Plotinus on Contemplation

“Supposing we played a little before entering upon our serious concern and maintained that all things are striving after Contemplation, looking to Vision as their one end — and this, not merely beings endowed with reason but even the unreasoning animals, the Principle that rules in growing things, and the Earth that produces these — and that all achieve their purpose in the measure possible to their kind, each attaining Vision and possessing itself of the End in its own way and degree, some things in entire reality, other in mimicry and image — we would scarcely find anyone to endure so strange a thesis. But in a discussion entirely among ourselves there is no risk in a light handling of our own ideas (Plotinus, Enneads III.8, ch. 1, MacKenna tr., p. 239).

Thus begins Plotinus’ great essay that we know by the title “Nature, Contemplation, and the One”. The remainder of the text suggests that he is in fact fairly serious in what he suggests, but this disclaimer shows that he recognizes its unusual character. He does at a later point say in effect, “and now for the serious part”. In the “playful” part, he is deliberately stretching the meaning of contemplation, challenging us to apply it in many more cases than we would expect. In the “serious” part, he narrows the meaning to cases that come close to instantiating the identity Aristotle speaks of between thought and what it thinks.

Scholars believe this essay was part of Plotinus’ single largest work, which his student and editor Porphyry divided into four separate pieces, including “On the Intellectual Beauty” and “Against the Gnostics”. I wanted to compare what he says about contemplation with what Aristotle says. I find that even when I don’t agree with Plotinus, his work often has a kind of poetic appeal.

Aristotle speaks of contemplation as the characteristic activity of the gods, and as the ultimate end of human life. Plotinus here suggests that all nature aims at contemplation. Aristotle never says that, but it is in a way implicit between the lines. If the first cause is characterized by pure contemplation, and is the ultimate end behind all particular ends for which things do what they do, then in that sense all things aim at contemplation.

The characterization of contemplation as “Vision” is not one I would want to endorse in an Aristotelian context, at least without major qualification. The way Plotinus speaks of it, this Vision seems like a case of what Kant would call intellectual intuition — a kind of immediate grasping of some deep content.

I agree with Kant and Hegel that humans can “immediately” grasp deep content in holistic fashion only after and because we have previously done the work needed to understand it, which typically involves what Aristotle calls “thinking things through”, and what I have called interpretation and (after Paul Ricoeur) the long detour. I want to read Aristotle in a way that is compatible with this.

As it stands, Plotinus’ notion of Vision seems designed to exclude mediation, consonant with his emphasis on the simplicity of the One as the source of all things. For Plotinus, Vision is an immediate holistic “seeing” of deep truth.

I think Aristotelian contemplation is holistic too, but that any holistic Vision or immediate intuition achievable by humans and acceptable to Aristotle must have a cumulative, retrospective, reflective character that depends on previous insight and work, like apperception does in Kant and Hegel. I would suggest that Aristotelian contemplation could be elaborated as apperceptive entelechy.

“Well — in the play of this very moment am I engaged in the act of Contemplation? Yes; I and all that enter this play are in Contemplation: our play aims at Vision; and there is every reason to believe that child or man, in sport or earnest, is playing or working only towards Vision, that every act is an effort towards Vision; the compulsory act, which tends rather to bring the Vision down to outward things, and the act thought of as voluntary, less concerned with the outer, originate alike in the effort towards Vision” (ibid).

Here we begin to see in detail the vast extension of contemplation Plotinus is “playfully” suggesting. All things either are contemplation or aim at contemplation. In effect, he is treating Vision as a name for the Good at which all things aim.

“[L]et us speak, first, of the earth and of the trees and vegetation in general, asking ourselves what is the nature of the Contemplation in them, how we relate to any Contemplative activity the labor and productiveness of the earth, how Nature, held to be devoid of reason and even of conscious representation, can either harbour Contemplation or produce by means of the Contemplation which it does not possess” (ibid).

For Aristotle, the earth has a nature or internal source of motion, and plants as living things have an elementary kind of soul corresponding to their abilities for growth and nutrition. But even motion is a primitive kind of entelechy, of which contemplation is the highest form. Aristotle may not see contemplation everywhere, but he does see entelechy everywhere.

Incidentally, the English word “consciousness” was first coined by Locke’s friend, the Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth, to express ideas he found in Plotinus.

“To begin with, since in all [Nature’s] production it is stationary and intact, a Reason-Principle [logos] self-indwelling, it is in its own nature a Contemplative act. All doing must be guided by an Idea, and will therefore be distinct from that Idea: the Reason-Principle then, as accompanying and guiding the work, will be distinct from the work; not being action but Reason-Principle it is, necessarily, Contemplation” (ch. 3, p. 240).

Plotinus generally seems to use logos in a sense that is derived from Stoicism, rather than any Platonic or Aristotelian source. Logos is a — arguably the — fundamental explanatory principle in Stoicism. It has relations with Platonic and Aristotelian concepts, but is a distinct notion or family of notions in its own right. For the Stoics, everything has an indwelling logos or rational principle that internally governs it, and the logos has a divine origin.

“And does this Reason-Principle, Nature, spring from a contemplation? Wholly and solely” (ibid).

He doesn’t explain this, but instead proceeds to qualify it.

“The Contemplation springing from the reasoning faculty — that, I mean, of planning its own content — [Nature] does not possess” (p. 241).

Nature neither reasons explicitly, nor plans how to achieve its aims.

“Because to plan for a thing is to lack it: Nature does not lack; it creates because it possesses. Its creative act is simply its possession of its own characteristic Essence; now its Essence, since it is a Reason-Principle, is to be at once an act of contemplation and an object of contemplation” (ibid).

The idea of starting from fullness rather than lack is appealing. Aristotle’s way of doing this is to emphasize entelechies everywhere. Every entelechy is in a way complete in itself.

Aristotle complements this by saying that the living things that have natures are more immediately moved by desire. Plato, however, strongly identifies desire with a kind of lack. Plotinus therefore seems to want to downplay the role of desire, and identifies nature with the fullness of a creative act. If this is not the creativity of the translator, we have here a reference to creation, as distinct from making. Creation is also not part of Platonic or Aristotelian vocabulary.

Plotinus is said to have read works by Numenius, a Neo-Pythagorean who was impressed by the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures. I don’t have my Loeb edition handy to check the Greek. (Incidentally, Armstrong’s complete translation of Plotinus in the Loeb edition is more accurate and less flowery than the more common MacKenna I am using here. Kevin Corrigan’s translation in his Reading Plotinus is also better, but I don’t have that handy either.)

The “act” part seems to be a reference to actuality or being-at-work. This is also an important concept for Plotinus, though in contrast to Aristotle he ultimately subordinates it to potentiality.

“Thus the act of production is seen to be in Nature an act of contemplation, for creation is the outcome of a contemplation which never becomes anything else, which never does anything else, but creates by simply being a contemplation” (ibid).

Aristotle makes the more specific claim that the what-it-is of things is the outcome of thought thinking itself that contemplates. He would not collapse this together as Plotinus does, into a claim that nature’s act of production is an act of contemplation.

“[W]hat we know as Nature is a Soul, offspring of a yet earlier Soul of more powerful life; that it possesses, therefore, in its repose, a vision within itself; that it has no tendency upward nor even downward but is at peace, steadfast, in its own Essence;” (ch. 4, p. 241).

Aristotle calls nature an internal source of motion, but not a soul (psyche). On the other hand, the things he regards as having a nature (plants and animals) he also regards as having a soul. But the notions of soul in Aristotle and Plotinus are also vastly different. While Aristotle is careful to stay close to what can be observed by anyone, Plotinus makes the soul a much grander thing with much stronger properties.

“Of course, while it may be convenient to speak of ‘understanding’ or ‘perception’ in the Nature-Principle, this is not in the full sense…; we are applying to sleep a word borrowed from the wake” (pp. 241-242).

Here he acknowledges he is stretching things.

“In the same way, human beings, when weak on the side of contemplation, find in action their trace of vision and of reason: their spiritual feebleness unfits them for contemplation; they are left with a void, because they cannot adequately seize the vision; yet they long for it; they are hurried into action as their way to the vision which they cannot attain by intellection. They act from the desire of seeing their action, and of making it visible and sensible to others when the result shall prove fairly well equal to the plan. Everywhere, doing and making will be found to be either an attenuation or a complement of vision” (p. 242).

Long ago, I was profoundly impressed by this argument that all action aims at contemplation, which he returns to further on. Looking at it now, it strikes me that this thesis may be implicitly counterposed to Aristotle’s idea of the priority of actuality, which, as we will see, Plotinus does not agree with. Aristotle also would never be so one-sidedly dismissive of doing and making, even though he agrees that contemplation is “even more” to be valued.

“The primal phase of the Soul — inhabitant of the Supreme… — remains unchangeably There; but in virtue of that first participation, … a secondary phase also participates in the Supreme, and this secondary goes forth ceaselessly as Life streaming from Life; for energy runs through the universe and there is no extremity at which it dwindles out” (ch. 5, p. 242).

“Energy” here is actuality or being-at-work, now explicitly associated with something secondary.

“All goes softly since nothing here demands the parade of thought or act upon external things: it is a Soul in vision and, by this vision, creating its own subsequent — this Principle (of Nature), itself also contemplative but in the feebler degree… a Vision creates the Vision ” (p. 243).

The implicit complaint against the “parade of thought” has to do with Plotinus’ strong bias for intuitive immediacy over what Aristotle would call “thinking things through”. I think Plotinus is perhaps the best proponent of this view that I disagree with — certainly better than the followers of Schelling and Jacobi who attacked Hegel.

“[T]his explains how the Soul’s creation is everywhere: where can this thing fail to be, which is one identical thing in every soul? Vision is not cabined within the bournes of magnitude.”

In Plotinus’ modified Platonic view, Soul is not just the form of a living body, but plays a huge role in the formation and governance of the world. There is a soul of the world or soul of the all; nature is a kind of soul; and there is a transcendent Soul that is Nature’s prior. Every individual soul has a direct connection to the transcendent Soul.

“This, of course, does not mean that the Soul is present at the same strength in each and every place and thing — any more than it is at the same strength in each of its phases.”

“The Charioteer (the Leading Principle of the Soul, in the Phaedrus myth) gives the two horses (its two dissonant faculties) what he has seen and they, taking that gift, showed that they were hungry for that vision; there was something lacking to them: if in their desire they acted, their action aimed at what they craved for — and that was vision, and an object of vision” (ibid).

Here he refers to imagery from Plato’s Phaedrus, while re-centering the myth around his own notion of Vision. He again dwells on the superiority of contemplation to action.

“Action, thus, is set towards contemplation and an object of contemplation, so that even those whose life is in doing have seeing as their object” (ch. 6, p. 243).

“[T]hey desired a certain thing to come about, not in order to be unaware of it but to know it, to see it present before the mind…. We act for the sake of some good; this means not for something to remain outside of ourselves, not in order that we may possess nothing but that we may hold the good of the action. And hold it, where? Where but in the mind?” (ibid).

“This vision achieved, the acting instinct pauses; the mind is satisfied and seeks nothing further” (p. 244).

Aristotle would agree that a maximally complete entelechy like contemplation is in a way better than any incomplete entelechy, such as would be associated with action. Even so, his emphasis on the priority of actuality leads to a much more positive valuation of acting, doing, and making. Also, for Aristotle contemplation is a being-at-work. And I at least also think of it as a particular kind of acting and doing, even though it is different from external acting and doing.

“[N]ow we come to the serious treatment of the subject — In proportion to the truth with which the knowing faculty knows, it comes to identification with the object of its knowledge” (ibid).

What he says here about knowledge resembles the Aristotelian identity of thought and the thing thought, broadened to include a kind of proportional applicability. On the other hand, Aristotle seems to view knowledge as a discrete relation, which if taken strictly would seem to rule out any kind of proportional applicability or approximation.

“Hence the Idea must not be left to lie outside but must be made one identical thing with the Soul of the novice so that he finds it really his own. The Soul, once domiciled within that Idea and brought to likeness to it, becomes productive, active; what it always held by its primary nature it now grasps with knowledge and applies in deed, so becoming, as it were, a new thing and, informed as it now is by the purely intellectual, it sees (in its outgoing act) as a stranger looking upon a strange world” (ibid).

Though the strong implications of Soul and the initiatory rhetoric are distinctive to Plotinus, what is really essential here is that “the Idea must not be left to lie outside”. Aristotle and Hegel would both wholeheartedly endorse this part.

“The Sage, then, has gone through a process of reasoning when he expounds his act to others; but in relation to himself he is Vision” (ibid).

Plotinus has a much more individualist point of view than Aristotle. For him we are ultimately each “alone with the Alone”. A direct personal relation to the One makes all human social relations seem insignificant by comparison. For Aristotle, participation in social relations is essential to being human, and this is a good thing, not just a distraction from personal spiritual development.

“All the forms of Authentic Existence spring from vision and are a vision. Everything that springs from these Authentic Existences in their vision is an object of vision — manifest to sensation or to true knowledge or to surface-awareness. All act aims at this knowing; all impulse is toward knowledge” (ch. 7, p. 245).

Now in the “serious” part, he repeats what was initially supposed to be the “playful” claim that all things either are contemplation or are oriented toward it.

“[T]he creating powers operate not for the sake of creation and action but in order to produce an object of vision. This same vision is the ultimate purpose of all the acts of the mind and, even further downward, of all sensation, since sensation also is an effort towards knowledge; lower still, Nature, producing similarly its subsequent principle, brings into being the vision and Idea that we know in it. It is certain, also, that as the Firsts exist in vision all other things must be straining towards the same condition; the starting point is, universally, the goal” (ibid).

Aristotle would never speak of “creating powers”. While he certainly recognizes distinctions between immediate, intermediate, and ultimate ends, he would also never deny that what a thing essentially does is its end.

“[T]he procreative act is the expression of a contemplation, a travail towards the creation of many forms, many objects of contemplation, so that the universe may be filled full of Reason-Principles and that contemplation may be, as nearly as possible, endless…. So Love, too, is vision with the pursuit of Ideal-Form” (ibid).

Again this has a kind of poetic charm, but taking it literally relies on a collapsing of distinctions.

“In the advancing stages of Contemplation rising from that in Nature, to that in the Soul and thence again to that in the Intellectual-Principle itself, the object contemplated becomes progressively a more and more intimate possession of the Contemplating Beings, more and more one with them” (ch. 8, p. 245).

Here he returns to what we know from Aristotle as the strict identity of pure thought and what it thinks. As before, he wants to first greatly generalize and then to relativize it.

“[I]n the Intellectual-Principle itself, there is complete identity of Knower and Known, and this not by way of domiciliation, as in the case of even the highest soul, but by Essence, by the fact that, there, no distinction exists between Being and Knowing” (ibid).

Aristotle would agree.

“The Supreme must be an entity in which the two are one; it will, therefore, be a Seeing that lives, not an object of vision like things existing in something other than themselves” (pp. 245-246).

The Supreme in Plotinus is a name for the One. Aristotle’s first cause is identified with thought thinking itself, more or less equivalent to the Intellectual-Principle here. Plotinus is clearly not satisfied with Aristotle’s first cause, and posits the One above it. Aristotle in the Metaphysics argues at length why we should not follow the Pythagoreans and Plato in regarding the One as a source or cause.

“Every life is some form of thought…. But while men may recognize grades in life they reject grades in thought; to them there are thoughts (full and perfect) and anything else is no thought” (p. 246).

This is an important point. The thoughts that we embodied beings have in ordinary life are far from “full and perfect”, but we tend to act as though they were full and perfect.

“The essential is to observe that, here again, all reasoning shows that whatever exists is a bye-work [sic] of visioning” (ibid).

Once again, for Plotinus the immediate whole of the One is the complete source of everything. By contrast, Aristotle complements his account of the dependency of all things on the first cause by insisting that everything also depends on particular causes.

“The Highest began as a unity but did not remain as it began; all unknown to itself, it became manifold; it grew, as it were, pregnant: desiring universal possession, it flung itself outward, though it were better had it never known the desire by which a Secondary came into being…. The Whence is better; the Whither is less good: the Whence is not the same as the Whence-followed-by-a-Whither; the Whence alone is greater than with the Whither added to it” (ibid).

Overall, Plotinus seems to be conflicted about the goodness of manifestation and actualization. There are many texts like “On the Intellectual Beauty” that seem to present these in a positive light, and he sharply criticizes the Gnostics for their negative views of life in the world. But here he repeats in three different wordings that the One shut up within itself is better than the One complemented by a world.

For Aristotle, manifestation and actualization as such are unequivocally good, even if some true facts are not good. For Aristotle — in diametrical contrast to Plotinus here — the highest good should be called not a Whence but a Whither, the ultimate end of all things, that-for-the-sake-of-which. The first cause is a pure end.

“If, then, neither the Intellectual-Principle nor the Intelligible Object can be the First Existent, what is? Our answer can only be: The source of both…. Yet: our knowledge of everything else comes by way of our intelligence; our power is that of knowing the intelligible by means of the intelligence: but this Entity transcends all of the intellectual nature; by what direct intuition, then, can it be brought within our grasp?” (ch. 9, p. 247).

Here and below, Plotinus seems to refer to the One as a Being. In other texts, he says that the One is beyond being, and associates being with intellect. Even here, he associates all knowledge with intellect (the One would be beyond knowledge).

“To this question the answer is that we can know it only in the degree of human faculty: we indicate it by virtue of what in ourselves is like it. For in us, also, there is something of that Being; nay, nothing, ripe for that participation, can be void of it. Wherever you be, you have only to range over against this omnipresent Being that in you which is capable of drawing from It, and you have your share in it” (pp. 247-248).

Now he uses “knowledge” in a much looser way than above. The idea that what is highest is not entirely inaccessible to us is appealing.

“The Intellectual-Principle in us must mount to its origins: essentially a thing facing two ways, it must deliver itself over to those powers within it which tend upward; if it seeks the vision of that Being, it must become something more than Intellect.”

Elsewhere, Plotinus seems to suggest that if each thing “turns upward” toward what is above it and away from what is below, that which is below it will spontaneously carry on in the best possible way — i.e., better than if we were more actively looking down into it and intervening in it. Very different presentation notwithstanding, this always reminded me of the Tao Te Ching‘s idea of getting things done in the best possible way by “non-action”.

“For the Intellectual-Principle is the earliest form of Life: it is the Activity presiding over the outflowing of the universal Order — the outflow, that is, of the first moment, not that of the continuous process” (p. 248).

He identifies neither intellect nor the the One with the whole of things.

“[I]t must of necessity derive from some other Being, from one that does not emanate but is the Principle of Emanation, of Life, of Intellect, and of the Universe…. [T]his can be no thing among things but must be prior to all things” (ibid).

The One is not a “thing” at all. For Aristotle, the first cause is a particular thing that is prior in nature to all other things. To be a being in the proper sense is to be a particular independent thing.

“And what will such a Principle essentially be? The potentiality of the Universe: the potentiality whose non-existence would mean the non-existence of all the Universe and even of the Intellectual-Principle which is the primal Life and all Life” (ch. 10, p. 248).

Here he makes the potentiality of the One prior to any actuality. Aristotle would strenuously object to this.

“Imagine a spring that has no source outside itself; it gives itself to all the rivers, yet is never exhausted by what they take, but remains always integrally what it was…. Or: think of the Life coursing throughout some mighty tree… it is the giver of the entire and manifold life of the tree, but remains unmoved in itself” (p. 249).

This image of something that constantly gives and never needs anything is powerful. Plotinus radicalizes and generalizes Aristotle’s notion of unmoved moving, making it a complete cause of things, which Aristotle never claimed it was.

“Thus we are always brought back to The One. Every particular thing has a One of its own to which it may be traced; the All has its One, its Prior but not yet the Absolute One; through this we reach that Absolute One, where all such references come to an end. Now when we reach a One — the stationary Principle — in the tree, in the animal, in Soul, in the All — we have in every case the most powerful, precious element: when we come to the One in Authentically Existent Beings — their Principle and source and potentiality — shall we lose confidence and suspect it of being — nothing?” (ibid).

I probably should go back to the Metaphysics, and pull out Aristotle’s discussions of oneness and the Pythagorean-Platonic claims that the One is something separate. I think he pretty conclusively shows that claims for a separate One are incoherent.

“Certainly, this Absolute is none of the things of which it is the source — its nature is that nothing can be affirmed of it — not existence, not essence, not life — since it is That which transcends all these. But possess yourself of it by the very elimination of Being and you hold a marvel. Thrusting forward to This, attaining, and resting in its content, seek to grasp it more and more — understanding it by that intuitive thrust alone, but knowing its greatness by the Beings that follow upon it and exist by its power” (ibid).

This seems like his more standard position that the One is not a Being. It also at least suggests the very useful approach of understanding a cause or a higher thing by examining what follows from it. But the extent to which Plotinus puts this into practice is limited.

“The Intellectual-Principle is a Seeing, and a Seeing which itself sees; therefore it is a potentiality which has become effective…. All actual seeing implies duality; before the seeing takes place there is the pure unity (of the power of seeing)” (ch. 11, p. 249).

The assertion that all seeing — and implicitly, all knowing — implies duality suggests a denial of Aristotle’s thesis that pure thought is simply identical with what it thinks. But again there is a mismatch that could also allow for doubt. Where Aristotle speaks of thinking, Plotinus speaks of seeing, and of knowing in some broad sense. For Aristotle, thinking and knowing are primarily discursive; for Plotinus, they are primarily intuitive.

“Now as our sight requires the world of sense for its satisfaction and realization, so the vision in the Intellectual-Principle demands, for its completion, The Good” (pp. 249-250).

Here he implicitly rejects Aristotle’s identification of thought thinking itself with the good. In modern terms, we are back to the model of the duality of consciousness of an object that is not Aristotle’s, and that Hegel strove mightily to overcome in favor of a more Aristotelian solution.

“It cannot be, itself, The Good, since then it would not need to see or to perform any other Act; for The Good is the center of all else, and it is by means of The Good that every thing has Act, while The Good is in need of nothing and therefore possesses nothing beyond itself” (p. 250).

For Plotinus, intellect sees and acts, while the One or The Good is above all that. For Aristotle, pure intellect is a pure entelechy that is also the the ultimate good for all things. Whether or not we say that it sees and acts depends on the meaning we attribute to seeing and acting.

“Once you have uttered ‘The Good’, add no further thought: by any addition, and in proportion to that addition, you introduce a deficiency. Do not even say that it has Intellection; you would be dividing it; it would become a duality, Intellect and The Good” (ibid).

“[W]e form a conception of its true character from its image playing upon the Intellectual-Principle (ibid).

“[A]ll the striving is on the side of the Intellect, which is the eternal striver and eternally the attainer (ibid).

For Aristotle, intellect is an entelechy, which I think would be exempt from “striving”. It is composite things that do the striving.

“The Source of all this cannot be an Intellect…. [T]here is That before them which neither needs nor possesses anything, since, needing or possessing anything else, it would not be what it is — The Good” (ibid).

Once again, Aristotle does not claim that his first cause is the “Source of all this”. Rather, it is the destination of all this.

Pure Entelechy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Aristotle, desire and thought are unmoved movers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this, I say, is pure delight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Di Giovanni on Hegel’s Logic

“The subject matter of the Logic is not the ‘thing-in-itself’ or its phenomenal manifestations, whether one conceives the ‘in-itself’ as a substance or as freedom, but is discourse itself…. The Logic itself is a discourse about discourse” (George di Giovanni, translator’s introduction to Hegel, The Science of Logic, p. xxxv).

Writing about Hegel’s development, di Giovanni says that by 1803/04, “Consciousness is where organic nature acquires its highest point of concentration by reflecting upon itself and where nature as such becomes spirit. When this consciousness develops into language, and language in turn becomes the language of a people, the social character of spirit is then revealed” (ibid, p. xix).

“[W]hile in 1803/04 Hegel provided a smoother transition from nature to spirit by introducing the factor of consciousness and thus adding to nature, so to speak, a new dimension of depth, [in 1805/06/07] he adds to it yet another dimension by conceiving spirit as the place where nature becomes conscious of its being conscious, that is to say, the place where it becomes deliberate about itself or, again, where it becomes a product of spirit” (p. xxi).

“[Kant’s] notorious ‘thing-in-itself’, instead of being understood as an ideal term of reference that generates a universal space of reason… could be taken instead — as it in fact was by many contemporaries — as a sort of hyper-physical entity…. In a critical context, however, any appeal to causality… would have to fall on the side of a physiological pre-history of experience” (p. xxx).

“It was to remedy this failure that Fichte undertook his thought experiment [with pure freedom], asking his auditors to simply think for the sake of thinking and to reflect on the result…. The net result is that the whole of experience becomes colored with a moral tinge, exactly what Fichte had of course intended from the start. Experience is a call to transform the otherwise merely brute facts of experience…. The idea of construing objects of experience by applying categories to a presupposed given content loses all its meaning…. One must rather interpret experience” (pp. xxxi-xxxii).

(It always seemed to me that even the “application” of pre-existing categories to the sensible manifold implicitly requires interpretation in order to judge which categories are applicable in each specific context of the manifold, and how they are applicable in each case. To my knowledge Kant does not speak of this explicitly, but I don’t think he ever explicitly assumes specific contents in the manifold either. What would then be “given” for Kant ought to be just the manifold as a potentially differentiable lump. Following the principle of charitable interpretation, then, I read Kant as a bit closer to Fichte on this point. The implicit interpretation I want to attribute to Kant would probably operate via the pre-conscious figurative synthesis of imagination though, whereas I think Fichte has a more conscious process of interpretation in mind.)

“On Hegel’s analysis of both Kant and Fichte, the problem is that the ‘I’ that figures so prominently in their theories is too abstract a product…. Therefore, according to Hegel, it lets the content of experience… escape from it and fall, so to speak, on the side of a beyond from which it is retrievable only by means of such non-conceptual means as intuition…. And if Hegel did not want to travel the way of Schelling, which would have taken him to a pre-Kantian Spinozism, then the only avenue open to him was to comprehend facticity discursively, without intuition or myth-making” (pp. xxxiii-xxxiv).

“I have been deliberately using ‘discourse’ and ‘discursiveness’ instead of ‘dialectic’ (a term, incidentally, that Hegel uses sparsely in the Logic) in an attempt to demystify the latter term. But it should be clear that the meaning is the same” (p. xxxix).

“[W]e do not have anything that would amount to McTaggart’s Absolute Idea from which, allegedly, every minute detail of reality can in principle be deduced. This is a position that Hegel unequivocally rejected and even found infuriating…. As for Hegel, the strength of his Logic lies in that it finds a ground for this contingency in the indeterminacy necessarily inherent in the structure of things that are in becoming” (p. lviii).

Hegel takes us beyond sterile debates about freedom versus determinism by means of a novel account of determinacy itself as including built-in indeterminacy. Aristotle of course preceded him in this, albeit with a different account of determination-including-indeterminism.

“[I]t is nature which in the abstract medium of logical discourse attains the self-comprehension, and the efficacy, which we attribute to spirit. Nature is for Hegel, just as it was for Schelling, the ‘pre-self’ of the ‘self’, not just the ‘other-than-self’ of Fichte” (p. lix).

Incidentally, di Giovanni dedicates his 2010 translation of the Science of Logic to his “mentor and friend” H. S. Harris, whose unique literal commentary on Hegel’s Phenomenology I previously treated at length.

Teleology After Kant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 Teleology After Kant.)

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).