Saying as Ethical Doing

Saying is a distinctive kind of doing. This goes way beyond the physical uttering of words, and beyond the immediate social aspects of speech acts. It involves the much broader process of the ongoing constitution of shared meaning in which we talking animals participate.

Before we are empirical beings, we are ethical beings. Meaning is deeply, essentially involved with valuations. The constitution of values is also an ongoing, shared process that in principle involves all rational beings past, present, and future. Our sayings — both extraordinary and everyday — contribute to the ongoing constitution of the space of reasons of which all rational beings are co-stewards. We are constantly implicitly adjudicating what is a good reason for what.

If immediate speech acts have ethical significance, this is all the more true of our implicit contributions to these ongoing, interrelated processes of constitution of meanings, valuations, and reasons. Everything we say becomes a good or bad precedent for the future.

Aristotle consistently treated “said of” relations in a normative rather than a merely empirical, factual, representational or referential way. Brandom has developed a “normative pragmatics” to systematically address related concerns. Numerous analytic philosophers have recognized the key point that to say anything at all is implicitly to commit oneself to it. As Brandom has emphasized, this typically entails other commitments as well. I would add that every commitment has meaning not only in terms of the pragmatic “force” of what is said, but also as a commitment in the ethical sense.

It is through our practices of commitment and follow-through that our ethical character is also constituted. As Robert Pippin has pointed out that Hegel emphasized in a very Aristotelian way, what we really wanted is best understood starting from what we actually did. In contrasting all this with the much narrower concept of speech acts, I want to return to an emphasis on what is said, but at the same time to take the “said” in as expansive a sense as possible. This is deeply interwoven with all our practical doings, and to be considered from the point of view of its actualization into a kind of objectivity as shared meaning that is no longer just “my” intention.

Ethical Practice

In Kant, practical means ethical. This initially seemed counter-intuitive to me. Like many, I used to think of the “practical” in technical and utilitarian terms, as how we realize desired results. I also used to think considerations of value needed to be guided by considerations of truth, and that pursuing the truth far enough and sincerely enough would spontaneously provide sufficient answers to ethical questions. I would no longer put it that way. I now think that the pursuit of truth, taken far enough, shows things to be “normative all the way down”, in Brandom’s phrase. Even the most narrowly technical considerations ultimately involve questions of value. Conversely, inquiry into values is the one kind of inquiry that need not presuppose any other.

Ethics are not a spontaneous byproduct of inquiry into the truth. In order to sincerely inquire into the truth, we need to deliberately focus on all the questions of value that come up along the way and affect our judgments. As a result, I now think of ethical practice as subsuming every other kind of practice.

Ethical inquiry is concerned with what we should do, which includes the details of how we do it. Every kind of doing is subject to this kind of consideration.

Engineering, to take one non-obvious example, is not just about coming up with designs that “work”, but about coming up with good designs. Various kinds of arguments that are relatively “value free” can be made about criteria for good design in specific contexts, but ultimately what matters most is that the design be “good” or better than the alternatives, however that is to be understood in the particular case.

An ethics-first view of philosophy puts ethics or “axiology” (inquiry into values) before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic in the order of explanation.

All doing has ethical implications of one sort or another, and all inquiry (also a kind of doing) ultimately involves questions of value.

Brandom and Pippin on Hegelian Ethics

Robert Brandom and Robert Pippin are two major “deflationary” readers of Hegel these days. Counter to the old bad stereotype of Hegel as an extravagant metaphysician who turned his back on Kant’s critique of traditional metaphysics, they both see Hegel as further developing the most essential aspects of Kant’s innovations. Both aim to carry forward Wilfrid Sellars’ Kant-inspired critique of the “myth of the given”. They both see human intentions in terms of shareable meanings rather than private mental contents.

Brandom sees Hegel’s notion of mutual recognition not only as leading to a radically new, expanded notion of responsibility, but also as providing a basis for a novel general account of the objectivity of knowledge. Pippin meanwhile has developed an innovative, strongly Aristotelian reading of Hegel’s practical philosophy. I like putting the two of these together.

Brandom radicalizes the Kantian theme of the primacy of practical reason, effectively putting ethical inquiry before epistemology, ontology, or formal logic. He replaces metaphysics with a new kind of meta-ethics. Unlike many who have used the term “meta-ethics”, he does not seek some naturalistic or empirical foundation for ethics; rather, he sees “normativity all the way down”. Normative considerations are involved in the interpretation of anything at all. Judgments of fact depend on value judgments, and value judgments implicitly depend on the possibility of dialogue under conditions of mutual respect. It is principally through being subject to open-ended rational dialogue that judgments are verified.

Brandom’s expanded notion of responsibility is aimed at promoting greater and wider forgiveness, while simultaneously eliminating common excuses for misdeeds. Aristotle and important strands of the Christian tradition already promoted the idea that people should not be blamed or punished for unintended consequences of their actions (or for things they were coerced into doing). Brandom attributes to Hegel the novel view that everyone shares responsibility for all unintended consequences.

Pippin makes the profoundly Aristotelian point that what we actually did is the best guide to what our intentions really were. He argues that for Hegel, our own interpretation of our intentions has no privileged status in comparison to the interpretations of others. He would undercut excuses of the sort “I did x, but I really wanted y“. Rather, he would say that what we really wanted — not in the abstract, but under all the conditions that actually applied — was just what we did.

The actuality referenced here is a matter neither of simple fact nor of empirical consensus or majority opinion, but is itself a matter of normative evaluation under conditions of rational dialogue and respect for all.

Act and Action

Still pursuing roots of the modern “subject” in medieval Latin scholasticism by way of Alain de Libera’s Arch√©ologie du sujet, I’ve reached the point where de Libera reviews Bernard Lonergan’s detailed account of act, action, and related terms in Aquinas. The most noteworthy conclusion is that Aquinas distinguishes “act” from “action” in opposite ways in different texts, when he combines it with his other distinction between cases of immanent and transient action. This confusion appears not to have originated with Aquinas himself, but rather with the Latin translations of Greek texts that he used.

In any event, the way these distinctions are deployed by Aquinas is to say the least highly fluid, which is to say that any attempt to interpret them univocally would result in contradictions. (Burrell, who considers the analogy of being a later development attributable to Cajetan, nonetheless suggests that there is an analogy of action in Aquinas.)

De Libera constructs a table of Latin terms (vol. 3 part 1, p. 325) used by Aquinas for the Greek energeia (literally “in-actness”, for which I’ve been using the conventional translation of “actuality”) in the agent and in an external product, respectively. Energeia may be actus in the agent and actio in the product, or vice versa. It may be operatio in the agent and either actio or factio in the product. It may be actio in the agent and factio in the product.

“What it is necessary to understand in this context is that for Aristotle it is one and the same principle that accounts for act, whether in the agent or the product. That principle is form” (ibid, my translation, emphasis added). According to de Libera, for Aquinas too form is the principle of both the act that remains in the agent, and that which passes to the product. (Burrell reads Aquinas in a relational way that avoids de Libera’s suggestion of something passing between agent and product. The idea of something passing between agent and product suggests Suarez’s later explanation of efficient causation by “influence”.)

De Libera takes note (pp. 327-332) of the Latin translation of the influential definition of praxis (ethical action or practice) in the treatise On the Nature of Man by the 4th century CE Syrian bishop Nemesius of Emesa used by Aquinas. In Greek, Nemesius says “praxis is energeia logik√©“. The Latin translation by Burgundio of Pisa says “gestio is actus rationalis“. But the same translator rendered the same Greek sentence in The Orthodox Faith by the 7th century monk John of Damascus as “actio is operatio rationalis“.

This might seem like a complete muddle. But if we take act as form as the guiding thread as de Libera suggests, it may be possible to get something coherent out of it. On the other hand, some adjustment would still be required if we also accepted the identification of act with action and of action with an efficient cause. If act is supposed to be understood as form and end and action as the efficient cause or means by which an end is accomplished, then act cannot be identified with action.

It is one thing to recognize the limits of attempting to apply univocity and formalism in logic to the real world, and quite another to affirm a contradiction. But this is a quite delicate area, and sometimes there are arguments whether there is truly a contradiction or merely an implicit distinction between cases. The answer to this depends on interpretation, and every interpretation is subject to dialogue.

De Libera says that Burgundio’s translation of John of Damascus “introduces nothing less than the ‘modern’ vocabulary of action” (p. 327). Thus it seems that Aquinas ends up with an unstable combination of Aristotelian and “modern” meanings for act and action, but the instability was already present in the sources he used.

Questioning the Role of Action

Which comes first in the order of explanation: action, as immediate doing; or patterns of activity or practice, as extended, intricately developed over time, mediated, purposeful, and responsive to circumstance? I think it is more the latter.

What I aim to question here is not at all the reality of change or activity, but rather what might be called the “action model” — a way of explaining extended processes and changes and human reality in general in terms of punctual and immediate actions or events. The question is, do we focus on understanding larger processes and developments as the sum of discrete actions, or do we focus on understanding more or less immediate actions in terms of their place in larger processes and developments?

There is more than just a simple polarity here — meaning consists of both concrete detail and a larger context, and we need each of these to help elaborate the other. Nonetheless I want to suggest that it is better to explain things from the larger perspective of activities rather than the narrower one of actions.

Logical Judgment?

It seems to me that “logical judgment” comes in a wide range of forms, from the preconscious syntheses of our evolved common sense that appear to us ready-made, to the most elaborately explicit works of interpretation. I see judgment as referring principally to a process, and only secondarily to the outcome of the process — to the deliberation more than to the verdict, as it were.

There is a traditional use of “judgment” as a synonym for “logical proposition”. I find this a bit odd; it would make more sense to think of a judgment as at the very least an assertion or denial of a proposition, even in contexts where the connotation of interpretive, deliberative process is suppressed, and the focus is only on an outcome.

In combination with traditional ideas about predication, this identification of judgments with propositions led to a notion of acts of logical judgment in which acts of grammatical predication such as construction of the sentence “Socrates is a human” were viewed as prototypical.

Even Kant’s discussion of the application of concepts in the first Critique bears noticeable traces of this predicative analysis of logical judgment. I think Kant across the larger body of his work played a major role in developing alternatives to the predicative approach that narrowly construed “judgment” as the application of a predicate to a subject. Indeed Brandom argues that Kantian concepts are only intelligible in terms of their contribution to the activity of judging. Nonetheless, when Kant talks about subsuming particulars under universals, the discussion still recalls the predicative approach. Certainly the application of universals to particulars is important, but it is only one of several dimensions that come into play in the constitution of meaning, and it is not the most fundamental.

In referring to the constitution of meaning, I have already implicitly moved beyond the predicative analysis. The problem with the predicative analysis is that it takes meanings for granted, and really only addresses their syntactic combination as pre-existing units. We need to address the broader territory of judgments about meaning and value that go below the level of pre-existing units and preconceived identities. Meanings of terms in context turn out to depend on judgments, which in turn depend on others, and it is the ties of mutual dependency that bind together this open-endedly expanding network that give relative definiteness to our determinations.

Real-World Reasoning

I think most people most of the time are more influenced by apprehended or assumed meanings than by formal logic. What makes us rational animals is first of all the simple fact that we have commitments articulated in language. The interplay of language and commitment opens us to dialogue and the possibility of mutual recognition, which simultaneously ground both values and objectivity. This opening, I’d like to suggest, is what Hegel called Spirit. (See also Interpretation.)

Formal and Material Interpretation

Human reasoning has two sides, that could be called formal and material. Any reasoning applicable to the real world necessarily involves the “material” side that is concerned with actual meaning “content”. It may also involve the “formal” side, which aims to express reasoning in terms of mechanically repeatable operations that are completely agnostic to the actual meanings they are used to operate on. Reasoning in some abstract contexts may rely entirely on the formal side.

Aristotle is usually credited with inventing formal logic, but he paid a lot of attention to the material side as well. In the Latin middle ages both sides were recognized, but the formal side was generally emphasized.

Formal mathematical logic underwent an immense development in the 20th century, somewhat like the earlier success story of mathematical physics. The syntactic devices of mathematical logic seemed so powerful that its rise led to a great neglect of the material, interpretive side of logic. Husserl was one of the few 20th century authors who questioned this from the start. More recently, Brandom has argued that Kant and Hegel were both fundamentally concerned with the material, interpretive side of logic, and that this is what Kant meant by “transcendental” logic (and what Hegel meant by “dialectic”).

Generally when I mention interpretation here, I have the material side in mind, but there is also such a thing as formal interpretation. Formal interpretation or “evaluation” of expressions in terms of other expressions is the most fundamental thing that interpreters and compilers for programming languages do. As with material interpretation, formal interpretation makes meanings explicit by expressing them in terms of more elementary distinctions and entailments, but it uses purely syntactic substitution and rewriting to do so.

Material interpretation can always potentially go on indefinitely, explaining real-world meanings by relating them to other meanings, and those in terms of others, and so on. In practice, we always cut it short at some point, once we achieve a relatively stable network of dependencies.

Formal interpretation on the other hand is usually engineered to be decidable, so that it actually does reach an end at some point. The fact that it reaches an end is closely related to the fact that precise formal models are always in some sense only approximations of a determination of reality that is actually open-ended. Formal models are a sort of syntactic reification of open-ended material interpretation. We may think we have taken them as far as they can go, but in real life it is always possible that some new case will come up that requires new detail in the model.

We also use a kind of formal interpretation alongside material interpretation in our spontaneous understanding of natural language. Natural language syntax helps us understand natural language meaning. It provides cues for how different clauses are intended to relate to one another. Is what is meant in this clause an exception? A consequence? A presupposition? A fact? A recommendation? Something being criticized? (See also Formal and Informal Language.)

Things Themselves

Husserl continues his Logical Investigations with a long critical discussion of the then-current tendency to reduce logic to psychological “laws” of mental operations, which are in turn supposed to be reducible to empirically discoverable facts. He then begins to discuss what a pure logic ought to be. “We are rather interested in what makes science science, which is certainly not its psychology, nor any real context into which acts of thought are fitted, but a certain objective or ideal interconnection which gives these acts a unitary relevance, and, in such unitary relevance, an ideal validity” (p. 225).

To do this, we need to look at both things and truths from the point of view of their interconnections. In his famous phrase, we need to go “to the things themselves”. As Aristotle emphasized before, we need to look carefully at distinctions of meaning.

Expressive meanings are not the same thing as indicative signs. Meaning for Husserl is not reducible to what it refers to; it originates in a kind of act, though it is not to be identified with the act, either. Verbal expressions have an “intimating” function. “To understand an intimation is not to have conceptual knowledge of it… it consists simply in the fact that the hearer intuitively takes the speaker to be a person who is expressing this or that” (p. 277). “Mutual understanding demands a certain correlation among the acts mutually unfolded in intimation…, but not at all in their exact resemblance” (p. 278). “In virtue of such acts, the expression is more than a sounded word. It means something, and insofar as it means something, it relates to what is objective” (p. 280). “The function of a word… is to awaken a sense-conferring act in ourselves” (p. 282).

“Our interest, our intention, our thought — mere synonyms if taken in sufficiently wide senses — point exclusively to the thing meant in the sense-giving act” (p. 283). “[A]ll objects and relations among objects only are what they are for us, through acts of thought essentially different from them, in which they become present to us, in which they stand before us as unitary items that we mean” (ibid).

“Each expression not merely says something, but says it of something: it not only has a meaning, but refers to certain objects” (p. 287). “Two names can differ in meaning but can name the same object” (ibid). “It can happen, conversely, that two expressions have the same meaning but a different objective reference” (p. 288). “[A]n expression only refers to an objective correlate because it means something, it can rightly be said to signify or name the object through its meaning” (p. 289). “[T]he essence of an expression lies solely in its meaning” (ibid).

“Expressions and their meaning-intentions do not take their measure, in contexts of thought and knowledge, from mere intuition — I mean phenomena of external or internal sensibility — but from the varying intellectual forms through which intuited objects first become intelligibly determined, mutually related objects” (ibid). Meanings do not have to do with mental images.

“It should be quite clear that over most of the range both of ordinary, relaxed thought and the strict thought of science, illustrative imagery plays a small part or no part at all…. Signs are in fact not objects of our thought at all, even surrogatively; we rather live entirely in the consciousness of meaning, of understanding, which does not lapse when accompanying imagery does so” (p. 304). “[A]ny grasp is in a sense an understanding and an interpretation” (p. 309).

“Pure logic, wherever it deals with concepts, judgments, and syllogisms, is exclusively concerned with the ideal unities that we here call ‘meanings'” (p. 322). “[L]ogic is the science of meanings as such, of their essential sorts and differences, as also of the ideal laws which rest purely on the latter” (p. 323). “Propositions are not constructed out of mental acts of presentation or belief: when not constructed out of other propositions, they ultimately point back to concepts…. The relation of necessary consequence in which the form of an inference consists, is not an empirical-psychological connection among judgements as experiences, but an ideal relation among possible statement-meanings” (p. 324).

“Though the scientific investigator may have no reason to draw express distinctions between words and symbols, on the one hand, and meaningful thought-objects, on the other, he well knows that expressions are contingent, and that the thought, the ideally selfsame meaning, is what is essential. He knows, too, that he does not make the objective validity of thoughts and thought-connections, … but that he sees them, discovers them” (p. 325).

“All theoretical science consists, in its objective content, of one homogeneous stuff: it is an ideal fabric of meanings” (ibid). “[M]eaning, rather than the act of meaning, concept and proposition, rather than idea and judgement, are what is essential and germane in science” (ibid). “The essence of meaning is seen by us, not in the meaning-conferring experience, but in its ‘content'” (p. 327).

Allison on Kant on Freedom

Eminent Kant scholar Henry Allison writes in the introduction to his Kant’s Theory of Freedom (1990), “Kant’s theory of freedom is the most difficult aspect of his philosophy to interpret, let alone defend. To begin with,… we are confronted with the bewildering number of ways in which Kant characterizes freedom and the variety of distinctions he draws between various kinds or senses of freedom” (p. 1).

Kant advocates “not only a strict determinism at the empirical level but also a psychological determinism” (p. 31) at the level of desires and beliefs. Nonetheless he also famously argues for the pure spontaneity of reason at a transcendental level, and wants to link this to a distinctive “causality of reason” entirely separate from empirical causality. As I’ve said before, I think Kant often presents both the determinist part of this and the indeterminist part in terms that are too strong.

Kant intensifies this difficulty by apparently arguing that the very same human reason that is transcendentally utterly free also has an empirical character that is completely determined. According to Allison, Kant distinguishes between empirical and intelligible “character” (considered as general ways of being, not implying personality) in two different ways. Empirical character is sometimes presented as merely the phenomenal effect of intelligible character, but at other times as the sensible schema of intelligible character. The latter version is interpreted by Allison as implying that “empirical character involves not simply a disposition to behave in certain predictable ways in given situations but a disposition to act on the basis of certain maxims, to pursue certain ends, and to select certain means for the realization of those ends…. Clearly, the causality of reason, even at the empirical level, is inherently purposive. Consequently, explanations of its activity must be teleological rather than mechanistic in nature” (p. 33).

Allison argues that for Kant, not only moral but also prudential judgments exhibit a teleological causality of reason. An end understood in a context generates a moral or prudential “ought”. Allison says that acting on the basis of an ought is for Kant (at least in the first Critique) the defining characteristic of free agency.

“A helpful way of explicating what Kant means by the spontaneity of the understanding in its judgmental activity (epistemic spontaneity) is to consider judgment as the activity of ‘taking as’ or, more precisely, of taking something as a such and such” (p. 37). “[E]ven desire-based or… ‘heteronomous’ action involves the self-determination of the subject and, therefore, a ‘moment’ of spontaneity” (p. 39). “[T]he sensible inclination, which from the point of view of the action’s (and the agent’s) empirical character is viewed straightforwardly as cause, is, from the standpoint of this model, seen as of itself insufficient to determine the will. Moreover, this insufficiency is not of the sort that can be made up for by introducing further empirically accessible causal factors. The missing ingredient is the spontaneity of the agent, the act of taking as or self-determination. Since this can be conceived but not experienced, it is once again something merely intelligible” (ibid).

The association of spontaneity with “taking as” (which is Kant’s independent reinvention of Aristotelian practical judgment) rather than some kind of arbitrariness is a breath of fresh air. (See also Freedom Through Deliberation?)

For Aristotle, there could be no contradiction between determination by ends and a complementary determination by “efficient causes” or means. But for Kant, ends are noumenal or intelligible, while means are phenomenal or empirical.

But in his previous work Kant’s Transcendental Idealism, Allison argued that Kant wanted to distinguish between phenomenal and noumenal interpretations rather than to assert the literal existence of ontologically separate phenomenal and noumenal worlds. The noumenal or the intelligible is not otherworldly, but a different way of interpreting the same world we experience.