Nature, Ends, Normativity

From an Aristotelian point of view, the works of nature result from an ordering of ends. In modern terms, nature for Aristotle is not “value free”, and I take this to be a good thing. But from a strict Kantian point of view, we are the bearers of value, and the attribution of ends to nature independent of us is only a kind of beneficial heuristic projection. But if we radicalize the Kantian primacy of practical reason in the way that Brandom sees Hegel as doing, then all our theoretical accounts of nature, including those commonly regarded as value-free — and everything else we think, feel, and do — ultimately have a dependency on our inquiries into value and normativity.

From a Kantian point of view, our only access to objective nature is through our rational, discursive understanding. The very objectivity we attribute to nature depends on the objectivity of our understanding of it. Objectivity itself is a normative attitude. I think Kant and Aristotle ultimately agree in recognizing that we don’t have direct access to how things are in themselves, and that how things are in themselves is always a matter of discursive inference, in which the last word is never said.

Hegel emphasizes that the objectivity of understanding we achieve in this way is not a private possession, but something larger than us in which we participate. (See also Hegels’ Preface; Indistinct Cows, Pistol Shot; Adverbial Otherness; Time and Eternity in Hegel; Sense Certainty?; Taking “Things” as True.)

Aristotle on Explanation

Book 1 chapter 1 of Parts of Animals provides an overview of Aristotle’s perspective on explanation in general. It is a nice synthetic text that brings together many of Aristotle’s core concerns, and shows his vision of how natural science ought to fit in with broader philosophy.

He begins by distinguishing between mere acquaintance with an area of study and being educated in it. “For an educated [person] should be able to form a fair judgment as to the goodness or badness of an exposition” (Complete Works, Barnes ed., vol. 1, p. 994). This seems to apply to any subject whatsoever.

Next he raises the more specific question of method. “It is plain then that, in the science which inquires into nature, there must be certain canons, by reference to which a hearer shall be able to criticize the method of a professed exposition, quite independently of the question whether the statements made be true or false” (ibid).

Continuing to emphasize the critical thinking that is the mark of an educated person, he makes it explicit that some of the most important questions about a subject are what I would call second-order questions, having to do with how we ought to approach the matter at hand. The educated person will give due emphasis to these, rather than naively rushing to deliver judgments on questions of fact.

“Ought we, for example (to give an illustration of what I mean) to begin by discussing each separate substance — man, lion, ox, and the like — taking each kind in hand independently of the rest, or ought we rather to lay down the attributes which they have in common in virtue of some common element of their nature? For genera that are quite distinct present many identical phenomena, sleep, for instance, respiration, growth, decay, death, and other similar affections and conditions…. Now it is plain that if we deal with each species independently of the rest, we shall frequently be obliged to repeat ourselves over and over again; for horse and dog and man present every one of the phenomena just enumerated” (ibid).

The educated person looks for explanations, not just facts or correspondences. The specific “dogginess” of a dog, for example, does not explain its sleeping, breathing, and so on. Instead these activities, which it shares with many other animals, are explained by natures common to all of them.

Further, the kind of method Aristotle commends to us is not a matter of following recipes by rote. Instead, it is a thinking approach that involves persistently following the thread of explanations wherever it leads.

“So also there is a like uncertainty as to another point now to be mentioned. Ought the student of nature follow the plan adopted by the mathematicians in their astronomical demonstrations, and after considering the phenomena presented by animals, and their several parts, proceed subsequently to treat of the causes and the reason why; or ought he to follow some other method? Furthermore, the causes concerned in natural generation are, as we see, more than one. There is the cause for the sake of which, and the cause whence the beginning of motion comes. Now we must decide which of these two causes comes first, which second. Plainly, however, that cause is the first which we call that for the sake of which. For this is the account of the thing, and the account forms the starting-point, alike in the works of art and in works of nature. For the doctor and the builder define health or house, either by the intellect or by perception, and then proceed to give the accounts and the causes of each of the things they do and of why they should do it thus” (p. 995).

He raises the question of which kind of cause comes first, because he wants to suggest a different answer from that of the pre-Socratic “physicists” who attempted to explain everything by properties of different kinds of matter. Elsewhere he says that Plato and the atomist Democritus (whose writings are lost) did better than others at following the thread of explanation, but he considers the elaborated account of ends or “that for the sake of which” to be one of his own most important contributions.

Notably he only mentions two kinds of cause here, rather than the classic four. Similarly, there are passages in other texts where he lists a different number of categories than the canonical ten from the Categories. Later authors often viewed things like causes and categories in a reified, univocal way, as susceptible to exact enumeration. But for Aristotle, these are abstractions from a concrete reality that comes first, to be wielded in a context-sensitive way, so the canonical enumerations are not absolute.

Aristotle’s understanding of the “beginning of motion” is different from that promoted by early modern physics. Conventionally in the reading of Aristotle, the “beginning of motion” is associated with the efficient cause, and these two terms are understood in a somewhat circular way, which is really informed by some broadly intuitive sense of what a “beginning” of motion is. Early modern writers assumed that this “beginning” must be some kind of immediate impulse or force. Aquinas associated it with God’s act of creation and with the free acts of created beings. For Aristotle himself it is neither of these.

My best reading of efficient cause is that it is the means by which an end is realized. In many cases the end is realized not by just one means but by a hierarchy of means (e.g., art of building, carpenter, carpenter’s hammer, hammer’s blow). Aristotle and the scholastics emphasized the top of such hierarchies (e.g., the art of building for Aristotle; God or some metaphysical principle for the scholastics), whereas the early moderns emphasized the bottom (e.g., the hammer’s blow), akin to the proximate cause of concern to liability lawyers. For Aristotle, the art of building and not the hammer’s blow is the true “beginning” of the motion of house construction, because it provides the guiding thread of explanation for the whole process of building the house. But even the art of building is still just a means that gets its meaning from the reasons why we would want to build a house in the first place.

He continues, “Now in the works of nature the good and that for the sake of which is still more dominant than in works of art, nor is necessity a factor with the same significance in them all; though almost all writers try to refer their accounts to this, failing to distinguish the several ways in which necessity is spoken of. For there is absolute necessity, manifested in eternal phenomena; and there is hypothetical necessity, manifested in everything that is generated as in everything that is produced by art, be it a house or what it may. For if a house or other such final object is to be realized, it is necessary that first this and then that shall be produced and set in motion, and so on in continuous succession, until the end is reached, for the sake of which each prior thing is produced and exists. So also is it with the productions of nature. The mode of necessity, however, and the mode of demonstration are different in natural science from what they are in the theoretical sciences [e.g., mathematics]…. For in the latter the starting-point is that which is; in the former that which is to be. For since health, or a man, is of such and such a character, it is necessary for this or that to exist or be produced; it is not the case that, since this or that exists or has been produced, that of necessity exists or will exist. Nor is it possible to trace back the necessity of demonstrations of this sort to a starting-point, of which you can say that, since this exists, that exists [as one might do in mathematics]” (ibid).

In Aristotle’s usage, “nature” applies to terrestrial things that are observably subject to generation and corruption. He earlier referred to astronomical phenomena like the apparent motions of the stars and planets as “eternal” because on a human scale of time, these are not observably subject to generation and corruption. For Aristotle, absolute necessity could only apply to things that are absolutely unchanging. We may have a different perspective on astronomy, but that does not affect the logical distinction Aristotle is making. His key point here is that things subject to generation are not subject to absolute necessity. Leibniz took this a step further and argued that hypothetical necessity is the only kind there is. Kant, in arguing that hypothetical and disjunctive judgment (“if A then B” and “not both A and B“) are more fundamental than categorical judgment (“A is B“), made a related move.

Hypothetical necessity has a particular form that is worth noting. As Aristotle points out in the quote above, under hypothetical necessity “it is not the case that, since this or that exists or has been produced, that of necessity exists or will exist”. To give a positive example, hypothetical necessity says that to continue living, we must eat. But it does not in any way dictate a particular series of motions that is the only way this can be accomplished, let alone the whole series of eating-related actions throughout one’s life. Neither does it dictate that we will eat in any particular instance.

How we meet a particular need is up to us. The reality of this flexibility built into nature is all we need to explain freedom of action. Humans can also affirmatively embrace commitments and act on them; that too is up to us. Freedom is not an arbitrary or supernatural power; it simply consists in the fact that nature is flexible, and many things are up to us.

Aristotle contrasts the way a thing is naturally generated with the way it is. “The best course appears to be that we follow the method already mentioned — begin with the phenomena presented by each group of animals, and, when this is done, proceed afterwards to state the causes of those phenomena — in the case of generation too. For in house building too, these things come about because the form of the house is such and such, rather than its being the case that the house is such and such because it comes about thus…. Art indeed consists in the account of the product without its matter. So too with chance products; for they are produced in the same way as products of art” (pp. 995-996).

“The fittest mode, then, of treatment is to say, a man has such and such parts, because the essence of man is such and such, and because they are necessarily conditions of his existence, or, if we cannot quite say this then the next thing to it, namely, that it is either quite impossible for a man to exist without them, or, at any rate, that it is good that they should be there. And this follows: because man is such and such the process of his development is necessarily such as it is; and therefore this part is formed first, that next; and after a like fashion should we explain the generation of all other works of nature” (p. 996).

This way of reasoning backwards from an essence to its prerequisites is complemented by the fact that for Aristotle (and Plato) essences themselves are a prime subject of investigation, and not something assumed. “Begin with the phenomena”, he says.

Many 20th century philosophers have objected to presumptuous talk about the “essence of man”, and to any explanation in terms of essence. But these objections presuppose that the essence is something assumed, rather than being an object of investigation as it clearly was for Plato and Aristotle. Here also it is needful to distinguish between what we might call the distinguishing essence of humanity used to pick out humans — e.g., “rational/talking animal” — and what Leibniz later called the complete essence of each individual. Clearly also, the parts of the human body do not follow directly from “rational/talking animal”, but from many other attributes “presented in the phenomena”. It turns out that humans share these attributes with other animals, and they can therefore be conceptualized as attributes of common genera to which we and those other animals belong.

Because essences themselves are a prime subject of investigation and are ultimately inferred from phenomena, the kind of teleological reasoning Aristotle recommends always has a contingent character, which is how it naturally accounts for what the moderns call freedom. This contingency is built into in the “hypothetical” character of hypothetical necessity.

“Does, then, configuration and color constitute the essence of the various animals and their several parts? For if so, what Democritus says will be correct…. And yet a dead body has exactly the same configuration as a living one; but for all that it is not a man. So also no hand of bronze or wood or constituted in any but the appropriate way can possibly be a hand in more than name. For like a physician in a painting, or like a flute in a sculpture, it will be unable to perform its function” (p. 997).

Aristotle was the historic pioneer of “functional” explanation. Here he insists that the essences of living beings and their parts must be understood in terms of their characteristic activities. This development for the sake of biology parallels the deeper development of the meaning of “substance” in the Metaphysics as “what it was to be” a thing, and as actuality and potentiality.

“If now the form of the living being is the soul, or part of the soul, or something that without the soul cannot exist; as would seem to be the case, seeing at any rate that when the soul departs, what is left is no longer an animal, and that none of the parts remain what they were before, excepting in mere configuration, like the animals that in the fable are turned into stone; if, I say, this is so, then it will come within the province of the natural scientist to inform himself concerning the soul, and to treat of it, either in its entirety, or, at any rate, of that part of it which constitutes the essential character of an animal; and it will be his duty to say what a soul or this part of a soul is” (ibid).

Here it is important that we consider soul in the “phenomena first” way that Aristotle develops it.

“What has been said suggests the question, whether it is the whole soul or only some part of it, the consideration of which comes within the province of natural science. Now if it be of the whole soul that this should treat, then there is no place for any philosophy beside it…. But perhaps it is not the whole soul, nor all of its parts collectively, that constitutes the source of motion; but there may be one part, identical with that in plants, which is the source of growth, another, namely the sensory part, which is the source of change of quality, while still another, and this is not the intellectual part, is the source of locomotion. For other animals than man have the power of locomotion, but in none but him is there intellect. Thus it is plain that it is not of the whole soul that we have to treat. For it is not the whole soul that constitutes the animal nature, but only some part or parts of it” (p. 998).

Aristotle’s opposition to treating the soul as a single lump reflects his overall functional, activity-oriented, and phenomena-first approach.

“Again, whenever there is plainly some final end, to which a motion tends should nothing stand in its way, we always say that the one is for the sake of the other; and from this it is evident that there must be something of the kind, corresponding to what we call nature” (ibid).

Overall teleology always has to do with tendencies, not absolute determinations. He begins to wrap up this introduction by giving another example of the hypothetical necessity whose concept he pioneered.

“For if a piece of wood is to be split with an axe, the axe must of necessity be hard; and, if hard, must of necessity be made of bronze or iron. Now in exactly the same way the body, since it is an instrument — for both the body as a whole and its several parts individually are for the sake of something — if it is to do its work, must of necessity be of such and such a character, and made of such and such materials.”

“It is plain then that there are two modes of causation, and that both of these must, so far as possible, be taken into account, or at any rate an attempt must be made to include them both; and that those who fail in this tell us in reality nothing about nature” (p. 999).

Again, the two modes here are “that for the sake of which” and the phenomena associated with generation. Considering either of these in isolation yields an incomplete understanding, as we see respectively in bad scholasticism and bad empiricism.

“The reason why our predecessors failed to hit on this method of treatment was, that they were not in possession of the notion of essence, nor of any definition of substance. The first who came near it was Democritus, and he was far from adopting it as a necessary method in natural science, but was merely brought to it by constraint of facts. In the time of Socrates a nearer approach was made to the method. But at this period men gave up inquiring into nature, and philosophers diverted their attention to political science and to the virtues that benefit mankind” (ibid).

Socrates and Plato initially pioneered the notion of “that for the sake of which”, but in turning away from the phenomena of generation and becoming, they gave it a somewhat one-sided character.

The subtle way in which Aristotle wields the concept of essence avoids treating it as an absolute, or as something strictly univocal. In any given context, there is a clear relative distinction between essence and accident, but the distinction is not the same across all contexts. Hypothetical necessity provides the mechanism by which what is “accident” at one level of analysis can be incorporated into “essence” at another level. (See also Hermeneutic Biology?; Aristotelian Causes; Secondary Causes; Aristotle’s Critique of Dichotomy; Classification.)

Plotinus on Intellectual Beauty

“Art… must itself be beautiful in a far higher and purer degree [than the beautiful object]” (Plotinus, Enneads V.8, MacKenna trans., p. 422)

“The Nature, then, which creates things so lovely must be itself of a far earlier beauty; we, undisciplined in discernment of the inward, knowing nothing of it, run after the outer, never understanding that it is the inner that stirs us; we are in the case of one who sees his own reflection but not realizing whence it comes goes in pursuit of it” (p. 423).

“By what image, thus, can we represent it? We have nowhere to go but to what is less” (p. 424).

“For all There is heaven; earth is heaven, and sea heaven; and animal and plant and man; all is the heavenly content of that heaven…. And each of them contains all within itself, and at the same time sees all in every other, so that everywhere there is all, and all is all and each all, and infinite the glory. Each of them is great; the small is great; the sun, There, is all the stars; and every star, again, is all the stars and sun. While some one manner of being is dominant in each, all are mirrored in every other” (p. 425).

“Each There walks upon no alien soil; its place is its essential self; and, as each moves, so to speak, towards what is Above, it is attended by the very ground from which it starts: there is no distinguishing between the Being and the Place; all is Intellect, the Principle and the ground on which it stands, alike” (ibid).

“The myth of Lynceus seeing into the very deeps of the earth tells us of those eyes in the divine. No weariness overtakes the vision which yet brings no satiety as would call for its ending; for there never was a void to be filled…. [T]o see is to look the more, since for them to continue in the contemplation of an infinite self and of infinite objects is but to acquiesce in the bidding of their nature” (ibid).

“Life, pure, is never a burden…. The greatness and power of the wisdom There we may know from this, that it embraces all the real Beings, and has made all and all follow it, and yet that it is itself those beings” (p. 426).

“If we have failed to understand, it is that we have thought of knowledge as a mass of theorems and an accumulation of propositions, though that is false even for our sciences of the sense-realm…. [T]his is not a wisdom built up of theorems but one totality, not a wisdom consisting of manifold detail co-ordinated into a unity but rather a unity working out in detail” (ibid).

“Later from this wisdom in unity there appears, in another form of being, an image, already less compact, which announces the original in terms of discourse and seeks the causes by which things are such that the wonder arises how a generated world can be so excellent…. This excellence, whose necessity is scarcely or not at all manifest to search, exists, if we could but find it out, before all searching and reasoning” (p. 427).

“One way, only, remains: all things must exist in something else… thus the entire aggregate of existence springs from the divine world…. [T]he creation is not hindered, even now; it stands firm in virtue of being All. To me, moreover, it seems that if we ourselves were archetypes, Ideas, veritable Being, and the Idea with which we construct here were our veritable Essence, then our creative power, too, would toillessly effect its purpose” (p. 428).

“Certainly no reproach can rightly be brought against this world save only that it is not That” (p. 429).

“Being is desirable because it is identical with Beauty; and Beauty is loved because it is Being. How then can we debate which is the cause of the other, where the nature is one?” (p. 430).

“To those that do not see entire, the immediate impression is alone taken into account; but those drunken with this wine, filled with the nectar, all their soul penetrated by this beauty, cannot remain mere gazers: no longer is there a spectator outside gazing on an outside spectacle; the clear-eyed hold the vision within themselves, though, for the most part, they have no idea that it is within but look towards it as to something beyond them and see it as an object of wisdom caught by a direction of the will” (p. 431).

“The very contrary: to see the divine as something external is to be outside of it” (p. 432).

“We ourselves possess beauty when we are true to our own being” (p. 433).

Plotinus Against the Gnostics

Since publication of James Robertson’s The Nag Hammadi Library (1977), there has been a big upsurge of interest in the loose bundle of religious tendencies under the Roman Empire known retrospectively as “gnosticism”. These tended to emphasize extreme forms of transcendence, and to reject the classical notion of the inherent goodness of life in the finite world.

Hans Jonas’ 1958 classic The Gnostic Religion was an early sympathetic account that impressed me in my youth. Jonas gave a somewhat philosophical reading of general gnostic principles, emphasizing the claim that a direct personal experience of metaphysical realities could transform one’s being. I now think that true wisdom does not come from any immediate experience, although immediate experience may encapsulate wisdom already acquired. In light of Kant, I think the idea of direct experience of transcendent metaphysical realities is a category mistake.

Surviving gnostic texts nonetheless contain many bits of inherent interest to the historian of religions, illustrating results of a rather wild cross-cultural fusion between nonstandard Jewish, Christian, Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Persian, and even Buddhist elements. Related themes found their way into Ismaili Shi’ism, Suhrawardian Illuminationist Sufism, Catharism, and Jewish Kabbalah. Particularly in the Shi’ite versions, there was at times an element of concern for social justice. This kind of formation, however, seems to be prone to developing an authoritarian or cult-like character, e.g., “I am better than you because I have the secret wisdom.”

Prior to the 19th century, gnosticism was known in the West almost exclusively from extremely hostile heresiological sources, which were often not far from the mentality that groups we don’t like eat babies for breakfast. There was an underground interest in gnosticism among occultists and Jungians, but only in the later 20th century did studies of it acquire broader intellectual respectability.

The pendulum has now perhaps swung too far in the opposite direction of rather uncritical enthusiasm. In this context, the independent critique of gnosticism by Plotinus is worth recalling.

The largest single treatise of Plotinus, the great founder of neoplatonism, the so-called Großschrift, was divided into four pieces by his student and editor Porphyry, who gave its conclusion the title “Against the Gnostics”. The three preceding parts, which expressed related views of Plotinus in more positive terms, were “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”, “On the Intellectual Beauty”, and “That the Intelligibles Are Not Outside the Intellect, and on the Good”.

Plotinus criticized the gnostics for making arrogant claims to possess otherwise hidden metaphysical knowledge; for their negative attitudes toward life in this world; and for their feverish multiplication of metaphysical principles. In my youth I had some sympathy for the “esoteric” view, and for general feelings of alienation from the existing world order. However, I have come to believe that the truest spirituality has a universal rather than esoteric character. Also, I have really always believed that nature and worldly being are good in themselves, and that social ills are due to us and not to unjust cosmic forces. I have come to think that Plotinus’ notions of the One, Intellect, and Soul are too strong, but still consider him a major figure. (See also The One?; Power of the One?; Neoplatonic Critique of Identity?; Subjectivity in Plotinus).

Hegel offers many enriching views of the broader matters addressed by Plotinus here.

Efficient vs Proximate Causes

Joe Sachs links the notion of proximate cause to what I have called the modern sense of “efficient cause”.

The brief passage in Aristotle’s Metaphysics that seems to have primarily driven scholastic discussions of efficient causes reads “In yet another [way], [cause] is that from which the first beginning of change or rest is, as the legislator is a cause, or the father of a child, or generally the maker of what is made, or whatever makes a changing thing change” (Book V chapter 2, 1013a30-33, Sachs translation, p. 78).

Sachs’ footnote to this passage says “This is sometimes mistakenly called the efficient cause. Aristotle never describes it in such a way, and we generally intend by the phrase [efficient cause] the proximate cause, the last event that issues in the effect. Aristotle always means instead the origin of the motion, when it happens to be outside the moving thing. It is only in a derivative sense that he will speak of a push or a bump as being a cause at all, since, as he says at 1013a16 above, all causes are sources” (p. 78n).

When he says “Aristotle never describes it this way”, I think he means that “efficient cause” is yet another Latin-derived standard translation that has quite different connotations from the original Greek.

The excellent Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article “Aristotle on Causality” reconciles the brief reference in the Metaphysics with Aristotle’s much more detailed discussion in the Physics. This is worthy of an unusually long quotation:

“[A]n adequate explanation of the production of a [bronze] statue requires also a reference to the efficient cause or the principle that produces the statue. For Aristotle, this is the art of bronze-casting the statue….”

“This result is mildly surprising and requires a few words of elaboration. There is no doubt that the art of bronze-casting resides in an individual artisan who is responsible for the production of the statue. According to Aristotle, however, all the artisan does in the production of the statue is the manifestation of specific knowledge. This knowledge, not the artisan who has mastered it, is the salient explanatory factor that one should pick as the most accurate specification of the efficient cause (Phys. 195b21-25). By picking the art, not the artisan, Aristotle is not just trying to provide an explanation of the production of the statue that is not dependent upon the desires, beliefs and intentions of the individual artisan; he is trying to offer an entirely different type of explanation – namely, an explanation that does not make a reference (implicit or explicit) to these desires, beliefs and intentions. More directly, the art of bronze-casting the statue enters in the explanation as the efficient cause because it helps us to understand what it takes to produce the statue; that is to say, what steps are required to produce the statue. But can an explanation of this type be given without a reference to the final outcome of the production, the statue? The answer is emphatically “no”. A model is made for producing the statue. A mold is prepared for producing the statue. The bronze is melted and poured for producing the statue. Both the prior and the subsequent stage are for the sake of a certain end, the production of the statue. Clearly, the statue enters in the explanation of each step of the artistic production as the final cause or that for the sake of which everything in the production process is done.”

“In thinking about the four causes, we have come to understand that Aristotle offers a teleological explanation of the production of a bronze statue; that is to say, an explanation that makes a reference to the telos or end of the process. Moreover, a teleological explanation of the type sketched above does not crucially depend upon the application of psychological concepts such as desires, beliefs and intentions. This is important because artistic production provides Aristotle with a teleological model for the study of natural processes, whose explanation does not involve beliefs, desires, intentions or anything of this sort. Some have objected that Aristotle explains natural process on the basis of an inappropriately psychological teleological model; that is to say, a teleological model that involves a purposive agent who is somehow sensitive to the end. This objection can be met if the artistic model is understood in non-psychological terms. In other words, Aristotle does not psychologize nature because his study of the natural world is based on a teleological model that is consciously free from psychological factors….”

“One final clarification is in order. By insisting on the art of bronze-casting as the most accurate efficient cause of the production of the statue, Aristotle does not mean to preclude an appeal to the beliefs and desires of the individual artisan. On the contrary, there are cases where the individual realization of the art obviously enters in the explanation of the bronze statue. For example, one may be interested in a particular bronze statue because that statue is the great achievement of an artisan who has not only mastered the art but has also applied it with a distinctive style. In this case it is perfectly appropriate to make reference to the beliefs and desires of the artisan. Aristotle seems to make room for this case when he says that we should look “for general causes of general things and for particular causes of particular things” (Phys. 195b25-26). Note, however, that the idiosyncrasies that may be important in studying a particular bronze statue as the great achievement of an individual artisan may be extraneous to a more central (and more interesting) case. To understand why let us focus on the study of nature. When the student of nature is concerned with the explanation of a natural phenomenon like the formation of sharp teeth in the front and broad molars in the back of the mouth, the student of nature is concerned with what is typical about that phenomenon. In other words, the student of nature is expected to provide an explanation of why certain animals typically have a certain dental arrangement.”

Aristotle on the Soul

“Since we consider knowledge to be something beautiful and honored, and one sort more so than another either on account of its precision or because it is about better and more wondrous things, on both accounts we should with good reason rank the inquiry about the soul among the primary studies. And it seems that acquaintance with it contributes greatly toward all truth and especially the truth about nature, since the soul is in some way the governing source of living things” (On the Soul I.1, Sachs trans., p. 47).

“But altogether in every way the soul is one of the most difficult things to get any assurance about” (ibid).

“But first, perhaps, it is necessary to decide in which general class it is, and what it is — I mean whether it is an independent thing and a this, or a quality or quantity or some other one of the distinct ways of attributing being to anything, and further whether it whether it belongs among things having being in potency or is rather some sort of being-at-work-staying-itself; for this makes no small difference. And one must also examine whether it is divisible or without parts, and whether all soul is of the same kind, or, if it is not of the same kind, whether souls differ as forms of one general class, or in their general classes. For those who now speak and inquire about the soul seem to consider only the human soul, but one must be on the lookout so that it does not escape notice whether there is one articulation of soul, just as of living thing, or a different one for each, as for horse, dog, human being, and god, while a living thing in general is either nothing at all or a later concern — as would similarly be in question if any other common name were applied.”

“Again, if there are not many souls but parts of one soul, one must consider whether one ought to inquire first about the soul as a whole or about the parts. But it is difficult even to distinguish, among these, which sorts are by nature different from one another, and whether one ought first to inquire about the parts or about the work they do: the thinking or the intellect, the sensing or the sense, and so on in the other cases. But if the work the parts do comes first, one might next be at a loss whether one ought to inquire about the objects of these, such as the thing sensed before the sense, and the thing thought before the intellect. But not only does it seem that knowing what something is would be useful for studying the causes of the things that follow from its thinghood (just as in mathematics, it is useful to know what straight and curved are and what a line and a plane are, for learning how many right angles the angles of a triangle are equal to), but it seems too, on the contrary, that those properties that follow contribute in great part to knowing what the thing is, for it is when we are able to give an account of what is evident about the properties, either all or most of them, that we will be able to speak most aptly about the thinghood of the thing. For in every demonstration the starting point is what something is, so it is clear that those definitions that do not lead to knowing the properties, nor even making them easy to guess at, are formulated in a merely logical way and are all empty.”

“And there is also an impasse about the attributes of the soul, whether all of them belong in common to it and to the thing that has the soul, or any of them belong to the soul alone. It is necessary to take this up, though it is not easy, but it does seem that with most of its attributes, the soul neither does anything nor has anything done to it without the body, as with being angry, being confident, desiring, and every sort of sensing, though thinking seems most of all to belong to the soul by itself; but if this is also some sort of imagination, it would not be possible for even this to be without the body. Now if any of the kinds of work the soul does or any of the things that happen to it happen to it alone, it would be possible for the soul to be separated; but if nothing belongs to it alone, it could not be separate, but in the same way that many things are properties of the straight line as straight, such as touching a sphere at a point, still no separated straight line will touch a bronze sphere in that way, since it is inseparable, if it is always with some sort of body.”

“But all the attributes of the soul seem also to be with a body — spiritedness, gentleness, fear, pity, boldness, and also joy, as well as loving and hating — for together with these the body undergoes something. This is revealed when strong and obvious experiences do not lead to the soul’s being provoked or frightened, while sometimes it is moved by small and obscure ones, when the body is in an excited state and bears itself in the way it does when it is angry. And this makes it still more clear: for when nothing frightening is happening there arise among the feelings of the soul those of one who is frightened. But if this is so, it is evident that the attributes of the soul have materiality in the very statements of them, so that their definitions would be of this sort: being angry is a certain motion of such-and-such a body or part or faculty, moved by this for the sake of that. So already on this account the study concerning the soul belongs to the one who studies nature, either all soul or at least this sort of soul.”

“But the one who studies nature and the logician would define each attribute of the soul differently, for instance what anger is. The one would say it is a craving for revenge, or some such thing, while the other would say it is a boiling of the blood and a heat around the heart. Of these, the one gives an account of the material, the other of the form and meaning. For the one is the articulation of the thing, but this has to be in a certain sort of material if it is to be at all. In the same way, while the meaning of a house is of this sort, a shelter that protects from damage by wind, rain, and the sun’s heat, another person will say that it is stones, bricks, and lumber, and yet another will say that the form is in these latter things for the sake of those former ones.”

“Which of these is the one who studies nature? Is it the one concerned with the material who ignores the meaning or the one concerned with the meaning alone? Or is it rather the one who is concerned with what arises out of both? Or is there not just one sort of person concerned with the attributes of material that are not separate nor even treated as separate, but the one who studies nature is concerned with all the work done by and things done to a certain kind of body or material” (pp. 48-51).

“But since people define the soul most of all by two distinct things, by motion with respect to place and by thinking, understanding, and perceiving, while thinking and understanding seem as though they are some sort of perceiving (for in both of these ways the soul discriminates and recognizes something about being), and the ancients even say that understanding and perceiving are the same — as Empedocles has said ‘wisdom grows for humans as a result of what is present around them’, and elsewhere ‘from this a changed understanding is constantly becoming present to them’, and Homer’s ‘such is the mind’ means the same thing as these, for they all assume that thinking is something bodily like perceiving, and that perceiving and understanding are of like by like, as we described in the chapters at the beginning (and yet they ought to have spoken at the same time about making mistakes as well, for this is more native to living things and the soul goes on for more time in this condition, and thus it would necessarily follow either, as some say, that everything that appears is true, or that a mistake is contact with what is unlike, since that is opposite to recognizing like by like, though it seems that the same mistake, or the same knowledge, concerns opposite things) — nevertheless it is clear that perceiving and understanding are not the same thing, since all animals share in the former, but few in the latter.”

“And neither is thinking the same as perceiving, for in thinking there is what is right and what is not right” (III.3, pp. 132-133).

“About the part of the soul by which the soul knows and understands, whether it is a separate part, or not separate the way a magnitude is but in its meaning, one must consider what distinguishing characteristic it has, and how thinking ever comes about…. [I]ntellect has no nature at all other than this, that it is a potency. Therefore the aspect of the soul that is called intellect (and I mean by intellect that by which the soul thinks things through and conceives that something is the case) is not actively any of the things that are until it thinks. This is why it is not reasonable that it be mixed with the body…. And it is well said that the soul is a place of forms, except that this is not the whole soul but the thinking soul, and it is not the forms in its being-at-work-staying-itself, but in potency.”

“The absence of attributes is not alike in the perceptive and thinking potencies; this is clear in its application to the sense organs and to perception. For the sense is unable to perceive anything from an excessive perceptible thing, neither any sound from loud sounds, nor to see or smell anything from strong colors and odors, but when the intellect thinks something exceedingly intelligible it is not less able to think the lesser things but even more able, since the perceptive potency is not present without a body, but the potency to think is separate from the body. And when the intellect has come to be each intelligible thing, as the knower is said to do when he is a knower in the active sense (and this happens when he is able to put his knowing to work on its own), the intellect is even then in a sense those objects in potency, but not in the same way it was before it learned and discovered them, and it is then able to think itself” (III.4, pp. 138-140).

“And it is itself intelligible in the same way its intelligible objects are, for in the case of things without material what thinks and what is thought are the same thing, for contemplative knowing and what is known in that way are the same thing (and one must consider the reason why this sort of thinking is not always happening); but among things having material, each of them is potentially something intelligible, so that there is no intellect present in them (since intellect is a potency to be such things without their material), but there is present in them something intelligible” (p. 142).

“Knowledge, in its being-at-work, is the same as the thing it knows, and while knowledge in potency comes first in time in any one knower, in the whole of things it does not take precedence even in time. This does not mean that at one time it thinks but at another time it does not think, but when separated it is just exactly what it is, and this alone is deathless and everlasting (though we have no memory, because this sort of intellect is not acted upon, while the sort that is acted upon is destructible), and without this nothing thinks” (III.5, pp. 142-143).

Nature and Justice in Augustine

“But if the miracle is not thought as violence, if the opposition between violence and nature is suspended, it is because the Augustinian concept of nature considerably weakens the Aristotelian notion of physis. It is because miracle and nature are both referred back to [Augustine’s] concept of seminal reason, and are only distinguished as the inhabitual and the habitual.”

“In effect, just as the miracle can be called an inhabitual order, in the same way, in the final analysis, order is only a miracle to which one is habituated” (Gwenaëlle Aubry, Genèse du dieu souverain, p. 73, my translation). Augustine’s position is rhetorically more moderate and balanced than those of later occasionalists and theological voluntarists; but Aubry’s point is that when pushed, it leads to the same conclusions. She notes that Augustine’s use of “seminal reasons” is quite different from that of the Stoics; in Augustine, they are referred back directly to the creative power of God.

Augustine never calls God’s will arbitrary; on the contrary, he calls it good and just. But once having put the power of God first in the order of explanation — ahead of goodness and justice — he can only save God’s goodness and justice by invoking mystery, which is to renounce the intelligibility of the good.

Emotions and Human Nature

Spinoza took emotions more seriously than any philosopher before him.

“Most of those who have written about the Affects, and men’s way of living, seem to treat, not of natural things, which follow the common laws of nature, but of things which are outside nature. Indeed they seem to conceive man in nature as a dominion within a dominion. For they believe that man disturbs, rather than follows, the order of nature, that he has absolute power over his actions, and that he is determined only by himself. And they attribute the cause of human impotence, not to the common power of nature, but to I know not what vice of human nature, which they therefore bewail, or laugh at, or disdain, or (as usually happens) curse. And he who knows how to censure more eloquently and cunningly the weakness of the human Mind is held to be Godly.”

“…To them it will doubtless seem strange that I should undertake to treat men’s vices and absurdities in the Geometric style….”

“But my reason is this: nothing happens in nature that can be attributed to any defect in it, for nature is always the same….”

“The Affects, therefore, of hate, anger, envy, etc., considered in themselves, follow from the same necessity and force of nature as the other singular things. And therefore they acknowledge certain causes, through which they are understood, and have certain properties, as worthy of our knowledge as the properties of any other thing” (Ethics, book III, preface, Collected Works vol. 1, Curley trans., pp. 491-492).

“By affect I understand affections of the Body by which the Body’s power of acting is increased or diminished, aided or restrained, and at the same time, the ideas of these affections” (book III, definition 3, p. 493).

“[I]nsofar as it has adequate ideas, [our Mind] necessarily does certain things, and insofar as it has inadequate ideas, it necessarily undergoes certain things” (book III, proposition 1, ibid).

“[T]he Mind and the Body are one and the same thing, which is considered now under the attribute of Thought, now under the attribute of Extension” (book III, proposition 2, scholium, p. 494).

“The Mind, as far as it can, strives to imagine those things that increase or aid the Body’s power of acting” (book III, proposition 12, p. 502).

“Love is nothing but Joy with the accompanying idea of an external cause, and Hate is nothing but Sadness with the accompanying idea of an external cause” (book III, proposition 13, scholium, ibid).

(By no means would I suggest that this is the last word on love; it seems to apply mainly to a lowest common denominator usage of “love” that is not what I normally mean when I use the word.)

“Apart from the Joy and Desire that are passions, there are other affects of Joy and Desire that are related to us insofar as we act” (book III, proposition 58, p. 529).

“Among all the affects that are related to the mind insofar as it acts, there are none that are not related to Joy or Desire” (book III, proposition 59, ibid).

Based on these and similar principles, he develops a sort of physics of the emotions, which on the whole yields surprisingly plausible qualitative predictions of how people will behave in various conditions.

Reason, Nature

Ethical reason is our simultaneously active and receptive contribution to the bounty of nature. We are neither masters nor slaves or automatons, but co-stewards of this world.

The open-ended inclusiveness characteristic of ethical reason resembles the superabundance of form in nature, the same resemblance I’d like to think Plotinus had in mind when he said we should act in ways that express a “likeness to God”, which I take in the spirit of Leibnizian affirmative “wise charity”. (See also Fragility of the Good; Two Kinds of Character; Magnanimity; Second Nature; Naturalness, Mindedness; Interpretation.)

Bounty of Nature

Nature as we experience it is more characterized by superabundance and diversity of form than by univocal necessity. Even nonorganic phenomena like the weather involve material tendencies toward a kind of dynamic equilibrium. These tendencies — which are even more pronounced with living things — involve an “ability” to spontaneously recover when disturbed, a kind of resilience and adaptability to new circumstances.

The neoplatonists developed a whole metaphysic of “eternal generation” by a kind of overflow. For them, beyond every intelligible essence was something “supra-essential” that could be characterized only indirectly, through its overflowing superabundance. Essence ended up as a kind of after-image of the eternally overflowing primary superabundance of the Good or the One. Transformed in various ways, this notion greatly influenced historical developments in theology, supporting notions of the generosity, providence, and grace of a more personal God.

In a more modest and down-to-earth way, Aristotle had also dwelt on our experience of superabundance, applying it in his biology and in the more general notion of potentiality. In between, the Stoics developed a contrasting emphasis on a univocal direct divine omnipotence with respect to events. In the tradition, all three of these approaches came to be hybridized in all sorts of ways. While I think the approach of Aristotle himself was the best of all, I have a lot more sympathy with theologies of superabundance of form than with theologies of power-over and dominion. (See also Fragility of the Good.)