Form vs Action

Lately I’ve been assembling materials for a contrast between two different “root metaphors” that have been used in making sense of life, the world, and things — one a notion of form associated especially with Aristotle, and the other a Latin scholastic and modern notion of action. This is also related to the historical transformation of the notion of efficient cause and of causality in general.

The first thing to note is that these are families of metaphors rather than uniform applications of the “same” two concepts. Literal shapes, linguistic meanings, and patterns of activity are all called “forms”, but do not reflect the same concept. The “action” of creation from nothing and that of mechanical impulse are two entirely different concepts.

The unifying themes, I think, are that “action” is supposed to be something more or less simple, immediate, and instantaneous, supporting what is supposed to be a kind of bottom-up, foundational explanation of things, whereas “form” always involves some “intensional” complexity and mediation; may involve extension in time and space that further ramifies that intensional complexity and mediation; and supports a kind of “middle-out” explanation that begins with reflection on middle-sized elements of actual experience, rather than a posited foundation of ultimate simple constituents.

(For some additional complications regarding the above simple picture of action, see A Thomistic Grammar of Action.)

Simple Substance?

I tremendously admire Leibniz, but have always been very puzzled by his notion of “substance”. Clearly it is different from that of Aristotle, which I still ought to develop more carefully, based on the hints in my various comments on Aristotle’s very distinctive approaches to “dialectic” and “being”. (See also Form, Substance.)

Leibniz compounds a criterion of simplicity — much emphasized in the neoplatonic and scholastic traditions — with his own very original notion of the complete concept of a thing, which is supposed to notionally encompass every possible detail of its description. He also emphasizes that every substance is “active”. Leibniz’ famous monads are identified by him with substances.

A substance is supposed to be simple. He explicitly says this means it has no parts. In part, he seems to have posited substances as a sort of spiritual atoms, with the idea that it is these that fundamentally make up the universe. The true atoms, Leibniz says, are fundamentally spiritual rather than material, though he also had great interest in science, and wanted to vindicate both mathematical and Aristotelian physics. Leibniz’ notion of spiritual atoms seems to combine traditional attributes of the scholastic “intellectual soul” (which, unlike anything in Aristotle, was explicitly said by its advocates to be a simple substance) with something like Berkeley’s thesis that what can truly be said to exist are just minds.

On the other hand, a substance is supposed to be the real correlate of a “complete” concept. The complete concept of a thing for Leibniz comprises absolutely everything that is, was, or will be true of the thing. This is related to his idea that predicates truly asserted of a grammatical subject must be somehow “contained” within the subject. Leibniz also famously claimed that all apparent interaction between substances is only an appearance. The details of apparent interaction are to be explained by the details contained within the complete concept of each thing. This is also related to his notions of pre-established harmony and possible worlds, according to which God implicitly coordinates all the details of all the complete concepts of things in a world, and makes judgments of what is good at the level of the infinite detail of entire worlds. One of Kant’s early writings was a defense of real interaction against Leibniz.

Finally, every monad is said by Leibniz to contain both a complete microcosm of the world as expressed from its distinctive point of view, and an infinite series of monads-within-monads within it. Every monad has or is a different point of view from every other, but they all reflect each other.

At least in most of his writings, Leibniz accordingly wanted to reduce all notions of relation to explanations in terms of substances. In late correspondence with the Jesuit theologian Bartholomew Des Bosses, he sketched an alternate view that accepted the reality of relations. But generally, Leibniz made the logically valid argument that it is far simpler to explain the universe in terms of each substance’s unique relation to God, rather than in terms of infinities of infinities of relations between relations. For Leibniz all those infinities of infinities are still present, but only in the mind of God, and in reflection in the interior of each monad.

Leibniz’ logically simpler account of relations seems like an extravagant theological fancy, but however we may regard that, and however much we may ultimately sympathize with Kant over Leibniz on the reality of interaction and relations, Leibniz had very advanced intuitions of logical-mathematical structure, and he is fundamentally right that from a formal point of view, extensional properties of things can all be interpreted in an “intensional” way. Intension in logic refers to internal content of a concept, and to necessary and sufficient conditions that constitute its formal definition. This is independent of whatever views we may have about minds. (See also Form as a Unique Thing.)

So, there is much of interest here, but I don’t see how these ultra-rich notional descriptions can be true of what are also supposed to be logical atoms with no parts. In general, I don’t see how having a rich description could be compatible with being logically atomic. I think the notion of logical atomicity is only arrived at through abstraction, and doesn’t apply to real things.

Reference, Representation

The simplest notion of reference is a kind of literal or metaphorical pointing at things. This serves as a kind of indispensable shorthand in ordinary life, but the simplicity of metaphorical pointing is illusory. It tends to tacitly presuppose that we already know what it is that is being pointed at.

More complex kinds of reference involve the idea of representation. This is another notion that is indispensable in ordinary life.

Plato and Aristotle used notions of representation informally, but gave them no privileged status or special role with respect to knowledge. They were much more inclined to view knowledge, truth, and wisdom in terms of what is reasonable. Plato tended to view representation negatively as an inferior copy of something. (See Platonic Truth; Aristotelian Dialectic; Aristotelian Semantics.)

It was the Stoics who first gave representation a key role in the theory of knowledge. The Stoics coupled a physical account of the transmission of images — bridging optics and physiology — with very strong claims of realism, certain knowledge both sensory and rational, and completeness of their system of knowledge. In my view, the Stoic theory of representation is the classic version of the “correspondence” theory of truth. The correspondence theory treats truth as a simple “correspondence” to some reality that is supposed to be known beyond question. (Such a view is sometimes misattributed to Plato and Aristotle, but was actually quite alien to their way of thinking.)

In the Latin middle ages, Aquinas developed a notion of “perfect” representation, and Duns Scotus claimed that the most general criterion of being was representability. In the 17th century, Descartes and Locke built foundationalist theories of certain knowledge in which explicitly mental representations played the central role. Descartes also explicitly treated representation in terms of mathematical isomorphism, representing geometry with algebra.

Taking putatively realistic representational reference for granted is a prime example of what Kant called dogmatism. Kant suggested that rather than claiming certainty, we should take responsibility for our claims. From the time of Kant and Hegel, a multitude of philosophers have sharply criticized claims for certain foundations of representational truth.

In the 20th century, the sophisticated relational mathematics of model theory gave representation renewed prestige. Model-theoretic semantics, which explains meaning in terms of representation understood as relational reference, continues to dominate work in semantics today, though other approaches are also used, especially in the theory of programming languages. Model-theoretic semantics is said to be an extensional rather than intensional theory of meaning. (An extensional, enumerative emphasis tends to accompany an emphasis on representation. Plato, Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel on the other hand approached meaning in a mainly intensional way, in terms of concepts and reasons.)

Philosophical criticism of representationalist theories of knowledge also continued in the 20th century. Husserl’s phenomenological method involved suspending assumptions about reference. Wittgenstein criticized the notion of meaning as a picture. All the existentialists, structuralists, and their heirs rejected Cartesian/Lockean representationalism.

Near the end of the 20th century, Robert Brandom showed that it is possible to account very comprehensively for the various dimensions of reference and representation in terms of intensionally grounded, discursive material inference and normative doing, later wrapping this in an interpretation of Hegel’s ethical and genealogical theory of mutual recognition. This is not just yet another critique of representationalism, but an actual constructive account of an alternative, meticulously developed, that can explain how effects of reference and representation are constituted through engagement in normative discursive practices — how reference and representation have the kind of grip on us that they do, while actually being results of complex normative synthesis rather than simple primitives. (See also Normative Force.)