Peter Abelard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Moral Self?

The next stop on our Hegelian journey takes us back into Kantian/Fichtean territory. From merely legal rights and pure Utility we advance to a higher concept of moral action.

“In the national fraternity of True Spirit the agency of the singular self receives recognition only after death. The emergence of the singular self as a recognized bearer of legal rights is the death-knell of this beautiful harmony…. The Roman armies replaced this rather chancy and disorderly harmony of life with one universal human law, and one continuum of humanly recognized ‘rights’. But the universal continuum was soon shown up as a mere cloak for the age-old ‘law of the stronger’; ‘natural law’ and ‘natural rights’ have to pass through the long and painful dialectic of the Self-Estranged Spirit in order to become fully rational; and now finally the rational self who is the conscious bearer of moral rights has come to birth” (Harris, Hegel’s Ladder II, pp. 413-414).

Already the Real Individual saw herself as exercising something like Kantian autonomy, but only now do we meet with Kantian duty. Absorbed in its new-found sense of duty, “The moral self cares only for its own moral integrity, its membership in the ‘moral world-order’…. This self has no private purpose distinct from the ‘general will'” (p. 414). This is consistent with Kant’s Stoic-like emphasis on a radical separation of morality from any natural personal inclination.

“Moral Insight is ‘absolutely mediated’; it is culturally self-made, through the complete sublation of the natural self. But it will soon show itself to be the knowledge of membership in a spiritual community; and this knowledge does not have the ‘estranged’ character of a promise or a hope. Nor does it have the ‘split’ aspect of an insight that is obliged to be self-contemptuous. In the moral knowledge of duty, the rational community of the moral world-order is a living presence…. The moral agent acts consciously for the whole community of moral agents. Reason no longer takes itself to be Utility” (p. 415).

“But the dominance of Utility continues in a sublated way. I must use the order of Nature for the rational purpose of actualizing the Moral World-Order. This ‘estrangement’ of the two ‘orders’ remains to be overcome” (p. 417).

“There is a lot about the empirically external world that I do not know when I act; but that is morally irrelevant. It is what I actually do know that constitutes the situation in which my duty determines itself. What I know ‘absolutely’ when I act morally is that my intention is good. In the moral perspective this is all that counts” (p. 415).

“I can know and do my duty independently. But Nature does not care. I may be dutiful but unhappy, or undutiful yet happy anyway. So I am bound to complain that it is just not right” (ibid).

“In this parlous situation, the founding of moral knowledge upon the attitude of Faith represents the only hope” (p. 419).

“Actual morality is the perpetual making of an accord, which is not, and can never be, finally made. We must forever be ‘making progress in morality'” (p. 421).

“So moral consciousness does not develop its own concept. Instead, it postulates a world…. The moral self does not know that in its postulation it is developing its own concept of its self…. Unlike simple Faith, the moral consciousness does know that it is thinking. But it does not know how to express the fact that what it thinks is ‘necessarily true’, except in terms of the ordinary standard by which we determine the truth of our thoughts” (p. 427). “We shall soon see that this necessary opacity of what is supposed to be purely ‘intelligible’ puts the sincerity of the moral consciousness — the very thing that has emerged as the truth of its self-certainty — in question” (p. 428).

“When we begin with moral self-certainty in this Fichtean perspective, we have to take the ‘primacy of the practical’ with mortal earnestness…. We are no longer caught up in the dualism of Cartesian thought…. [Hegel’s] whole ‘speculative’ standpoint rests on this Fichtean unification of the natural and the moral world-order. From this moment onwards we are truly in the ‘kingdom of the Spirit'” (p. 429).

But Hegel will not rest content with the Fichte’s practical postulation of a moral God. On the one hand, “The harmony is experienced in fact; to speak of it as postulated is a pretense” (p. 435). On the other, “No matter how much good we actually do, the world remains essentially nothing but an infinite complex of moral problems. The perfect ‘harmony’… is never completed” (ibid).

Harris also points out that Hegel was far from accepting Fichte’s claim of an intellectual intuition of the self that Kant rejected. “It is Fichte’s categorical claim that the whole critical philosophy must be placed in the context of the intuitive self-certainty of the dutiful self that comes to grief here. When we drag it through the ‘experience’ of its own postulational thinking, the moral self-intuition is shown not to be an ‘intuition’ at all” (p. 434).

“I can always give up on the phenomenal world, and insist on my own unity with God; and when I shift back to this position after a practical defeat in the outer world, it is not the same position as it was initially. It is less optimistic, but it is inwardly deepened by the experience.”

“The deepening comes from the awareness that the actual transformation of the natural order is essential to the moral order” (p. 436). “So the retreat into the inner sense of a dutiful union with God must again be displaced in favor of Kant’s first formulation of the categorical imperative. Here the ‘harmony of morality with nature’ is stated as a duty: ‘Act as if the maxim of your action were supposed to become through your will a universal law of nature‘” (ibid).

“We have now reached the point where the dogmatic hypothesis that ‘moral consciousness is actual’ must be replaced by the hypothesis that it is only a project to be realized, it is ‘what ought to be’. Having got back to the Garden of Eden we have understood that the Fall is the necessary presupposition of the salvation that we seek” (ibid).

“The ‘as if‘ in Kant’s formula (‘Act as if the maxim of your action were supposed to become…’) is crucial. It is not the perfect organization of the natural world that is the real goal of moral action…. Rather it is the perfect development of every moral self that is the goal; and for the fulfilment of that purpose, the natural world needs to remain a problem” (p. 437).

“But even the perfection of the moral self as an integrated will to put the world in order involves the same paradoxical unacceptability as a goal. Its achievement would eliminate the necessity for any moral striving” (p. 438). “So the goal of moral action has not been adequately formulated as moral self-affirmation in the sensible world; again the goal must be displaced” (p. 439).

“What we are now saying is that the condition of being between the successful ‘activity of the pure purpose’ (where we experience the harmony of will and inclination) and the struggling awareness of a natural antithesis needing to be transcended and conquered, is the true moral goal. For this ‘in-betweenness’, this cycling from perfection to imperfection and back again, is the only way in which morality can be both ‘what is’ and ‘what ought to be’ (p. 440).

“[A] postulated ‘harmony between is and ought’ cannot count as ‘absolute knowledge’. The postulated object of knowledge is not knowable at all; it is simply an evasion” (ibid).

“‘Experience’ shows that the moral self does not need any postulated intelligible world” (p. 446).

”When we postulate the noumenal world, we find ourselves forced to say contradictory things both about our phenomenal world and about the noumenal one. Phenomenal nature is morally null; but also it is this world that must be reshaped to display the noumenal reality; and the Good Will is the absolute essence, whose noumenal reality is all that counts; but it is not a will at all if it does not act in this phenomenal world, where its existence can be recognized” (p. 449).

Hegel on Willing

Chapters 5 and 6 of Pippin’s Hegel’s Practical Philosophy address psychological and social dimensions of willing. Hegel is generally close to Aristotle on these matters. Pippin also makes the interesting remark in the introduction that among philosophers, it is actually Spinoza whose approach to freedom most resembles Hegel’s. (For notes on earlier chapters, see Naturalness, Mindedness; Self-Legislation?; Actualization of Freedom.)

He quotes Hegel’s remark that “the will is a particular way of thinking — thinking translating itself into existence — thinking as the drive to give itself existence” (p. 129). “He seems to be saying that the right way to understand the subject’s basic relation to her deeds… is a matter primarily of comprehension or an experiential understanding, and not at all the experience of a power successfully executed” (p. 130).

Pippin says that for Hegel, “the picture of being simply assailed by unmotivated desires and seeking only to satisfy them, is as false as is the picture of the pure contemplator-of-the-good, necessarily and unavoidably moved to act by such contemplation alone” (p. 136). Freedom will involve not some kind of freeing of ourselves from desire, but rather a desire manifested in a form that is also one of reason.

Hegel wants to reconnect the inner and the outer. In particular, the relation between inner state and outer deed will be interpreted as one of continuity, or what he will call speculative “identity”, rather than any kind of causality. What is actually expressed in our actions is according to Hegel the best guide to understanding what we truly wanted.

Self-knowledge for Hegel therefore cannot be separated from knowledge of the world. Moreover, “my relation to myself is mediated by my relation to others” (p. 149). Hegel thinks one deliberates “qua ‘ethical being’ (Sittliches Wesen), not qua rational agent, full stop” (p. 150). He does not accept the “standard picture of individuals exercising an exclusively and uniquely first-personal and self-certifying intra-mental deliberative faculty” (p. 150). “[S]elf-ascriptions of intentions are not to be understood as based on observation; they are not reports of mental items…. When I express an intention, even to myself, I am avowing a pledge to act, the content and credibility of which remains (even for me), in a way, suspended until I begin to fulfill the pledge” (p. 151; emphasis in original).

Hegel “makes clear that he is quite opposed to the most widespread understanding, …the subjective sense that nothing will happen until I resolve to act, understood as something like engaging the gears of action and propelling oneself forward into action” (p. 129). He thinks there is a “defect at the core of a modern notion of agency based on ontologically distinct individual centers of unique intra-mental causal powers” (p. 155).

Instead, he “is asking that we in effect widen our focus when considering what a rational and thereby free agent looks like, widening it so as to include in the picture of agency itself a contextual and temporal field stretching out ‘backwards’ from… the familiar resolving and acting subject, and stretching ‘forward’… such that the unfolding of the deed and the reception and reaction to it are considered a constitutive element of the deed, of what fixes ultimately what was done and what turned out to be a subject’s intention” (p. 152; emphasis in original).

“The proper act-description partly depends on the established context of deliberation and action (what having this or that practical reason for doing this or that could mean in such a context) and partly on what intention and what act-description are attributed to you by others. If that is so, then no trumping priority can be given to the agent’s own expression of intention” (p. 153). (I would prefer to just say “context” rather than “established context”.) This also makes all such assessments “provisional and temporally fluid, unstable across time and experience” (ibid).

The “unfolding of a deed in time and for others, after an agent has begun to act, is as essential a dimension of what makes agency agency as what precedes the putative moment of decision” (p. 156). Hegel is quoted saying “Ethical Self-consciousness now learns from its deed the developed nature of what it actually did” (p. 157; emphasis in original).

“Knowing one’s mind, then, turns out to be ‘having a mind of one’s own’, which, in turn, must be wrested from others and protected in ways neither indifferent to nor submissive to the demands and interpretations of others, and it means a form of mindedness that one must also be able to express and act out, successfully ‘realize’ in the world” (p. 178). (See also What We Really Want. For my notes on Brandom’s coverage of this same Hegelian territory, see Brandomian Forgiveness; Rethinking Responsibility; Expansive Agency.)

Efficient Cause, Again

Yesterday, I changed my thinking about Aristotle’s “efficient cause”, making a somewhat surprising connection to the modern notion of “structural causality”. Then I had to update my account of generalized unmoved movers to add a case for an unmoved efficient cause.

Aristotle’s whole framework of “causes” (answers to “why” questions) is often misunderstood, and it is especially bad with the so-called efficient cause. A quick web search on the latter turns up mostly accounts that are just wrong. (A wonderful exception is the outstanding article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

At Physics 195b22-25, referring back to an earlier example of a man building a house that was initially said (metonymically, it turns out) to be an efficient cause, Aristotle wrote (Complete Works, Barnes edition) “In investigating the cause of each thing it is always necessary to seek what is most precise (as also in other things): thus a man builds because he is a builder, and a builder builds in virtue of his art of building. This last cause then is prior; and so generally.” So it is the art of building — not the carpenter or the hammer or the hammer’s blow — that primarily “builds” the house (i.e., governs the details of the process its construction), and is properly (not just metonymically) called its efficient cause. Once again, for Aristotle it is something at the level of adverbial detail — not the coarse level of agents or action — that is most important.

Having said the other day that Foucaultian discursive regularities are a kind of efficient cause like the art of building, it occurred to me they are also a good example of structural causality, and then that one might say the same about, e.g., the art of building.

Previously, I had been thinking about the efficient cause as functioning like a sort of catalyst. This relatively modest role had led me to privately think of the efficient cause as an “accidental” cause (i.e., one not really contributing to the essence of the thing).

This was at the opposite extreme from the tendency of late scholastics like the great Jesuit Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) to make efficient causes paradigmatic for causes in general, conceived in a proto-modern sense of being responsible for the fact of a thing’s being or existence rather than for the manner of its being, and as involving an “influence” from an agent rather than reasons. (In this context, ends or “final causes” were also reduced to mental intentions of a natural or supernatural agent, as al-Ghazali (d. 1111 CE) had done earlier, quite contrary to Aristotle’s own non-mental account. It was this mentalist reinterpretation that was the real target of Spinoza’s eloquent polemic against against teleology.) There is a nice article by Stephan Schmid on these issues in Suárez.

Anyway, an efficient cause as a point of application of structural causality clearly has a much bigger role to play in determining the detailed nature of a thing than the purely external one of a mere catalyst. (I am using the word “nature” here in a sense broader than Aristotle’s, similar to essence but particular to things that come to be, whereas Aristotle further limited it to nonartificial things, which he thought all contained at least a rudimentary internal principle of motion not shared by artificial things.) On my new account, the efficient cause also exemplifies the interweaving of Aristotelian essence with accident or contingency, due to the role of the semantic materiality as well as form of the means of realization of a nature that is its efficient cause.

This is also more conformant to the idea that all Aristotelian causes are supposed to contribute to explaining the natures of things. Ironically, my previous “catalyst” view made the efficient cause a kind of exception that looked more like the sort of cause of existence I have generally been arguing is un-Aristotelian. As a point of application of structural causality, an efficient cause now fits the general pattern of explaining natures, rather than the mere factual existence of things with natures more or less taken for granted.