Teleology After Kant

Kant is responsible for recovering something like the modesty stemming from deep seriousness with which Plato and Aristotle approached claims of knowledge, though I don’t think he realized just how far they were from the dogmatism that broadly characterizes the intervening tradition. Kant indeed often speaks as if all previous philosophy had a dogmatic cast. I don’t think the tradition between the times of Aristotle and Kant was the uniform sea of dogmatic positions that Kant makes it out to be, either, but I agree that a dogmatic cast was dominant.

Kant also goes further than Aristotle or even Plato in positively asserting a principled basis for limiting claims to knowledge. Plato emphasizes sharp distinctions between appearance and reality. Aristotle is more inclined to emphasize that we do after all indirectly encounter something real in and through appearances, but he is in agreement with Plato (and Kant) that there is no magical overleaping of the fact that what we experience directly are only appearances.

For all three of them, knowledge in a strong sense could only be a product of the indirect work of reason reflecting on experience. Aristotle further emphasizes the variability of things in the world, and the large role of ambiguity in experience. Kant on the other hand is still beholden to the early modern assumption that knowledge ought to be subject to a completely univocal account. But his notions of synthesis are a great contribution to the understanding of how experience works — how “immediate” experience is a result of pre-conscious processes of constitution. In a nutshell, this is the additional principled basis for limiting knowledge claims that we owe to Kant.

With extremely broad brush, it could be said that Hegel takes up the Kantian emphasis that experience is a result of processes of synthesis but, unlike Kant, he also wants to emphasize that synthesis is not a self-contained activity of each individual. At the same time, he takes the more Aristotelian perspective that we really do indirectly encounter reality in and through appearances. For Hegel, to deny this would be to deny the possibility of knowledge altogether.

Hegel sees synthesis taking place at the level of what he calls spirit — i.e., the level of the universal community of rational beings across space and time, of shareable thought contents, and of broadly (but not entirely) shared values. But he also recognizes Aristotelian variability and ambiguity. At this extremely high level of generality, Hegel is a Kantian Aristotelian or an Aristotelian Kantian. Spirit for Hegel transcends nature, without being opposed to it.

In the Preface to the Phenomenology, Hegel glosses reason as purposeful activity, while sympathetically referring to Aristotle’s view of nature as purposeful activity. In the Science of Logic, he carefully distinguishes the internal kind of teleology Aristotle attributed to nature from the external kind that refers particular events to the will of God. He distinguishes three kinds of determination. Mechanism and “spiritual mechanism” determine things from outside, in ways that are indifferent to their specific character or content. An intermediate form he calls “chemism” determines things from outside in ways that do involve their specific character or content. These are both contrasted to teleology, which according to Hegel is the internal determination of things by what I at least would call their nature or essence.

For Hegel, mechanism and chemism together represent means by which ends are realized. He explicitly identifies these with efficient causes operating in ways ultimately subordinate to final causes. I was unaware of this when I previously glossed the Aristotelian efficient cause as fundamentally a means by which an end is realized, but it is nice to know it has Hegel’s concurrence.

For Hegel, the external determination of things is subordinate to their internal or “self”-determination. Self-determination meanwhile is anything but the result of arbitrary will; it develops out of the concrete detail of the “self-relatedness” in which the very forms of things consist. He treats this as an elaboration of the Phenomenology Preface’s assertion that “substance is also subject”.

The very essence or substance of things is able to act in subject-like ways, because form for Hegel is explainable in terms of self-relatedness. Meanwhile, Science of Logic translator George di Giovanni notes that Hegel’s selbst or “self” has no interpretation in German as a noun. As I would put it, “self” is purely adverbial and relational, and therefore is constituted in what Hegel in the Phenomenology Preface calls otherness. So, for Hegel the primacy of internal determination is perfectly compatible with the logical primacy of otherness. “Self” refers to a constitution in otherness, rather than being opposed to it. From the start, Hegelian otherness is conceived as beyond any naive opposition between a substantive self and what is other than it.

Thus Hegel can be seen as more thoroughly vindicating the content of Aristotelian internal teleology from a Kantian point of view. Kant himself made an important start at this in the Critique of Judgment, but qualified the legitimate application of internal teleology to nature as ultimately only having a heuristic value useful to our understanding, that would not be literally applicable to nature as it is in itself. Hegel in the Science of Logic carefully and at length develops objectivity out of something like what I would call reasonable interpretation, and on this basis recovers a valid notion of internal teleology as something real. This notion of objectivity as something constituted is a further development of another Kantian theme. (See also Aristotle on Explanation; Nature, Ends, Normativity.)

Russell on Causality

Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) was one of the founders of analytic philosophy. His contributions to mathematical logic, philosophy of mathematics, and philosophy of language were highly influential, and he wrote on a host of other topics as well. In a famous 1912 essay “On the Notion of Cause”, he addressed the common prejudice that I have been referring to vaguely as “causality in the modern sense”, and argued that modern science does not in fact rely on it. I support this conclusion.

According to Russell, “the word ’cause’ is so inextricably bound up with misleading associations as to make its complete extrusion from the philosophical vocabulary desirable” (Mysticism and Logic, p.180). “In spite of these difficulties, it must, of course, be admitted that many fairly dependable regularities of sequence occur in daily life” (p. 187).

The idea of the supposed “law of causality” is that the same causes always produce the same effects. Russell points out that the alleged necessity with which one “event” is said to follow another depends on an abstracted notion of repeatable “events”, but every concrete event implicitly involves such a vast amount of individualizing detail as to be essentially unrepeatable.

“What I deny is that science assumes the existence of invariable uniformities of sequence of this kind, or that it aims at discovering them. All such uniformities, as we saw, depend upon a certain vagueness in the definition of the ‘events’…. In short, every advance in a science takes us farther away from the crude uniformities which are first observed” (p. 188, emphasis added).

Behind such presumptions of uniformity lies the prejudice that a cause somehow compels a particular effect. “What I want to make clear at present is that compulsion is a very complex notion, involving thwarted desire. So long as a person does what he wishes to do, there is no compulsion, however much his wishes may be calculable by the help of earlier events. And where desire does not come in, there can be no question of compulsion. Hence it is, in general, misleading to regard the cause as compelling the effect” (p. 190, emphasis added). “A volition ‘operates’ when what it wills takes place; but nothing can operate except a volition. The belief that causes ‘operate’ results from assimilating them, consciously or unconsciously, to volitions” (p. 191).

“[A]ny causal sequence which we may have observed may at any moment be falsified without a falsification of any laws of the kind that the more advanced sciences aim at establishing” (p. 194). “The uniformity of nature does not assert the trivial principle, ‘same cause, same effect’, but the principle of the permanence of laws” (p. 196). “In all science we have to distinguish two sorts of laws: first, those that are empirically verifiable but probably only approximate; secondly, those that are not verifiable, but may be exact” (p. 197).

“We cannot say that every law which has held hitherto must hold in the future, because past facts which obey one law will also obey others, hitherto indistinguishable but diverging in future. Hence there must, at every moment, be laws hitherto unbroken that are now broken for the first time. What science does, in fact, is to select the simplest formula that will fit the facts. But this, quite obviously, is merely a methodological precept, not a law of Nature” (p. 204, emphasis in original).

“We found first that the law of causality, as usually stated by philosophers, is false, and is not employed in science. We then considered the nature of scientific laws, and found that, instead of stating that one event A is always followed by another event B, they stated functional relations between certain events at certain times, which we called determinants, and other events at earlier or later times or at the same time…. We found that a system with one set of determinants may very likely have other sets of a quite different kind, that, for example, a mechanically determined system may also be teleologically or volitionally determined” (pp. 207-208, emphasis added).

I have suggested that scientific laws expressed in terms of equations are a specific kind of what Aristotle called formal “causes” (or better, formal “reasons why”). They are the kind that is expressible in mathematics. But natural or physical causes are still commonly conceived as efficient causes in the sense that this term acquired in late scholasticism, and it is this prejudice that Russell was addressing here.

The diverse compilation Aristotle’s early editors called Metaphysics (“after the Physics“) includes a summary of the four causes discussed in the Physics. Unlike other parts of the Metaphysics that, for example, discuss the term commonly translated as “substance” in far greater depth than in the Categories, the summary of efficient cause in the Metaphysics is less sophisticated than the discussion in the Physics. Thomistic and late scholastic notions of efficient cause seem to be based on the more simplistic account given in the Metaphysics, where the efficient cause is treated as more narrowly concerned with motion.

The Physics says very explicitly that the art of building, not the carpenter or the carpenter’s action, is most properly the “efficient cause” of the building of a house. The building of a house is implicitly considered as an end, not as a concrete motion. The art of building is the primary means by which this end can be successfully accomplished. This suggests to me that just as the “material cause” in Aristotle is hylomorphically paired with the “formal cause”, the “efficient cause” is related to the “final cause” as means are related to ends. Efficient cause as the means by which an end is realized is quite a bit different than, and more general than, the efficient cause as cause of motion that is the basis of the Thomistic and late scholastic concepts, as well as of the “modern” prejudice addressed by Russell.

Immanent Action?

Alain de Libera, who previously published a French translation of Aquinas’ On the Unity of the Intellect with extensive notes and commentary, opts in his Archaeology of the Subject to focus on the much shorter treatment of Averroes by Aquinas in Question 76 of the first part of Summa Theologica. In the current context, de Libera is most interested in developments on a time scale of centuries, and the latter text was far better known in later times.

In this Question, after briefly summarizing the argument from On the Unity of the Intellect that Averroes makes the human something thought rather than a thinker, Aquinas makes a more abstract claim that Averroes confuses immanent and transitive action.

De Libera appears to be setting the stage for an “archaeological” inquiry into the notion of immanent and transitive action, which he says originated in anti-Averroist arguments but came to have much more general purport.

According to de Libera, Aquinas claims Aristotle’s authority for the thesis that “thought is an immanent action” (Archéologie du sujet volume 3 part 1, p. 301). Implicitly, Aquinas would have meant that thought must be an action immanent in the soul, since the whole dispute with Averroes was about the way in which thought is said to be “in” the soul.

In support, de Libera cites (p. 301 note 1) a passage from book IX of the Metaphysics, for which I’ll substitute Joe Sachs’ translation: “of those things which have no other work besides their being-at-work, the being-at-work of them is present in themselves (as seeing is in the one seeing and contemplation in the one contemplating, and life is in the soul, and hence happiness too, since it is a sort of life). And so it is clear that thinghood and form are being-at-work” (Sachs trans., p. 179; I’ve been using the more conventional “actuality” rather than Sachs’ arguably better “being-at-work” for energeia).

This was part of Aristotle’s larger argument that “the end is work, and the work is a being-at-work, and this is why the phrase being-at work is meant by reference to work and extends to being-at-work-staying-complete [entelecheia]” (ibid). Sachs comments in a note, “That is, beings do not just happen to perform strings of isolated deeds, but their activity forms a continuous state of being-at-work, in which they achieve the completion that makes them what they are. Aristotle is arguing that the very thinghood [ousia or substance] of a thing is not what might be hidden inside it, but a definite way of being unceasingly at-work, that makes it a thing at all and the kind of thing it is” (ibid).

I would note first of all that thought is not mentioned in the passage from Aristotle. Contemplation is, but Aristotle in his carefully minimalist way just says contemplation is in “the one contemplating”. What he chooses to explicitly say is “in the soul” in this way is the being-at-work of life.

Secondly, there is a big difference between the “action” Aquinas speaks of and “being-at-work” in Aristotle. Action seems to be considered in the first instance as something punctual and immediate, whereas Aristotle emphasizes extended processes like building a house, and seems to think there is something essential about their extendedness.

Third, de Libera makes it clear that Aquinas thinks of action principally in terms of efficient causation, whereas Aristotle emphasizes the relation of being-at-work to ends.

Fourth, like many later authors, Aquinas seems to have a contracted view of what an efficient cause is. Aristotle says that the art of building is more properly an efficient cause of a house than the carpenter, the carpenter’s hammer, or the hammer’s blow. Aquinas’ example is that of a bailiff acting on behalf of a king. This does capture the sense in which an efficient cause is a means by which an end is accomplished, but I think it is not accidental that Aquinas’ example involves exercising power and emphasizes simple “doing”, whereas Aristotle’s example explicitly foregrounds the way of doing over the more primitive fact that there is a doing. (See also Not Power and Action; Aquinas and Scotus on Power.)

Update: There is always a bit of risk with interim reports. Now that I’ve read a bit further, it appears that the actual argument of Aquinas is that thought is intrinsically an immanent action, independent of the dispute about whether or not the soul its “subject”. The use of this against Averroes was actually hypothetical — if, as Averroes says, thought has its proper “subject” in a separate material intellect, then, Aquinas says, thought would have to be immanent to the material intellect, and as a result we could not legitimately attribute it to the human thinker. This does not affect the four concerns I expressed above, but it illustrates the subtlety and sophistication of Aquinas’ argumentation. (See also A Thomistic Grammar of Action; Roots of Action; Act and Action).

Allison on Kant on Freedom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Multiple Explanations

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

Respect for All Beings

Not just all people but all beings whatsoever deserve our respect. Many additional specialized considerations apply to beings subject to ethical appraisal (“us”), and a lot of the time I focus on these. Mutual recognition in the strong sense applies only between ethical beings, and thus only between potentially rational or talking animals, but the ethical significance of mutuality is much broader than that.

I want to say that a good ethical being claims no unequivocal mastery over any other being, period. Every being — even including inanimate objects — is to some extent an end in itself, and not simply a means to our ends. Of course, we are not unequivocally subordinate to the ends of any being, either, so it it not always wrong to sacrifice other beings to our ends. (We must eat, for instance.) But as ethical beings, we ought to be careful and thoughtful about how we achieve our ends. We are stewards, not masters.

There can be no simple rule about whether the end justifies the means. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. The answers are in the details of each case. Full evaluation of such questions could only be achieved by the universal community of all ethical beings, but the universal ethical community and its principles are not a finished achievement, only a work in progress. Nonetheless, ethical beings implicitly deliberate on behalf of all beings, not just on behalf of themselves. (See also Natural Ends.)

Choice, Deliberation

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics book 3 chapter 2 concerns choice. Choice is something willing, but not everything done willingly is done by choice. Things spontaneously done by children and animals and things done on the spur of the moment are done willingly and so are subject to praise or blame, but they are not done by choice.

Choice is not desire or spiritedness or wishing or opinion. It is involved with reason and thinking things through. It is the outcome of deliberation, the subject of chapter 3. It is the deliberate desire of things that are up to us (Sachs translation, p.43). It comes from desire combined with a rational understanding that is for the sake of something (p.103); it is “either intellect fused with desire, or desire fused with thinking, and such a source is a human being” (p.104). (The phrase “fused with” is actually an interpolation by the translator — the Greek actually just has “intellect and desire”, without specifying how they are related.)

We deliberate about things that are up to us and are matters of action. Deliberation is neither knowledge nor opinion. Inquiry about exact sciences or general truths or ends is not deliberation, but deliberation is a kind of inquiry. Deliberation applies to means for achieving ends, when outcomes can be predicted with some confidence, but are still uncertain. On big issues, we consult others. When there is more than one means to an end, deliberation seeks the one that is easier and more beautiful.

Deliberation may also examine how a thing will come about through a particular means, what other means are required for that means, and so on. Aristotle says the analysis of dependencies of means and ends in particular works just like a mathematician’s analysis of a geometrical diagram.

Deliberating well overall belongs to people with good practical judgment (p.112). “What is deliberated and what is chosen are the same thing, except that the thing chosen is already determined, since the thing chosen is what is decided out of the deliberation.” (p.43.) Aristotelian choice is therefore anything but arbitrary. It is a normative and rational determination, emerging from an open, fallible, and pluralistic process. (See also Brandomian Choice.)