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” (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., introduction, p. 33).

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).

Intangible Truth

Hegel wants to teach us to put aside the prejudice that a truth must be something “tangible” or discrete in itself, and thus capable of being viewed in isolation, in the way that a Platonic form is commonly supposed to be. He says that ordinary logic already gives us a clue to an alternate view of truth. Indeed, Plato’s own literary depictions of Socratic inquiry and dialogue already suggest a deeper notion of essence and truth than is promoted by standard accounts of Platonic forms.

“The Platonic idea is nothing else than the universal, or, more precisely, it is the concept of the subject matter; it is only in the concept that something has actuality, and to the extent that it is different from its concept, it ceases to be actual and is a nullity; the side of tangibility and of sensuous self-externality belongs to this null side. — But on the other side one can appeal to the representations typical of ordinary logic; for it is assumed that in definitions, for example, the determinations are not just of the knowing subject but are rather determinations of the subject matter, such that constitute its innermost essential nature. Or in an inference drawn from given determinations to others, the assumption is that the inferred is not something external to the subject matter and alien to it, but that it belongs to it instead, that to the thought there corresponds being” (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., introduction, p. 30).

There is a glimmer of a deeper truth even in the naive belief that ordinary logic can tell us about how the world really is (not of course how the world is, full stop, just some important things “about” how it is). What we infer by a good inference is at least as real as whatever is intuitively present to us. Neither of these is an infallible source of knowledge. Hegel’s main point, though, is that being immediately present to us is not a criterion of deeper truth.

He continues, “Everywhere presupposed by the use of the forms of the concept, of judgment, inference, definition, division, etc., is that they are not mere forms of self-conscious thinking but also of objective understanding” (ibid).

This leads to a criticism of Kant, which implies that Kant’s famous critique of dogmatism remains incomplete.

“Critical philosophy… gave to the logical determinations an essentially subjective significance out of fear of the object…. But the liberation from the opposition of consciousness that science must be able to presuppose elevates the determination of thought above this anxious, incomplete standpoint” (ibid).

The “opposition of consciousness” Hegel speaks of is its division into subject and object. For Kant, this distinction is interwoven with what Kant takes to be an uncrossable gap between knowledge on the side of the subject, and being on the side of the object. Hegel argues that we can avoid the dogmatism Kant means to criticize, without positing an uncrossable gap between knowledge and being. For him, the works of Aristotle are decisive proof of this.

Kant seeks to ensure the avoidance of dogmatism by treating logical determinations exclusively as attitudes actively taken up by a thinking being. Hegel points out that this leads inevitably to the unknowability of the Kantian thing-in-itself. In Kant, these are two sides of one coin. Thus cut off from logical determination, the thing-in-itself can only be unknowable, just as Kant says it is. According to Hegel’s analysis yet to come, meaning is grounded in judgments of determination, and so to be cut off from determination is to be devoid of meaning.

In criticizing Kant on this score, Hegel speaks of a Kantian “fear of the object”. Elsewhere he specifies that what is wrong with the Kantian thing-in-itself has nothing to do with its resemblance to a kind of essence, but rather with the putative self-containedness of that essence, and with the fact that for Kant the true essence is unknowable as a matter of principle.

Leibniz had earlier concluded that in order for the world to be intelligible in terms of self-contained essences or monads, each monad had to include within itself a microcosmic mirror of the entire universe and all the other monads, each of which also includes all the others, and so on to infinity. For Leibniz, things in the world are really only related to one another indirectly, via their individual immediate relations to God. God is ultimately the entire source of the world’s coherence.

At the very beginning of his career, Kant had argued against Leibniz that interactions and inter-relations between things are real and not just an appearance. The world therefore has a kind of objective coherence in its own right. This is a stance that Aristotle clearly would endorse.

Hegel strongly agrees with Kant on this, but thinks that Kant did not take his critique of Leibniz far enough. (I don’t mean to identify Kant’s critique of dogmatism with his earlier critique of Leibniz, only to suggest that there is a connection between the two.) Hegel in effect argues that no essence is ever really self-contained, and that once we also drop the Leibnizian notion that essences are each supposed to be self-contained in splendid Hermetic isolation, there is nothing left in Kant’s philosophy that would require them to be unknowable as a matter of principle.

Dogmatism for Hegel refers — as it also implicitly would for Plato and Aristotle — to any claim that we somehow know the things we believe to be true, when in reality the basis of our belief is potentially refutable. Dogmatism is claiming the necessity characteristic of knowledge for conclusions that Aristotle would at best call merely probable.

(For Aristotle, “necessary” is just a name for whatever always follows from certain premises; “probable” is the corresponding name for what follows most of the time. Whether or not something always follows is a disputable question. New information might require that we re-classify what previously seemed to be a necessary conclusion as a merely probable one. I would add that what therefore seemed to be knowledge — because it seemed to follow necessarily — may turn out to be only a relatively well-founded belief. Individual humans do have genuine knowledge, but no individual knower can legitimately certify herself as a knower in any specific case.)

(Beyond this, even the historic mutual recognition of any individual concrete community can also turn out to be seriously wrong on particular matters. Widespread and longstanding social acceptance does not guarantee that certain things that are believed to be known are not just shared prejudice. Just consider the history of inferences from race, sex, religion, etc., to characteristics claimed to hold for all or most individuals subject to those classifications.)

(This does not mean we should indiscriminately throw out all claims that are based on social acceptance. That would result in paralyzing skepticism. To avoid dogmatism, we just have to be open in a Socratic way to honestly, fairly examining the basis of our beliefs about what meaning follows from what other meaning, in light of new perspectives. For what it’s worth, I say that once exposed to the light, prejudice against people based on shallow classification of their “kinds” can only be perpetuated through — among other things — an implicit repudiation of fairness and intellectual honesty in these cases.)

(Hegel the man was not immune to the various social prejudices of his time and place. According to his own philosophy, we would not expect him to have been. Outside the context of his main philosophical works, he is recorded to have made a few utterly terrible prejudiced remarks, and a number of other bad ones. In cases like this, we should give heed to the philosopher’s carefully developed philosophical views, and blame the time and place for the philosopher’s spontaneous expression of other particular views that seem out of synch with these. Every empirical community’s views are subject to adjudication in light of the ethical ideal of the truly universal community of all talking animals. The core of Hegel’s philosophy provides unprecedented resources for this.)

Kant’s own response to the issue of dogmatism is to maintain that strictly speaking, certainty and necessity apply only to appearances, which he does understand in a relational manner, but not to the things-in-themselves, which — following Leibniz — he still regards as self-contained and therefore non-relational.

Kant and Hegel seem to share the view that the very nature of necessity is such that it applies to things only insofar as they are involved in relations, and is only expressible in terms of relations. Where they differ is that Hegel sees not only appearances but also reality itself fundamentally in terms of relations.

For Hegel, there is no self-contained “thing in itself”, because the world is made up of what things are “in and for themselves”. Hegel introduces the notion of what something (relationally) is “for itself”, in the context of a reflective concept, and precisely as an alternative to the still-Leibnizian self-containedness of the Kantian “in itself”. What things really are “for themselves” turns out to undo the assumption of their essences’ self-containedness.

Hegel on Hegel’s Logic

By his own account, Hegel makes a “completely fresh start” in what he calls logic (Science of Logic, di Giovanni trans., 1st preface, p. 9). Robert Pippin points out that insofar as it has precursors, the principal debts of Hegel’s effort are to Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and Critique of Judgment and to Aristotle’s Metaphysics, none of which are ordinarily viewed as works of “logic”. Translator George di Giovanni calls it a “discourse about discourse” (p. xxxv). Fundamentally, it is about meaning, and the conditions for anything to be intelligible.

“[A]n altogether new concept… is at work here…. [Philosophy] cannot borrow its method from a subordinate science, such as mathematics, any more than it can remain satisfied with categorical assurances of inner intuition, or can make use of argumentation based on external reflection. On the contrary, it can only be the nature of the content which is responsible for movement in scientific knowledge, for it is the content’s own reflection that first posits and generates what that content is” (pp. 9-10).

He emphasizes “the nature of the content” (which is to say meaning), and “content’s own reflection”. That reflection, moreover, “first posits and generates what that content is“. Meaning’s own reflection “posits and generates” what it means. We are not far from Aristotle’s thought thinking itself that is the cause of the what-it-is of things. Hegel shares with Kant and Aristotle a discursively reflective view of thought and meaning.

I still prefer to speak of “knowledge” rather than “science” in a philosophical context. But Hegel just means a disciplined form of knowledge. The German word for science (Wissenschaft) literally means something like the art of knowing (wissen). Our word “science” comes from Latin scientia (knowledge in a strong sense). According to di Giovanni, wissen for Hegel “signifies the product or the origin, rather than the process, of reason” (p. lxx). It is distinguished from Erkenntnis (confusingly also rendered by some translators as “knowledge”), which starts from a root meaning of acquaintance or recognition, and comes to refer to the process of reason.

“The forms of thought are first set out and stored in human language…. In everything that the human being has interiorized, in everything that in some way or another has become for him a representation, in whatever he has made his own, there has language penetrated, and everything that he transforms into language and expresses in it contains a category, whether concealed, mixed, or well defined. So much is logic natural to the human being, [it] is indeed his very nature. If we however contrast nature as such, as the realm of the physical, with the realm of the spiritual, then we must say that logic is the supernatural element that permeates all his natural behavior, his ways of sensing, intuiting, desiring, his needs and impulses; and it thereby makes them into something truly human, even though only formally human — makes them into representations and purposes” (2nd preface, p. 12).

Our involvement with linguistic meaning is “our very nature”, or is the “supernatural” element in our natural behavior that makes us truly human. As one reading of Aristotle puts it, what makes us human is that we are talking animals.

“But even when logical matters and their expressions are common coin in a culture, still, as I have said elsewhere, what is familiar is for that reason not known…. To indicate the general features of the course that cognition goes through as it leaves familiar acquaintance behind, the essential moments in the relationship of scientific thought to this natural thought, this is the purpose of the present preface” (p. 13).

“First of all, it must be regarded as an infinite step forward that the forms of thought have been freed from the material in which they are submerged in self-conscious intuition, in representation, as well as in our desires and volitions or, more accurately, in ideational desiring and willing (and there is no human desire or volition without ideation); a step forward that these universalities have been brought to light and made the subject of study on their own, as was done by Plato, and after him by Aristotle especially” (pp. 13-14).

He credits Plato and Aristotle with first clearly articulating notions of thought and meaning in a way that is independent of particular subjectivity. Next he cautions against the illusion of mastery.

“We do not indeed say of our feelings, impulses, interests, that they serve us; on the contrary, they count as independent forces and powers, so that to have this particular feeling, to desire and to will this particular thing, to make this our interest — just this, is what we are. And it is more likely that we become conscious of obeying our feelings, impulses, passions, interests, not to mention our habits, than of having them in our possession, still less, in view of our intimate union with them, of their being means at our disposal. Such determinations of mind and spirit, when contrasted with the universality which we are conscious of being and in which we have our freedom, quickly show themselves to be particulars, and we rather regard ourselves to be caught up in their particularities and to be dominated by them. It is all the less plausible, therefore, to believe that the thought determinations that pervade all our representations — whether these are purely theoretical or hold a material belonging to sensation, impulse, will — that such thought determinations are at our service; that it is we who have them in our possession and not they who have us in theirs” (p. 15).

We are masters neither of our feelings nor of our thought.

“[W]hen the content that motivates a subject to action is drawn out of its immediate unity with the subject and is made to stand before it as an object, then it is that the freedom of spirit begins” (p. 17).

True freedom of spirit is the very opposite of following one’s arbitrary will or impulse.

“The most important point for the nature of spirit is the relation, not only of what it implicitly is in itself to what it actually is, but of what it knows itself to be to what it actually is” (ibid).

Here he already raises the Aristotelian theme of the priority of actuality.

“As impulses the categories do their work only instinctively; they are brought to consciousness one by one and so are variable and mutually confusing, thus affording to spirit only fragmentary and uncertain actuality. To purify these categories and in them to elevate spirit to truth and freedom, this is therefore the loftier business of logic” (ibid).

Hegel’s logic thus serves a profound ethical purpose.

“It is soon evident that what in ordinary reflection is, as content, at first separated from the form cannot in fact be formless, … that it rather possesses form in it; indeed that it receives soul and substance from the form alone and that it is this form itself which is transformed into only the semblance of a content…. By thus introducing content into logical consideration, it is not the things, but rather the fact [Sache], the concept of the things, that becomes the subject matter” (pp. 18-19).

What the moderns call “content” is a special case of what Plato and Aristotle call form. Hegel calls it a “semblance” of content. But its role in his logic is pivotal. Logic is concerned not with things as such but with meanings, Aristotelian forms, the what-it-is of things. What the translator calls “fact” seems rather different from ordinary English usage.

Pure Entelechy

Book Lambda (XII) of the Metaphysics sketches Aristotle’s brilliant and beautiful solution to the problems that have been under investigation in this work. The text of book Lambda itself, however, seems more like a series of fragments than the kind of tight, continuous development that characterizes the so-called “central books” Zeta (VII), Eta (VIII), and Theta (IX), or the books of Aristotle’s Physics.

He now clearly affirms that there is a first cause of all things — not only of their being what they are, but also of their motion. As a result, book Lambda presents a mix of philosophical theology and Aristotelian physics.

Aristotle has a very distinctive notion of what the first cause is. I would call this pure entelechy. I’m not aware that he literally uses that phrase, but he definitely says that the first cause is pure energeia (actuality, being-at-work, or fulfillment), and he very strongly identifies energeia with entelecheia (a new Greek word coined by Aristotle, meaning literally “in [it] end having”, or “being-at-work-staying-itself” in Sachs’ translation), for which I am using the English “entelechy”.

Entelechy is the theme that unifies Aristotle’s account of motion with the inquiry about why things are what they are. Motion is a kind of incomplete entelechy. The first cause, both of motion and of things being what they are — which he identifies with the good, that-for-the-sake-of-which, thought thinking itself, and what I would call a kind of pure delight — is a complete and pure entelechy. The concept of entelechy thus binds Aristotle’s physics together with his theology.

Apart from considerations related to the first cause, Aristotle normally distinguishes that-for-the-sake-of-which from the potentiality that is an internal source of motion in things. But he also says that every motion is for the sake of that toward which the potentiality inclines. And the first cause of all motion affects things purely as that-for-the-sake-of-which.

The kind of motion that best exemplifies entelechy is circular motion. Circularity is also a kind of figurative image or metaphor for entelechy. Continuous motion in a circle is in a sense always complete in the sense of unchangingly accomplishing its goal, and yet it is always ongoing. But not even the first motion is itself unconditionally complete as an entelechy, since it is still moving. Only the first cause is that.

For Aristotle, there is one thing that is directly moved by the first cause, and that is the sphere of the fixed stars, which also demarcates the most comprehensive whole of things that occupy space. Other motions are indirect consequences of this, which follow only in a conditional way.

The first cause is not just pure entelechy in the generic sense of a logical universal. It is a particular independent thing that turns out to be the unique exemplar of its kind.

In virtue of its unique relation to all other things, it plays the role of what Hegel would later call a concrete universal. Further, the unique character of that relation of “firstness” makes it an unconditioned concrete universal. This is the kind of unconditioned thing that Kant says reason is always reaching for, but that cannot be strictly known. It is also the kind of unconditioned thing that Hegel treats as the ultimate ground of intelligibility and value.

He begins by recalling that the path of the inquiry has approached “all things” by focusing on those sources and causes that make concrete independent things be what they are. Independent things turn out to be those that have some entelechy of their own, which exhibits greater self-determination than the minimal kind that applies to all motions. These include plants, animals, and the stars.

“Our study concerns thinghood, for it is the sources and causes of independent things that are being sought” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 231).

“[E]verything changes from something that has being in potency to something that has being at-work” (ch. 2, p. 232).

All change for Aristotle is from something being potentially something to its being that same something in actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment. This is narrower than common English usage. In Physics book VII he says that “states, whether of the body or of the soul, are not alterations” (Collected Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 412).

“Now if something has being in potency, still this is not a potency to be any random thing, but a different thing comes to be from a different potency” (ibid).

Although one thing may have many potentialities, each of which may or may not be realized, each of these is a specific potentiality to be actual or at-work or fulfilled in some definite way.

“The kinds of thinghood are three, since the material is a this by coming forth into appearance (for whatever has being by way of contact, and not by having grown together, is material and underlies something else), while the nature of a thing is a this and an active condition into which it comes; and then the third kind is the particular thing that consists of these, such as Socrates or Callias” (ch. 3, p. 233).

He reminds us that when we speak of particular things, to avoid confusion we need to attend to whether we mean their matter, their form, or the composite consisting of both.

“Now things that cause motion are causes as being previously present, but things that are causes in the sense of rational patterns are simultaneous with what they produce” (p. 234).

Causes that are not of motion as such, but rather simply of being in a certain way, like form and that-for-the-sake-of-which, are not like more direct causes of motion in their mode of operation with respect to time. Their operation as causes does not involve a distinct externality related to a before and after, but rather unfolds immanently in their effects.

“Now there is a sense in which the causes and sources of different things are different, but there is a sense in which, if one speaks universally by way of analogy, they are the same for all things…. [B]ut the elements are different in different things, and the first cause that sets them in motion is also different in different things…. [B]ut still, over and above these, is the cause which, as the first of all things, sets all things in motion” (ch. 4, p. 234-236).

For Aristotle, everything has both a particular cause or causes, and a dependency on the first cause of all. The first cause of all operates through particular causes. This is the first time he has unambiguously implied that there is a first cause of all things. (In the middle above, when he speaks of “the first cause that sets them in motion”, this is not the first cause of all, but the first more specific cause of the motion in question.)

“Now since some things are separate while others are not separate, the former are independent things. And it is on account of this that all things have the same causes, because without independent things, attributes and motions are not possible. So then these causes will be, presumably, soul and body, or intellect, desire, and body. And in yet another way the sources of things are the same by analogy, namely being-at-work and potency, though these are both different and present in different ways in different things” (ch. 5, p. 236).

Once again, he recalls both the strategy of deriving the saying of being in the other categories from the saying of what independent things are, and the analogy by which the meanings of actuality and potentiality were illustrated. Again he emphasizes actuality and potentiality as sources of all things.

In passing, he seems to suggest thinking about human being in more specific terms of intellect and desire, rather than an undifferentiated soul. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he specifies that choice is grounded in a fusion of intellect and desire.

“Further, it is necessary to see that some things are possible to state universally, but others not. Now the primary sources of all things are a this that is first at work and something else which is in potency. So these are not the universal causes, since the source of particular things is particular; for a human being is the source of a human being universally, but no one is this universal, but rather Peleus is the source of Achilles and your father of you, and this particular B is the source of this particular BA, but B in general is the source of BA simply. And then, if the causes and elements of independent things are the sources of all things (but different ones of different ones), then as was said, of things not in the same class (colors and sounds, or independent things and quantity) they are different except by analogy; of things that are in the same kind they are also different, but not in kind, but because they are different for particular things, your material and form and mover from mine, though they are the same in their universal statement” (p. 237).

Again he emphasizes that particulars have particular causes. The kind of universality and operation that will be attributed to the first cause of all will be of a sort that respects this. He also again emphasizes that the primary sources of all things are particular actualities and potentialities.

“So as for seeking out what are the sources or elements of independent things and of relations and the of-what-sorts of things, and whether they are the same or different, it is clear that, since they are meant in more than one way, they do belong to everything, but when they have been distinguished they are not the same but different, except in one sense. And the causes of all things are the same in this sense — by analogy — because they are material, form, deprivation, and a mover, and the causes of independent things are the causes of all things in this sense — because when they are taken away everything is taken away; and further, the primary thing that is completely at work is the cause of all things. But the causes are different in this sense — they are as many as the primary contraries, described neither generically nor ambiguously, and as there are kinds of material as well. So what the sources are of perceptible things, and how many there are, and in what way they are the same and in what way different, have been said” (pp. 237-238).

At long last, we come to the argument that there really is a first cause of all things. Again he emphasizes that everything also has particular sources and causes.

“Now since there are three kinds of thinghood, two of them natural and one motionless, about the latter one must explain that it is necessary for there to be some everlasting motionless independent thing” (ch. 6, p. 238).

“For independent things are primary among beings, and if they were all destructible, everything would be destructible; but it is impossible for motion either to come into being or to be destroyed (since it always is), and impossible too for time” (ibid).

For Aristotle there is no first motion, or first moment in time. Instead, there must be an everlasting cause of motion.

“For if there were no time, there could be no before and after; and motion is continuous in just the way that time is; since time is either the same as or some attribute of motion” (ibid).

He points out that to speak of anything “before” there was any time is incoherent, since before and after presuppose time.

“But there is no continuous motion other than in place, and among these, other than in a circle” (ibid).

Only motion in a circle could continue forever. Space is vast, but Aristotle does not believe in infinite distances, so for him there could not be motion continuing forever in a straight line.

He seems to imply that the most fundamental motion of all — that of the fixed stars — provides a uniform measure for time. In modern terms, this is the earth’s rotation on its axis, as observed from a point on the earth. In the absence of evidence refuting what we see to be the case, he assumes that the stars forever rotate around the earth, and that the apparent motion of what is apparently the outermost sphere of the fixed stars is therefore a primary motion that spatially surrounds all things. If we take earth as the point of reference for whatever relativistic motions we see in the sky, this fits all the observational facts.

“But surely if there is something capable of moving and producing things, but not at work in any way, there will not be motion; for what has a potency admits of not being at work” (ibid).

Here he returns to the Physics sense of potentiality and actuality, and to the priority of the actual. Every potentiality is a source of motion that requires something external that is already an actuality of the same sort, in order for the potentiality to be actualized. The child requires a parent, the artifact a Platonic model.

“Therefore, there is no benefit even if we adopt everlasting independent things, as do those who bring in the forms, unless there is in them some source capable of producing change; moreover, even this is not enough, not even if there is another independent thing besides the forms, since if it is not going to be at work, there will not be motion” (ibid).

A pure form or logical universal that is not “actual” cannot explain motion. Once again, motion as the actualization of a potential depends on a pre-existing actuality.

“What’s more, it is not enough even if it will be at work, if the thinghood of it is potency, for there would not be everlasting motion, since what has being in potency admits of not being” (ibid).

Further, any first cause of motion must be everlasting, continuous, and unchanging in its action. That is to say, it must itself be purely actual, with no admixture of potentiality. It would not be sufficient to explain everlasting, continuous motion if the first cause just happened to be actual for some period of time.

“Therefore it is necessary that there be a source of such a kind that the thinghood of it is being-at-work. On top of that, it is necessary that these independent things be without material, for they must be everlasting, if indeed anything else is everlasting. Therefore they are being-at-work” (ibid).

As he just suggested, any first cause of all must therefore be a pure actuality with no potentiality. What Aristotle calls matter is kind of potentiality, so the first cause must have no matter either.

“For how will things have been set in motion, if there were not some responsible thing at work? For material itself, at any rate, will not set itself in motion” (p. 239).

“And this is why some people, such as Leucippus and Plato, bring in an everlasting activity, for they say there is always motion. But why there is this motion, and what it is, they do not say, nor the cause of its being in a certain way or some other way. For nothing moves at random, but always something must be present to it, just as now something moves in a certain way by nature, but in some other way by force or by action of intelligence or something else” (ibid).

It is not enough to simply posit motion. This does not explain anything.

“And then, what sort of motion is primary? For this makes so much difference one can hardly conceive it. But surely it is not possible for Plato to say what he sometimes thinks the source of motion is, which sets itself in motion; for the soul is derivative, and on the same level as the heavens, as he says” (ibid).

The thought here seems to be that if there is a first cause of motion, there must be a primary sort of motion that it primarily causes. For Aristotle, this is the movement of the fixed stars.

“Anaxagoras testifies that being-at-work takes precedence (since intellect is a being-at-work), as does Empedocles with love and strife, and so do those who say there is always motion, such as Leucippus; therefore there was not chaos or night for an infinite time, but the same things have always been so, either in a cycle or in some other way, if being-at-work takes precedence over potency. So if the same thing is always so in a cycle, it is necessary for something to persist always at work in the same way” (pp. 239-240).

If all things did not come from something that is an actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment, then they could only come from what the poets called “chaos and night”. But if all things came from chaos and night, there would be no hope of understanding anything. Aristotle suggests that several of his predecessors ought to have recognized the priority of actuality, as an implicit presupposition of what they did say.

“But since it is possible for it to be this way, and if it is not this way things will come from night and from ‘all things together’ and from not-being, these questions could be resolved; and there is a certain ceaseless motion that is always moving, and it is in a circle (and this is evident not only to reason but in fact), so that the first heaven will be everlasting” (ch. 7, p. 240).

He does not claim to positively know that actuality is necessarily prior to potentiality. He claims that the account is plausible, and that any alternative must lead back to sheer chaos, which would make it impossible for anything to be truly intelligible at all.

“Accordingly, there is also something that moves it. And since what is in motion and causes motion is intermediate, there is also something that causes motion without being in motion, which is everlasting, an independent thing, and a being-at-work” (ibid).

Behind each independent celestial motion, there must be some actual everlasting independent thing. Behind these, there must be something that is completely unmoved, and that is a pure actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment.

“But what is desired and what is thought cause motion in that way: not being in motion, they cause motion” (ibid).

For Aristotle, desire and thought are unmoved movers.

“But the primary instances of these are the same things, for what is yearned for is what seems beautiful, while what is wished for primarily is what is beautiful; but we desire something because of the way it seems, rather than its seeming so because we desire it, for the act of thinking is the beginning” (pp. 240-241).

Desire and thought both aim at what is good or beautiful. The way things seem — and consequently, the act of thinking or judging — drives wishing and willing, not vice versa. Further below, he will again emphasize the active rather than merely receptive role of thought.

“But the power of thinking is set in motion by the action of the thing thought, and what is thought in its own right belongs to an array of affirmative objects of which thinghood is primary, and of this the primary kind is that which is simple and at work” (p. 241).

Thinking itself is driven by the actuality of what it thinks. This does not negate his emphasis on thinking as act.

“But what is one and what is simple are not the same, for oneness indicates a measure, but what is simple is itself a certain way” (ibid).

The simplicity he attributes to the first cause is a stronger criterion than being one.

“But surely the beautiful and what is chosen in virtue of itself are also in that same array, and what is primary is always best, or analogous to it” (ibid).

First things are good and beautiful, and the first thing of all can be identified with the good and the beautiful.

“And that-for-the-sake-of-which is possible among motionless things, as the [following] distinction makes evident; for that-for-the-sake-of-which is either for something or belonging to something, of which the former is and the latter is not present among motionless things” (ibid).

Here he explicitly says that that-for-the-sake-of-which has a broader scope than any source of motion. Alone among the four kinds of causes, it provides ultimate reasons why things are what they are. Form may be identified with what things are, but that-for-the-sake of which is the cause of form and the reason why it is what it is.

“And it causes motion in the manner of something loved, and by means of what is moved moves other things” (ibid).

The highest kind of cause, that-for-the-sake-of-which, involves no force or compulsion or unconditional necessity. Other things are moved because they love it or are attracted by it, but they could not be so moved if they did not have their own sources of motion. They are not moved by some active power emanating from the first cause.

“But since there is something that causes motion while being itself motionless, this does not admit of being otherwise than it is in any respect at all” (ibid).

“For among changes, the primary one is change of place, and of this the primary kind is a circle, but this is what this mover causes” (ibid).

“Therefore [the first cause] is something that has being necessarily…. On such a source, therefore, the cosmos and nature depend” (pp. 241-242).

“And the course of its life is of such a kind as the best we have for a short time. This is so because it is always the same way (which for us is impossible), and because its being-at-work is also pleasure (which is what makes being awake, perceiving, and thinking the most pleasant things, while hopes and memories are pleasant on account of these)” (p. 242).

If we speak in terms of pleasure here, it would be of the highest possible sort. I think “pure delight” captures the meaning more clearly.

“And the thinking that is just thinking by itself is a thinking of what is best just as itself, and especially so with what is so most of all” (ibid).”

“But by partaking in what it thinks, the intellect thinks itself, for it becomes what it thinks by touching and contemplating it, so that the intellect and what it thinks are the same thing” (ibid).

And this, I say, is pure delight.

“For what is receptive of the intelligible and of thinghood is the intellect, and it is at work when it has them; therefore it is the being-at-work rather than the receptivity the intellect has that seems godlike, and its contemplation is pleasantest and best” (ibid, emphasis added).

He is saying that it is by virtue of the more perfect entelechy of intellect, which goes beyond the limited entelechy associated with motion — rather than intellect’s incidental touching or contemplation of something else — that intellect seems godlike. Here again he emphasizes the primarily active rather than receptive character of thought.

“So if the divine being is in this good condition that we are sometimes in, that is to be wondered at; and if it is in it to a greater degree than we are, that is to be wondered at still more. And that is the way it is” (ibid).

For Aristotle, the divine is not incommensurable with the human. Albeit in a very partial manner, we also partake of it, and the more so the more that we are moved by our highest values.

“But life belongs to it too, for the being-at-work of intellect is life, and that being is being-at-work, and its being-at-work is in itself the best life and is everlasting. And we say it is a god who everlastingly lives the best life, so that life and continuous and everlasting duration belong to a god; for this being is god” (ibid).

“That, then, there is an independent thing that is everlasting, motionless, and separate from perceptible things, is clear from what has been said. And it has also been demonstrated that this independent thing can have no magnitude, but is without parts and indivisible (for it causes motion for an infinite time, while no finite thing has an infinite power, and since every magnitude must be either finite or infinite, it cannot have magnitude, either finite, for the reason given, or infinite, because there is no infinite magnitude at all). But surely it has also been demonstrated that it cannot be affected or altered” (p. 243).

Sachs says in a note that the reference to a demonstration that the first cause is not involved with magnitude effectively incorporates the entire argument of the Physics by reference. Book VIII of the Physics has a far more thorough argument that there must be a first unmoved mover corresponding to the primary observable motion of the circling of the fixed stars, but that account does not address the what-it-is of things.

“But since… we see in addition to the motion of the whole heaven, other everlasting motions which belong to the planets…, it is necessary that each of these motions also be caused by something that is itself motionless and an everlasting independent thing. For the nature of the stars is for each to be an everlasting independent thing, while the mover is everlasting and takes precedence over the thing moved, and what takes precedence over an independent thing must be an independent thing” (ch. 8, p. 244).

The terrestrial independent things are mainly plants and animals. These have the richest entelechies among terrestrial perceptible things.

Aristotle also acknowledges each star participating in the motion of the heaven as an entelechy of its own. At least in a way, it is superior to ours, in that to all appearances it lasts forever.

The stars he calls planets are those that stand out by having observable independent motions of their own, different from the primary motion that they share with all the stars that are called “fixed” by contrast.

“[B]ut the number of motions is already something one must examine from that kind of mathematical knowledge that is the nearest kin to philosophy, namely from astronomy. For this kind makes its study about perceptible, everlasting thinghood, while the others, such as those concerned with numbers and with geometry, are not about thinghood at all” (ibid).

“[A]s for how many [independent motions] there happen to be, we now state what some of the mathematicians say, for the sake of a conception of it, … and as for what remains, it is necessary to inquire into some things ourselves, while listening to what other inquirers say about others. If something should seem to those who busy themselves with these matters to be contrary to what has just now been said, it is necessary to welcome both accounts, but trust the more precise one” (pp. 244-245).

“[F]or let the number that is necessary be left for more relentless people to say” (p. 246).

Apparently he made an arithmetic error counting the motions (“either 55 or 47”, where the 47 should have been 48, according the details I have not reproduced), then made a joke of it. I don’t believe Aristotle is very attached to specific enumerations of any sort. It is the principles upon which distinctions are based that matter.

“There has been handed down from people of ancient and earliest times a heritage, in the form of myth, to those of later times, that these original beings are gods, and that the divine embraces the whole of nature. The rest of it was presently introduced in mythical guise for the persuasion of the masses and into laws for use and benefit” (p. 247).

The divine embraces the whole of nature. We still name the planets by the Roman names for the Greek gods that were associated with them in antiquity.

Next he seems to respond to, or perhaps anticipate, doubts about what he said earlier about intellect.

“Now concerning the intellect there are certain impasses, for it seems to be the most divine of things that are manifest to us, but the way it is if it is to be of that sort contains some things that are hard to digest. For if it thinks nothing, what would be solemn about that? Rather, it would be just like someone sleeping. But if it does think, but something else has power over it, then, since it is not thinking but potency that is the thinghood of it, it could not be the best independent thing, for it is on account of its act of thinking that its place of honor belongs to it. And still, whether the thinghood of it is a power of thinking or an activity of thinking, what does it think?” (ch. 9, p. 247).

“For [what intellect thinks] is either itself or something else, and if it is something else, either always the same one or different ones. And then does it make any difference, or none, whether its thinking is of what is beautiful or of some random thing? Isn’t it even absurd for its thinking to be about some things? Surely it is obvious that it thinks the most divine and honorable things, and does not change, since its change would be for the worse, and such a thing would already be a motion” (p. 248).

Intellect will prefer the beautiful and the good over any random thing. Physics book VII much better explains why certain things that we are used to calling “changes” are not considered changes in his way of speaking.

“First, then, if it is not an activity of thinking but a potency, … it is clear that something else would be more honorable than the intellect, namely what it thinks…. Therefore what it thinks is itself, if it is the most excellent thing, and its thinking is a thinking of thinking” (ibid).

For a third time, he insists that intellect is primarily active, rather than receptive. Its main concern seems to be with whatever is most good and beautiful and honorable. It is a thinking of thinking — true higher-order thinking, rather than a first-order “thinking” of something external.

“But [the human soul’s] knowledge and perception and opinion and step-by-step thinking seem always to be about something else, and about themselves only as something secondary” (ibid).

The above seems to be in implicit contrast with the active thinking about which he was speaking just before. In this way, intellect in its own right is unlike the human soul.

“What’s more, if the thinking and the being thought are different, then in virtue of which of them does what is good belong to it? For to be an act of thinking and to be something thought are not the same” (ibid).

They are the same and yet not the same. Of course, this is in different respects. This is the model for many similar formulations in Hegel.

“Or is it rather that in some cases the knowledge is the thing it is concerned with, so that in the case of the kinds of knowing that make something, the thinghood without material and what it is for something to be, or in the case of the contemplative kinds of knowing, the articulation, is both the thing the knowledge is concerned with and the activity of thinking it? So since what is thought and what is thinking are not different with as many things as have no material, they will be the same, and the act of thinking will be one with what is thought” (ibid).

Here he suggests that we may after all be able to see instances of this identity by reflecting on our experiences of productive and contemplative knowing. Insofar as we actually know anything, we partially escape the inherent limitations of the human soul.

“But there is still an impasse left as to whether what is thought is composite, for then thinking would be changing among the parts of the whole. Or is it the case that everything that has no material is indivisible?” (pp. 248-249).

Implicitly, he seems to favor the latter alternative. Then twice more he speaks of intellect’s predilection for what is good and best.

“So the condition the human intellect, or that of any composite being, is in at some period of time (for it does not have hold of what is good at this or that time, but in some whole stretch of time it has hold of what is best, since that is something other than itself), is the condition the thinking that thinks itself is in over the whole of time” (p. 249).

Again, for Aristotle we have a little bit of the divine within us insofar as we have intellect, so there is no radical incommensurability between the divine and the human.

“One must also consider in which of two ways the nature of the whole contains what is good and best, whether as something separate, itself by itself, or as the order of the whole of things. Or is it present in both ways…?” (ch.10, p. 249).

Book Lambda’s final chapter ends with a quote from a speech by Odysseus in Homer’s Iliad. The whole chapter is oriented toward this literary image. At this point in the Iliad, the Greeks had been in complete disarray, a confused mass, but Odysseus’ words restore their morale and disciplined unity. (Notably, Odysseus was not the high king or commander-in-chief, though he was a leader. It was what he said that mattered.) Aristotle wants us to see this as a metaphorical answer to the question just posed. What is good and best must indeed be present in both ways — both as from the first cause, and as distributed and embodied throughout the whole — but he wants to emphasize that the “for the sake of which” of the first cause plays a real leading role, even though it does not govern by force.

“But beings do not present the aspect of being badly governed” (pp. 251-252).

As we have seen, this does not mean that all the facts of the world are as they ought to be. It does mean that life and the world are essentially good.

Toward a First Cause

Book Kappa (XI) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics briefly reviews material from books Beta (III), Gamma (IV), and Epsilon (VI) about the aims of the ultimate inquiry into first things that is still to be pursued. It also incorporates a brief review of his discussions in Physics books II, III, and V about what motion and change are. Both parts of the presentation here add more explicit hints that we will be looking for something that is both separate and unmoved. These hints are the book’s main interest.

Perhaps surprisingly given its review of content from the Physics, Metaphysics Kappa makes no reference to the detailed argument in Physics book VIII that there is a first unmoved mover of all things, or to the related background about unmoved things in Physics book VII. The beginning of Physics book VIII refers back to “our course on physics”, which is ambiguous, but could imply that it was written later, and possibly after Metaphysics Kappa, which would explain why book VIII’s argument about the first mover is not mentioned here.

“But neither ought one to set down the kind of knowledge being sought as concerning the causes spoken of in the writings about nature, since it is not about that for the sake of which (for this sort of cause is the good, and this belongs among actions and things that are in motion, and it moves things first — for that is the sort of thing an end is — but a thing that first moves them is not present among immovable things). And in general, there is an impasse whether the knowledge now being sought is about perceptible independent things at all, or not, but about other things. For if it is about others, it would be about either the forms or the mathematical things, but it is apparent that there are no forms…. But neither is the knowledge being sought about mathematical things, nor is it a knowledge of perceptible independent things, since they are destructible” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., pp. 205-206).

This passage is interesting in a couple of ways. The knowledge being sought in the inquiry to be conducted is now more definitely said to be not about perceptible independent things, not about mathematical things, and not about Platonic forms.

He also points out that what he calls physics is concerned primarily with what he calls sources of motion and change. It does not address questions about the good or that-for-the-sake-of which, except in an incidental way. But in Parts of Animals book I, he clearly says that in the overall scheme of things, the good and that-for-the-sake-of-which are more primary than sources of motion. The implication here in Metaphysics Kappa is that the inquiry being prepared for will address them in their own right.

“Also, ought one to set down anything besides the particular thing or not, and is the knowledge being sought about particulars?” (ch. 2, p. 207).

For Aristotle, no universal is an independent thing. The knowledge being sought does seem to be about particulars.

“And there is besides an impasse, that all knowledge is of universals and of the suchness of things, but thinghood does not belong to universal” (p. 208).

Knowledge, however, is concerned with universals. This was the major impasse remaining at the end of book Zeta (VII).

“Now since the knowledge that belongs to the philosopher concerns being as being universally and not in relation to a part, … if it is meant in accordance with something common, it would be subject to one knowledge. It seems to be meant in the way that has been spoken of, in just the way that medical and healthy are meant” (ch. 3, p. 209).

He refers back to the discussion of how the saying of being in the other categories points back to the saying of substance-essence-thinghood.

“Since all being is meant in accordance with something that is one and common, even though it is meant in a number of ways, … such things are capable of being subject to one knowledge” (p. 211).

This enables us to say that there is after all one knowledge that can be said to be of being as such. It will address the proper saying of substance-essence-thinghood directly, and the proper saying of being in the other categories in a derivative way.

“And since the mathematician uses common notions in a particular way, it would also belong to the primary sort of philosophy to study the things that govern these” (ch. 4, p. 211).

He seems to assert in passing that first philosophy includes what we would call the foundations of mathematics. Elsewhere he mentions that the first principles of mathematics are similarly supposed to be applicable to all things. But mathematics does not address what things in general are in their own right.

“And it is the same way also with the knowledge about nature as with mathematics, for physics studies the attributes and sources of beings insofar as they are in motion and not insofar as they are, (but we have said that the primary sort of knowledge is about these things to the extent that the things underlying them are beings, but not insofar as they are anything else). For this reason one must set down both this sort of knowledge and the mathematical sort as parts of wisdom” (pp. 211-212).

Neither mathematics nor what Aristotle calls physics addresses substance-essence-thinghood, or what things are in their own right. It is left to first philosophy to do this, as well as to inquire into the ultimate principles that underlie mathematics and physics.

Just as in book Gamma (IV), Aristotle’s claim that there is after all a knowledge that applies to all being as such, and that the philosopher is the one who has it, is immediately followed by a somewhat lengthy expression of outrage against those who claim a right to contradict themselves, or deny that there is any such thing as contradiction. Just as in book Gamma, the concerns he expresses are about dialogue, the understanding of meaning, and the possibility of sound reasoning.

This makes perfect sense when we recall that Aristotle has consistently treated being in a transitive way, as always being this or being that; and as intimately involved with saying, especially the saying of what things properly are in their own right. He has at the same time treated saying as meaningful saying, intimately involved with reasoning. So we should not be surprised when it turns out that the knowledge that applies to all being as such has to do with fundamental principles and presuppositions of reasoning and the understanding of meaning.

“Now those who are going to participate in a discussion with each other must in some way understand what they say…. It is necessary then for each of the words to be intelligible and to mean something, and not many things but only one, but if it does mean more than one thing, it is necessary to make clear to which of these one is applying the word. So the one who says ‘this is and is not’ denies that which he says, and so he denies that the word means what it means, which is impossible” (ch. 5, p. 212).

Then he again expresses outrage at what he takes to be Protagoras’ claim that truth is entirely subjective. If this were the case, there would be no being as Aristotle understands it. Being “in its own right” is discursively communicable intelligibility.

“Something closely resembling these things being discussed is what was said by Protagoras, for he said that a human being is the measure of all things, meaning nothing else than that what seems so to each person is solidly so” (ch. 6, p. 213).

“And since it is necessary for each sort of knowledge to know in some way what something is, … one must not let it go unnoticed in what way the one who studies nature needs to define it and how he needs to get hold of the articulation of the thinghood of things” (ch. 7, p. 217).

The inquiry to be pursued here is implicitly presupposed by physical inquiries. To the extent that one of these two, taken in itself, governs the other, taken in itself, the inquiry to be pursued here is more primary than physics (or mathematics).

“Now the study of nature is about things having a source of motion within themselves, while mathematics is contemplative and concerns something that remains the same, but is not separate. Therefore, about the sort of being that is separate and motionless, there is another sort of knowledge that is different from both of these, if there is any such independent thing — I mean something separate and motionless — which is just what we shall try to show. And if there is any such nature among beings, that would be where the divine also is, and this would be the primary and most governing source of things. It is clear, then, that there are three classes of contemplative knowledge: physics, mathematics, and theology” (ibid).

What he calls nature is a source of motion within something “as itself” (all other sources of motion he calls potentialities).

Now he explicitly mentions that he intends to show that there is a kind of being that is both separate and motionless, as he understands these two terms. He says that if there is such a thing, it will be “where the divine is”, and it will be “the primary and most governing source of things”. First philosophy will therefore be alternately characterized as theology.

He returns to the impasse about knowledge in first philosophy. “One might be at an impasse whether the knowledge of being as being ought to be set down as universal or not” (p. 218). Knowledge is supposed to be concerned with universals, but we are seeking an independent thing, and no logical universal is an independent thing.

In the earlier suggestion of a solution to this impasse, he re-interpreted the many ways in which being is said for the different categories, re-describing them as multiple derivative meanings pointing to one primary meaning. This seemed to eliminate the need to refer to a universal that abstracts over the ways being is said for the different categories.

Now he complements this by introducing a new way of speaking universally, which does not depend on abstraction. Instead, universality can be achieved by referring to a concrete thing or things that is or are concretely the cause or causes of all things, and that therefore is or are prior to all the rest.

“So if natural independent things are primary among beings, then also physics would be the primary sort of knowledge; but if there is another nature and independent thing that is separate and motionless, it is necessary that the knowledge of it be other than and prior to physics, and universal by being prior” (ibid).

Everything that Aristotle calls independent, he also calls separate. Also equivalent to these is calling something a this. As noted earlier, the challenge is to find something that is independent and separate and a this, but that is also unmoved in his sense. The impasse about universality will be conclusively resolved by finding something that is universal not in the sense of being abstract, but rather, as he says, universal in the sense of being “prior” to all other things, because it is a cause for all of them.

“And that, of what is so incidentally, there are not causes and sources of the same sort as there are of what is so in its own right, is clear, for then everything would be by necessity” (ch. 8, p. 219).

As he said in book Zeta (VII), the contingency of incidental being must have contingent, incidental causes. Now he relates this more specifically to a consideration of that-for-the-sake-of-which.

“That which is for the sake of something is present in things that happen by nature or as a result of thinking, but it is fortune when any of these happen incidentally, for just as being is in one way in its own right and in another way incidental, so also with cause. And fortune is an incidental cause in the things that are by choice, among those that happen for the sake of something, for which reason fortune and thinking concern the same things, since there is no choice apart from thinking…. And since nothing incidental takes precedence over things in their own right, neither then do incidental causes, so if fortune or chance is a cause of the heavens, intelligence and nature have a prior responsibility” (pp. 219-220).

There is such a thing as fortune or things happening by chance, but “intelligence and nature have a prior responsibility”, just as what things are in their own right takes precedence over things that are the case incidentally.

“Something is in one way only as at-work, in another way as in potency, and in another way both in potency and at-work, and again in one way as a being, in another as a so-much, in other ways in the rest of the categories; and there is no motion apart from things, since something changes always according to the categories of being, and there is nothing common to these which is not within a single category” (ch. 9, p. 220).

Every change is understood by Aristotle as a change with respect to one of the categories. What is common to these is not an abstraction, but the single concrete sense for one category (substance-essence-thinghood), from which the senses for the other categories are derived.

Here he mentions being in the sense of potentiality and actuality, before he mentions being in the senses of the categories. Next, he summarizes the Physics‘ account of motion. “Motion” is the (incomplete) actualization of a potentiality, where actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment would be its complete actualization.

“So the being-at-work-staying-itself [entelechy, identified by Aristotle with actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment] of what is in potency, whenever it is at-work as a being-at-work-staying-itself, not as itself but as movable, is motion” (p. 221).

“And the reason for motion’s seeming to be indefinite is that it is not possible to place it as a potency or as a being-at-work of beings, for neither is what is capable of being so-much necessarily in motion, nor what is actively so-much; and motion seems to be a certain sort of being-at-work, but incomplete, and the reason is that the potency of which it is the [complete] being-at-work is itself incomplete. And for this reason it is hard to grasp what it is, for it is necessary to place it either as a deprivation or as a potency or as an unqualified being-at-work, but none of these seems admissible; so what remains is what has been said, both that it is a being-at-work and that it is the sort of being-at-work that has been described, which is difficult to bring into focus but capable of being” (p. 222).

Motion is an incomplete actuality or being-at-work or fulfillment. This is a rather subtle thought, the grasping of which requires that we first understand that-for-the-sake-of-which, actuality, and potentiality. (Motion in the modern sense, on the other hand, has no teleological significance. It is entirely reducible to measurable quantities. It it not that one of these is “right” and the other “wrong” — they are two different concepts, grounded in different kinds of explanation.)

“And it is clear that motion is in the movable thing, for it is the being-at-work-staying-itself of this by the action of the thing capable of causing motion. And the being-at-work of the thing capable of causing motion is not different, since it is necessary that it be the being-at-work-staying-itself of both; for a thing is capable of causing motion by its potency and is in motion by being-at-work, but it is capable of being-at-work upon the thing moved, so that the being-at-work of both alike is one, just as the interval from one to two and from two to one is the same, and the uphill and downhill road, though the being of them is not one, and similarly also in the case of the thing causing motion and the thing moved” (ibid).

Motion for Aristotle is always said to be in the thing moved, not in the mover. The potentialities of mover and moved with respect to any motion are said to be one.

“Now it is not possible for the infinite to be something separate…. Also, how could the infinite admit of being something in its own right, if number and magnitude, of which the infinite is an attribute, do not?…. And it is clear that it is not possible for there to be an infinite actively…. [T]hat there is no infinite among perceptible things is clear…. [N]or could there be a number that is separate and infinite, since a number or that which has a number is countable…. In general it is impossible for there to be an infinite body and a place for bodies” (ch. 10, pp. 222-224).

As he argues in greater detail in the Physics, there is no “separate” or “actual” infinite.

“[T]here is something that is moved primarily on account of itself, and this is what is moved in its own right. And this is the same way also with the thing that causes motion, for it does so either incidentally, or on account of a part, or in its own right” (ch. 11, p. 225).

There is something that is a mover in its own right.

“But the forms and the attributes…, such as knowledge and heat, are motionless; it is not heat that is a motion but the process of heating. Change that is not incidental is not present in all things but in contraries and what is between the and in contradictories, and belief in this comes from considering examples” (ibid).

For Aristotle, it is only composite things (i.e., those he understands as formed from material) that are subject to motion and change. In his sense, for instance, a composite thing may undergo a process of becoming warmer, and that would be a kind of motion of the thing. But heat itself is not a composite thing. (That heat itself does not move would be true even under the modern interpretation of it as the amount of molecular motion within a material.)

“A thing that changes does so either from one underlying thing to another, or from what is not a subject to what is not another subject, or from what is not a subject to that subject (and by ‘subject’ I mean what is declared affirmatively), so that there must be three kinds of change, since that from what is not one subject to what is not another subject is not a change, for they are neither contraries nor is there a contradiction, because there is no opposition between them” (ibid).

“And since every motion is a change, and the kinds of change mentioned are three, but those that result from coming-into-being or destruction are not motions, and these are the changes between contradictories, it is necessary that change from one subject to another be the only sort of change that is motion” (p. 226).

A “subject” here is just some thing that underlies something else that has the character of an attribute. I would infer that the change from one subject to another that is spoken of here is a reference to the way that something that is potentially X becomes actually X by the action of something else that is already actually X, as the parent of a child and the Platonic “model” of an artifact were said to be.

“So if the ways of attributing being are divided into thinghood, quality, place, acting or being acted upon, relation, and quantity, there are necessarily three kinds of motion, with respect to the of-what-sort, the how-much, and the place. There is no motion with respect to thinghood, because nothing is contrary to an independent thing, nor of relation …, nor is there a motion of acting and being acted upon, nor of moving and being moved, because there is not a motion of a motion or a coming into being of coming into being, or generally a change of a change…. For every motion is a change from one thing to another, and this is also with coming into being and destruction, except that these are changes into one sort of opposites, while motion is a change into another sort” (ch. 12, pp. 226-227).

The modern concept of acceleration is not a “change of a change”, but a change in a rate of change. Surprisingly, he does not seem to mention change with respect to place, or locomotion, here.

“Also, it would go to infinity if there were to be a change of a change and a coming into being of coming into being…. And since of infinite things there is no first one, there would not be a first becoming, and therefore no next one either, and then nothing would either come into being or be moved or change” (pp. 227-228).

Here as elsewhere, Aristotle is anxious to avoid any form of infinite regress. Showing that there is a separate, unmoved, everlasting thing that moves others is what will enable him to do that. That will be the main task of book Lambda (XII).

One, Many, Same, Different

Book Iota (X) of Aristotle’s Metaphysics extends the discussion in book Delta (V) of things said in many ways, going into detail on what makes things one, many, the same, or different. These are extremely important matters for any sound reasoning, though somewhat technical in nature. It also contains Aristotle’s sharp critique of the saying of Protagoras, “Man is the measure of all things”.

“[T]here are four senses in which something is said to be one primarily and in its own right, rather than incidentally” (ch.1, p. 185).

As to the first, “oneness belongs to what is continuous, either simply or, especially, by nature, and not by contact or a binding cord (and of these that is more so one and is more primary of which the motion is more indivisible and simple)” (ibid).

Continuity in a material is the lowest degree of something being one in its own right. That which is materially united by contact or by any artificial means would not be one in its own right.

As to the second, “[oneness] belongs still more to what is whole and has some form and look, especially if something is of that sort by nature and not by force, as those things are that are so by means of glue or bolts or being tied with a cord, but rather has in itself that which is responsible for its being continuous. And something is of this sort if its motion is one and indivisible in place and time; and so it is clear that, if something that has a source of motion that moves it in the primary kind of the primary class of motions (by which I mean a circular type of change of place), this is one magnitude in the primary sense” (ibid).

Being a whole is a higher degree of unity than being materially continuous. The association of circular motion with a strong unity is relevant to the upcoming argument in book Lambda (XII) about the first cause.

“So some things are one in this way, insofar as they are continuous or whole, but others are one because the articulation of them is one, and of this sort are those things of which the thinking is one, and this in turn is of this sort if it is indivisible, and an act of thinking is indivisible if it is of something indivisible in form or in number” (ibid, emphasis added).

As to the third, “a particular thing is one by being indivisible in number” (ibid, emphasis added).

These would include all the independent and non-independent things that were extensively discussed in book Zeta (VII).

He continues, “but that which is one by means of intelligibility and knowledge is indivisible in form, so [fourth] what is responsible for the oneness of independent things would be one in the primary sense” (ibid, emphasis added).

I expect that this last kind will turn out to be the first cause.

“But it is necessary to notice that one must not take the sorts of things that are spoken of as one as being meant in the same way as what it is to be one, or what the articulation of it is” (p. 186).

This is analogous to the distinction between saying something about something in general, and saying what something is, also discussed in book Zeta. He illustrates this below, with the example of fire.

“The same thing would also be the case with ‘element’ and ’cause’, if one had to speak about them, distinguishing the things to which the words are applied, and giving a definition of the words. For there is a sense in which fire is an element… and a sense in which it is not; for being fire is not the same thing as being an element…. And it is that way also with ’cause’ and ‘one’ and all such things, and this is why being one is being indivisible, just exactly what it is to be a this, separate on its own in either place or form or thinking, or to be both whole and indivisible, but especially to be the primary measure of each class of things, and, in the most governing sense, of the class of things with quantity, for it has come from there to apply to other things” (ibid).

Being one in the third sense above (being a particular thing) is now said to be “just exactly what it is to be a this“. This foreshadows an extensive one-to-one mapping he will develop below, between all the ways of the saying of being he elaborates in book Delta (V), and the ways of the saying of oneness.

He goes on to speak at some length about measures, which we would call units of measurement.

The most important point is that “a measure is always the same kind of thing as what it measures, for the measure of magnitudes is a magnitude, and in particular, that of length is a length, of breadth a breadth, of spoken sounds a spoken sound, of weight a weight, and of numerical units a numerical unit” (p. 188, emphasis added).

The distinction he makes here tracks perfectly with the way that different types, dimensions, and variables are handled separately in the operations defined by modern mathematics.

“And we speak of knowledge or sense perception as a measure of things for the same reason, because we recognize something by means of them, although they are measured more than they measure” (ibid).

The simultaneously humorous and serious caveat that “they are measured more than they measure” means that knowledge and perception are constrained by reality. More precisely, they are involved in mutual dependencies with the realities of things that they at once measure and are measured by.

“And Protagoras says a human being is the measure of all things, as if he were saying that a knower or perceiver were the measure, and these because the one has knowledge and the other perception, which we say are the measures of their objects. So while saying nothing, these people appear to be saying something extraordinary” (ibid).

Aristotle, at the end of his discussion of measure (longer and more detailed than included here), refers to Protagoras’ famous saying, commonly quoted as “Man is the measure of all things”. With uncharacteristic sharpness, he calls this “saying nothing”. Why? This seems worthy of a short digression.

Protagoras was a prominent Sophist, who appears in Plato’s dialogue of the same name. He wrote a controversial treatise entitled Truth, which began with the sentence, “Of all things the measure is man: of those that are, that they are; and of those that are not, that they are not”. Plato and Aristotle both took Protagoras to be asserting a kind of individualist relativism. Reportedly, the skeptic Sextus Empiricus also read him this way. Plato took him to deny any objective reality. Aristotle in book Gamma (IV) shows rare outrage at his other reported claim that “it is not possible to contradict”. I didn’t mention him by name in my account, but Aristotle names him there as well.

Aristotle implies it is a bit more plausible to much more specifically say that knowledge and perception are measures of things, but even that only with the caveat that really “they are measured more than they measure”.

But why go on to add with such sharpness that Protagoras is “saying nothing”? I suspect the answer may lie with the other part of Aristotle’s interpretation: “as if he were saying that a knower or perceiver were the measure, and these because the one has knowledge and the other perception”.

I’m inclined to think Aristotle would regard it as outrageous to transfer what may (ambiguously) be said of specific knowledge and perception, to an unqualified saying about one who is said to possess knowledge and perception in general.

Aristotle has just given an account of what a measure is, that it must be of the same kind as the things that it measures. How could one thing (“man”) possibly be the measure of countless things that have no common measure? That does sound like nonsense. Any measure has to be of one kind or another. Modern mathematics agrees that kinds, dimensions, variables can only be collapsed together if very specific criteria are met.

What Aristotle emphasizes here about knowledge and perception — that they have a remarkable involvement with things that also measure them — seems very consistent with his general views. But the way Protagoras implicitly presents “man” as their possessor makes the possessor stand apart from the mutual involvement with things that Aristotle emphasizes, in which knowledge and perception and things measure one another. In splendid isolation from all constraints of real measure, the possessor seems to have arbitrary freedom to claim whatever she wishes.

I intuitively associate Protagoras with the attitude that what’s true for you is true for you, but what’s true for me is true for me, so don’t tell me I’m wrong, and I won’t tell you you’re wrong! Then and now, such sentiments had and have a superficial appeal, because they seem to express a live-and-let-live attitude, which seems to be a good thing. But the way it is expressed, in fact it completely undermines any possibility of meaningful dialogue, which undermines reason itself, which undermines the very thing that makes us human.

Back to the text, Aristotle turns to illustrating the one-to-one mapping I mentioned between sayings about being and sayings about oneness.

“[S]ince not even being itself is an independent thing as though it were some one thing capable of having being apart from the many beings (since it is common to them), other than solely as a thing attributed to them, it is clear that oneness is not a universal either” (ch. 2, p. 189).

For Aristotle, neither Being nor the One is an independent thing in its own right. He will nonetheless argue in book Lambda (XII) that there is a first cause for all things.

“What’s more, what is true about oneness must hold true in a similar way for all things; and being and oneness are meant in equally many ways” (ibid).

“And the same account applies also to the other classes of things, … and [if] in all instances it is the case both that the number is a number of something and that oneness is some particular one thing, and oneness itself is not the thinghood of it, then it must also be the same way with independent things” (p. 190).

“[S]o too in thinghood, one independent thing is oneness itself; and that oneness in a certain way means the same thing as being, is clear from the fact that it follows along equally through the ways being is attributed, and is not any one of them (for instance, it is not what anything is, nor of-what-sort anything is, but stands similarly toward them just as being does), and from the fact that no other thing is predicated in ‘one human being’ over and above what is predicated in ‘human being’ (just as being is not something over and above what and of-what-sort and how-much a thing is), or in ‘being one’ over and above being any particular thing” (ibid).

Saying something is one human being is the same as saying it is a human being. In book Zeta, he analogously said that “good” and “being good” are the same.

Things are often one in one respect, but many in another. The one and the many are “contraries, and not opposed as contradictories or as what are called relative terms” (ch. 3, p. 190). Next he turns to the meanings of same, other, and different.

“Since the same is meant in more than one way, in one way we sometimes speak of what is the same in number, but we say it in another sense if things are one in meaning as well as in number, as you are one with yourself in both form and material, and in another again if the articulation of the primary thinghood of things is one, for instance in the way equal straight lines are the same, … but in these equality is oneness” (p. 191).

In Fregean terms, things are what Aristotle calls one in number when they have the same reference. They are what Aristotle calls one in meaning when they have the same sense. Frege illustrates how they differ by saying that the morning star and the evening star have the same reference, but different sense.

“Things are alike if, not being simply the same, nor without difference in their composite thinghood, they are the same in form, just as a larger square is like a smaller one…. Other things are alike if they have the same form, and have it in them to be more and less, but are neither more nor less than one another. Other things, if they are the same attribute, and one in form, say white, more and less intensely, people say are alike because their form is one. Other things are alike if they have more things the same than different, either simply or superficially, as tin is like silver insofar as it is white, and gold is like fire insofar as it is yellow and fiery-red” (ibid).

“So it is clear also that other and unlike are meant in more than one way” (ibid).

“[B]ut difference is something other than otherness…. [W]hat is different from something is different in some particular respect, so it must necessarily be the same in some respect as that with which it differs” (p. 192).

For Aristotle, calling two things different presupposes that they can be meaningfully compared in the first place. This is not the case for things that are just “other” than one another. Black is different from white; they are both colors. But an apostrophe is just other than an aardvark.

This is followed by a ten-page discussion of technical details of contrariety, which I will mostly skip. Contrariety supports a definitive ruling out of some things based on other things. This has great importance for reasoning.

Incidentally, Aristotle explains why there is no essential difference between human beings with different colorings.

“And since one sort of thing is articulation while another is material, those contrarieties that are in the articulation make a difference in species, but those that are in what is conceived together with the material do not make such a difference. This is the reason that whiteness of a human being, and blackness, do not make such a difference…. For there is a difference between a white human being and a black horse, but that is not insofar as the one is white and the other is black” (ch. 9, pp. 201-202).

Finally, he argues that destructibility and indestructibility inhere in things by necessity. Whether a thing is destructible or not depends strictly on what genus of things its species belongs to.

“[A] destructible thing and an indestructible thing must be different in genus…. Therefore it is necessary that destructibility either be the thinghood or be present in the thinghood of each destructible thing; and the same argument also concerns the indestructible, since both are among things present by necessity” (ch. 10, p. 202).

Being as Such?

Aristotle begins book Gamma (IV) of the Metaphysics by saying that after all, “There is a kind of knowledge that contemplates what is insofar as it is, and what belongs to it in its own right” (ch. 1, Sachs tr., p. 53).

To understand what this really means, we need to consider book Gamma as a whole, also taking into account in advance Aristotle’s disambiguation of “being” and “is” in book Delta (V). (There is another enumeration of the meanings of being in book Epsilon (VI), but it is does not really add anything to the one in book Delta.)

Here in book Gamma, he adds the new element that “Being is meant in more than one way, but pointing toward one meaning and some one nature rather than ambiguously…. just as every healthful thing points toward health…. For some things are called beings because they are independent things, others because they are attributes of independent things, others because they are ways into thinghood, or destructions or deprivations or qualities of thinghood, or are productive or generative of independent things, or of things spoken of in relation to independent things, or negations of any of these or of thinghood, on account of which we say even nonbeing is nonbeing. So just as there is one kind of knowledge of healthful things, this is similarly the case with the other things as well” (ch. 2, pp. 53-54).

Classically, “said in many ways” means said homonymously, like “flies” in “Time flies like an arrow” and “Fruit flies like bananas”. The same sound and spelling are used for different meanings that have no discernible relation to one another.

The comparison to health gives a pretty clear indication of what he wants to say here. But the “one thing” that is pointed to in the same way that health is pointed to is not “being”, but rather the concept of what Sachs calls independent things (“substances”).

In the disambiguation in book Delta, Aristotle says “just as many things are said to be in their own right as are meant by the modes of predication”. This is an allusion to the various ways in which things are said, which are enumerated and discussed in an elementary way in the Categories. Ousia (“substance”, or what Sachs calls “independent thinghood”) has a somewhat privileged place in this enumeration — we might say, just because it is the one that the others “point” to. Ousia will later turn out to be the “what it is” or “what it was to have been” of a thing.

The uses of “is” that he mentions are exclusively the transitive ones. He does not even mention any case like “Socrates is, full stop”. There is absolutely no mention of an “is” of existence, as opposed to the “is” of saying something about something. Saying something about something is the only role of “is” here, and this is strongly borne out by the remainder of the text of book Gamma.

Saying the what-it-is of something of that thing is for Aristotle the central, focal way of saying something about something in general. The other ways of saying something about something form what linguists might call a family of metonymies clustered around the saying of what-it-is. Metonymy involves indirectly referring to a thing by referring to one of its attributes. By contrast, Aristotle takes the what-it-is to refer directly to the thing (which is probably why Sachs calls the what-it-is the “thinghood” of the thing).

All the ways of saying something about something have in common that they are ways of saying something about something. In Sachs’ language, they are “modes of predication”. But the saying of what-it-is serves as a kind of paradigm for the rest.

The main body of book Gamma is actually a long polemic against the Sophists and the friends of Cratylus. It is about the conditions of rational discourse.

A number of the Sophists outraged Aristotle by making flagrantly self-contradictory assertions, and claiming a right to do so. Very uncharacteristically, Aristotle seems to lose his cool over this. He goes on and on about it, beating the dead horse into the ground. He does so because for him this is a violation of fundamental ethics.

To deliberately assert something and its contrary, or to claim a right to do so, is not just to talk nonsense. Aristotle implies it is deeply immoral — the deepest possible violation of intellectual integrity and the integrity of thought. As he says, it is completely impossible to have dialogue with someone who insists on this, and dialogue is the foundation of reason. For Aristotle, such a person hardly even qualifies as human.

Kant and Hegel treat unity of apperception not as something that spontaneously happens, but as the fulfillment of an ethical norm. When we commit ourselves to something by asserting it, we are then also morally committed to the assertion of what follows from it, and even more so to the denial of what is contrary to it. Aristotle’s outrage shows how strongly he shares this point of view.

The friends of Cratylus were radical Heracliteans. Heraclitus famously said that all things flow, and you cannot step in the same river twice. Cratylus claimed it would be more correct to say you cannot step in the same river once. Effectively, this means there is no such thing as being the same at all, so “same” has no real meaning. But if there is no sameness, there can be no contradiction, because contradiction is saying contrary things about the same thing. So the friends of Cratylus too ended up justifying what we would regard as self-contradictory statements.

So when Aristotle is concerned to assert that there is after all a knowledge of being as such and that it is the business of the philosopher to have it, all the evidence in book IV leads to the conclusion that what he is really saying is that the philosopher doesn’t just believe but knows that contraries are not true of the same thing in the same respect at the same time. This is simultaneously a genuine knowledge and a condition of any possible dialogue, a moral imperative as Kant would say.

The only other thing besides the principle of non-contradiction that Aristotle mentions in book IV as applying to being as such is mathematical axioms, which are similarly supposed to be true of all things whatsoever (he does not enumerate them).

Famously, Aquinas read Aristotle’s notion of “pointing toward one meaning” as a kind of analogy. The notion of an analogy of being is better considered as original to Aquinas. Analogy is a symmetrical relationship. If A is analogous to B, we should be able to conclude that B is similarly analogous to A.

But Aristotle’s example of the relation of health to healthful things is not symmetrical; health has a kind of logical primacy over healthful things, and Aristotle very explicitly gives the saying of what-it-is a similar primacy over its metonymic relatives corresponding to the other categories. That is the very means by which he gets from the non-univocity of being to a single concept. That concept is ousia — i.e., “substance”, “essence”, what Sachs calls “thinghood”, or the what-it-is of a thing.

Some commentators have argued that the subject of the Metaphysics is “ousiology”. That seems more accurate than the conventional “ontology”. In any case, Aristotle’s focus is on the conditions of meaningful saying, and especially on saying of what-it-is — not at all on being in the sense of existence.

In the big picture, existence as such is just not an important philosophical concept for Aristotle. What something is and why it is that way are what he is concerned with.

There will be a further level beyond this, in which we will further distinguish the saying of what something is by looking at it in potential and in act, where these terms are understood in a way that is independent of motion, and instead is oriented toward that-for-the-sake-of-which and the good.

Aristotle on Being

In book Delta (V) of the Metaphysics, devoted to things meant in more than one way, Aristotle has a chapter on “being”. This is worth quoting in full. What I want to draw attention to is Aristotle’s own very modest, “deflationary” approach in contrast to other writers. His emphasis is on ordinary use of “to be” as a verb, not some grand “ontology”. The word translated as “being” (einai) is literally the infinitive “to be”.

Moreover, being for Aristotle in all of its primary senses is always being this way or that. It is a transitive verb. In a derivative sense, he speaks of ordinary “beings” we encounter in life. I note his strong emphasis on ways things are meaningfully said, and the parallel series of assertions about truth. One might conclude that there are as many kinds of being as there are distinct assertions.

Being is meant in one sense incidentally, in another sense in its own right; in the incidental sense, we say, for example, that the just person is educated, or the human being is educated, or the educated one is a human being, in much the same way as if we were to say that the educated one builds a house because it is incidental to the housebuilder to be educated, or to the educated one to be a housebuilder (for here this is means that this is incidental to this). And it is this way too in the case of the things mentioned; for whenever we say that the human being is educated or the educated one is a human being, or that the white thing is educated or this is white, we mean in some cases that both are incidental to the same thing, in others that something is incidental to a being, and in the case of the educated human being, that the educated is incidental to this person. (And in this sense even the non-white is said to ‘be’ because that to which it is incidental is.) So things that are said incidentally are said to be so either because both belong to the same being, or because one of them belongs to a being, or because the thing itself is, to which belongs that to which it is attributed.”

“But just as many things are said to be in their own right as are meant by the modes of predication; for in as many ways as these are said, in so many ways does to be have meaning. Since, then, of things predicated, some signify what a thing is, others of what sort it is, others how much it is, others to what it is related, others what it is doing or having done to it, others where it is, and others when it is, being means the same thing as each one of these. For it makes no difference whether one says a person is healing or a person heals, or a person is walking or cutting rather than that a person walks or cuts, and similarly in other cases.”

“Also, to be and is signify that something is true, and not to be signifies that it is not true but false, alike in cases of affirmation and denial; for instance, that Socrates is educated indicates that this is true, but that the diagonal is not commensurable means that this is false.”

“Again, being and what is mean in one sense something that is definite as a potency, but in another sense what is fully at work, among these things that have been mentioned. For we say of both one who is capable of seeing and one who is fully at work seeing that he sees, and similarly of both one who is capable of using knowledge and one who is using it that he knows, and also both of that to which rest already belongs and that which is capable of being at rest that it rests. And it is similar in the case of independent things, for we say that Hermes is in the block of stone, and that the half belongs to a line, and that which is not yet ripe is grain. When something is potential and when it is not must be distinguished in other places” (ch. 7, Sachs tr., pp. 86-88).

Essence and Concept

Partway through my reading of Pippin’s Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, I suggested that maybe Hegel intended his “logic of essence” as an account of what he takes from Aristotle’s view of the conditions of intelligibility, and his “logic of the concept” or “subjective logic” as a statement of his own and Kant’s contributions in this same area. This is too simple.

To hazard another extremely broad-brush summary, the big message of the logic of essence is that deeper truth is not immediate; it does not just lie on the surface of appearances, ready for us to pluck as a ripe fruit and consume. Nor is it a kind of “secret knowledge” that could be straightforwardly communicated by one who knew, if she chose to do so. We need a long detour in order to better get at things. We should not be simply beholden to appearances, but neither should we neglect them. Rather, we need to interpretively work through them.

Essence was never supposed to be a matter of dogmatic affirmation. The very idea that there is a deeper truth implicitly calls on us to interpret it.

Hegel’s “logic of the concept” focuses on the activity of interpretation and judgment. This is what makes it “subjective”. But this notion of “subjective” has nothing to do with what we think of as merely subjective. It is not about accidents having to do with us, but about the process of getting to deeper truth, which underlies Platonic and Aristotelian “dialectic” (see also Aristotelian and Hegelian Dialectic; Reflection and Dialectic; Reflection and Higher-Order Things; Dialogue).

While Kant and Hegel dwell more explicitly and at greater length on aspects of this process, I don’t see how it is possible to begin to properly understand Aristotle without taking his concern for the process of interpretation and judgment into account. Wisdom — the ultimate object of philosophy — is not knowledge; it is not reducible to a kind of static content.

Hegel wants to say that the logic of essence implicitly presupposes the logic of the concept — that essence presupposes the need for interpretation. I think Aristotle would strongly agree.

Essence and Explanation

Hegel’s Logic comprises what Robert Pippin calls three separate “logics” — a logic of being, a logic of essence, and a logic of the concept. The first of these, the logic of being, was characterized by Pippin as an out-and-out failure that Hegel deliberately embarks on in order to make an indirect point. Broadly speaking, that failure consists in attempting to explain things or make them intelligible solely by means of simple assertions. The logic of being also shows the impossibility of grounding philosophical explanation in a simple immediacy of sense-certainty or intuition, or in any notion of pure Being or being qua being. It seems to me that what these results have in common is the impossibility of explaining any definiteness or determinacy in terms of what is indeterminate.

So far, there is no indication that the logic of essence will ever be regarded by Hegel or Pippin as a failure like the logic of being. It will be further enriched by the logic of the concept, and we have yet to see the detail of this. But now we have at least reached the beginning of a true beginning, after having completed extensive due diligence toward claims of an easier, more direct kind of beginning that did not pan out. At the same time, the subject matter has changed from mere isolated assertions to what Kant in the Critique of Judgment called reflective judgments.

I have characterized the indirect positive outcome of the logic of being in terms of the primacy of relation and relatedness over discrete “things”. Pippin says that the logic of being also showed the impossibility of a completely presuppositionless beginning. Hegel’s reworking of Kantian reflective judgment now takes the primacy of relatedness as a starting point.

The logic of essence will thus effectively take the constitutive priority of intelligible relations over their respective “things” as its starting point. Relations will constitute things, at least to a greater degree than vice versa. This is what the Preface to the Phenomenology calls the perspective of “otherness”, and what Hegel also, in a special polymorphic sense that has been very badly misunderstood, calls “negativity”.

Rather than futilely trying to explain something determinate from something completely indeterminate, we have now turned to examining the conditions of the constitution of any possible determinacy. Additional normative considerations will be made explicit in the logic of the concept.

Essence is a Latin term that is read backwards into Greek philosophy, due mainly to its use as a translation of Aristotle’s “what it was to be” a thing. As treated by mainstream scholasticism, however, it had a meaning closer to that of Platonic form (see Platonic Truth). Platonic form is eternal, whereas form for Aristotle and Hegel has an irreducible dependency on manifestation and development in time. But Plato in his dialogues treats “essence” or what a thing eternally is as a matter of dialectical discovery subject to a kind of perpetual renewal, whereas the scholastics generally (and Leibniz) held it to be already finally established by God in the act of creation.

I think of human character as a sort of privileged example of Aristotle’s “what it was to be” some particular one. Pippin has given this an excellent development (see Toward Essence; Hegel on Willing). What makes human character a “privileged” example for me is that it makes many nuances visible that are not so applicable to “what it was to be” that chair, for instance. The nuances of interest here concern relations between essence and appearance, which form the main subject matter of the logic of essence.

Here we also have an instance of the Aristotelian and Hegelian point that we gain the most insight from considering the richest examples of anything, rather than the simplest ones.

The moderns learned from Descartes to privilege simple cases, and to aim to systematically reduce complex cases to simple cases. That is an admirable procedure in mathematics, with many applications. But in life more generally, there is no good reason for assuming that richer cases can be explained with no more resources than it takes to explain simpler ones. In mathematics, if we have a proof that some specific class of rich cases can be reduced to some set of simple cases without remainder, then we can make that sort of “reductionist” claim for that particular class of cases. Outside of mathematics, it seems to me that reductionist claims usually turn out to be mere assertions.

What Hegel calls the “problem of indifference” — how are we to judge which particular appearances show aspects of the “essence” or deeper truth of people or things and which do not — is brought to the fore here.

“We can be said to know the ‘what it was to be’ of a thing, neither by direct intellectual intuition (its being-at-work is a process, a way of being, not graspable punctually as itself some object) nor by just observing, say, the life of a living thing or the uses of an artifact” (Pippin, Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, p. 227).

As Pippin puts it, “if essence is to explain anything, it must be the ground of what immediately ‘shines’ or appears. Those seemings must be its own, and they are made sense of by reference to their essence” (ibid).

“In some sense, and it is the task of the logic of essence to explain in what sense, the thing’s actuality is both not its mere seemings, and yet nothing other than those seemings, rightly understood” (p. 228).

This is another very Aristotelian point.

“Determinate specification of something essential in an appearance requires essential predication or specification of some sort — some predicates, not others. But we know which predicates are essential only by already knowing what essence is. This is a problem that assumes different forms but is basically the same, whether posed in the language of classical essentialism and manifestations, or selecting from a large set of ‘grounding’ causal factors the genuinely explanatory one or ones” (Hegel’s Realm of Shadows, pp. 226-227).

Hegel develops the terms “ground” and “grounding” for discussing the generalization from essence to any sort of explanation.

Pippin notes that “Plato, Kant, Locke, Spinoza, and others can all be cited in various ways as expressive of the reflective logic of the appearances of essence, the manifestation of something substantial that is nevertheless not manifest as it is in itself” (p. 231).

He quotes Hegel: “On the one hand, the ground is ground as the immediately reflected content determination of the determinate being [Dasein] which it grounds; on the other, it is that which is posited. It is that on the basis of which that determinate being [Dasein] is supposed to be understood; but, conversely, it is inferred from the latter and is understood from it. The main business of this reflection thus consists in gleaning the ground from a determinate being [Dasein], that is, in converting the immediate determinate being [Dasein] into the form of reflected being; consequently the ground, instead of being self-subsisting in and for itself, is rather that which is positive and derived” (pp. 227-228, Pippin’s emphasis).

Once again, I would note a convergence with Aristotle. Aristotle says that in order to possibly know how things are in and for themselves, we should and do start with how things are “for us”, not with how they supposedly are, full stop. Hegel will eventually amplify this into what he calls the “subjective” (though anything but merely subjective) logic of the concept.

Aristotle and Hegel both want to say that the basis of knowledge and explanation is a partial overlap between how things are initially for us and how they really are. This notion of a partial overlap between essence and appearance is a sort of Aristotelian mean that eliminates the roots of the twin evils of “all is illusion” skepticism, and of foundationalism, or the claim of a certain starting point for knowledge.

“[Hegel] is in effect saying that a putative logic of being is, has shown itself to be, mere seeming, Schein [literally, “shine”]. As [Michael] Theunissen points out, this means that Hegel is actually invoking the notion of Schein in three different senses. There is the unacknowledged Schein that a logic of being has turned out to be. There is the Schein of the mere appearance that the skeptic and idealists claim are all we are able to know. And there is the result of the analysis, that this purported limitation of knowledge to mere Schein is itself Schein, unable to account for itself; what seemed to be mere Schein turns out to be the Schein of essence or Erscheinung [Hegel’s technical term for appearance that is more than just mere appearance]” (p. 229, emphasis in original).

That all appearance is only mere appearance must be itself only a mere appearance, if there is to be any knowledge or meaningful explanation at all.

“In other words, the illusion of any possible absolute presuppositionlessness is what has been demonstrated by showing that Sein [being] must be understood as Wesen [essence], just in order to be understood as Sein. ([Hegel says] ‘Being is as such only the becoming of essence’…)…. Wesen will show itself (and itself as the truth of Sein) as always already conceptually mediated determinacy” (p. 230, emphasis in original).

The brute “things” of mere assertion depend on the richer, subtler “things” considered by reflective judgment for any truth they may have. This is an archetypal Hegelian move.

Pippin points out that the logic of essence gives a new sense to Hegel’s very nonstandard notion of negation. Whereas before, “negation” served to express the dependency of meaningful relational distinction on what else something rules out in order to express what it is, now “Essence’s seemings are its own…, even though no seeming or set of appearances express in their immediacy what that essence really is” (ibid).

He quotes Hegel, “In the becoming of being, it is being which lies at the foundation of determinateness, and determinateness is reference to an other. Reflective movement is by contrast the other as negation in itself, a negation which has being only as self-referring” (p. 231, Pippin’s emphasis).

Rather than addressing an external other, in reflective judgment Hegelian “negation” is now turned on itself — seeking further clarification first and foremost through questioning itself and its own formulations. (See also Hegel on Reflection.)