knowable by reason arises out of what is unclear but more obvious” (p. 84).

“[B]ut the potency of desire is not present without imagination, while all imagination is either rational or sensory” (p. 156).

The imagination is identified in Aristotle’s On Memory and Recollection as the root of all perception. Here he suggests that it also depends on the particular senses. Both could easily be true if the sense in which imagination is the “root” of perception is teleological, rather than causal in the modern sense.

“For imagination is different both from perceiving [by the particular senses] and from thinking things through, and does not come about without perception, and without it there is no conceiving that something is the case” (book 3 ch. 3, p. 134).

Aristotle is saying that while conceiving that something is the case depends on imagination and imagination ultimately depends on the particular senses, we never directly perceive that something is the case. That something is the case is a practical judgment about particulars, rather than a perception. “Thinking things through” (dianoia) is discussed separately from pure thought or intellect (nous), and is a rational activity of the soul grounded mainly in imagination. To really “occur” in a human, pure thought depends on the activity of thinking things through as its vehicle.

“[F]alsehood is always in an act of putting things together…. What makes each thing be one is intellect” (book 3 ch. 6, p. 144). “[B]ut thinking what something is, in the sense of what it keeps on being in order to be at all, is true, and is not one thing attached to another” (p. 145).

Here he seems to be emphasizing that the idea of what something truly is, in the sense of being-at-work-staying-itself, is not adequately expressible in terms of a simple combination of pre-existing parts or independently defined features. Also, no expression of a “what” by itself forms an assertion that could then be either true or false. A “what” by itself has more of the character of a definition that could be either accepted by hypothesis or considered hypothetically.

If the thought of a being-at-work-staying-itself is simply “true”, it seems to me it must be true in some sense other than correspondence — perhaps a being-true-to-itself through coherence. This use of “true” is also different from the way it is defined in On Interpretation, where truth and falsity are said to apply if and only if we say something about something, which means a “what” taken in isolation would be neither true nor false. Only what is said about the what could be true in that sense, but then it could also be false, depending on what is said. So “true” is being said in a different, special way here.

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time, for all things that come into being have their being from something that is at-work-staying-itself. And… the perceiving thing is not [merely] acted upon nor is it altered. Hence this is a different kind of event from a motion” (book 3 ch. 7, pp. 145-146, brackets in original, emphasis added).

Here he emphasizes a distinction between motion in the primary sense of ordinary bodily motion on the one hand, and the actualization of a potential on the other, identifying perception with the latter.

Passive Intellect?

Pippin seems to accept the common gloss of Aristotelian (potential) intellect as “passive”. Although this particular equation of potential with passive is common among Latin scholastics, it is an interpolation that does not come from Aristotle himself. At the same time, scholastic discourse in general was actually full of talk about the human subject and its complex relations of activity and passivity, especially in theological contexts. Meanwhile Plato and Aristotle already also emphasized the discursive character of thought — its relation to dialogue and articulation in language, and the importance of development and mediation.

I think it is a serious historical error to say that Aristotelian “intellect” (nous) just passively receives intelligibles, and we had to wait for Kant to get any different view. What Kant did was to deny that the understanding (as distinct from sensibility) passively receives anything at all, while developing a very original account of the active aspect of understanding (and imagination) in the synthesis of experience. The historic source of the common-but-not-universal traditional assumption of an overall passivity of intellect is neither Aristotelian nor Platonic, but rather Stoic.

Aristotle speaks of potential intellect as being “nothing at all” before it begins to think.

The great Arabic commentator Averroes argued that potential and actual intellect were hylomorphically inseparable and only analytically distinguishable, and also that potential intellect, even taken by itself, had some active characteristics. Meanwhile he also spoke of a third, more passive “intellect” that was not really intellect, but rather associated with a part of the Aristotelian imagination that he called the cogitative faculty. Even this is not truly passive.

Alexander of Aphrodisias had described potential intellect in terms similar to that of Averroes’ cogitative faculty, and Aquinas partially endorsed the position of Alexander. On the other hand, unlike Alexander, Aquinas also located located actual intellect within the soul. Things are further complicated by Aquinas’ introduction of the natural light of reason and his defense of a variant of the medieval doctrine of passively received “species”. Neither of these comes from Aristotle.

Pippin doesn’t mention actual or “active” intellect explicitly, but all historic versions of Aristotelianism recognize some variant of this. In Metaphysics book Lambda, Aristotle repeatedly stresses the actual side of intellect. No one claims that actual intellect is passive. The problem is that Aristotle’s own account of intellect has a very minimalist character.

Aristotle himself is partially to blame for the historic unclarity on the activity and passivity of intellect. He suggests an analogy between intellect and sense perception. The latter is described mainly in passive language, though even perception in Aristotle is not entirely passive. I think the analogy of intellect to sense perception is intended only as a kind of first approximation in terms of something more universally familiar, but most of the Latin tradition took it as decisive, and treated intelligibles as things passively received. Still, this is far from the whole story about views of activity and passivity in the human being.

Pippin generally does a great job explaining Aristotelian points. This one about passive intellect is an exception. An extenuating circumstance is that Hegel too seems to have a blind spot on this particular Aristotelian issue.

I wonder about the relation of this to Pippin’s claim in a footnote about “the emergence of subjectivity”, “not just in philosophy but as a world-historic event. At the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century, some sort of awareness that the world and others were not unproblematically available for observers and agents, but that the subject was in some sort of relation to itself in its possible relation to the world and others, was clearly emerging in Cervantes, Caravaggio, Shakespeare, and others, until it finally found its radical philosophical expression in Descartes” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 266n).

It’s fine to celebrate the creativity of late Renaissance and early modern literature, but the rather cliché reference to Descartes is disappointing after such excellent work on all of Kant and Hegel’s efforts to overcome early modern prejudices, and on Hegel’s explicit recovery of many Aristotelian insights, of which early modernity generally had lost sight. Standard as Pippin’s view is on the alleged pivotal role of Descartes in giving philosophical expression to subjectivity, it is simplistic and historically wrong.

Forms of subjectivity have indeed developed historically, but subjectivity did not just “emerge” in early modernity. This is a huge and intricate topic, in which I am extremely interested and on which I have written more than a bit already. Alain de Libera has made major contributions in this area with his “archaeology of the subject”.

Active and Passive

“What strikes us now is the ambiguity in speaking of a decision that come[s] to pass on its own or in the matter itself, namely, as undergoing a decision that just arises, and the deciding position-taking that is carried out on the part of the ego as the ego’s reaction” (Husserl, Analyses Concerning Passive and Active Synthesis, p. 92).

At this point in his lectures on passive synthesis, Husserl is beginning to explicitly consider the interrelation of passive and active aspects in perception and judgment, which had already implicitly arisen earlier. He rightly recognizes that there is an important relative distinction between preconscious and conscious dimensions of the overall process.

Already at the outset, though, it appears again that the active aspects seem to be straightforwardly attributed to the ego. A bit later, the shorthand phrase “egoic acts” that troubled me in the previous post gets repeated and elaborated. I still think it would be less prejudicial to attribute the (more) active aspects to something like “conscious deliberation and judgment”, and leave the postulated underlying ego-agent out of it. As Beatrice Longuenesse put it in her discussion of Kant’s treatment of related subject matter, “I who affect myself from within by my own representative act am forever unknowable to me”. I prefer to speak of the process of continually approaching and re-approaching a teleological unity of apperception, rather than punctual acts of an ego. But this is Husserl, who is well known for believing in a unitary rational ego. Luckily, most of his development does not really depend on this.

The other worry that occurs to me here is that the above-quoted passage is far from unique in emphasizing the place of decision on the active side. For instance, he says, “Judging is always deciding this or that…. In all these actions, judging is always only a process of conferring or denying validity that stems from the ego” (p. 93).

I much prefer an Aristotelian emphasis on an extended process of deliberation, and the point of view that it is the rational course of the deliberation that drives the eventual conclusion or choice, rather than a punctual, “free” decision. Larger patterns of activity, I say, are far more important than punctual acts, and subsume anything that can be explained by punctual acts. I had been hoping Husserl would come closer to this.

“[T]he ego passes judgment on its own position-taking…. We will see shortly that this position-taking or this group of position-takings are completely non-independent from the standpoint of intentionality, namely, insofar as they presuppose passive doxa [belief]…. The ego does not always take a position judicatively in this strict sense [e.g., when] it simply perceives, when it is merely aware” (ibid).

I very much like the non-independence part, but the last part raises a new problem, in that it is said to be the ego that perceives and is aware. I prefer to simply say that we have perception and awareness, rather than that we have egos that have perception and awareness.

“[Our position-takings] are completely non-independent insofar as they have their motivation founded in what goes on in perception itself, in perception’s proper and potentially purely passive course. Perception has its own intentionality that as yet does not harbor anything of the active comportment of the ego” (p. 94).

The part about perception having its own intentionality seems to have been a guiding inspiration for Merleau-Ponty. However, Husserl’s reference to the “potentially purely passive” character of perception seems surprising in light of his important point about perceptual “adumbration”.

“‘Active acceptance’ is what carries out a peculiar appropriation, determination, thereby establishing this being as valid for me from now on and abidingly” (p. 95).

This way of putting things seems perfectly fine as it stands, though it is followed by a long ego-centric elaboration. The ego talk continues into the part on “questioning as a multilayered striving”, where, e.g., he refers to questioning as “an activity that is obviously peculiar to the ego” (p. 100).

I would say that questioning is an activity peculiar to rational or talking animals, not to their putative egos.

“[T]he cognitive life, the life of logos, indeed like life in general, runs its course in a fundamental stratification. (1) Passivity and receptivity. We can include receptivity in this first level, namely, as that primordial function of the active ego that merely consists in making patent, regarding and attentively grasping what is constituted in passivity itself as formations of its own intentionality. (2) That spontaneous activity of the ego (the activity of intellectus agens [agent intellect]) that puts into play the peculiar accomplishments of the ego, as was the case with judicative decisions” (p. 105).

I contrast “spontaneous” with “deliberate”, seeing the former as more tied to preconscious synthesis and the latter to conscious synthesis. Spontaneous activity of an ego identified as the agent of deliberate conscious synthesis therefore makes no sense to me. Husserl is not alone in this strange usage of “spontaneity”; Kant, though he doesn’t talk about an ego, seems to have preceded him in speaking of a spontaneity of reason. In both cases, I think the motive was to separate rational motivation from psycho-physical causality, which I do support. (See Spontaneity.)

Here Husserl also explicitly identifies the ego with agent or “active” intellect. It’s unclear to me what Aquinas would think of this identification, but it would only make sense on the broadly Thomistic view that intellect is a proper part of the soul and is the basis of our conscious awareness. I’m guessing Husserl was unaware of the subtleties of scholastic debates about intellect, in which potential intellect in fact played a greater role. (I’ve been suggesting that in Aristotelian terms, imagination rather than intellect is the main basis of consciousness, and attempting to relate this to the Kantian idea of a productive synthesis of imagination, which Husserl identifies as a predecessor of his own notion of passive synthesis.)

All in all, I’m disappointed with this part of Husserl’s text. In spite of his recognition of a sort of active receptivity that is intermediate between activity and passivity, this part repeatedly suggests a rather sharp duality between activity and passivity. Instead of a “fundamental stratification” between passive and active synthesis, I want to imagine a more dynamic interleaving working itself out over time, in which no part is completely passive or completely active. In particular, through shared access to memory, I think the more passive aspects may build on past results from the more active aspects.

It appears initially that the remainder of Husserl’s text does not have the “egocentric” character that bothered me in this part.

Beauty and Discursivity

Plotinus was a huge inspiration for me in my youth. Revisiting a piece of his Enneads just now, I am again struck by the majesty of his thought and writing. These days I have a much more positive view of discursive reasoning, but I first wanted to let him speak for himself.

I still agree that there is far more to knowledge and understanding than an accumulation of propositions. But as a teenager, I definitely considered step-by-step reasoning to be something inferior to the kind of holistic intellectual intuition Plotinus emphasizes when he talks about Intellect. The latter I considered to be the true source of insight — “silent mind before talking mind”.

Nowadays, I think that kind of unitary vision is achievable only as the crowning result of much patient work. I no longer take it to be the original source that discursive reasoning imitates in an inferior way. Intellect or Reason does form a relational whole, and the whole is more important than the parts. But today I would emphasize that the relational whole is an articulated whole, and it is the articulation — the making of connections — that is the real essence.

From many connections, we get larger unities. Larger unities are still the goal, but the work of making connections is what makes such fused views possible. The contemplation of well-formed wholes by the silent mind of an embodied human depends on prior work that must include open discursive questioning and reasoning, if the result is to be genuine.

Aristotle made a vitally important distinction between what is first in itself and what is first for us. To directly aim for the highest truth in itself while being dismissive of what is “first for us” is to disregard our nature as rational animals. Put another way, to directly aim for the highest truth is simply to miss it. This is the kind of illegitimate shortcut that Plotinus himself criticized the gnostics for.

We rational animals need the “long detour” of dialectic to properly grasp any kind of real truth. Otherwise, our visionary experiences will just be fever dreams of the sort that incite fanatics. The goal is not just immediacy but mediated immediacy, as Hegel would say. I think Plotinus at least partially recognized this.

To no longer regard things in the manner of “a spectator outside gazing on an outside spectacle” is to overcome naive dichotomies of subject and object. To really do this, we have to clear our minds of prejudice, not just do meditative exercises to silence internal dialogue. Clearing our minds of prejudice is what requires the long detour.

Plotinus on Intellectual Beauty

“Art… must itself be beautiful in a far higher and purer degree [than the beautiful object]” (Plotinus, Enneads V.8, MacKenna trans., p. 422)

“The Nature, then, which creates things so lovely must be itself of a far earlier beauty; we, undisciplined in discernment of the inward, knowing nothing of it, run after the outer, never understanding that it is the inner that stirs us; we are in the case of one who sees his own reflection but not realizing whence it comes goes in pursuit of it” (p. 423).

“By what image, thus, can we represent it? We have nowhere to go but to what is less” (p. 424).

“For all There is heaven; earth is heaven, and sea heaven; and animal and plant and man; all is the heavenly content of that heaven…. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, and all is all and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great; the sun, There, is all the stars; and every star, again, is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other” (p. 425).

“Each There walks upon no alien soil; its place is its essential self; and, as each moves, so to speak, towards what is Above, it is attended by the very ground from which it starts: there is no distinguishing between the Being and the Place; all is Intellect, the Principle and the ground on which it stands, alike” (ibid).

“The myth of Lynceus seeing into the very deeps of the earth tells us of those eyes in the divine. No weariness overtakes the vision which yet brings no satiety as would call for its ending; for there never was a void to be filled…. [T]o see is to look the more, since for them to continue in the contemplation of an infinite self and of infinite objects is but to acquiesce in the bidding of their nature” (ibid).

“Life, pure, is never a burden…. The greatness and power of the wisdom There we may know from this, that it embraces all the real Beings, and has made all and all follow it, and yet that it is itself those beings” (p. 426).

“If we have failed to understand, it is that we have thought of knowledge as a mass of theorems and an accumulation of propositions, though that is false even for our sciences of the sense-realm…. [T]his is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out in detail” (ibid).

“Later from this wisdom in unity there appears, in another form of being, an image, already less compact, which announces the original in terms of discourse and seeks the causes by which things are such that the wonder arises how a generated world can be so excellent…. This excellence, whose necessity is scarcely or not at all manifest to search, exists, if we could but find it out, before all searching and reasoning” (p. 427).

“One way, only, remains: all things must exist in something else… thus the entire aggregate of existence springs from the divine world…. [T]he creation is not hindered, even now; it stands firm in virtue of being All. To me, moreover, it seems that if we ourselves were archetypes, Ideas, veritable Being, and the Idea with which we construct here were our veritable Essence, then our creative power, too, would toillessly effect its purpose” (p. 428).

“Certainly no reproach can rightly be brought against this world save only that it is not That” (p. 429).

“Being is desirable because it is identical with Beauty; and Beauty is loved because it is Being. How then can we debate which is the cause of the other, where the nature is one?” (p. 430).

“To those that do not see entire, the immediate impression is alone taken into account; but those drunken with this wine, filled with the nectar, all their soul penetrated by this beauty, cannot remain mere gazers: no longer is there a spectator outside gazing on an outside spectacle; the clear-eyed hold the vision within themselves, though, for the most part, they have no idea that it is within but look towards it as to something beyond them and see it as an object of wisdom caught by a direction of the will” (p. 431).

“The very contrary: to see the divine as something external is to be outside of it” (p. 432).

“We ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being” (p. 433).

Droplets of Sentience?

One somewhat speculative theme I’ve been developing here is the suggestion that our basic sentience or awareness has only a very loose unity, like that of a liquid. The idea is that sentience attaches primarily to our concrete thoughts, feelings, and perceptions, which can then flow together like droplets of water. Consciousness is not a matter of being a spectator of some internal theater. It attaches directly to the action of the play, so to speak. (See Ideas Are Not Inert; Imagination: Aristotle, Kant).

William James famously spoke of the “stream” of consciousness. I take this to be quite different from the unity of apperception that Kant talked about. The unity of a stream of consciousness is very loose and constantly changing, but that loose unity is a matter of fact. The unity of a unity of apperception on the other hand is quite strong, but it is a teleological tendency or a moral imperative, and not a matter of fact.

When we say “I”, that refers primarily to a unity of apperception — our constellation of commitments. This has much greater relative stability than our stream of consciousness. It is also what I think Aquinas was reaching for in claiming a strong moral unity of personal “intellect”. By contrast, one of the great modern errors is the equation “I am my consciousness”.

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.)