On the Good as a Cause

Having recently prototyped a modest textual commentary of my own on Aristotle’s Metaphysics, I feel in a somewhat better position to begin examining the more detailed arguments of Gwenaëlle Aubry on what exactly the Metaphysics aims to do. Her very important 2006 work Dieu sans la puissance: dunamis et energeia chez Aristote et chez Plotin highlights Aristotle’s own neglected statements on what his most distinctive contributions in first philosophy were, and argues that they make Aristotle very relevant today.

This leads to a very distinctive reading of the intent of the Metaphysics, which differs greatly from both the “ontological” view of Avicenna and the Latin scholastic mainstream, and the “forgetting of Being”, “metaphysics of presence” view promoted by Heidegger in the 20th century. Here I’ll just provide a top-level introduction.

Aubry sees the Metaphysics primarily as a very innovative work of philosophical theology, centered on what I would call a kind of teleological meta-ethics.

Aristotle’s first cause is the highest good, which works by attraction and motivation, not by creating, or by directly intervening in events. (This makes what Kant calls internal teleology Aristotle’s most fundamental explanatory principle, as is also made especially clear in Aristotle’s biological works, but also even in the Physics.)

Aristotle’s first philosophy treats the world as most fundamentally governed by the values that are at work in it. The logistical working out of means and ends is also essential to how things play out in the world, but Aristotle insists that orienting values come first in the order of explanation. The highest good is a kind of ultimate moral compass for those values. (And from a Kantian standpoint, the resolution of empirical questions of fact depends on the resolution of normative, ultimately ethical or meta-ethical questions of interpretation.)

Contradiction and Nonmonotonicity

In standard formal logic, even one pair of contradictory assertions is traditionally deemed to make any possible conclusion vacuously derivable. Ex falso quodlibet, as the scholastics used to say — from a contradiction, anything at all follows. Meaning is thus destroyed.

As an alternative to this, Hegel in the 19th century anticipated what 20th and 21st century logicians and artificial intelligence researchers have called “nonmonotonic” reasoning. In a nonmonotonic setting, a contradiction only invalidates what is contradictorily asserted. Something must still be wrong with one of the contradictory assertions, but the damage does not spread arbitrarily.

“[W]hat is self-contradictory does not resolve itself into a nullity, into abstract nothingness, but essentially only into the negation of its particular content; … such a negation is not just negation, but is the negation of the determined fact…, and is therefore determinate negation ” (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., introduction, p. 33, emphasis in original).

Robert Brandom has pointed out that material inference — the kind of reasoning based on meaning that most humans really rely on most of the time — has this nonmonotonic character:

“Gil Harman sharpens the point in his argument that there is no such thing as rules of deductive reasoning. If there were, presumably a paradigmatic one would be: If you believe p and you believe if p then q, then you should believe q. But that would be a terrible rule. You might have much better reasons against q than you have for either of the premises. In that case, you should give up one of them. He concludes that we should distinguish relations of implication, from activities of inferring. The fact that p, if p then q, and not-q are incompatible, because p and if p then q stand in the implication relation to q, normatively constrains our reasoning activity, but does not by itself determine what it is correct or incorrect to do” (Brandom, Reasons: Three Essays on their Logic, Pragmatics, and Semantics, pp. 4-5).

“Monotonicity… is not a plausible constraint on material consequence relations. It requires that if an implication (or incompatibility) holds, then it holds no matter what additional auxiliary hypotheses are added to the premise-set. But outside of mathematics, almost all our actual reasoning is defeasible. This is true in everyday reasoning by auto mechanics and on computer help lines, in courts of law, and in medical diagnosis. (Indeed, the defeasibility of medical diagnoses forms the basis of the plots of every episode of House you have ever seen — besides all those you haven’t.) It is true of subjunctive reasoning generally. If I were to strike this dry, well-made match, it would light. But not if it is in a very strong magnetic field. Unless, additionally, it were in a Faraday cage, in which case it would light. But not if the room were evacuated of oxygen. And so on” (p. 6).

Shallow vs Deep Reflection

“Logic… cannot say what it is in advance, rather does this knowledge of itself only emerge as the final result and completion of its whole movement” (Hegel, Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., introduction, p. 23).

From either an Aristotelian or a Kantian perspective, it seems to me this is true of any sort of “self-knowledge”. We don’t just look within and see the truth; it takes a long detour to get there.

Hegel here stresses the radically presuppositionless character of this thing that he calls “logic”. This results in a far more ambitious project than Aristotle’s “tool rather than knowledge” approach to logic, which is also primarily geared toward more ordinary contexts, in which we do not aim to be radically presuppositionless.

I’m still inclined toward a middle position that what is at stake here is better called a kind of hermeneutic wisdom than knowledge. I agree with Pippin that Hegel is engaging in a kind of what Aristotle would call first philosophy here, but I take first philosophy itself to be a kind of meta-level interpretation, and thus again to be wisdom more than knowledge.

“The concept of logic has hitherto rested on a separation, presupposed once and for all in ordinary consciousness, of the content of knowledge from its form, or of truth and certainty. Presupposed from the start is that the material of knowledge is present in and for itself as a ready-made world outside thinking; that thinking is by itself empty, that it comes to this material from outside” (p. 24).

Here he is both saying that the more ordinary concept of logic has not yet learned the lessons of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and implicitly criticizing the dualistic appearance of some of Kant’s formulations.

“These views on the relation of subject and object to each other express the determinations that constitute the nature of our ordinary, phenomenal consciousness. However, when these prejudices are carried over to reason, as if in reason the same relation obtained, as if this relation had any truth in and for itself, then they are errors, and the refutation of them in every part of the spiritual and natural universe is what philosophy is” (p. 25).

This is a very strong statement. Hegel has a very positive view of life in the world, but he strongly distrusts our ordinary consciousness of it. Philosophy is what teaches us to move beyond common sense, toward something higher.

“The older metaphysics had in this respect a higher concept of thinking than now passes as the accepted opinion. For it presupposed as its principle that only what is known of things and in things by thought is really true in them, that is, what is known in them not in their immediacy but as first elevated to the form of thinking, as things of thought. This metaphysics thus held that thinking and the determination of thinking are not something alien to the subject matters, but rather are their essence, or that things and the thinking of them agree in and for themselves (also our language expresses a kinship between them); that thinking in its immanent determinations, and the true nature of things, are one and the same content” (ibid).

Here he is clearly referring to Aristotle, and endorsing Aristotle’s point of view as in a way even superior to that of Kant. For Aristotle, thought and things meet on the middle ground of the “what-it-is” or essence of things, which is what allows the ultimate identification of thought with what it thinks.

He mentions the shallow “external” reflection he associates with Locke’s notion of human understanding, then the much more substantive kind of reflection discussed by Kant in the Critique of Judgment, which will be a major theme of this whole work.

“The [Kantian] reflection already mentioned consists in transcending the concrete immediate, in determining and parting it. But this reflection must equally transcend its separating determinations and above all connect them. The conflict of determinations breaks out precisely at the point of connection. This reflective activity of connection belongs in itself to reason, and to rise above the determinations and attain insight into their discord is the great negative step on the way to the true concept of reason. But, when not carried through, this insight runs into the misconception that reason is the one that contradicts itself” (p. 26).

Contrary to Kant’s pessimistic conclusion in the antinomies of the first Critique, reason does not contradict itself; it is rather the determinations in things and situations that are subject to conflicting objective evaluations. Hegel’s more optimistic view of reason is accompanied by a very honest recognition of the existence of genuinely hard problems for thought about life in the world.

Reflection, Judgment, Process

Reflection is a key concept both for later Kant and for Hegel (see, e.g., Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity; More on Contemplation). We have seen that it led Kant to deepen the notion of judgment he had already used in the Critique of Pure Reason, giving more explicit attention to what I have called the process of interpretation, in contrast to the eventual conclusions that had been the exclusive preoccupation of early modern logic. He had already criticized the latter for confusing judgment with predication.

When judgment is identified with simple predication, the process of interpretation entirely disappears. Indeed, both early modern and contemporary formal logic are explicitly concerned with mechanical syntactic manipulation of uninterpreted terms.

Kant’s narrower point in the first Critique had been that only categorical judgments (those having the simple form A is B) can be analyzed as linguistic predications. Against the early modern tradition, Kant pointed out that neither hypothetical judgments (if A then B) nor disjunctive judgments (if A then not-B) can be understood in this way.

Whereas the early modern tradition strongly privileged categorical judgments, taking simple predications straightforwardly as simple assertions, Kant argues that hypothetical and disjunctive judgments have at least equal significance for thought, if not more. Hypothetical and disjunctive judgments are irreducibly inferential, as can be seen from the presence of “if” and “then” in their forms. What Kant suggests about this in the first Critique is that the inferential aspect of judgment is more fundamental than its assertive aspect. Brandom makes the further suggestion that the kinds of inferences Kant is primarily concerned with in this context are informal “material” inferences, which are grounded in the meanings of terms rather than in formal syntax.

With the enhanced concept of reflective judgment developed in the Critique of Judgment, Kant begins to take an even wider range of interpretive processes into account in his view of judgment overall. Reflective judgment is primarily focused on the process of interpretation, though it also reaches conclusions. This makes the contrast between Kantian judgment and judgment in early modern logic even more profound. Early modern logic codifies a “conclusory” notion of judgment grounded in simple assertion, and makes the formal manipulation of such assertions the paradigm for all reasoning. Kantian judgment on the other hand begins as primarily inferential, and comes to emphasize the wider, open-ended, reflective process of interpretation.

The “logic of being” that Hegel presents as a kind of necessary preliminary failure in his Logic is precisely the logic of simple assertion. From any arbitrary assertions, we can deductively generate more assertions that will be consistent with these, and we can classify other assertions according to whether they are consistent with the accepted ones or not. But Hegel is concerned with the possibility of genuine intelligibility and knowledge. Starting only from mere assertions, we can never reach these. The most we can achieve is some kind of relational discrimination between the implications of different assertions, whose meaning is merely assumed.

Kantian reflection is the main theme of Hegel’s “logic of essence”. Hegel’s conclusion is that the ultimate ground of essence is none other than pure reflection, which embodies a kind of reflective infinity of mutually referencing relations, that presupposes no fixed terms. Essence, as a kind of deeper truth of things than the shallow one of logical consistency alone, is not based on “fixed” concepts of the sort that are always assumed in formal logic. Rather, essence for Hegel is grounded in reflection all the way down, which we can pursue as deeply as we like. Socratic inquiry can be seen as a foreshadowing of this.

I see an important parallel to book Lambda of Aristotle’s Metaphysics here. There, the ground of the what-it-is of things is the pure contemplation of thought thinking itself. In other words, the ground of essence is pure reflection, just as Hegel says. The pure actuality or pure entelechy of Aristotle’s first cause is an actuality or entelechy of what Hegel calls pure reflection.

A major difference between Aristotle’s first cause and ourselves, as I read it, is that the purity of the first cause makes it only concerned with essence or deep truth, whereas we rational animals also live in a world of appearances, and therefore also have to deal with these. Because we live in a world of appearances, we humans have a need for judgment that Aristotle’s first cause does not share.

In the “logic of the concept” with which he concludes his Logic, Hegel gives a thoroughly Kantian treatment of judgment, effectively identifying all judgment with reflective judgment in Kant’s sense. If the logic of essence was concerned with the objective determination of essence from pure reflection, the “subjective” logic of the concept is concerned with applying reflection to particular appearances that we encounter in life. This is something we rational animals have to do that Aristotle’s first cause does not.

Pure reflection is a kind of ideal thing that is analytically separable from process, but the kind of reflection that we embodied beings engage in only occurs as part of a concrete process that involves particular appearances and development in time.

Is and Ought in Actuality

Aristotle regards the priority of actuality over potentiality to be one of his most important innovations. He regards it as a necessary condition for anything being intelligible. Along with the primacy of the good and that-for-the-sake-of-which in explanation, it is also central to his way of arguing for a first cause.

The Western tradition generally did not follow Aristotle on these points. Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin monotheisms have most often treated God as an absolute power, seeking to put unlimited omnipotence first in the order of explanation, before goodness. Christians were happy to criticize occasionalism in Islam, but theologians like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham defended an extreme sort of theological voluntarism, which was taken up again by Descartes. In the 19th century, Kierkegaard valorized Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son as unconditional obedience to God, claiming that faith should take precedence over ethics generally. In the 20th century, Sartre defended unconditional free will for humans, while asserting a militant atheism and the absurdity of existence. His currently influential follower Alain Badiou goes even further. He bluntly says that concern for ethics is a waste of time, and that dialogue and democracy are a scam — not just in particular cases, but in general.

Mainstream views of religion have always insisted that the absolute power is also absolutely good, but have been unable to show why or how this is the case. This has opened the door to simplistic but unanswerable arguments that the facts of the world cannot be reconciled with claims that it is governed by a good absolute power.

Instead of sacrificing ethics and the good on either religious or secular grounds, we should put them first. Leibniz argues that an emphasis on the absolute power or arbitrary will of God is bad theology, and effectively makes God into the kind of tyrant that Plato denounced (see also Euthyphro; Arbitrariness, Inflation).

Aristotle’s first cause doesn’t govern the facts of the world. It is the world’s normative compass. It is the pure good and pure fulfillment that all things seek, according to their natures and insofar as they are capable. Or as Hegel might say, it is pure Idea.

The priority of actuality is a priority of the good and of normativity. For Aristotle, we shouldn’t call something “actual” just because it exists or is the case. Rather, something is actual when it is the case that it is fulfilling its potential, as it “ought” to do.

It is not a matter of pure moralism either though. Actuality does involve an element of being the case; it is just not reducible to that. What is true also matters quite a lot in the determination of what is right, even though it is not all that matters. Every particular good is interdependent with particular truth. That is why Aristotle seems to make the understanding of causes into one of the most important elements of virtue, while at the same time cautioning us that ethics is not a matter of exact knowledge.

We are looking for a kind of mean here. What is true matters for what is right, but what is right also matters for what is true. Truth is not reducible to a matter of neutral fact. There can be no truth without intelligibility, and there can be no intelligibility without taking normative considerations into account in interpretation.

Reflection, Apperception, Narrative Identity

Robert Pippin recounts how in writing what became the Critique of Judgment, Kant developed a new notion of reflection, which transformed his whole philosophy from the inside:

“In early 1789 Kant began to formulate the new problem of reflective judgment, as well as a new a priori principle for such a faculty, the purposiveness of nature. What is important to notice for our purposes is that with that development, the shape of the entire critical project began to change dramatically” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 290).

“Kant had realized that something like the deep structure of judgments like ‘this rose is beautiful’ actually contravened its own surface structure, that the predicate ‘beautiful’ was not really functioning as a standard predicate, as it appeared to. It referred to no objective property or mere secondary quality. Instead, he concluded, it involved a nonconceptually guided reflective activity on the part of the subject of the experience, whose novel logic required notions like a free play of the faculties, purposiveness without a purpose, disinterested pleasure, a commonsense and universal subjective validity” (pp. 290-291).

“The realization of the distinct features of this reflective activity was only the beginning of a series of more strikingly novel claims of interest to us…. [T]he reflective judging that resulted in aesthetic judgments, also constituted the basic structure of teleological judgments, and so could account for the unique intelligibility of organic beings” (p. 291).

“And then a number of other issues seem to be thrown into the same reflective judgment pot. The formulation of scientific theories not fixed or determined by empirical generalizations involved this activity and its logic, as did the systematizing of empirical laws necessary for genuine scientific knowledge. Finally, even the determination of ordinary empirical concepts now seemed to require this newly formulated reflective capacity…. So reflective judging and its a priori principle were now necessary not only for explaining the possibility and validity of aesthetic judgments, but in accounting for the necessary distinction between organic and nonorganic nature, the formation of empirical concepts, the proper integration of genera and species, the general unification of empirical laws into systems of scientific law, theory formation itself, and the right way to understand the attribution of a kind of necessity to all such principles, judgments, concepts, laws, and systems” (ibid).

Much of the discussion of judgment in the Critique of Pure Reason sounds like it is a simple matter of “applying” pre-existing concepts to things. But in reality, applying even pre-existing concepts is not a simple matter at all, if we care about the soundness of the application (as Kant certainly did), or about how anyone preliminarily judges what concepts might be applicable in a given case. This is what Kant began to consider in more detail with his new notions of reflection and reflective judgment.

Reflection is characterized above by Pippin as “nonconceptually guided”. I don’t think this means at all that reflection is nonconceptual, but rather only that it is fundamentally guided by something other than the kind of pre-existing concepts that Hegel would call “fixed”. Reflection involves the formation and interpretation of concepts that are not treated as already fixed. That is why it does not presuppose particular fixed concepts.

I want to relate this back to the Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment (phronesis) that are concerned with particulars as such. The significance of addressing particulars as such is that we do not assume in advance what universals (i.e., Kantian concepts) apply to them, but rather let the particulars “speak” for themselves, and thoughtfully consider what they might mean or be in their own right. By particulars I mean in an Aristotelian way independent or non-independent “things”, not putative raw phenomena.

Aristotelian deliberation and practical judgment, I want to say, involve a “free play of the faculties” of the sort that Kant associates with reflection. Aristotle’s commonly cited conclusion that practical judgment is inferior to contemplative wisdom is entirely tied to the fact that he considers practical judgment’s outcome to be an action. I think the term practical judgment ought to apply just as much or more to the activity of interpreting particulars, without prejudice as to how the interpretation is used.

Kantian reflection seems to me to have the great virtue of uniting Aristotelian theoria (contemplation) and sophia (contemplative wisdom) with deliberation, thinking things through (dianoia), and practical judgment (phronesis). Kant also explicitly argues for the primacy of practical reason, which ultimately involves the reflective normative evaluation of particulars, even though he foregrounds a separate effort to articulate ethical universals. An Aristotelian sense for the Kantian primacy of practical reason would start from the interpretation of particulars mentioned above.

Kantian reflection also has an important relation to the Critique of Pure Reason‘s key term of apperception. The term “apperception” was coined by Leibniz, originally to imply a kind of “higher order” perception — a perception of perception. Kant gives it a more explicitly discursive character. If we add a Hegelian dimension, the dialectical character of discourse makes discourse inherently reflective in Kant’s sense. By virtue of their common reflective, discursive character, apperception in Kant is closely related to what is called “self-consciousness” in Hegel.

Kant famously speaks of the effort to maintain a unity of apperception. Here is where I think phronesis comes to the aid of theoria and sophia. Contrary to what both Kant and Aristotle sometimes suggest, it seems to me that the interpretation of particulars is actually prior to and more governing than the articulation of universals, although there is much interplay between the two. It is the interpretation of particulars that mainly provides occasions for the articulation of pertinent universals. This comes back to Aristotle’s other point that universals do not have independent reality in their own right, and to Kant’s other point about the primacy of practical reason.

The effort to maintain a unity of apperception is the effort to maintain a unity of self-consciousness. Self-consciousness is not simple “consciousness” of a pre-existing “self”, as if the latter were a discrete, pre-existing object. Rather, self-consciousness is grounded in reflection that has potentially indefinite extent. I think a similar grounding in reflection is what makes intellect “something divine in us” — and more than just a part of the soul — in Aristotle.

Aristotle speaks of thought thinking itself as contemplation. He tends to emphasize that thought thinking itself is an identity. But with any kind of identity, we must consider the way in which it is said.

What then could constitute any persistent identity for a unity of apperception? Here we come to the problems that Paul Ricoeur discussed under the more general rubric of narrative identity. Strictly speaking, any particular unity of apperception is a concrete constellation of what Aristotle would call particular relations that hold at a given moment. It is something like the totality of what we are currently committed to. Insofar as we speak of it as existing in fact, its unity and coherence are relative. Only as a kind of ideal or ethical goal can its unity be considered to be unqualified.

Insofar as we want to speak of the relative persistent identity of a unity of apperception — or anything like the unity of a person — we also need the Aristotelian concept of entelechy. The narrative identity of a unity of apperception is a kind of entelechy in which the thing whose identity is maintained is itself a work in progress, as all living beings are. We only have the final form of a life when it is over (see Happiness).

The narrative identity of a unity of apperception, then, is a kind of entelechy of apperception. More generally, Aristotelian entelechy is the narrative identity of a unity, or just is a kind of narrative identity. An entelechy of apperception is the entelechy of a process of reflection. (See also More on Contemplation; Hegel on Reflection; Apperceptive Judgment.)

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.)

Reflections on Book Lambda

It turns out that Aristotle’s way of arguing for a first cause in book Lambda of the Metaphysics depends almost entirely on his unusual thesis of the priority of actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment over potentiality. His justification of the priority of actuality there also seems unexpectedly Kant-like, which means that so does his argument for a first cause.

We don’t positively know that actuality is prior, or that there is a first cause. Rather, Aristotle makes the indirect argument that a priority of actuality is a necessary condition for the kind of intelligibility that we need to have in order to be able to explain things at all. The pure actuality he attributes to the first cause is part of his affirmation that the priority of actuality is not an optional feature of his account.

I have been very impressed by Robert Pippin’s account of how Hegel’s rediscovery of the Aristotelian priority of actuality affects ethics and the theory of agency. Gwenaëlle Aubry increased my sensitivity to the normative, end-like character of Aristotelian actuality itself, and to his repeated associations of the first cause with the good and the beautiful. I’ve always read Aristotle’s first cause in terms of that-for-the-sake-of-which — as a sort of ultimate end — so this was a welcome perspective. This much seems to tightly cohere, and all to be nicely confirmed by the somewhat more disciplined reading of the Metaphysics I’ve just finished.

But I’ve been neglecting another strand from the Physics, which defines motion in terms of actuality and potentiality, and which ultimately traces every motion to the realization of an end, and to the actualization of a potential. Given my own interest in the idea of interpretation in an ethical spirit as first philosophy, this suggestion that material motion as such is in some minimal way ends-governed — even when no living plant or animal is involved — is something I find very appealing, albeit in need of clarification.

On the other hand, the arguments about a first motion and a first moved thing associated with the sphere of the fixed stars presuppose the non-relative status of a geocentric point of view in astronomy, and I don’t see any way to sustain that. The first cause of all things can no longer be conceived as having a special, more direct relation to the motion of the stars as viewed from earth, such as Aristotle suggests.

But we can still say that the pursuit and partial realization of the good and the beautiful are in a way involved in motions in general. This can be defined in a way that depends only on observable patterns of how various kinds of material things tend to seek completion in one way rather than another in different situations.

The good and the beautiful will be a “prime mover” only in this more diffuse sense, not as also having a special relation to the motion of the fixed stars. But we can still have entelechy from top to bottom, and we can still be moved by the beauty of the stars.

Independent Things

Having just posted notes on Aristotle’s Metaphysics book Zeta (VII), I wanted to pause for some personal reflections. The hands-on engagement of putting together a textual commentary like that with extensive quotes always gives me a quality of insight into the material that I don’t get from just reading or re-reading a text.

One of the ways Aristotle stands out as a philosopher — to speak a bit figuratively — is his philosophically generous attitude toward not only living, “independent” beings, but ordinary “things” of all sorts. This carries over into his ethics.

Engagement in the world, approached the right way, need be no distraction from our essential concerns. Rather, for Aristotle it is a fulfillment of the “purpose” of the kind of beings that we are. He encourages us to cultivate a feeling of being fundamentally at home in life in the world, a feeling strong enough to remain ultimately unshaken by our emotional responses to events and circumstances. By contrast, Plotinus, for instance, though appreciative of beauty in all its forms, ultimately directs our attention both spiritually and philosophically away from the world and toward the One. Modern philosophers tend to view the world as inert matter for us to manipulate, not something with which we would feel kinship and a sense of belonging.

Hegel criticizes Kant for being “too tender” toward objects, but I feel that this and some other remarks are a bit lacking in interpretive charity, even though Hegel is deeply Kantian in many ways. In particular, I have a lot more sympathy for Kant’s notion of “things in themselves” than Hegel did.

Kantian things in themselves don’t exactly align with either Aristotle’s notion of independent things or with the what-it-is of those things, but they have relations to both, which may suggest an alternate way out of the Kantian “impasse” that troubles Hegel. What Hegel regards as an unresolved impasse in Kant in this area is the irreducible gap Kant sets up between knowledge and things in themselves. But Aristotle also says we do not have knowledge of independent things or their what-it-is.

We may have knowledge of their articulations, but articulations are only expressible in terms of universals (words with posited meanings that are applicable to multiple things), while independent things and their what-it-is are particulars. Therefore, for Aristotle too there will be a sort of Kantian gap between knowledge and independent things. I have praised this as a kind of “epistemic modesty”.

We have only experience and acquaintance with independent things, not knowledge. We may also dialectically inquire, interpret, and make judgments about them, thus reaching relatively well-founded belief, but we cannot know them, because they are particulars independent of us, while all knowledge (episteme) is discursive.

When it comes to the what-it-is of things as distinct from the independent things themselves, we have no experience or acquaintance either, but only the “long detour” of dialectic, interpretation, and judgment. This, it seems to me, is what Hegel’s logic of essence addresses. In the logic of essence, Hegel speaks to Aristotelian considerations, and I would now say more specifically that Hegel’s logic of essence explores more or less the same dialectical level as Metaphysics book Zeta.

Kant’s things in themselves seem utterly remote and mysterious to nearly everyone — I dare say much more so than the Aristotelian what-it-is. A historical reason for this is not far to seek. Kant’s intellectual formation was in the milieu of the Wolffian school, within which the small fraction of the works of Leibniz published in his lifetime played a leading role.

Leibniz developed the highly original notion of the “complete essence” of a thing, corresponding to the way God would know it — as including every true statement about a thing, including all the empirical facts applicable to its past, present, and future. Leibniz’ God is concerned with the totality of logical truth about a thing.

From the point of view of Aristotle or Hegel, this turn to the totality of logical and factual truth abolishes the distinction between essence and what is not essence. It thus effectively abolishes the more specific concept of essence and a “deeper truth”. An emphasis on complete essence also foregrounds something we could not possibly experience over the sensible independent things with articulable properties that we do experience.

For Leibniz, naturally enough, only God knows complete essences. Humans could not possibly know them. What I want to suggest here is that the reason the Kantian thing-in-itself is inherently unknowable by us is that it basically is a Leibnizian complete essence.

Because a complete essence is no longer a proper what-it-is that can potentially be distinguished from the many incidental facts about a thing, it is far less tractable to Aristotelian or Hegelian dialectic than a what-it-is that at least potentially can be so distinguished. A complete essence poses head-on what Hegel calls the “problem of indifference”, which plagued early modern philosophy. Among all the true statements about a thing, there is no clear way to pick out which would be more relevant to what Aristotle would call the articulation of what-it-is.

While Aristotelian independent things and their what-it-is are unknowable because they are particulars, they remain relatively tractable to dialectical inquiry, and are therefore not radically unknowable to humans in the way a complete essence or thing in itself would be. Certainly Aristotle seems to say more about them that is meaningful than Kant is able to say about things in themselves.

Hegel wants to abolish things “in themselves” — not at all because he wants to abolish Aristotelian independent things or their what-it-is, but because he objects both to the Hermetic isolation of complete essences from one another and to the problem of indifference that complete essences pose. He in effect goes back to Aristotle on this.

It is important to emphasize that the independence of an Aristotelian independent thing means it cannot be just an object of consciousness. It is supposed to be a reality in its own right. While this is not the only point of view we may adopt, the kind of deeper truth that Aristotle, Kant, and Hegel all seek is not to be found by fleeing the world and leaving such realities behind.

If we accept an Aristotelian revision of the Kantian gap between knowledge and what is, the gap no longer brings inquiry to a halt. Then the broadly Kantian view that there is a gap and the broadly Hegelian view that we can go a long way toward overcoming it can both be sustained. (See also Practical Wisdom.)

The Knowledge Sought

Following the emphasis of al-Farabi on demonstrative “science”, the Latin scholastic tradition treated “metaphysics” as a completed science. Some writers attributed such a completed science to Aristotle, while others, following in the wake of Avicenna, put forward their own improvements.

With respect to being, Aristotle himself speaks of knowledge sought rather than possessed. In inquiring about being “as such”, he is exploring a question given prominence by others. Far from claiming to have final knowledge of being as such, he highlights the ambiguity of “being”. There can be no “as such” — and hence no final knowledge — of an ambiguous thing.

This is not the end of the story, however. The very first sentence of the Metaphysics is “All human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing. A sign of this is our love of the senses; for even apart from their use, they are loved on their own account (book capital Alpha (I), ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 1).

We are after knowledge of something. It is just not clear that that something would be accurately characterized as “being”, full stop.

“[A] sign of the one who knows and the one who does not is being able to teach, and for this reason we regard the art, more than the experience, to be knowledge” (p. 2).

“Further, we consider none of the senses to be wisdom, even though they are the most authoritative ways of knowing particulars; but they do not pick out the why of anything” (ibid).

“[T]he person with experience seems wiser than those who have any perception whatever, the artisan wiser than those with experience, the master craftsman wiser than the manual laborer, and the contemplative arts more so than the productive ones. It is apparent, then, that wisdom is a knowledge concerned with certain sources and causes” (p. 3).

This concern with sources and causes, with the why, is the true subject matter of the Metaphysics. This is emphasized again at length in book Epsilon (VI).

“Since we are seeking this knowledge, this should be examined: about what sort of causes and what sort of sources wisdom is the knowledge. Now if one takes the accepted opinions we have about the wise man, perhaps from this it will become more clear. We assume first that the wise man knows all things, in the way that is possible, though he does not have knowledge of them as particulars. Next, we assume that the one who is able to know things that are difficult, and not easy for a human being to know, is wise; for perceiving is common to everyone, for which reason it is an easy thing and nothing wise. Further, we assume the one who has more precision and is more able to teach the causes is wiser concerning each kind of knowledge. And among the kinds of knowledge, we assume the one that is for its own sake and chosen for the sake of knowing more to be wisdom than the one chosen for the sake of results” (ch. 2, p. 3).

“Now of these, the knowing of all things must belong to the one who has most of all the universal knowledge, since he knows in a certain way all the things that come under it; and these are just about the most difficult things for human beings to know, those that are most universal, since they are farthest away from the senses. And the most precise kinds of knowledge are the ones that are most directed at first things, since those that reason from fewer things are more precise than those that reason from extra ones” (p. 4).

For long I struggled with this last statement. How could a knowledge of first things be the most precise of all? In the Topics, he says that first principles can only be investigated by dialectic: “[T]his task belongs properly, or most appropriately, to dialectic; for dialectic is a process of criticism wherein lies the path to the principles of all inquiries” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., p. 168).

Some commentators — influenced by al-Farabi and the subsequent tradition’s overwhelming emphasis on the place of demonstration as opposed to dialectic in Aristotle — have considered it a puzzle or a defect that the Metaphysics and other Aristotelian texts do not seem to consist in demonstrations as described in the Prior Analytics. The answer is that the Metaphysics and the others generally do follow the model of dialectic articulated in the Topics, as the Topics itself says they ought to.

Returning to the Metaphysics, Aristotle has already stressed that the most universal knowledge is also the most difficult. Also, he standardly distinguishes between how things are “in themselves” and how they are “for us”. The knowledge of first things would be most precise in itself, not necessarily for us in our relative achievement of it.

To anticipate, I think the final conclusion of the Metaphysics will be something like “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”. The qualification “ultimately” is essential to making sense of this.

(For Aristotle himself, all becoming and terrestrial motion are grounded in — though not in detail determined by — the entelechy or entelechies of circular celestial motion. The stars are a kind of everlasting living beings endowed with superior intellect, and are directly moved by love of the first cause. This might seem quaint to modern people. I find the love part beautiful in a poetic sort of way, but think Aristotle’s theoretical astronomy in general and his views of the special status of celestial objects have relatively little impact on interpretation of the rest of his work — particularly with respect to the teleology affecting earthly things and the discussions here in the Metaphysics.)

Plato says that the Good surpasses all things in ancientness and power. He represents Socrates as provocatively arguing that all beings desire the good, regardless of how confused they may be about what the good really is. No one deliberately and self-consciously desires what they recognize as evil. That is impossible, because it is logically self-contradictory. For the same reason, there also could not be a “principle” of evil. This is a tremendously powerful thought, of unparalleled importance for ethics. It sets a fundamental tone of charitable interpretation, in diametrical contrast to the kind of point of view that says those people over there are just evil.

Aristotle, however, says that Plato does not clearly explain the mode of activity of the Good, or how it acts as a cause. According to Aristotle, when Plato does gesture in this direction, he lapses into treating the Good as either a formal cause or an efficient cause, or both. But speaking in terms of formal or efficient causality loses what is most essential about the good — what many contemporary philosophers would call its normative character.

Aristotle considered his own contribution in this area to be a thorough account of how all things are ultimately moved by that for the sake of which, and of how the Good indirectly influences things just as that for the sake of which. This, once again, is what Kant called “internal teleology”.

After the horrors of the 20th century, many people have lost faith in the fundamental goodness of life. This is basically an emotional response. The indubitable factuality of horrendous evil in the world is not an Aristotelian or Hegelian actuality, and does not touch actuality. The factuality of evil does pose a roadblock for common interpretations of particular providence or “external” teleology, but not for Aristotelian or Hegelian teleology.

But how could a knowledge of first things be exact? We certainly don’t have knowledge of the first cause in itself. But coming back to my formulation “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”, this does meet Aristotle’s criterion of simplicity: all things are said to be ultimately moved by one thing (even though more directly, they are moved by their own love of whatever they do love, which seems good to them within the limits of their understanding).

We have exact knowledge neither of the first cause in itself nor of the particulars we encounter in life, but perhaps we can after all have exact, certain knowledge that “All things are ultimately moved by love of the good”. This is the kind of thing I think Aristotle is suggesting. (See also Aristotle on Explanation.)