Multiple Explanations

One of the great strengths of Aristotle’s approach to things is the way it makes use of multiple, complementary kinds of explanation. The paired modalities of actuality and potentiality and the four “causes” (ends and means, form and materiality) all interweave together to create rich tapestries of understanding. Aristotle famously said that to know is to be able to explain, and his notion of explanation is clearly hermeneutic and expansive, rather than reductive. (See also Interpretation; What and Why.; Difference; Classification; Definition.)

Demonstrative “Science”?

The “historiographical” notes on the history of philosophy I offer here from time to time are a sort of compromise. For much of my life, I’ve been very concerned with the fine grain of such history, and with casting a broad net encompassing many historical figures. Here, I made a strategic decision to focus instead on a mere handful of philosophers I consider most important.

Discussion of actualization in Hegel led to actualization in Aristotle, which led me to indulge my fascination with the Aristotelian commentary tradition. To the extent that it is possible to generalize about the historic readings discussed in the Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin commentaries, my own view of Aristotle is quite different on a number of key points, having more in common with some modern readings. Nonetheless, I am enormously impressed by the levels of sophistication shown by very many writers in this tradition.

I just mentioned al-Farabi again. As previously noted, al-Farabi (10th century CE) played a great historic role in the formulation of Arabic (and consequently, Hebrew and Latin) views of Aristotle. The Syrian Christians who did the majority of the translating of Aristotle to Arabic from Syriac had access to most of Aristotle’s works, but publicly only taught from the logical treatises. It was al-Farabi who initiated public teaching of the full range of Aristotelian philosophy in the Islamic world. He flourished during the so-called Islamic golden age, a time of tremendous interest in ancient learning not only by aristocrats but by many literate skilled crafts people. The political climate of the Islamic world at the time was much more embracing of secular learning than it came to be between the 13th and 19th centuries CE.

One unfortunate aspect of al-Farabi’s reading was a very strong privileging of a notion of demonstrative “science” over Aristotle’s own predominant use of dialectic in philosophical development. This was based on a reading of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics as propounding a model of “science” as a deductive enterprise expected to result in certain knowledge, which is still dominant today, but which I (following a number of modern interpreters) think involves a misreading of the basic aims of Aristotelian demonstration.

The idea that Aristotle was fundamentally concerned to develop “sciences” yielding certain knowledge gave a more dogmatic cast to his whole work, which has been a contributing factor in common negative stereotypes of Aristotle. Many modern commentators who still accept this reading of Posterior Analytics have been puzzled by the huge gap between this and Aristotle’s actual practice throughout his works, which in fact is mainly dialectical. I think a careful reading of the Topics (on dialectic) and Posterior Analytics (on demonstration) with consultation of the Greek text on the originals of some key phrases yields a view that is far more consistent with Aristotle’s actual practice.

Demonstration is a pedagogical way of showing very clear reasons for certain kinds of conclusions. It works by assuming some premises are true, whereas dialectic makes no such assumption. Thus the only necessity that results from demonstration is the “hypothetical” one that if the premises are true, then the conclusion is also true. But the more important point in regard to the classic syllogistic form is that the common “middle term” that allows the major and minor premises to be both formally and materially composed together illuminates why we ought to consider it appropriate to assume the conclusion is true if we believe the premises are true.

Dialectic, as I have said, is cumulative, exploratory discursive reasoning about meanings in the absence of initial certainty. This is how Aristotle mainly approaches things. Dialectic implicitly relies on the same logical form of syllogistic argument explicitly used in demonstration, but Aristotle distinguishes dialectic and demonstration by whether premises are treated as hypotheses to be evaluated, or as hypothetically assumed “truths” to be interpreted.

It is also important to note that in the Latin scholastic tradition, the dogmatic trend resulting from wide acceptance of claims about demonstrative science was significantly mitigated by a strong counter-trend of evenhandedly analyzing arguments pro and con, which effectively revived a form of dialectic. (See also Foundations?; Fortunes of Aristotle; Scholastic Dialectic.)


Michel Foucault (1926-84) played a very great role in developing approaches to subjectivity as something that is constituted, rather than pre-existing or only one-sidedly constitutive. Despite some nontrivial issues with things he said at different times, this seems like a major contribution. In his later work, he also emphasized that people actively participate in the constitution of their own subjectivity. Foucault was not only a brilliant theorist, but often expressed his ideas in beautiful, sparkling prose.

I see his focus on the constitution of subjectivity itself as an invaluable and necessary complement to the notion of a constituting subjectivity, as exemplified by, e.g., Kantian synthesis.

Much of Foucault’s work tended to fit the common trope of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” — pointing out how liberal reforms actually implemented more efficient strategies of social control, and so on. Unlike most of the people who use this phrase, I think this sort of “suspicion” of usual assumptions can play an invaluable critical role. However, I agree it can also be taken too far.

For example, received truths may turn out to be mere prejudice, and the notion of truth itself may turn out to have been naively hypostasized in many instances. But it is going too far to say — as Foucault did on several occasions — that truth and knowledge as such are inevitably caught up in strategies of domination, or — as Nietzsche and Foucault both did — that there really is no Platonic truth. In matters like this, we need an Aristotelian mean that avoids both naivete and cynicism.

I always preferred to pay more attention to Foucault’s practical multiplication of articulable differences, distinctions, and discontinuities in his historiography than to his negative rhetoric about truth and knowledge in general. During his earlier “archaeological” period, which greatly impressed me in my youth, this multiplication of articulable differences was the positive side of his questioning of too-easy unities, identities, and continuities in history.

In his later work, he developed a distinctive theory of power in society, treating it as distributed everywhere at a micro level, rather than emanating from a central authority. On a practical level, this seems to me to contain valuable lessons, although it also seems to play on an ambiguity between power as capability and power as domination. (It is easy to see that power as capability is ubiquitous, and illuminating to think of how what are really modes of control may be actualized at a micro level. But capabilities and modes of control, while they are both distributed, are two different things that cannot be just identified or assumed to have the same distribution.)

He also pointed out how control can be effectuated through the very formation and self-formation of people and things, without the overt involvement of any sort of repression or repressive apparatus. This seems like another important insight.

Foucault was much influenced by the philosopher of science Georges Canguilhem’s investigations of the concept of normality in biology and medicine, which highlighted the importance of pathology for an understanding of normality. (It also appears that within the French context, the term “normativity” has strong connotations of mere empirical “normality” and conformity, in sharp contrast to its value-oriented significance in analytic philosophy and my own usage.) Foucault himself had a sort of fascination with what sociologists call deviance, and a bit of a morbid streak that I never liked.

The discursive regularities he analyzed in his earlier work represent a kind of empirical “normality” rather than an ethical normativity. Again, these are two entirely different concepts.

In Aristotelian terms, discursive regularities fall under the domain of “art” or technique, rather than that of ethos. Technique is the canonical example of an Aristotelian means or efficient cause (not to be confused with later notions of impulse, or a scholastic act of creation). As efficient causes, Foucaultian discursive regularities operate under the mode of actuality. (Ethical normativity, by contrast, involves derived ends considered under the mode of potentiality.)

Foucault’s “archaeological” method can be seen as a specialized historiographical application of what I have been calling Aristotelian semantics, concerned with fine distinctions in the ways things actually said might be meant, as well as of Aristotelian dialectic, concerned with making the practical consequences of those distinctions explicit. (See also Empirical-Transcendental Doublet; Archaeology of Knowledge; Ricoeur on Foucault; Genealogy; Immediacy, Presence.)


Plato’s short dialogue Meno — concerned with virtue and knowledge — is among the most famous of what are referred to as his “Socratic” dialogues, which dwell on Socratic method, and on the character of Socrates as a kind of role model. Meno wants Socrates to provide an easy answer to how virtue is to be acquired. Socrates, ever distrustful of easy answers, shifts the discussion toward the more basic question of what virtue is. Meno first responds with examples, but Socrates points out that examples do not answer the “what is” question.

Meno eventually suggests that virtue is the desire of honorable things, combined with the power of attaining them. Socrates then points out that some people desire evil, and that a person may have power, yet still fail to properly recognize good as good and evil as evil. Meno complains that Socrates is always doubting himself and making others doubt, and says he feels bewitched.

Socrates introduces a poetic myth that learning is a kind of recollection of knowledge that we already had. He then walks a young boy through a simple geometrical construction. At the beginning, the boy seems to have no idea how to solve the problem. Then he thinks he does, but he is wrong. At a later point, he recognizes the mistake. Socrates points out that it is always better to know that we do not know, than to think that we know when we do not. But still later, after following the steps of the construction, it seems like the boy does understand how to find the solution, though he is never told. As Brandom might remind us, this shows the value of making what was implicit into something explicit.

Eventually, Socrates leads Meno to the conclusion that virtue is “either wholly or partly wisdom”. But then he introduces a further doubt, whether virtue can be reduced to knowledge. True opinion is said to be as good a guide to action as knowledge, and this is said to be how most good people function.

But then finally, true opinion is said not to be of very great value after all, because it is not “fastened by the tie of the cause”, and therefore tends to “run away” from us. That is to say, when we do not really know — i.e., cannot articulate — the why of a conclusion that is right in one context, it is easy to misapply it in a different context. (See also Dialogue; Platonic Truth; What and Why; Reasons.)

Why Modality?

Why should we care about something as seemingly esoteric as modality? Without modal concepts like necessary, possible, and should, there could be no knowledge beyond mere acquaintance with particulars, and no ethics at all. Nothing we said could have any force. We could not really even form any general concepts. Nothing would really follow from anything else. The fact that necessary or should is sometimes applied in too strong a way — or that possible is sometimes applied in too abstract a way — does not negate their essential role.

I want to say that modal concepts are properly meaningful only when bound to a context. It is only the lack of proper binding to a context that makes their application too strong or too abstract.

This relation actually goes both ways. Modal assertions not limited by context sound like dogmatism or would-be despotism; but equally, an emphasis on context with no consideration of modality at all would lead to bad relativism or particularism. Modality and context have a kind of complementarity, and need to go together. Either one without the other causes trouble, but the two together ground ethics, knowledge, and wisdom. Their combination is another good example of an Aristotelian mean. (See also Modality and Variation.)

Theory and Practice

Unlike Plato, Aristotle did not make theoretical knowledge an ethical criterion, although he played a great role in the development of many fields of inquiry. Nonetheless, he placed intellectual “virtue” alongside friendship or love as an essential component of the highest ethical development.

I previously suggested there is an indirect way in which any inquiry can help make us better deliberators. Knowledge can of course help, but only if it is relevant to the question at hand. But the ethical value of inquiry lies more in a kind of theoretical practice than in the particular knowledge that may result. Intellectual virtue, I want to say, has to do especially with practices of free and well-rounded interpretation.

Kant and Foundationalism

According to Kant, all human experience minimally involves the use of empirical concepts. We don’t have access to anything like the raw sense data posited by many early 20th century logical empiricists, and it would not be of much use if we did. In Kantian terms, this would be a form of intuition without concepts, which he famously characterized as necessarily blind, and unable to function on its own.

Foundationalism is the notion that there is certain knowledge that does not depend on any inference. This implies that it somehow comes to us ready-made. But for Kant, all use of empirical concepts involves a kind of synthesis that could not work without low-level inference, so this is impossible.

The idea that any knowledge could come to us ready-made involves what Kant called dogmatism. According to Kant, this should have no place in philosophy. Actual knowledge necessarily is a product of actual work, though some of that work is normally implicit or preconscious. (See also Kantian Discipline; Interpretation; Inferentialism vs Mentalism.)

It also seems to me that foundationalism is incompatible with the Kantian autonomy of reason.

Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic

When Hegel talked about dialectic instead of just using it, he occasionally made it sound as if dialectic governed events in the world. This is a loose, popular way of speaking that should not be taken literally. Dialectic is the main tool of the forward progress of philosophical criticism, and thus indirectly helps refine our understanding of the world and events in it. It could not directly drive events.

It is actually very hard to draw a sharp line between the world “in itself” and our understanding of it, because our understanding (in the general, not the specifically Hegelian sense) is all we actually have to go on. Our sense of the world in itself is permeated by artifacts of our understanding, because it comes entirely from our understanding.

But then it turns out that our understanding is not just some private, subjective thing of ours. Our understanding participates in the world, and is part of it. The cultivation of shareable thought grounds objectivity in (our sense of) the world. Much of the content of shareable thought comes to us from outside. In a poetic manner of speaking, it could be said that the world thinks itself through us. But in a more direct way, we are the agents and stewards of the world’s thought. In particular, it advances through us. There is thus no wall between our understanding and the world. There is a meaningful distinction, but the content of shareable thought straddles the boundary, so to speak.

Aristotle’s version of dialectic is much less famous nowadays, but a great deal easier to understand, and it does not require apologetics of the sort I just provided for Hegel’s. It uses logic and semantics to analyze the meaning of things said, making no assumption whether or not they are grounded in knowledge.

Aristotle explicitly said (Topics, book 1) that this is the way to investigate first principles (i.e., starting points) of knowledge. With respect to such starting points, we have no possibility of knowledge in the strong sense (episteme) — which requires development — but only a kind of initial personal acquaintance or familiarity (gnosis), as he said in Posterior Analytics.

There has been a strong tradition of misinterpretation of this latter passage. With no textual basis, many people who wanted to read Stoic-style foundationalism back into Aristotle — or were influenced by others with this sort of motivation — have glossed Aristotelian gnosis as something like a strong intellectual intuition, and claimed Aristotle was saying first principles of knowledge were better known in a strong sense, rather than just more familiar. (See also Aristotelian Demonstration.)

Aristotle’s actual practice, however, confirms the reading of first principles of knowledge as themselves objects of mere familiarity rather than strong knowledge. (Aristotle’s loftier principles are ends, not starting points of knowledge, and he typically places discussion of them at the end of an inquiry.) His starting points for inquiries are very pragmatic. He typically begins an inquiry with logical/semantic (i.e., “dialectical”) analysis of widely known opinions on the subject. He also explicitly recommends that we begin any inquiry from what is closer to us, and then, through analysis, refine our understanding. (See also The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle).

The development of knowledge starts from what is close to us and easier to grasp, and becomes progressively more secure through the dialectical work we do on it. Aristotelian dialectic uses the same logical forms as demonstration, but is mainly concerned with inferential semantic analysis rather than deriving conclusions. (Even Aristotelian demonstration is concerned not so much with deriving conclusions, as with perspicuously showing their basis.) Aristotle does the great majority of his actual work with dialectic rather than demonstration.

Once one becomes familiar with the profile of the Aristotelian version, it becomes possible to see something very like it at the core of Hegel’s way of working — not so much in what he says about it, as in what he does. (See also Aristotelian Dialectic; Dialogue; Scholastic Dialectic; Contradiction vs Polarity; Three Logical Moments.)

The Epistemic Modesty of Plato and Aristotle

In his lectures on the history of philosophy, Hegel said that beyond all others, Plato and Aristotle deserve the title of educators of the human race. A big part of what makes this true is what I will call their epistemic modesty. In contrast to the sweeping and very strong claims of many later philosophers, Plato and Aristotle were both masters of careful understatement.

Plato developed a very sharp contrast between knowledge and opinion. No opinion counts as knowledge, period. Arguments from authority or tradition may yield true conclusions, but if so it is not the authority or tradition that makes them true. To assert anything at all is implicitly to take responsibility for the assertion, and therefore to invite dialogue. For Plato, there is no knowledge in the strict sense (episteme) of anything that becomes. The most important component of wisdom is knowing what we do not know. Plato’s great literary homage to Socrates makes the latter a moral hero whose honest pursuit of truth got him executed, when his only real offense was embarrassing powerful people with questions they could not answer without admitting that they could not justify their positions. Some of his later students in the New Academy even pushed Plato’s epistemic modesty to the point of generalized skepticism.

Aristotle said that to know something (episteme) is to be able to give adequate reasons why it is true. Many things initially seem clear to us from intuition or opinions we have learned to accept, but this is only an apparent clarity. No immediate awareness counts as knowledge. We should treat the opinions of the wise with respect but, as with Plato, opinion can never be knowledge.

This last is a bit controversial, due to traditional interpretations of language in the Posterior Analytics about presuppositions and first premises. Aristotle recognized that you cannot rigorously prove anything without some starting point. But he explicitly uses a different word for knowledge (gnosis) to say we start from premises that we are better acquainted with, and work toward conclusions we are less well acquainted with. This is appropriate, because in modern terms his description of episteme in part makes it a function from premises to conclusions, but here he is talking about a beginning. One episteme (“science”) may prove premises of another, yielding episteme on a larger scale via a sort of function composition, but we still have to begin somewhere.

Aristotle is very keen to make distinctions, and to point out when the same word is “said in many ways”. Here he just uses a different, more informal word (gnosis) that typically has a connotation of personal acquaintance, as opposed to the technical concept of episteme. Unfortunately, Posterior Analytics often seems to have been read as meaning or implying that immediately accepted premises can be more certain than the reasoned conclusions. But there is no textual evidence that Aristotle considers gnosis to be in any way more certain than episteme. The imputation of an argument about certainty to Aristotle at this location rests on a circular assumption that certainty is required here. That sort of thinking belongs to a foundationalism that is utterly foreign to Aristotle. The only kind of necessity Aristotle recognizes is what Leibniz called hypothetical necessity, which is the if-then variety. At the beginning of the Topics, Aristotle explicitly says it is what he calls dialectic that evaluates first premises. Even though it employs the same structures of necessary reasoning as episteme or “science”, dialectic is expressly said to yield only “probable” conclusions (precisely because first premises are inherently uncertain). (See also Aristotelian Demonstration; Aristotelian Dialectic; Belief.)

The misinterpretation of Aristotle on first premises is partly due to the influence of Stoicism on nearly all Western philosophy after Aristotle. Stoicism is fascinating and original in its own right, but where Plato and Aristotle cultivated epistemic modesty and left many questions open, the Stoics claimed to have all the answers, to have unproblematic direct access to reality, and to have formulated it all in a complete, final system. Stoicism was the first philosophy to have significant diffusion in society at large. This was possible in part because overly strong, reassuring claims made for easier marketing. The dogmatism denounced by Kant did not actually infect all previous philosophy as Kant implied, but it was extremely influential, and Stoicism was its most important historical source. (See also Stoicism and Skepticism.)