A Thomistic Grammar of Action

David Burrell’s Aquinas: God and Action (1st ed. 1979; 3rd ed. 2016) is a very interesting unorthodox sympathetic treatment that provides much food for thought. Burrell’s reading of Aquinas’ notion of action is quite different than what I expected to find — more Aristotelian and less proto-modern. How to relate this to the less favorable picture of Aquinas that emerges from Gwenaëlle Aubry’s account — which heavily emphasizes how Aristotelian concern with ends and the good is displaced by the notion of the priority of divine omnipotence, which is not discussed by Burrell — is an open question.

“This is philosophy as therapy, not as theory” (p. 17). “[P]roofs play an ancillary role at best in the theological task [Aquinas] sets himself: to elucidate the parameters of responsible discourse about God” (p. 9). “It seems that he regarded philosophy’s role in these matters less after the model of a scientific demonstration than as a manuductio: literally, a taking-by-the-hand-and-leading-along…. This somewhat novel contention is designed deliberately to help us rediscover philosophy in its proper medieval dress” (pp. 15-16).

“He is not proposing a synthesis of religious experience. He does not write to edify, nor does he appeal to religious life or practice as offering relevant evidence for his assertions” (p. 18).

Noting the intensive preoccupation of 13th century writers with logic and language, Burrell characterizes Aquinas’ work as principally a sort of philosophical grammar designed mainly to show what cannot be properly said of God. He suggests that we take Aquinas’ expressions of negative theology with utmost seriousness. Aquinas’ positive theology should be taken not as a doctrine of God (which would undermine the seriousness of his negative theology), but rather as an exploration of the limits of language.

God for Aquinas is ipsum esse, “to-be itself”. “Odd as it may seem, however, this assertion does not succeed in telling us whether God exists. For its form is not that of an existential assertion, but of a definition giving the nature of the thing in question” (p. 8).

For Aquinas according to Burrell, “to-be itself” cannot be properly described. What appear to be descriptions of God in Aquinas’ works need to be interpreted in some other way. Aquinas uses language indirectly to show what it cannot say, “to increase our awareness of what we are doing in speaking as we do” (p. 7). “Where less patient thinkers would invoke paradox, Aquinas is committed to using every resource available to state clearly what can be stated….We cannot pretend to offer a description of a transcendent object without betraying its transcendence. But reflecting on the rules of discourse brings to light certain contours of discourse itself. And those very outlines can function in lieu of empirical knowledge to give us a way of characterizing what we could not otherwise describe” (ibid).

Metaphysics involves no arcane method or privileged noetic access, only “an adept use of skills commonly possessed” (ibid).

“What people have failed to do is to take seriously Aquinas’ disclaimer about our being able to know what God is…. By attending closely to what Aquinas does, we can see that he is scrupulously faithful to that original limitation. What God is like is treated in the most indirect way possible” (p. 15). When we say that we clearly know a proposition about God to be true, we are in fact speaking only “of God in so far as he is the proper cause of certain effects” (p. 9). “If whatever we can say about something reflects the formal feature of compositeness, anything lacking it will lie quite beyond the range of our linguistic tools” (p. 17).

“[O]ne could easily mistake the logical treatment for a more substantive doctrine…. [Aquinas] even encourages the confusion by using object-language constructions to do metalinguistic jobs. Yet he had clearly warned us that he was not undertaking to treat of God’s nature” (p. 19).

Aquinas is commonly understood to have taught that although “being” has no one univocal meaning, there is an “analogy of being” that makes its meaning uniform by analogy. I have been at some pains to point out that scholarship does not support attributing this view to Aristotle, as is also commonly done. Burrell says it is a serious mistake to attribute it to Aquinas — the analogy of being was actually pieced together by Cajetan, and depends on views significantly different from those of Aquinas.

Actus stands out as the master metaphor guiding Aquinas’ grammatical treatment of divinity” (p. 130). “It is the distinctively human activities of knowing and loving which offer Aquinas a paradigm for understanding action more generally” (p. 131). Here we are very far indeed from Gwenaëlle Aubry’s emphasis on the relation of action in Aquinas to a very non-Aristotelian notion of power. This certainly complicates the picture.

Burrell thinks Aquinas would agree that “exists” is not a predicate. He also thinks that “existentialist” readings of Aquinas miss the mark, and are distinguished by an inattention to language.

“Aquinas’ account neatly avoids what most of us today are persuaded lies at the heart of human action: decision” (p. 140). “[F]or Aquinas willing remains an activity of reason, broadly speaking. So it is proper that the pattern of receptivity be preserved in the consent which lies at the heart of more manifest voluntary actions like choosing. Furthermore, properly speaking, it seems that ends or goals are rarely chosen or even decided upon. Rather they grow on us. Or is it that we grow into them?” (ibid).

“It is at this point that one appreciates how a philosophical analysis works, especially in dissolving pseudo-problems. I have remarked how Aquinas’ analysis of action appears truncated. For it seems that the development of habitus [Latin for Aristotle’s hexis] as a proximate principle of activity demands one more step: to articulate what it is who acts. Such a step would carry us to the ‘transcendental ego’. But Aquinas neatly avoids that problem by recognizing there is no step at all. The one who acts, as Aquinas views the matter, is articulated in the remote and proximate principles of action. Nothing more need be said because nothing more can be said: the self we know is known by those characteristics that mark it” (p. 144).

“Aquinas manages to clear away certain endemic yet misleading ways of conceiving causal process by refusing to accept ’cause’ as the primary meaning of actus” (p. 146).

“Let me first put it paradoxically: the act of making something happen (causation) is not itself an action. As Aquinas analyzes it, causing an effect is properly a relation. The fact that A causes something to happen in B requires acts, of course, but it itself is not an action distinct from these” (p. 147). “In short, what happens is what we see happening to B (or in B). We say that A is causing this to happen, not because we ascertain that something is going on between them…, but simply because we understand that B depends on A to this extent…. Thus, causing does not have to be explained as a further act by the agent. It is, in fact, more accurately structured as a relation of dependence” (p. 148).

“The merit of Aquinas’ analysis is to exorcise the demand that a specific action be identified as ‘the causal process’. He succeeds, moreover, in locating ‘the causal nexus’ squarely in the category of relation. Causality can thus be explained as an ordering relation, given the capacities to act and to be acted upon in the factors so related…. [But] considerable intellectual therapy is always required to render plausible a formal or relational account of causality” (p. 158).

“A causal model misleads us, moreover, when we inquire into the source of action. That road leads one to adopt the language of will. We have already noted how elusive a notion will is…. Actions, however, require justifications rather than explanations — precisely in the measure that they are actions and not movements. Whoever understands actions to be the sort of thing for which the agent takes responsibility appreciates the import of this distinction. Hence Aquinas insisted that the will is an intellectual appetite, thus consciously adopting an intentional rather than a causal model in accounting for action” (p. 190).

All this is much closer to my reading of Aristotle than I expected. There is apparently also a much bigger distance between efficient causes in Aquinas and in Suárez than I thought. Suárez reportedly had just the notion of “influence” between cause and effect that Burrell finds to be absent in Aquinas.

Being and Creation

Gaven Kerr in Aquinas and the Metaphysics of Creation (2019) argues that Aquinas’ original notion of esse (being or existence, as distinct from essence or the “what it is” of a thing) is the common root of both his account of creation and his distinctive metaphysics (see Being and Essence). “In focusing on esse Thomas is the first to take note of the centrality of the actual existence of things as a metaphysically significant feature of them, rather than simply a general fact about them” (p. 50).

“All other metaphysical components such as matter and form are subject to esse, so that without esse there would be no actuality. Esse then is the act of all acts, and in being so it is the perfection of all perfections” (pp. 50-51). Pure esse is a name for God. Other beings receive the esse without which they would not exist from God’s act of creation.

Kerr cites arguments that neither Plato nor Aristotle had a concept of being as sheer existence. Only Avicenna seems to have preceded Aquinas in this regard. Aquinas considers the emphasis on being as existence to be more universal, and therefore an advance.

It seems to me that Aquinas’ esse as sheer existence is a new super-concept that will implicitly redefine the meaning of existing Aristotelian concepts, for which the old names will still be used. The novelty of esse will be largely hidden due to a combination of ordinary practices of translation; its apparent common-sense character; and the use of familiar Aristotelian terms with transformed meanings.

Aquinas developed a correlative notion of ens commune or “common being” as the subject matter of a reformulated metaphysics, based on his famous interpolation of a uniformly analogous sense of being in Aristotle.

Creation as the immediate bringing of things into being from nothing becomes the new model for efficient causation (quite unlike Aristotle’s art of building). Efficient causes meanwhile become the most important kind of cause.

According to Kerr, the act of creation should not be conceived as the first event in a series. It is characterized more abstractly in terms of what Kerr calls the absolute dependency of beings on Being. It is not a kind of change. Whole causal series are created instantaneously. What is created is the total substance.

Aquinas steered a middle course between Bonaventure, who claimed to prove that creation implied a beginning in time, and Siger of Brabant, who held that natural reason implied the eternity of the world. Aquinas argued that both are possible according to natural reason.

Kerr argues that Aquinas’ notion of creation is agnostic to questions of natural science, and fully compatible with, e.g., Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. “When it comes to metaphysics, Thomas is committed to thinking through the issues involved therein on the basis of natural reason” (p. 4).

Kerr makes the interesting argument that mathematics and natural science are limited because they consider only the essence of things, and not their existence. He says Aquinas would have us focus on what it means for things to be rather than not to be.

Cartesian Metaphysics

For Descartes, according to Gueroult, “metaphysics” is the universal science or the system of science, and also a kind of introduction to more concrete studies. Here we are far from Aristotle and much closer, I think, to Duns Scotus. Without knowledge of God and oneself, Descartes says, it would never be possible to discover the principles of physics. Gueroult says that Descartes insists on an “incomprehensibility” of God that is neither unknowability nor irrationality but the “formal reason of the infinite” (Descartes selon l’order des raisons, p. 17). This again has a somewhat Scotist sound to my ear.

The infinitude of God puts God absolutely first, as the first truth that founds all others. Gueroult quotes Descartes saying, “It is a ‘blasphemy’ to say that the truth of something precedes God’s knowledge of it…, because the existence of God is the first and the most eternal of all the truths that can be, and the truth from which all the others proceed” (ibid; my translation).

Descartes says that God “freely creates” eternal truths. I have no idea what creation of eternal truths could even possibly mean, though such a notion seems to be at least implicit in the teaching of Duns Scotus. To be eternal is to have no before and after. Therefore, it seems to me, all eternal things must be co-eternal. This point of view accommodates part of Descartes’ thesis, insofar as if all eternal things are co-eternal, then an eternal truth would not “precede” God’s knowledge of it. In broadly neoplatonic terms, eternal truths could plausibly be regarded as aspects of the “nature” of God. I can also grasp the idea of truths following logically from the “nature” of God, but I suspect Descartes would either follow Scotus in arguing that God’s infinite power is not a “nature”, or follow Aquinas in arguing that God is pure existence and has no other “nature”. I don’t see how anything more specific can directly follow from either infinite power or pure existence.

For Descartes, though, God’s omnipotence “excludes the possibility of error” and “alone founds the objective validity of my intellectual faculty” (ibid). Descartes aims at “a total system of certain knowledge, at the same time metaphysical and scientific, … entirely immanent to mathematical certitude enveloped in the clear and distinct intellect, … in its requirement of absolute rigor. This totality of the system is in no way that of an encyclopedia of material knowledge effectively acquired, but the fundamental unity of the first principles from which follow all possible certain knowledge” (p. 18). Descartes’ doctrine is for him “a single block of certainty” (p. 19) that would be falsified by adding or removing any detail. All this seems way too strong to me.

Gueroult points out that Descartes wants to contrast an “order of reasons” with an “order of material”, as being more principled. However, unlike geometry, the total system of metaphysical reasoning for Descartes has “psychological” as well as logical requirements. Gueroult says it is for this reason that the Meditations best represent Descartes’ paradigm of rigorous analytic demonstration.

Granted that there is a clear “psychological” aspect to the Meditations, at this point I’m unsure what it means to relate that to the claimed rigor of the system. Moreover, adding a “psychological” dimension to what was said before about mathematical reasoning affects the very meaning of the claim of rigor. I think I understand what mathematical rigor is. I do not understand what “psychological” rigor would be in this context, but I suspect it may be wrapped up with what I would call extraordinary presumptions of absolute self-transparency and immediate reflexivity.

Descartes Revisited

Descartes is among my least favorite of those conventionally termed great philosophers. My treatment to date has been mainly limited to a few dismissive remarks. Here I’d like to add a few “historiographical” points of demarcation.

Insofar as there is general consensus among scholars, Descartes (1598-1650) first and foremost has claim to fame as a very influential promoter of something recognizably close to modern scientific method. He is often credited with the invention of analytic geometry, based on an early recognition of the systematic isomorphism between geometry and algebra. Galileo (1564-1642) had already taken up an approach to natural science based on mathematical analysis, which Descartes enthusiastically adopted. Descartes particularly promoted a methodology based on clear and distinct ideas, which he held to give certain knowledge. He advocated an orderly progression from the simple to the complex.

On a broad social level, Descartes is remembered for promoting the independence of scientific investigation, particularly from the doctrinal concerns of the Catholic Church. But he was also a religious thinker. While confessing in a private letter that he did not literally believe various details of received scripture, he was very engaged with proofs of the existence of God.

Numerous scholars have pointed out that outside the domains of mathematics and natural science, Descartes in many ways remained close to the Latin scholasticism of which he has been commonly regarded as the slayer. In Descartes and the Modern Mind (1952), for example, Albert Balz argued at length that the thought of Thomas Aquinas was an essential precursor to Descartes. I note that Augustine had already emphasized the importance of the interpretive role of reason, even in matters of faith. On Aquinas’ account, God gives us not only revelation, but also the natural light of reason. In Summa Contra Gentiles, Aquinas addressed questions of philosophy and theology entirely from the point of view of that “natural light”, while aiming to show that the natural light of reason independently leads to many of same truths he attributed to revelation. Descartes makes great use of a similar concept of the natural light of reason.

Both Descartes and Aquinas thought the natural light of reason, properly understood, gives us truths, full stop. I think it gives us invaluable criteria for judgment and interpretation, while always in principle leaving room for discussion about what conclusions should be drawn. I also think the “natural light” itself comes to us in degrees, and is never a simple or unproblematic possession.

A different strand of Latin scholastic thought tended to claim that all human knowledge originates in sensible images, while attributing such a view to Aristotle. (I think this is overly strong, and that Aristotle only meant to defend the pragmatic value of sensation against Platonic skepticism about all deliverances of sense.) Descartes famously argued that sensible images are not the only source of knowledge, and I think that is true, as far as it goes.

Here is where Descartes’ theses about clear and distinct ideas come into play. A methodological discipline based on examining whether our ideas are clear and distinct is an important source of human knowledge. Again, this much I can agree with, but I think clarity and distinctness are relative criteria and not absolutes. As relative criteria, they have been implicitly employed by most if not all serious thinkers. I take such evaluations to have been a major implicit concern of Platonic and Aristotelian dialectic, which in part aims to discern meanings that are more clear and distinct.

Descartes effectively claimed that clarity and distinctness are absolute, decidable properties of ideas. One of the broadly scholastic views he sharply criticized was that our best knowledge of sensible things is only “probable”. Descartes claimed that the results of his methodological analyses were certain, in the same way that mathematical conclusions follow with certainty from their premises. This goes well beyond the claim that there is practical value in such methodology.

Building on arguments of Augustine and Avicenna, he also famously gave great importance to the claim that immediate contents of the mind give evidence of unconditional certainty of the abstract existence of something. The very possibility that I could be deceived implies the abstract existence of an abstract something that could be deceived. Further, if something in any way appears to me to be such and such — even if I am wrong about all the details — independent of all the details, the barest fact of the appearance implies that some appearance generically “exists”.

The “I” that is in this way proven to exist and the appearance that is proven to exist are both extreme abstractions. Even Descartes did not claim that either of these existences by itself gives us any further knowledge. From this basis alone, I could still be entirely mistaken about the kind of being that I am, and about every detail of what appears to me to be the case. In spite of the famous Cartesian doubt, Descartes actually wanted to makes strong claims of certainty and to refute skepticism. Many readers have concluded, though, that he opened the door for a new, more global form of skepticism, because what he clearly establishes as certain seems so utterly lacking in content.

I would hasten to add that unreasonable, excessive skepticism about human knowledge is best refuted by successful achievements of goals in real-life situations. Only a hypocrite could claim to live in the world with no well-founded beliefs whatsoever. The ancient Skeptics were only “skeptical” about theoretical accounts of things, not about practical concerns of everyday life.

By setting the bar too high and aiming at absolute certainty, Descartes actually opened the door for more radically subjectivist views that no one in the ancient world would have taken seriously (and not just because ancient people were naive). At the same time, he was very impatient with “dialectic”, and tended to foreshorten discussions of meaning and interpretation, in favor of claims that certain contents are unequivocally clear and distinct. Thus the ultimate result of his thought oscillates unstably between extremes of “Cartesian” skepticism and dogmatism.

Another point on which Descartes has been very influential is his strong representationalism. For Descartes, strictly speaking we never have practical knowledge of things in the world, only knowledge about contents of our mental representations, insofar as they are clear and distinct. In particular, we only know bodies through our mental representations of them. Rather than consisting in an interpretive stance of a situated being in the world, the Cartesian cogito achieves its purely subjective certainty in a way that is supposed to be peculiarly “outside” the real world altogether.

Unlike the representationalism of Locke, which is grounded in a kind of empirical psychology, that of Descartes is closely bound up with an ontological mind/world dualism more radical than anything Plotinus, Augustine, or Avicenna ever contemplated. For Plotinus, Augustine, and Avicenna, the soul was a very special kind of “something” existing in the real world, even if for Plotinus and Augustine it was not a “subject” in the sense of something underlying something else. For Locke — the other great early modern promoter of representationalism — our mental worlds are ultimately contained within the natural world. For Descartes, there is the world and there is the soul, and never the twain shall meet. The soul has its own mental world where it seems to relate directly only to God, and human knowledge occurs only in that mental world.

It is due to this unprecedentedly radical mind/world dualism of Descartes, I think, that virtually no one — even among his admirers — wants to uphold his metaphysics. This is an extreme example of what Hegel called “alienation”.

Proclus’ Elements

The later neoplatonist Proclus (412-485 CE) was head of the Platonic Academy in Athens, at a time when the Athenian Academy was somewhat notorious as the intellectual center of resistance to the spread of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Nonetheless, his work had a profound influence on the Arabic, Byzantine, and Latin traditions. He is usually cited as the main philosophical influence on the early Christian theologian pseudo-Dionysius, who was taken very seriously by Albert the Great and Thomas Aquinas.

Proclus wrote extensive commentaries on Plato, as well as an influential commentary on book 1 of Euclid’s Elements of Geometry. Hegel called him the greatest dialectician of antiquity. Though I think Hegel by his own principles really should have given that title to Aristotle, Hegel was right to recognize Proclus as important.

Aquinas is credited with recognizing that the Latin Book of Causes — a translation of the Arabic Discourse on the Pure Good — was mostly derived from Proclus’ Elements of Theology. Aquinas treated Proclus himself with considerable respect. Dietrich of Freiberg made significant use of his work, and his student Berthold of Moosburg wrote a very long commentary interpreting the Elements of Theology in Christian terms. The Renaissance theologian Nicolas of Cusa and the maverick Giordano Bruno were much inspired by Proclus.

Along with Spinoza’s Ethics, Proclus’ Elements shares the peculiar distinction of being written in a style visibly influenced by Euclid’s Elements. Euclid’s work has often been cited as a sort of paradigm of demonstrative reasoning. Though Proclus, unlike Spinoza, did not work from explicit definitions and postulates and used a looser style of demonstration, his Elements consists of theorems and a sort of demonstrations.

Proclus defends the neoplatonic idea of a One that transcends being, but as Gwenaëlle Aubry and Laurent Lavaud point out in the introduction to the French collection Relire les Éléments de théologie de Proclus (2021), perhaps his most influential idea is that of a very strong continuity from the highest principles to the most mundane effects, which has been read as a strong assertion of immanence as well as transcendence. He is an important source for all the later theological traditions that want to argue for simultaneous immanence and transcendence.

Proclus very explicitly crystallizes what I have called the generalized “unmoved mover” model of causality in Plotinus. For Proclus, “higher” and “lower” causes cooperate in the constitution of worldly things, but the higher cause is always more of a cause than the lower cause. At the same time, he rejects Plotinus’ identification of matter with evil, while emphasizing all of Plotinus’ more positive affirmations of the goodness of manifestation and the beauty of the cosmos.

In a separate treatise On Providence, he develops a sort of epistemic analogue to the generalized unmoved mover theory. “Providence” (pronoia — literally, “forethought”) is a knowledge-like thing that is superior to knowledge in that it is supposed to be eternal and unextended, and to involve no separation of what we might call subject and object. Proclus develops a subtle and suggestive account of something metaphorically like implicit, unextended “seeds” of forms within the overflowing of the One that transcends all extended form. While the One does not “know” worldly things, it “pre-knows” their unextended “seeds”, within something like what Schelling later paradoxically called the identity of identity and nonidentity.

In the Elements, Proclus argues for an interdependence of being, life, and intellect. While one obvious reading of this would emphasize a foundational role of spiritual beings in Proclus’ metaphysics, I am intrigued that it can also be interpreted as a somewhat “deflationary” account of being, closer to Aristotle, and far removed from later notions of pure abstract existence. We can’t begin to have an account of being, without also having an account of life and intellect. With his endorsement of a One beyond “being”, Proclus had no need for a commitment to a notion of pure “being”.

Being and Representation

In L’Être et représentation (1999), Olivier Boulnois documents the emergence of “metaphysics” in its distinctively non-Aristotelian modern sense among various 13th century authors, including Roger Bacon, Henry of Ghent, and Siger of Brabant, leading to its decisive formulation by the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus in the 14th century. Avicenna had already claimed that metaphysics is about “being in general”, whereas Aristotle himself had emphasized that “being is said in many ways”, which implies that there is no “being in general”.

Boulnois suggests that the 13th century authors just mentioned paved the way for Scotus’ innovations by already treating being as a concept. We are so used to that, that it is hard for us to grasp what Aristotle means in suggesting that “being in general” is not a proper concept at all.

Scotus argued against Aristotle that there is a unifying, logically minimal criterion of being, and it is representability. To be representable is to be “not nothing”. Unicorns and other imaginary creatures are representable, whereas Aristotle would not have called them beings. Scotus’ concept of representation seems to be purely logical; to have a representation of something is not necessarily to have understanding of it. For Scotus, God and creatures are equally representable, even though creatures, as finite, can be properly understood by the human mind and God, as infinite, cannot. Whereas Aristotle never speaks of an infinite being — only of a perfect one — Scotus’ generic concept of being is very explicitly indifferent to distinctions between finite and infinite.

It is one thing to acknowledge representation as a logical concept among others, and quite another to give it the kind of special first place status that Scotus does in his ontology, and that Locke does in his epistemology.

Boulnois says it is with Scotus that metaphysics became linked to what Kant later called ontotheology. While separating metaphysics as the account of being from theology as the separate account of God, Scotus also made God indifferently one of the objects of metaphysics, along with all the other beings. The combination of these changes actually brought metaphysics closer to revealed theology, and helped it to be perceived as the safe handmaiden of the later Latin tradition, rather than as independent philosophical theology that some found threatening.

If one speaks of a subject of representation, it could be — in a sense of “subject” closer to that of Aristotle — that in which something stands for something, or it could be — in a modern sense — the one who represents. “In the context of representation, the soul is not the content of its thought, but rather has a representation, distinct from itself” (Boulnois, op. cit., p. 152, my translation).

It seems that for both Scotus and Locke, the mind has representations. The soul in Aristotle is thoughts and feelings and capabilities, not something standing behind them. (See also Repraesentatio; Ontology; Being, Existence.)

Not Power and Action

My copy of Gwenaëlle Aubry’s Genèse du dieu souverain arrived today, and I’ve started to look at the front matter. She begins by explaining why Aristotelian potentiality and actuality are not reducible to concepts of power and action. In the Metaphysics, the most sophisticated sense of being and substance is associated with the pair en dunamei and energeia. Whereas the grammatical nominative form dunamis could connote an active power, she says the dative form en dunamei was used by Aristotle precisely to distinguish from this. The other essential distinguishing feature of Aristotle’s approach was to make the en dunamei dependent on an energeia (act, actuality, or at-work-ness), a term of Aristotle’s own invention. In French, Aubry translates en dunamei for potentiality as en-puissance, as distinct from the puissance that means power.

“[Potentiality] names, for a given being, the principle of a movement oriented by the act that is also its end and its proper good” (p. 10, my translation throughout). Actuality and potentiality, she says, thus provide an alternative model to that of efficient causality based on the relation between an active and a passive power.

“In the same way that potentiality is not power (active or passive), act is not action. Act does not act [L’act n’agit pas]. On the contrary, it names that for which we act or move: the telos or end, which is also the good” (ibid). Nor should the relation between potentiality and actuality be reduced to that between matter and form. She notes that Aristotle never referred to god as “pure form”.

She observes that book Lambda of the Metaphysics (1071a 4-5) singles out potentiality and actuality as applicable by analogy to all substances of all kinds. (Scholars debate whether “by analogy” adequately translates Aristotle’s pros hen or “toward one”, but that is a side issue.) “This assures at the same time the generality of the ontological discourse and the real primacy of the theological principle” (ibid). (I prefer to avoid the term “ontology”, but that is another side issue.)

“Determining [god] as pure act, [Aristotle’s view based on potentiality and actuality] poses [god] as at the same time identical with the good” (p. 11). She reads Aristotle’s statement of the project of the Metaphysics in book Alpha as “posing the good as a principle and identifying the causality proper to it” (p. 12). The Latin medieval tradition mostly followed Avicenna in treating the Metaphysics as what Duns Scotus called ontology, but the great commentator Averroes characterized the Metaphysics as a philosophical theology, and Aubry also calls it an axiology, or study of goodness and value.

Lévinas on the Other

Emmanuel Lévinas (1905-95) was an important religiously oriented philosopher within the existential-phenomenological tradition. He translated Husserl’s Cartesian Meditations to French. His most famous work Totality and Infinity (French edition 1961) — dedicated to Gabriel Marcel and Jean Wahl — argues at top level that philosophy has often been dominated by a drive for a vision of totality, and that we should abandon this in favor of the “infinity” of our experience of the Other, which for Lévinas leads from an ethical concern to a sort of eschatology. He puts ethics before ontology, which I like, but still takes a more metaphysical approach than Marcel, for instance.

I appreciate his stress on concern for others, but have trouble applying the notion of infinity in this context. I’m more comfortable talking about the essential incompleteness of our experience as finite beings. Lévinas is right that reaching for totality is overreaching, but I think Plato and Aristotle — and also Kant, and even especially Hegel (so different from the common stereotype) — already clearly recognized this. In my view, ordinary open-ended interpretation already implicitly poses a potentially infinite (i.e., indefinitely extensible, and therefore always incomplete) task that we cut short in order to act, but we never in experience encounter an actual or completed infinite. Ethical encounter with others highlights the incompleteness (i.e., non-totality, in Lévinas’ terms) of our understanding.

This incompleteness — and the thickness and “overflowing” character of meant realities or informal “being” that is its complement — already seems to me sufficient to support an ethical, hospitable relation to the other. I want to say that an overflowing beyond objectifying schemas is characteristic not just of absolute transcendence and infinity, but of ordinary being and ordinary meaning. Routinely in everyday life, there is meaningful intelligibility and there is overflow, in the very same context. Even in the most ordinary moments, with sufficient openness we can find poetic reverie and ethical awe that takes us outside of ourselves.

Lévinas speaks of the “absolutely other” as “truth” in the sense of a religious transcendence, to which ethics is the “royal road” (p. 29). Transcendence, Lévinas says, should not be confused with ecstasy or magical communion. He has in mind a more sober kind of religion. He cites Marcel and Martin Buber on the irreducibility of the relationship to the Other to objective knowledge, and associates the driving of practice by theory with a failure to recognize this primacy of the other. With Kant, Hegel, and Brandom, I think we should recognize that theoretical reason actually depends on a practical reason that renounces Mastery; that theoretical reason is more of a tool, whereas practical reason is more of an agency; and that practical reason begins with recognition of the other.

I like when he speaks of a “generosity nourished by the Desired” (p. 34). He goes on to talk about a metaphysical Desire for the absolutely Other, “non-adequate to the idea” (ibid). Less metaphysically, I see forms overflowing their boundaries without thereby ceasing to be forms, and locate meaning in a foundationless but relatively stable difference in a relation of reciprocal co-grounding with moral commitment and practical judgment.

He talks about the reduction of the Other to the Same, and seems to think most philosophy does that. I have a more optimistic or charitable view that I think is also more historiographically valid. Aristotle and Hegel especially (contrary to common stereotypes) are very careful to avoid claiming overly strong Identity, so it is really not fair to say they reduce the Other to the Same.

Directly contrary to my view, he says that “The calling into question of things in a dialectic is not a modifying of the perception of them; it coincides with their objectification” (p. 69; emphasis in original). Disappointingly, he seems to prefer an authoritative teacher whom he calls an absolute Stranger. “The absolutely foreign alone can instruct us” (p. 73). It’s starting to sound like Kierkegaard here. I feel that hyperbolic expressions like this begin to denigrate ordinary life, and ultimately lead to a sort of absolute inflation. Lévinas’ Other is supposed to be a source of gentleness rather than arbitrariness, but to me what is gentle — much as it may exceed any objectification — cannot be absolutely foreign. I prefer to emphasize goodness rather than power, and I want to say that goodness speaks to us, so it cannot be absolutely foreign. (See also Immanence, Transcendence.)

Schelling

F. W. J. von Schelling (1775-1854) is my least favorite of the major German idealists. He is the one most strongly associated with Romanticism, and has been considered a precursor of existentialism, which does not seem to me like a recommendation. He lacked Hegel’s grounding in Aristotle and more serious engagement with Kant. Even Schelling’s admirers don’t claim much for his rather undisciplined attempt at a Romantic philosophy of nature. He castigated Hegel for his rationalism, while reviving metaphysical use of the pretentious claim of intellectual intuition that Kant and Hegel fought against.

Like Fichte whom he at first followed, Schelling expressed himself in simpler and more approachable terms than Kant or Hegel, but at the cost of sacrificing the multidimensional richness Kant and Hegel both achieved. Like Fichte, he erred in making self-consciousness an immediate intellectual intuition rather than a dialectical development, but unlike Fichte, he also revived general use of intellectual intuition in metaphysics. Fichte is largely antithetical to me due to his hyper-strong subject-centeredness, but he was principled and had a razor-sharp intellect. Schelling is superficially more balanced, but what he balanced his Fichteanism with was a shallow Romantic pseudo-neoplatonism. Having spent a few years in close study of the real Greek neoplatonists, I am very unimpressed by Schelling’s heavy-handed forays into this territory.

Schelling is the one who really does ignore Kant’s warnings about unbridled speculation. Armed with intellectual intuition, he simply leaps into a (pseudo-neoplatonic rather than Hegelian) Absolute. Among his criticisms of Hegel was that Hegel made the Absolute a result attained from a finite starting point. Schelling said this was impossible, since the Absolute is infinite. This reflects a complete failure to understand the misleadingly named Hegelian Absolute, which was precisely not a humanly unachievable theological infinite, but carefully developed in terms that made it an Aristotelian perfection after a kind achievable in an understandable way by a finite rational being without intellectual intuition. (See also “Absolute” Knowledge?; Kantian Discipline; Copernican.)

Schelling in his “Identity philosophy” naively propounded the broadly neoplatonic theme of an original self-division of an infinite Absolute, without all the nuances developed by the Greek neoplatonists that made their version more interesting. (For both Aristotle and Hegel, in contrast to Schelling and the neoplatonists, the “first” principle is really an attractor and an end, not the metaphysical-theological origin of everything. I would not say “just” an end, because for both Aristotle and Hegel, ends are more important than origins.)

The late Schelling’s “Positive” philosophy again pitted intellectual intuition against reason, while also appealing to religious revelation. Early in his career, he had been influenced by the fideist F. H. Jacobi’s proto-Kierkegaardian idea that there is an uncrossable gap between “the conditioned” and “the unconditioned”, requiring a leap of faith. But at least after Jacobi publicly attacked him, Schelling distinguished his view from Jacobi’s more extreme anti-rationalism. (See also Being, Consciousness.)

In profound contrast to Kant, Fichte, and Hegel, across his career Schelling seems to have had no real interest in ethics. His Romantic reliance on intellectual intuition rather than dialectic also means that although he shares some core vocabulary with Hegel, the same terms have very different meanings. (See also Pure Thinking?)

Suarez on Agents and Action

Among the greatest of the Latin scholastics, Francisco Suárez (1548-1617) was a profoundly original and highly sophisticated theologian-philosopher who significantly influenced early modern thought, and also produced monumental summaries of several centuries of Latin scholastic argument. A full third of his gigantic Metaphysical Disputations was devoted to an extremely detailed and systematic discussion of causality. A large volume entirely dedicated to efficient causes has been translated to English, and a web search popped up several secondary discussions. My comments here will be very high-level, mostly based on those.

In this scholastic context, traditional Aristotelian terms like cause, being, and substance are all given very different explanations from the nonstandard but hopefully both more historical and more useful ones I have been giving them. Latin scholastics tended to have a somewhat neoplatonizing, substantialized notion of Aristotelian causes. A common view was that any cause must be a substantial entity of some sort, whereas causes in the common modern sense are events, and I read Aristotle himself as identifying causes with “reasons why”.

Suárez held to the view of causes as substantial entities, and apparently went on to argue that all causes give Thomistic being (esse) either to a substance or to an accident in a substance. This influx or “influence” is described as a kind of immaterial flowing of being that makes or produces, without diminishing the agent. In the case of an efficient cause, this influence occurs through action, and the substantial efficient cause is called an agent. (By contrast, in the above-linked article, which has brief additional remarks on Suárez, I quoted Aristotle saying in effect that an agent’s action is more properly an efficient cause than the agent, and that something like a technique used in an action is more properly an efficient cause than the action.)

Suárez’s metaphysical emphasis on actions producing being in things has been characterized as transitional to a modern, event-based view of causality. While Suárez himself held to the idea that causes were substantial agents, early modern mechanism indeed seems to have kept his emphasis on action but moved to an event-based view.

It seems to me to have been a historical accident that mathematical natural science arose on the basis of an event-based view. While mathematics certainly can be used to develop precise descriptions of events, any mathematical analysis relevant to this can also be construed as a “reason why” rather than a mere description. On the frontier of analytic philosophy, Brandom is again suggesting that a consideration of reasons actually circumscribes — and is necessary to underwrite — consideration of events and descriptions. This suggests a new motivation for recovering Aristotle’s original reason-based view.