Aristotelian Actualization

Having just concluded a series broadly on the actualization of freedom in Hegel, I’d like to say a few words on the Aristotelian roots of the important concept of actualization. A discussion of actualization is arguably the centerpiece of Aristotle’s diverse lecture notes related to first philosophy placed by the editor “after the physics”, which came to be traditionally called Metaphysics. From that discussion, actualization is clearly a process, and comes in degrees.

Aristotle also made the pregnant remark that while what he called soul is the “first actuality” or “activity” of the body (associated with its life), intelligence or reason (associated especially with language and ethics) is a kind of second actuality of a human being.

For all Aristotle’s praise of the soul, unlike Plato he did not treat it as an independent substance. It is only the hylomorphic unity of soul and body that gets this key designation. As I read him, things like soul and intellect are complex adverbial and ultimately normative characterizations expressing how we function and act in relation to ends. They are made into nouns only as a matter of convenience.

Aristotle distinguished stages of actualization. In a famous example, an unschooled youth has the potential to learn geometry. Someone who has already acquired an understanding of geometry has the potential to use it. This is an intermediate degree of actualization. In someone who is actively using such an understanding in work on a proof, there is said to be a higher degree of actualization.

This already suggests a kind of process of development that is not reducible to the model of simple organic growth (in which Aristotle was also quite interested). Rather, he approaches such developments in terms of his notion of dialectical inquiry or cumulative exploratory reasoning about concrete meanings in the absence of initial certainty, which in my view is the essential kernel from which Hegel’s very extensive original (and sometimes confusing) development of “dialectic” proceeded.

Commentators on Aristotle like Alexander of Aphrodisias (2nd century CE) and al-Farabi (10th century CE) further refined this notion of degrees of actualization, especially with regard to intelligence or reason. In the Latin tradition, this was taken up especially by the school of Albert the Great. These writers tended to hypostatize intellect as something transcendent or even divine to which the human soul could nonetheless become progressively “joined”, approximating something like the seamless hylomorphic unity of soul and body. But it is possible to put such claims of strong transcendence in brackets, while focusing on the detailed dialectical development of notions of progressive mixture, layers, and stages. These medieval notions of layered actualization seem to lead in a very different and more interesting direction than the tedious cliché of the “Great Chain of Being”.

Be that as it may, the essential point is that in Aristotle himself, actualization is discussed dialectically rather than in terms of organic growth. (See also Actuality; Second Nature; Parts of the Soul; Intelligence from Outside; Fortunes of Aristotle.)

Pseudo-Dionysius on the Soul

In the 13th century, Christian theologians worried in varying degrees about the way “the” Commentator, Averroes, tended to separate intellect from the individual human soul (see digression on this aspect of Averroes in What Is “I”?) — enough so that the reception of Aristotle into the Latin world was for a time threatened. Aquinas wrote a famous little treatise in 1270 On the Unity of the Intellect, mustering as many arguments as possible for a reading of Aristotle that avoided this separation, and gave each soul its own individual intellect. Due to the minimalist nature of Aristotle’s own account, the argument has continued to the present day. Both sides of the dispute have some textual basis on their side. Supported by Augustinian orthodoxy and the writings of Avicenna, the theologians generally argued for a strongly unified intellectual soul. Part of their concern seems to have been a clearly nonphilosophical one, having to do with moral justification of the possible eternal damnation of a human. More purely philosophical readers of Aristotle tended to be less worried about these matters.

The French Thomist scholar E. H. Wéber wrote a couple of fascinating books, L’Homme en Discussion a l’Université de Paris en 1270 (1970) and La Personne Humaine au XIIIe Siècle (1991), about the way Aquinas in this context also, rather unexpectedly, drew on the early Christian neoplatonic writings attributed to a fictitious Greek disciple of the apostle Paul called Dionysius the Areopagite.

Both Albert the Great and Aquinas made considerable use of pseudo-Dionysius in their theology. A bit like Augustine in this regard, pseudo-Dionysius had a strong neoplatonic notion of divine illumination in the soul. As with intellect in Averroes, this also comes from outside, but unlike anything in Averroes, it involves a direct relation between God and the soul. Wéber argued that this played a larger role in the thought of Aquinas than has been generally recognized, and it does seem to me that when Aquinas talks about the natural light of reason, it has something of the character of a divine illumination, quite different from the mainly linguistic, social, and ethical view of reason I find in Aristotle. This view of reason as divine illumination in the soul did not require any “separate” intellect, leaving Aquinas free to argue that both the active and the potential intellect were strictly parts of the individual soul.

Wéber recounts that Aquinas (like Albert) was initially only moderately concerned about the views of Averroes on the soul, but later took a stronger position, harshly condemning this aspect of Averroes’ thought. Politically speaking, it seems that Aristotle had to be separated from Averroes on this matter, in order to make Aristotle safe for Christianity at the time. Matters of theological diplomacy were an important practical part of the unity of truth in Aquinas. Whatever we think of this particular development, we should be grateful to Aquinas for his role in historically securing Latin acceptance of Aristotle. (See also Archaeology of the Subject; Intelligence from Outside; Parts of the Soul; God and the Soul; Fortunes of Aristotle; Errors of the Philosophers; Subject; Mind Without Mentalism. )

Unconscious Intellect?

If intellect in a broadly Aristotelian sense is at least partly nonpsychological and has a significant linguistic/cultural/social/historical aspect, how does the nonpsychological aspect relate to the psychological aspect?

Many 20th century authors, from Frege and Husserl to Lacan, sharply rejected the idea that thought should be approached primarily in psychological terms. Also, we should not consider the individual psyche to be like an island with unambiguous boundaries. Aristotle uses the single word ethos (the main subject matter of “ethics” in his view) both for individual acquired character and for culture. Character is a sort of micro-culture. Plato already famously compared the soul to a city.

Beatrice Longuenesse, who previously wrote a marvelous book on the Kantian transcendental deduction, recently suggested an unexpected connection between Kantian transcendental considerations and Freudian metapsychology. Meanwhile, at the end of the day, Kant ends up relatively closer to Aristotelian ethics than it would first appear. (Many scholars have debated the fine points of this, and Nancy Sherman wrote a whole book on it.) So what about an Aristotelian metapsychology?

Actually, it seems to me that Aristotle is more interested in metapsychology than in what we call psychology, and that his views on thought are better considered in this light. Frege and Husserl might part company with us here, but logically oriented criticisms of psychologism do not rule out all uses of metapsychology (or even psychology, for that matter).

Intelligence from Outside

I very much like Aristotle’s cryptic remark in De Anima about intellect coming to us “from outside”. Intellect is very far from purely belonging to the individual psyche. On other grounds, I think our very notions of self only emerge through social interaction, and not any sort of originary intuition.

In a certain sense, then, specifically human as distinct from animal intelligence is already artificial in the sense that its basis is not purely organic. It cannot be separated from our acquisition of language and culture.

Where there is still a difference between human intelligence and anything in a computational domain is in the normative, practical dimension of human reason, which does not seem to be susceptible to formalization. Practical judgment (phronesis) cannot be programmed. (See also What Is “I”?)